Christopher Plummer sits on a couch in a suite in New York's Waldorf-Astoria Towers, tennis silently playing on a TV in the background.
His hair is gray but his profile is still strong and handsome. At 81, his gait is more measured but his posture is perfect and his smile still twinkles with mischief.
"I just go on being the shit that I always am," he says with a laugh. "I just go plodding along, although at a faster pace now. As you get older, a certain panic sets in. When I say panic, I mean that I want to do so many things before I croak. I hope there's time. There are tons of parts I still want to play."
He is, in fact, busier than ever, the latest example being Mike Mills' film, Beginners, opening Friday. In the film, based loosely on Mills' own life, Plummer plays Hal who, at age 75 and recently widowed after a long marriage, comes out to his son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), with the announcement that, in fact, he is a gay man - then starts making up for lost time.
"At first, when I realized this was based on Mike's father, I thought, 'Oh Christ, I can't go through something like that'," Plummer says. "I thought he'd be constantly comparing me to his real father. But Mike's not like that. He's so generous. He said, 'I don't want you to play my father.' He gave me an enormous amount of freedom and confidence. From that time on, I had a ball."
McGregor, who is playing a character based on Mills himself, concurs: "I was playing my writer-director and I had him right there," he says. "But he never asked me to do an impression. Still, I wanted to feel like him - but all characters are the result of the relationship between the actor and director."
In the case of the Scottish McGregor, he actually taped Mills reading all of his lines, to master the flat California accent for his character.
"I worked with my accent toward his voice," he says. "I was trying to internalize how he talked, how he moved. Mike was very collaborative, very generous. I'd listen to Mike's voice to get the sound right, to use it as a template."
A father-son story (that also deals with the son's inability to trust romantic relationships), Beginners led McGregor to "think about father-son relationships," he says, "There's no similarity to my life. I'm quite close to my dad. And I've got four daughters - that completely changed my life, although not in a surprising way."
Plummer, however, has a slightly different idea about fatherhood: "This character is kind of an absentee father for much of the son's life," he says. "On screen, he's neglectful and admits it at times. But I've been a kind of absentee father myself.
"I don't think there are that many terrific fathers in the world. And really, I don't think people should be so possessive of their children as parents. Most do too much in that regard. When you have offspring, I believe you should let them go their own way. Leave them alone and let them find out about the world for themselves."
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