Christopher Plummer stars as Kaiser Wilhelm II in David Leveaux's The Exception.
The last time San Diegans saw Christopher Plummer perform was as fictional Nazi hunter Zev Guttman in Atom Egoyan's Remember. This time around he plays an exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II in The Exception which opens today exclusively at The Lot in La Jolla. An editor with a sense of humor could conceivably stitch the two films together to find Plummer stalking himself.
The Exception trailer
Christopher Plummer plays Wilhelm II
With over 200 film and television roles to his credit and numerous stage performances, what were the chances a prolific bloke like Christopher Plummer would have time to take my call?
Very good, thank you.
Plummer credits his wife for this character turn in The Silent Partner.
Scott Marks: I always like to give my Facebook friends a chance to pose a question or two. Kathleen Ragona wants to know if you had a hard time finding outlets for your imagination, as a child.
Christopher Plummer: No. I just completely lived on my imagination as a child. I relied on it totally which got me in a lot of trouble as well. (Laughing)
Atom Egoyan and Christopher Plummer on the set of Remember.
SM: Do you remember the first movie or play you saw that set you on the road to acting?
CP: There were a number, of course, but I think that… my mother took me to see everything. She was marvelous. She took me to the ballet, she took me to the theatre… concerts. I grew up with an artistic mother, thank god for her.
Donald Wolfit, that wonderful English ham who actually was a really great actor. At times. And then he would go overboard and spoil it by being too hammy. His King Lear has remained with me all my life. It was an extraordinary performance. He brought the old fashioned style plus the modern style. He had both going for him. You need all that when you hit the great classic roles. I felt, boy, that’s Shakespeare! That guy really knows something. I fell in love with the classics from that moment on.
SM: David Gray asks if you have ever come to town and watched your daughter, Amanda, perform at the La Jolla Playhouse.
CP: No. (Laughing) But I’ve seen my daughter perform. I’ve been to the La Jolla Playhouse but never to see her perform there. She must have been away making a little movie or something when I was out there.
I was absolutely astounded when I watched her for the first time. I had no idea she was that talented. It was extraordinary. Totally different from any of her parents. There was absolutely nothing of me in her at all. I was looking at a very scary presence on that stage. And of course the play that scared me the most, that impressed me the most was Agnes of God. We were both up for the Tony that year. When they announced her name, that was it. They’re not going to give it to her dad. (Laughing) That’s it. I lost that one.
SM: Just last week I was talking to a friend about movies that have never been released on DVD and Cattle Annie and Little Britches came up.
CP: Good for you. You remembered that one. She and Diane (Lane) are both marvelous. I thought it was a damn good movie. Sam Peckinpah directed.
SM: No! It was directed by Lamont Johnson.
CP: Was it?
SM: Sure. It didn’t end with the two little girls being slaughtered in slow motion.
CP (Laughing): Okay. You win!
SM: When you began your career over sixty years ago, movies were still shot on film. Today you can probably shoot four scenes on a phone in the time it once took to load a 70mm camera. From an actor’s point of view how has technology been a friend and how has it become a hinderance?
CP: It enables you to watch crap and be impressed by it.
SM (Laughing): How so?
CP: Well, when you go to one of these action pictures you’re there because of the technology. You’re impressed by all the new tricks. You don’t care much for the story because they’re written abominably, most of them.
SM: David Niven was signed to another film when Blake Edwards wanted him to reprise his role as Sir Charles Litton in Return of the Pink Panther.
CP: I was getting quite a lot of offers for various movies and I thought it would be interesting. I knew David and I thought he was terrific as Sir Charles. But I was determined to outdo him. I didn’t, of course. I think I played him too arrogantly. (Laughing) I wasn’t really terrific in those days. I was more interested in the life surrounding the work.
SM: You look like a million bucks in the picture. You’re darker than a tanning salon filled with George Hamiltons. (Laughing) So normally you’re dressed to the nines, not a hair out of place, and then comes the role of Shitty in John Boorman’s underrated Where the Heart Is.
CP: They didn’t understand it. Whoever they were. It was terribly uneven. A line didn’t go through it gracefully. It was a choppy trip, but I loved playing the Shit. I just adored that. It was great fun. And John is such a talented man. It was a privilege to work with him.
SM: You have played some of the evilest, most elegant villains in the history of cinema and I can’t let you get away without mentioning one. Harry Reikle in The Silent Partner is not only my favorite of your villains, he’s one of the vilest, most unnerving psychopaths in the annals of horror films.
CP (Laughing): Thank you! You know, I give credit to that to my wife, Elaine. She said, “When you come back at the end and rob the bank for the last time, why do you come back in civvies? You’ve been a different creature every time you try to rob the bank. Why don’t you come back in drag? Obviously you hate women so therefore you want to be one. You think you’d be a better woman than most women.”
It was absolutely brilliant. I took it to Curtis Hanson who wrote the script and they didn’t mind. Daryl Duke the director said, “That’s a great idea!” So I got shot in my Chanel. (Laughing) That was all due to Elaine.
SM: I’m not going to mention any names, but most actors in your age bracket who have blessed audiences with an illustrious string of performances tend to take it easy while you just keep working harder. Zev Guttman in Remember and Kaiser Wilhelm II in The Exception are two of your finest performances. I’ll go so far as to say your performance in Remember is a career-topper. That must have been a grueling role to prepare for.
CP: You don’t prepare at all. No, no. You do the script and you try to be as still and as… you put it all in the interior. It’s so difficult. But it was something I so wanted to do. I had never done anything like that before. I had never been out of control before, and Zev is out of control all the time. He doesn’t know where he is. It wasn’t fun to play, but it was challenging and fascinating.
SM: When I asked [Atom Egoyan] about working with you he said, “(Zev is) in this eternal present. We needed a phenomenal actor who could work without traditional subtext. I knew that Christopher would find a way of making that really compelling and that we wouldn’t be able to look away from him.” And it’s true. Is there a scene in the film that you’re not in?
CP: I don’t think so. I was too much on the screen, actually. I think I could have been cut out a bit. It was very hard to keep that intensity going. I was very pleased to have Atom, because he’s a friend. And you need a friend when you play a part like that.
When a post-coital Mieke (Lily James) informs the Nazi spy (Jai Courtney) in her bed that she’s a Jew, what else is there for him to say but “I’m not.” That kind of pillow talk is just one of the more refreshing dialog exchanges in this rousing, old fashioned espionage drama. We begin at the dawn of World War II with Courtney sent to Holland to infiltrate the home of exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer) and sniff out a Dutch resistance worker. Director David Leveaux and screenwriter Simon Burke gracefully skirt the pitfalls generally inherent in exploiting a romance between a Jewess and a Nazi. Plummer’s Kaiser fluctuates with the greatest of ease between the character’s proud sense of stateliness and the mercurial temper that frequently sabotages it. A good German isn’t always indicative of a good Nazi; the mounting anxiety surrounding a visit from Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan) reveals the 87-year-old actor forever at the top of his game.
SM: What did you learn about Kaiser Wilhelm that you didn’t know before making The Exception?
CP: Well, I knew a bit more about him than the picture reveals. All that early, young stuff where he fires Bismarck, which was not the greatest move in the world. He fired the future of Europe when he did that. I knew quite a bit about him, but not enough to really say what wonderful research I can do because there’s not enough about him. There’s so much more about the Habsburgs than there is the Hollenzollens. It was tough. But I was glad that I was free to use my imagination and give him some warmth towards the end.