Over the past 60 years, the acclaimed Montreal-born actor has appeared in hundreds of films and television shows, won a slew of awards for his stage work, and poked fun at his own iconic portrayal of Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music, which he refers to as S&M. Plummer’s most recent projects are too numerous to list, but include voicing the villain in Up, playing the lead in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, writing a bestselling memoir, and playing Tolstoy in The Last Station, for which he received his first Oscar nomination earlier this year. He is currently appearing in The Tempest at Stratford.
Q: Many critics consider you the finest classical actor in North America—
A: [Laughs] I don’t know why they stop at North America. What’s wrong with my English acting? I played the classics in England for years.
Q: On the day of a performance, do you have a particular routine?
A: I like to get to the theatre a little early so I can go through the play, but that’s simply to exercise one’s memory, which, particularly at my age, 80, is important.
Q: Is your memory still sharp?
A: Touch wood, I haven’t had any scares yet. Acting helps a great deal because you have to memorize everything, it keeps the brain alive. I hope.
Q: Reviewers are ecstatic about your performance of Prospero in The Tempest. What does it feel like when a performance is going well?
A: Marvellous, because you know the audience is on your side, will do anything to encourage you along your way. I always say the audience is your real partner, and the other actors come after that.
Q: What do you do when the audience isn’t so responsive?
A: You don’t give them your C performance, you try to give them your A performance, and press on. And you have to enjoy it, because otherwise the audience has won.
Q: You’ve said you were “avoiding Prospero like the plague” because, among other things, it’s a very difficult part. Why is it so difficult?
A: Prospero is a sort of figurehead in a funny way: for a long time, at the end of the first half, he’s not present on the stage. And one has to find, in the middle of the piece, some sort of motivation for his sudden depressed feelings—it comes out of left field. That’s the playwright’s fault, I think. Believe it or not, I’m actually criticizing Mr. Shakespeare! The emotional line is not clear, and there’s an emptiness for Prospero, who’s just sitting in his dressing room waiting to go on.
Q: What are you doing in that time period?
A: Trying to stay awake! Trying to keep the energy going, which subsides rather markedly while you sit there waiting for the end of the first act. But you can’t do anything else, because then you’d really lose concentration.
Q: Why do you think people are surprised by the comic touch you bring to the part?
A: There’s millions of chances to get unexpected laughs in The Tempest. But the Prosperos I’ve seen over the years have made the mistake of playing him like a dry old professor, or a deacon who wears great big robes and pontificates. Even Gielgud played it rather intellectually, kind of distant. The thing I desperately tried to do was to find the humanity in Prospero. It’s a play about magic, and the disillusion of magic, and he is an extraordinary creature but he is also a human being.