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The Last Station: Christopher Plummer

In his latest film, Michael Hoffman's The Last Station, legendary actor Christopher Plummer tackles a role for the ages: the charismatic—and bearded—Russian author Leo Tolstoy, as you've never seen him. See it on DVD today!

The Last Station: Christopher Plummer as Leo Tolstoy
Veteran actor Christopher Plummer has been in our global consciousness since he played Captain Von Trapp in 1965 Best Picture winner The Sound of Music. Since then, in addition to near-constant work in the theatre, he has played Rudyard Kipling, King Herod, Sherlock Holmes, and Mike Wallace, in addition to a seminal role in Twelve Monkeys and countless narration gigs. (That voice!)


2009 may have been the busiest year of Plummer's later film career, with lead roles in both The Last Station and Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, in addition to his voice work in both Pixar’s smash hit Up and Tim Burton’s sleeper 9. With The Last Station, Plummer tackles another iconic character: the Russian author—and charismatic leader of an anarchist movement—Leo Tolstoy. In writer/director Michael Hoffman’s adaptation of the historical novel by Jay Parini of the same name, Tolstoy is at the end of his long and tumultuous life, and his relationship with his wife Sofya (Helen Mirren) is strained by his friendship with the manipulative Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti). For dramatic effect, the situation is keenly observed through the eyes of a young disciple, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), who is simultaneously inspired and perhaps disillusioned—or at least confused—by some of his mentor’s actions. The film plays like a Chekhovian drama, complete with Russian estates, forbidding landscapes, big ideas, and grand pronouncements. It’s a delight to see so many fine actors in an ensemble piece (rounded out by Kerry Condon and Anne-Marie Duff), one with the lofty goal of summing up an astounding life at the point that it’s winding down into history.


When Tribeca Film talked with Plummer at a roundtable last month, it was a little overwhelming to be in the presence of such an icon in his own right. At 82, Plummer is still bright, vital and easily amused, with a distinct twinkle in his blue, blue eyes. Enjoy!

You’ve had an interesting year. With two animated films—Up and 9—and then Imaginarium and The Last Station, you are competing with yourself in lots of categories when it comes to awards. Is that overwhelming?

Christopher Plummer: No, it’s not overwhelming. It’s work. It’s fun work, actually! I enjoyed all those films you named. I had different kind of work with each one, but it’s all fun. As to the Oscar, we don’t talk about that. Because if we do, there’s no point in going on. [Laughs.]
Was The Last Station an irresistible project for you?
CP: It was the script. I thought of all the vast life that Tolstoy had, I mean, you can’t make a biography—it wouldn’t be a movie, it would be a series, and it would take four years. So it was wise to pick the last moments of [Tolstoy and his wife Sofya’s] lives together as the most humanizing moments, [moments] of agony and joy and passion. So I thought, yes, that’s great. People will perhaps go away thinking that Tolstoy isn’t the dry old socks that a lot of people think he is because he’s so remote to us. He didn’t ever speak about others, so we don’t know very much about him, his viewings.
How did you prepare for a role like this? Did you feel burdened by his larger-than-life—
CP: No, not at all, because I’ve played much larger than life creatures than Tolstoy.  What I did feel is that I had to do it simply, instinctively, because there’s really so little research. And when I say there is little research, I don’t mean that there hasn’t been reams of stuff written about him—his letters are the most inciting, enlightening things, I think, and I’ve read [some of] them. And that helped in understanding the humanity of the man, on the private side.


But otherwise, all the home movies and all the documentaries, and all the people running after him in the streets aren’t of very much value, because there’s no sound; you can’t hear what he sounds like. He made one or two recordings of his voice, but the medium was so new, and it’s so crackly, you couldn’t understand.


The Last Station: Leo and Sofya Tolstoy


How much rehearsal did you have with Helen Mirren? The two of you have such a dynamic give and take.  
CP: We hardly rehearsed at all, because we didn’t have any time. [But] that was all easy and fun. Again, I use the word fun, because Helen and I have been in the business long enough to know that if you don’t have fun doing it, then you’d better get the hell out!


You’ve had so many amazing leading ladies in your career. How does Helen Mirren compare?
CP: Well, first of all, she’s one of the sexiest leading ladies I’ve ever had! Helen is extraordinary. She’s lasted through thick and thin, like some of us have, and she’s just so young in spirit and incredibly vital and funny and naughty and rich in talent—I could go on forever. I think she’s a marvelous actress. And such a fun human being—we just rolled around on the floor laughing most of the time. It was great fun to work with her, and so easy.
Did you see The Last Station as a love story?
CP: Well, it turned out to be, didn’t it? A sort of love story of a wonderful, dysfunctional marriage.


What have been some of the turning points in your acting career?


CP: There isn’t really a change, because you just go on and on working. I’ve been very lucky, I’ve never been out of work [knocks on the table] since I was a kid. Just amazing luck. But I suppose that on the screen things did change for me after I played Mike Wallace, not because it was such a huge, substantial role, but more it was just a fascinating role. It was an important movie, in a funny way. And the scripts that were sent to me got better, suddenly.


Theatre has always been my home, and that’s never changed. I’ve just fallen into it, happily.
The Last Station: Peter McAvoy Paul Giamatti


Was there a moment of clarity when you just knew you had nailed it, that you could be Tolstoy?

CP: Oh, no, you never know if you nailed it. You try every day to get more unassuming. It’s almost impossible to play a genius, because everyone else has to tell the audience that you ARE a genius. You can’t possibly say that yourself—you’d be booed off the screen. So you try to make him as unassuming and humble as possible, because the authority is already there.


How did you like working with Michael Hoffman? Did his theatre background help you on the set?
CP: He’s also an actor. He was extremely—like, one of us, in fact. He wasn’t remote as a director; he worked with us superbly. I was also a fan, because I loved [his 1995 film] Restoration—I adored that movie, the settings were just incredible. I already knew him as being a bright guy—and a Rhodes Scholar—I told him I was also a Road Scholar: R-O-A-D. He’s very talented, and I think he wrote a terrific script.


Could you talk a bit about your experience with The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus? That seemed to be a unique filmmaking experience for everyone involved.
CP: The unfortunate thing was that it was a year of beards! The beards of Parnassus, and Tolstoy…
Were you restricted because of the beard?


CP: No, it was so beautifully made. I have a great beardmaker, or beard-ist, or whatever you call it. The wonderful Paul Huntley, he just makes them so light, so no restrictions at all. In fact, I rather like beards, because you can hide behind them. Actually, any one of can look like Tolstoy if you put on that beard! [laughs] We also had to put false eyebrows on—mine are disappearing fast.
It was easy to fairly look like Tolstoy, because he was such an outrageously different looking creature anyway. When I played Rudyard Kipling, that was quite easy too, because I all I had to do was put on this HUGE mustache! And immediately, anyone could look like Rudyard Kipling. So that was the performance—I didn’t have to work at all. [grins]
The Last Station: Kerry Condon Peter McAvoy


Is there different preparation in playing someone like Kipling or Tolstoy, as opposed to Parnassus?


CP: Yes, but you don’t set about… it’s not a Method thing. You don’t sit around thinking, “Ah. [wringing his hands] How am I going to play this one?” If you don’t know instinctively how to treat each different creature, then you are up a gum tree. You’ve just got to know it—it’s part of our training, part of our imagination, and our instinct. It’s a different orchestration involved, that’s all, rhythm of speech—you can hear Rudyard Kipling speak on recordings—so sound is very important.
Can you compare the three very different animated films you did this year: My Dog Tulip, 9, and Up?
CP: Well, you use a different voice for each one, I think. [laughs] No, it’s like doing radio, which I began in. What a great medium that is—I miss it dreadfully. It’s like doing radio again, with nobody beside you, because they don’t even know what the story is. They know what the character looks like, but you gesticulate as you are doing it into the microphone, and they take photographs of you the whole time—it’s unnerving, actually. And then they use some of that for movements on the screen. They are creating the whole time, [so] I didn’t know anything about it until I saw it on the screen. Pixar is very good to work with—[Up] is a knockout of a movie, I thought it was great! I can say that, because I am just a voice.
How fascinating it must be to have a voice that people recognize from a mile away. Do you work on your voice?
CP: Well, when you do a Shakespearean play, for example, you are exercising your voice at its zenith.

The Last Station opens on Friday, January 15, at the Paris and Angelika theaters in New York, and at the Landmark in LA. Find tickets. See the release dates for other cities as it expands.
Watch the trailer:




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