Inspired by the real-life experiences of filmmaker Mike Mills, Beginners, which expanded into wide release June 15, stars Christopher Plummer as a recently widowed father who comes out as gay to his son (Ewan McGregor) and gets a younger boyfriend (Goran Visnjic) at age 75, five years before his death from cancer. A mellow man of few words, the 81-year-old Oscar nominee explains why all his gay friends are out — and why he’d prefer not to talk about kissing his handsome costar.
Advocate.com: Many outlets have reported that Hal in Beginners is your first gay role, but that’s not true, is it?
Christopher Plummer: No, it’s not true at all.
You played gay in the 1980 TV movie The Shadow Box. As in Beginners, interestingly enough, you played a man who’s dying of cancer and who dates a younger man after many years of marriage to a woman, but I imagine it was a different experience to play gay on television more than 30 years ago. Do you remember any controversy or raised eyebrows surrounding that project?
No, because the film wasn’t about being gay. Shadow Box was so concentrated on the cancer theme that one didn’t discuss the gay thing; as far as I can remember, it was just accepted as being a part of it.
But after 30 years of progress when it comes to gay visibility and gay rights, did it feel any different to play a gay character?
Well, Beginners isn’t about being gay either — it’s about being who you are and how to be happy about it. Hal is totally up-front about it, and he admits with great glee that he’s gay. That’s what was so endearing to me about the script.
Have you been offered other gay roles in your career that you turned down?
No. But if they were good, I wouldn’t have turned them down.
You did drag as a crazy thief in the 1978 film The Silent Partner.
He was a transvestite, wasn’t he? I thought of him as a cross-dresser, but God, he was everything under the sun — a wonderfully exaggerated creature.
Before Beginners and all the press and attention that have come with it, were you conscious of the gay audience?
Oh, I’ve got a lot of gay fans — I hope.
You were in The Sound of Music, after all.
Well, and God knows I’ve known so many gay people all through my life in the theater and in the arts — and, more covertly, in other businesses as well. People are more open in the arts. They don’t have the self-consciousness that politicians or businessmen have, so they’re freer, and they’re obviously more accepted as being gay. God knows I knew them all when they didn’t dare behave in a gay fashion, because this was in the ’50s and ’60s.
Has anyone ever come out to you?
No, I don’t think so, because I already knew. All my good friends were sophisticated enough to be out.
It’s encouraging to hear that you’ve known many gay people during your long career in the entertainment industry. But as an openly gay actor, your Thorn Birds costar Richard Chamberlain has said that he still wouldn’t advise gay leading men to come out of the closet. What are your thoughts on that after 60 years in the business?
I don’t think about that at all. I accept it for what it is. I’m very friendly with a lot of gays, who I think are terrific, talented, wonderful people, just as a lot of straights I know are terrific, talented, wonderful people. I have no other opinions. I only have one opinion about people, and it’s that I don’t give a damn if they’re gay or not.
Hal was married to a woman for many years, but he secretly had sexual relations with men on the side in places like public restrooms. Have you encountered those types of marriages of convenience or necessity?
I suppose I have. I’ve known several men who’ve been married who were gay on the side, but I don’t know which they preferred more. I’ve also known friends who are happily married and who have cheated.
Why didn’t Hal come out until after his wife died?
Because he had the good taste not to.
Why, at 75, does he go through the trouble of starting over as an active gay man?
It’s released him, so coming out like that is a wonderful gift to have at that age.
How did Hal’s sexuality inform your performance?
Not at all. He’s a real person who just happened to be gay. He’s so happy about being able to admit to everyone that he’s gay, but he’s so modest about it at the same time. He did try to dress a little more flamboyantly because of the younger guy he was with.
Did you have any conversations with Mike Mills, your writer-director, about how far to take Hal’s outward flamboyance?
No, and if I’d been asked to do that type of thing, I wouldn’t have done it anyway. I wasn’t going to go around with limp wrists, screaming and yelling. That’s not the character. He wasn’t like that.
When Hal comes out, he finds a sense of community with a group of gay friends. They have dinner parties, they have bad movie nights, they write political letters, etc. Did you come away from the film with any insights about gay culture?
I don’t think I learned anything particularly different or new. I think I’d seen enough of those gatherings in our business. They happen a lot — how can you avoid it? But Hal obviously welcomed all of it because he now felt comfortable around all these people who had no axes to grind. The happiness that radiated through him because of all that is what made it so touching.
According to Ewan, most of the actors who play Hal’s gay friends were actually gay. Did they bring a sense of authenticity to those scenes of camaraderie?
Yes, they did.
In a brief but memorable scene, Hal goes to a gay nightclub. It’s not exactly an everyday occurrence to see Christopher Plummer dancing in a gay club.
I believe it was a real gay club, but those were all just extras, of course. That was a good scene.
Have you been fielding many cheeky, salacious questions from journalists about your more intimate kissing scenes with costar Goran Visnjic?
No, I have not. It’s a movie, my friend, and the movie doesn’t invite that.
So I guess I should skip over my next series of questions.
I would not entertain them anyway.