Charming Storyteller Christopher Plummer Helps Us Usher in Christmas
A pajama-clad Christopher Plummer fondly remembers the annual traditional family reading of the Dickens’ holiday classic, “A Christmas Carol,” and the indelible impression it made on him as a young boy.
These are the earliest recollections of the 87-year-old actor, who grew up in Quebec, Canada, and can still envision the snow falling, the drippings of the maple syrup glistening on the trees and scrumptious dinners with a golden-brown Christmas turkey.
The performing legend, who has spent 70 years as one of theater’s most respected actors, is a veteran of more than 100 movies. He made his film debut in 1958’s “Stage Struck,” and although he celebrates his 88th birthday a few weeks before Christmas, he is enjoying a stellar acting career.
Among his stunning performing feats are his role of Tolstoy opposite Helen Mirren in “The Last Station,” in which he received his first Oscar nomination. He won the Oscar for his best supporting actor in the drama “Beginners.
Plummer, who was the first to arrive on the set of “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” for his role of Ebenezer Scrooge, has won Tony nominations, including his title role in “King Lear,” Clarence Darrow in “Inherit the Wind. He has also won three Drama Desk Awards and the National Arts Club Medal.
As part of the celebration of his latest movie, “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” (which opened on Nov. 22), Plummer was the guest of honor at The Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan, to highlight a special exhibition: “Charles Dickens and the Spirit of Christmas.”
The exhibit, which runs through January 14, 2018, explores the genesis, composition, publication and reception of Charles Dickens’ book, “A Christmas Carol,” one of the most beloved holiday stories of all time.
This unforgettable Christmas gift to the world, and one of the best-read tales, includes the manuscript of “A Christmas Carol,” and Dickens’ four other Christmas books. [For information go to: http://www.themorgan.org/].
“The Man Who Invented Christmas,” from Bleecker Street films, tells the inspiring story of Charles Dickens, who after a string of successful novels has three flops in a row.
Desperate for another bestseller, and tormented by writer’s block, he grasps the idea of a Christmas story that he hopes will capture the imagination of his fans and solve his financial problems.
With only six weeks to write and publish the book before the holiday, he works feverishly to meet his deadline.
In this charming film, starring Plummer and Dan Stevens (“Beauty and the Beast” and “Downton Abbey,”) we see Dickens sitting before the blank page and struggling when his main character of Ebenezer Scrooge, played by Plummer, helps him along.
Eventually, all the characters are in the room with him, jockeying for position, and he takes over and everyone’s all in harmony at the end. Based on the 2008 book by Les Standiford, and a screenplay by Susan Coyne, the movie portrays a complex array of emotions” humor, sadness, redemption, loss, love and family spirit.
This memorable movie shows how Dickens mixes his real-life inspirations with his vivid imagination to conjure up unforgettable characters within a timeless tale, that has forever changed the holiday celebration we know today.Please tell me a little bit about your first encounters with “A Christmas Carol.”
Christopher Plummer: I grew up on “A Christmas Carol.” I grew up in a sort of English way, but in Quebec, in French Canada. I remember Christmas as a terrific time with the snow falling and the maple syrup glistening on the trees and the wonderful dinners with wine and turkey.
That sounds lovely. What other fond memories do you have of this holiday?
CP: We’ve got a wonderful, old church in Montreal which is an imitation of Notre Dame in Paris. Every Christmas they have a full orchestra, the philharmonic, and Pavarotti used to come up and sing Christmas carols by the book load. That was fabulous. All the show business side of Catholic Christmas.
Do you remember your first encounter with the book “A Christmas Carol?” And do you remember first hearing it or reading it?
CP: Yes, my family read aloud a lot. It was a terrific, old Victorian custom; definitely a charming one.
Who in the family did the reading?
CP: We all did. So, that’s how I got to know those characters very, very well.
Did you get up on the table and recite the way young Charles Dickens used to?
CP: No, I have good taste. I sat in my chair.
I think all of Dickens’ writing is like this, but “A Christmas Carol” certainly begs to be read aloud, don’t you think?
CP: Yes, it does. I find it such fun doing it. And Charles Dickens obviously knew that. I’m sure that he read it aloud.
Well, he eventually read it or performed it aloud hundreds of times on stage.
CP: Yes, later on, after the success of the book. It was such an experience learning, because of the awful child slavery that was going on at the time that Dickens was so conscious of and wrote so beautifully about, sympathetically and yet not with a heavy hand again, with that wonderful, light, such a modern writer. He really was.
Scrooge has woken up in the darkness, and Dickens says he has ferret eyes, This is a character who even his closest family refer to him as a disagreeable animal, a savage animal, an animal that growled and grunted. So, why did you want to play this character?
CP: Oh, because he’s so lovable. From the very beginning. It’s a great classic role actually. But don’t forget only bits of “A Christmas Carol,” are coming into it. I love that idea of poor old Charles is in this awful sort of writer’s block frame of mind and then all these characters come to life wanting to be in the book, which I think is adorable. Screenwriter Susan Coyne has done a terrific job of writing, she really has, God bless her.
That’s what’s so unusual about this particular depiction of “A Christmas Carol,” it is not a rendering of the work of fiction. It is a telling of the creation of this legendary book.
When we’re used to reading or seeing a dramatization of “A Christmas Carol,” we see, the spirits taking Scrooge on a journey. Where in this film “The Man Who Invented Christmas, in which you, as Scrooge, take the author on a journey. Did that sort of twist affect your performance?
CP: That was one of the reasons I wanted to do it, because we were not doing another “A Christmas Carol,” and we were not praying for some sort of comparison to others who were great Scrooges before. I grew up watching or listening to Lionel Barrymore playing Scrooge. For years and years, he played it on the radio. Before him there was Reginald Owen, and then back to a delightful and delicious performance by Alastair Sim in my favorite movie of Dickens. We were doing the making of this classic, and that was great fun and a nice take on it.
Did you have to work very hard to get Alastair Sim’s performance out of your head?
CP: No, I didn’t. I’m not like Alastair at all. I’m closely aligned with Barrymore, actually. I just had a ball. I’m used to playing those huge characters, like King Lear and etcetera, etcetera. Scrooge, he’s up there with them as a great, classic role. I’m at home. I just love doing all that stuff and dealing with good writing on a screen is a very rare thing. Again, [screenwriter] Susan [Coyne] did a terrific job.
Well, in “A Christmas Carol” of course the ghosts force Scrooge to confront his own past and his own pain. In this film you as Scrooge do just the same for Dickens himself.
CP: He’s trying too hard to steal the scenes, stamping it by saying ‘I wish they’d get over one so I can show them what it’s become.’ They pushed the characters forward. That’s great stuff.
One of the most difficult scenes for me to watch, is when you are in that sort of pit and the walls are closing in on you, almost like Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Pit and the Pendulum.” You’re just absolutely empowering. Can you talk a little bit about your experience of working on that scene?
CP: I thought that was awfully good. Those four walls provided a horrible claustrophobic feeling about that scene, and it forces him into the last wonderful lines that he has in the book about the future and the past and I will live in the heart of all this. The actual words are wonderful.
One of the qualities I find most compelling about your performance in this film is that strange little sort of smirk that you have on your face now and then. You seem to bring a little bit of humor to a horrible miser. Tell us about that.
CP: There’s lots of humor in the Susan Coyne part of it, the commenting and all that. That was fun to do because the contrast around Mr. Scrooge. But Scrooge does have a kind of cynical, auricle, dark sense of humor. There’s a lot of likeness about his character, and I think one has to bring a kind of subtlety to the old hag.
One of my favorite lines is when he’s told that he’s going to be visited by three spirits and he says, ‘I think I’d rather not.’
CP: I agree; that is a great line.
This is not your first appearance in a Dickens project, is that correct?
CP: No, I did the film “Nicholas Nickleby.” It wasn’t pushed enough by the distributors. But it’s difficult to do. The costume drama always is.
Talk about working with your co-star Dan Stevens?
CP: I think he turns out not just to be a terrifically good actor but he’s the most charming, and a really nice guy. I’ve since gotten to know him a little bit. He’s a wonderful, very generous young man, and very talented. One issue that I have about the [movie] business is that we feel something for somebody and then they’re gone the next day. You get kind of used to sort of saying farewell to everybody when you’ve known them for five minutes.
What do you have planned for the Plummer Christmas holidays this year? What are your current traditions?
CP: I don’t know. I’m going down to Florida. We spend our holiday with family down there. I used to love skiing this time of year, but sadly my skiing days are over.
What about Christmas trees and reading aloud?
CP: Well, nowadays I read aloud to my wife sometimes and she reads back. I put her to sleep with reading. But, no, that custom is such a charming custom and so valuable. I think they gave me and my family our entire love of literature. That was a treasured time I look back on fondly.
How did you prepare for this role? Did you re-read “A Christmas Carol?
CP: No, it’s not necessary. “A Christmas Carol,” is embedded in one’s mind. It’s like a serum that you take when you’re young.
What are the most memorable scenes for you, Marley dragging his chains you said?
CP: Yes, always that; the noise, the sound of the chains rattling below. I’ve been frightened about that since you mentioned it.
In recent years you’ve played a number of roles, characters who late in life have a realization or a transformation. “Beginners,” of course. You mentioned Lear. And now this one. This is a story and a film about a person defined by the old will and selfishness who revisits his youth, learns to look into the hearts of other people and feel empathy and ends up having a true transformation.
CP: Beautifully put.
I wonder if you feel that such a thing is possible.
CP: Of course, it’s possible. He knew it and we know it, but conveniently when life gets in the way we forget about it, of course. But it’s there. It’s within us, you’re absolutely right.
In this film we also learned that Dickens had a bit of Scrooge in himself, isn’t that true?
CP: Oh, I would think so. I think he had a bit of everybody in himself as authors do. I don’t think he particularly liked the housekeeper part, but he certainly would – he was in Marley just as much. He had sympathy for Marley just as much as for Scrooge, or for anyone else. And I don’t believe that Charles Dickens was the nicest man in the world. So, his trips into the darkness are quite understandable. He must have been quite dark himself, both in his humor which we know. I think you’re absolutely right, it’s present when you read it. When you read all of Dickens. “Oliver Twist,” is about the same thing, so is “David Copperfield,” and many of his books.
Well, I think you’re so right to point out that one of the things that makes, “A Christmas Carol,” such a successful book is that Dickens managed to convey some of the horrors of his time, child poverty, ignorance, child labor and so on, but at the same time infuse the story with great hope.
It’s a wonderful, physical depiction of the creative process. I hope that it can be shown again each and every Christmas. What do you all think?
CP: Yes. It is another take on this timeless tale. It’s not another “A Christmas Carol,” it’s the making of “A Christmas Carol,” in a humorous way.For further information about “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” please go to: The Man Who Invented Christmas Website