Christopher Plummer tells Screen about playing the septuagenarian widower who comes out of the closet in Beginners and why casting is the key for a good director.

One of the more enduring mysteries of Academy folklore is why Christopher Plummer has never lifted a golden statuette. In fact, it was only in 2010 that Plummer earned his first nomination, for playing Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station. Many believe that with his charming supporting role as Hal Fields in Beginners, Plummer has positioned himself as a strong Oscar contender for the second time in three years.

At first, the Canada-born actor was as intrigued by the idea of the film’s writer-director Mike Mills as he was by the role of Fields, a dying septuagenarian widower who comes out of the closet. “They sent me the script and Mills wrote me a very polite and wonderful letter, rather like they used to do,” Plummer says. “I thought he seemed so strange and courteous, and he wrote like the old school.

“I liked the script but I was rather reticent and thought, ‘Oh here we go, how am I going to pull this off?’, because I thought it was going to be very intense.” Such reservations were understandable: it was one thing for a senior actor of stage and film to turn his hand to such an unusual role, but quite another to do so when the part was inspired by the director’s late father.

However, Plummer’s concerns evaporated when he met Mills. “He wanted to see me, you know, to make sure I didn’t have three heads,” Plummer chuckles. “I mentioned how tentative I was about playing his father. I never knew his father and said, how was I going to do justice to him? He told me to do what I wanted — he was such a generous man.”

Plummer took his cue and infused Fields with an uncomplicated self-acceptance that radiates warmth and vitality. “We didn’t depart from the script in any way because it was honest,” he says. “There was the occasional improvisation but the spirit was there in the writing, so it wasn’t difficult to make [Fields] a happy and grateful man who realises at the end of his life he can be honest with himself. He’s extraordinarily thankful that he can end on such a happy note — he isn’t sorry for himself in the least. This guy has freed himself and dies a happy person.”

Returning to Mills, Plummer adds: “His style was like any confident, terrific director who knows that once he has cast correctly his job is over and it’s ours to fulfil our promise. I remember John Huston told me, ‘I cast you in this part, Christopher, now my job is over and yours is just beginning.’ That to me is the key to a good director — one who casts correctly and allows you to be free. Mike had only done two films before but seemed like a veteran — he was so relaxed. As a result both Ewan [McGregor] and I had so much fun; it’s written with a bright heart and a light touch, and there’s no mawkishness or sentimentality.”

Plummer developed a strong rapport with McGregor on the shoot, whose vulnerable portrayal as Fields’ son, Oliver (and by extension Mills’ on-screen persona) creates a satisfyingly authentic dynamic.

“I love Ewan. I have always admired him because he really disappears into the roles in such a subtle, uncomplicated way,” says Plummer. “He can look the same in different parts, but he never is. I always kid him about being the worst underplayer there is. We had such a ball working together. Like any terrific actor it’s always so easy; it was like having real conversations. He’s a sort of documentary actor, really — he embodies reality.”

There were no lengthy rehearsals, which suited an actor of Plummer’s ilk. “You don’t prepare,” he says, a hint of revulsion creeping into his voice. “How could you for someone you never knew? You have to play it by ear. I believe in instinct — it’s the strongest thing you have. If you have a strong instinct, you don’t need to prepare — it’s all there. I don’t go in for endless preparation. I’d be exhausted before we started filming.”

And that would be quite something, because the 82-year-old appears to have energy by the bucketload. He also appears this season as haunted patriarch Henrik Vanger in David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and is eyeing several projects while preparing a one-man show about his favourite literature, which he hopes to bring to the New York stage next summer.