Christopher Plummer's embarrassment of literary riches

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First aired on Q (11/07/12)

Christopher Plummer needs no introduction: he's one of Canada's national treasures as a star of both stage and screen. His many accolades include Tony and Genie Awards, as well as the Order of Canada. A few months ago, he became the oldest ever recipient of an Oscar at 82 (or possibly second-oldest: Plummer maintains that Charlie Chaplin was 83 when he received his Academy Award), for his role in the film Beginners. Despite his age, Plummer is busier than ever and his career is thriving. In celebration of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's 60th anniversary this year, Plummer is performing an original one-man show, A Word or Two, which he wrote about the great literature that has inspired him throughout his life. Plummer spoke with Jian Ghomeshi in studio Q recently about the show and about -- what else -- his favourite books.

Plummer actually wrote the show a number of years ago for a charity performance (a literacy charity, naturally). "I mixed my own life with the various works of prose and poetry that I loved when I was young," he said. "And as I grew up, so did the literature with me and I kept reading and being inspired...every decade there was a new group of authors." So he created an autobiographical journey through literature.

Plummer jokes that he's reviving the piece now because he's only ever done it for charity and hasn't made any money from it yet. "What about my charity?" he laughed. In truth, however, the show is a joy for him to perform. "I have a lot of fun in it and I get a chance to play all these different creatures from literature, and recite my favourite poems," he said. "There's a huge variety of stuff in it, because I go all the way from youth right up to middle-aged love and death -- and back again."

It's quite a personal story. Plummer came from a well-read family, and was taken to the theatre by his mother from an early age. "I was quoting Shakespeare when I was 12," he said. "I loved the intoxication of words." Reading has always informed Plummer's life, including his work. "It's taught me the music of language," he said. "Getting to know great poets was enormously helpful [as an actor]."

plummer-pic-125.jpgSo what are some of the great pieces of literature and poetry that Plummer includes in his show? Plenty of works that appear on his own bookshelves. "Christopher Marlowe, The Bible, and in contemporary terms, W. H. Auden and Philip Larkin," he said. "And the Canadian stuff I put in because we're here in Canada and I am Canadian. I make fun of my country, and then I love it and I show that I love it by doing certain works that I hold in affection, [like] Stephen Leacock." There's also plenty of Shakespeare (naturally, at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival), and -- for a whimsical touch -- Winnie-the-Pooh. "I jump all over the place," said Plummer.

Part of the reason behind the show is Plummer's concern that we're a culture more interested in distraction than in deep reading. "Getting young people to read things of value while they're young is terribly important," Plummer said. "I'm an incurable romantic when it comes to old books."


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