Skinny jeans for Christopher Plummer
LOS ANGELES—Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer set off to buy just a scarf for one of them to wear in the movie they were doing. But the shopping trip ended in over a thousand dollars being charged to Ewan’s credit card, for skinny jeans. The scarf was almost forgotten.
The movie, “Beginners,” written and directed by Mike Mills, casts Ewan as Oliver, son of Christopher’s character, Hal—who comes out of the closet at age 75.
(The story is based on Mike’s real-life dad, Paul Mills, who revealed he was gay in his septuagenarian years, after his wife of 45 years had died, and before he was diagnosed with terminal illness.)
It was the first day of a week of rehearsals. Ewan and Christopher had just met. Mike thought it would be a good idea to send the actors, who have an age difference of four decades, to a posh store in LA.
Ewan was grinning as he recounted the shopping expedition: “Mike gave me $200 and sent us off to Barney’s, saying, ‘I want you to buy Christopher a scarf.’ I had never met Christopher Plummer; it was a big deal to even be sitting in a car with him.”
Regarded as one of the finest actors of his generation and memorable in such films as “Trainspotting,” the “Star Wars” prequel, “Moulin Rouge!” and “I Love You Phillip Morris,” among others, Ewan, all of 40, was understandably excited. At 81, the venerable Christopher is still reaping acting award nominations, the most recent one for his portrayal of Leo Tolstoy last year in the bio pic “The Last Station.”
For millions of moviegoers, Christopher will always be Captain Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music,” though he has played various Shakespearean roles onstage and racked up an eclectic mix of movie characters since the 1950s. He will be seen next in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”
Going back to the story, Ewan said: “In the car, Christopher [noticed] my jeans and went, ‘What are those?’ I replied, ‘They’re black jeans.’ He said, ‘They’re very tight.’ I said, ‘They’re what you call skinny jeans.’ When we got to Barney’s, as we were heading toward the scarf section, Christopher saw the jeans department and he was off. He started flirting with a rather pretty shop assistant and said, ‘I want some skinny jeans.’ Within minutes, Christopher Plummer was trying on skinny jeans.”
Two dads in one
Ewan laughed, recalling how the shopping took a twist, as in a movie: “Christopher had a stack of jeans he liked that I had to put on my credit card. It was about $1,200 worth… I had to get reimbursed by the production later.” As an afterthought, he quipped, “I grabbed a scarf on the way out. We were off to a very nice start.”
Asked about “Beginners” and its theme of discovering one’s self, however belatedly, Ewan said: “What’s beautiful about Hal in this movie—and Mike’s father in real life—is that when he comes out and is able to live his life as his true self, he really does it with abandon. He joins every gay club there is to join in Santa Barbara. He becomes a member of the Prime Timers and Gay Movie Night and Gay Book Club. It gave him such happiness and joy.”
Ewan continued, “Mike talks very fondly about his straight father and his gay father [in one]. His gay father was far more accessible to him emotionally, really present in Mike’s life in a way that his straight father hadn’t been. Mike also says it must have taken so much energy for his dad to keep his sexuality hidden.”
The film includes fictional elements, however, including Oliver’s own budding relationship with a French actress, played by Melanie Laurent.
Finding ‘the one’
On the quandary that “beginners” face in relationships—is he or she the one?—Ewan, who is married (with three daughters) to Eve Mavrakis, a French production designer, said, “I have friends my age who still haven’t found a partner. One of them always asks, ‘How do you know this girl is maybe the one?’ He’s always analyzing. And I always say to him, ‘I don’t have answers. I didn’t have a checklist.’ I was just in love with Eve and wanted to be with her. I still do. I was 23 when I met her.”
The actor stressed that he himself welcomes gay roles. “In the second film I made, ‘The Pillow Book’ with Peter Greenaway, I played a bisexual. I’ve since played gay or bisexual characters. Why would I not? Movies explore lives and sexuality is a very important part of who we are. I’ve never approached a gay character going, ‘Okay, now I’m playing gay.’ When straight people ask what it was like to play a gay character, I always say, I was playing a guy who’s made up of lots of different things. Part of that is, he likes men.’”
He cited his role in “I Love You Phillip Morris” as an example. “When I played Philip Morris, I wasn’t playing gay,” Ewan said. “I was playing Phillip Morris and his sexuality is an interesting part of who he is but it’s not all that he is. I quite enjoy gay people’s gayness and I also like straight people’s straightness. But I don’t see it as being relevant in terms of my decisions to play certain characters.”
Asked why he thinks Mike’s father waited so long to come out, Ewan answered, “He came out a few years after his wife died, not right after. I think coming out is an enormously personal issue—it’s probably the same for a 15-year-old coming out to his parents, as for a 50-year-old coming out to his children.”
According to Ewan, the filming experience was deeply moving for everyone involved, especially for Mike, who necessarily relive some emotional family situations. “I’m sure that Mike, in exploring his father’s story in this film, is looking at gay history in the United States and trying to understand what it might have been like for his father to be gay in the 1950s,” Ewan said. “We see images of gay men being herded into the back of a police wagon only because they were seen in a gay bar. Mike is looking at what his father must have gone through as a gay man and his decision to hide that, be married and have children—as opposed to coming out.”
Email the columnist at [email protected].