In the film Beginners, venerated actor Christopher Plummer portrays a man who comes out gay late in life – at age 75
In the film Beginners, venerated actor Christopher Plummer portrays a man who comes out gay late in life – at age 75. It’s a story that’s close to filmmaker Mike Mill’s heart, writes Colin Fraser.
“Leaning across the table at Christopher Plummer, she said 'God you're such a coon-ass!'”
The 'she' in question was a good friend of the now mortified director Mike Mills. They were at the post-premiere launch party of Mills' new film Beginners (in cinemas now) starring Ewan McGregor and Plummer. Mills hastily pointed out to the geriatric actor that: a) it wasn't a racist term and b) that his friend was from Kentucky. Somehow that made it all right. Now in his eighties, Plummer leaned forward with genuine interest to find out exactly what the term meant: a wild and mischievous person, which apparently, in her mind he certainly was.
“Christopher was always stirring up shit with me, but in a playful way,” said Mills. “‘That’s the funniest thing I've heard all day – god bless you!' he said to my friend. That's the kind of guy he is.”
It was that coon-ass streak which played a considerable part in bringing Plummer's character to life in Beginners, a film about ageing father, who comes out gay late in life, and his son. Christopher portrays Hal who, following the death of his wife, emerges from the closet at 75. “It was time to explore that side of my life,” he says to the surprise of his son Oliver (McGregor). But it would be a short tour as four years later, Hal dies from cancer. This is not a spoiler, it's where Mills opens his film as Oliver is clearing out his father's home and taking ownership of Arthur, a sub-titled Jack Russell . What follows is a father-son story about love, grief and the space in between.
At 75, Hal has his life in front of him: he has a lot of gay friends and belongs to many social groups. He has a young lover, a dog and a son. By contrast, Oliver has only his father and at the start of the film, loses him as well. Facing his emptiness is the emotional heart of Beginners.
“I felt I was writing about friends I know,” Mills told SX. “Many people my age (mid-forties) have great difficulty sustaining love, believing in it, trusting it.” This is the backbone of Oliver's story contrasted against the late sense of belonging which Hal had enjoyed.
Not that it was always that way, as revealed through flashbacks of Hal's difficult, clandestine past. “There was nothing traumatic in the house I grew up in,” said Mills of his childhood. “My parents did love each other in very real ways, but there were also some holes, some emptiness, some confusion. Kids are sensitive to the subconscious of the children, whatever they don't say the kid hears. I zoned in on that.” Internalised and reworked, those experiences add another layer to the story.
“It's a portrait, rather than a documentary,” said Mills. “My own father came out at 75 after my Mom died. He also passed away from cancer five years later. That part of the film is my own experience – it's not my dad exactly, but it's stuff that’s happened. The other story with Oliver and Anna (played by French siren Melanie Laurent), that's not me and my wife. But the character's problems with love – that's stuff I know about.”
There's a sense that there's a lot of Mills between every line and frame. Sadness for instance, the focus of his 2007 documentary about depression Does Your Cold Have A Soul? “I think I go more into sadness than a lot of other people. I like showing that, it's how people become real and intimate and tender with each other.”
And in some weird way, it's what makes Mills happy. “It doesn't have to be radical, but it's a sign of trust when someone expresses themselves like that with me.” Hollywood films are not sad and by extension, not to be trusted, he argues. So when a movie does embrace melancholia, suddenly “you're off the road, you've broken a lot of rules”.
“The idea of Oliver and Anna's sadness was the hardest thing for people to swallow. Making a film about a 75 year old gay guy was easy. He's kinda filmy! That's a good hook.”
Mills came to feature films from graphic art, advertising, music videos (Moby among others) and documentaries. “One of the bravest things I've done is to keep firing myself,” he said. “To be honest it's partly ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder],” he smiled. “But if I do something I don't want to repeat it. I want to move on and creatively I find one helps the other.” Mills paused before adding with a wry smile that this approach confuses other people. “And the more powerful, the more mainstream that person is, the more it confuses them”. No doubt he had his first feature, a story about a thumb sucking teenager, in mind.
It is his unexpected approach, and the opportunity to attack unusual roles, that attracted both Plummer and McGregor to the project. “Yes it was daunting. Christopher has worked with Robert Wise, Terry Gilliam... Ewan has done all these big films too.” Yet it was their enthusiasm that won Mills' respect. “They got on like a house on fire – they loved each other. Ewan really looked up to Christopher as well, they're both no nonsense, no fuss actors which for me, that's great. Not every actor likes acting.
“But Christopher is also a rascal, he likes to laugh, he's trouble.” A coon-ass if you will. “And Ewan is the same,” he added with a knowing laugh.
Beginners is in cinemas now.
[Pictured] Christopher Plummer with director Mike Mills and, inset, with Ewan McGregor in Beginners. Photos: Getty Images