hector-posterIn Peter Chelsom’s quirky Hector and the Search for Happiness, based on the bestselling novel, Hector (Simon Pegg) plays a psychiatrist who has become increasingly tired of his humdrum life. As he tells his girlfriend, Clara (Rosamund Pike), he feels like a fraud: he hasn’t really tasted life, and yet he’s offering advice to patients who just aren’t getting any happier. So Hector decides to break out of his routine. He embarks on a global quest with the hope of uncovering the elusive formula for true happiness. At one point, he meets up with his former professor (Christopher Plummer) who has made a career out of studying happiness. Hector and the Search for Happiness also stars Toni Collette, Stellan Skarsgard, and Jean Reno. I recently had the great pleasure of talking to Christopher Plummer, who, at the age of 84, is one of the busiest actors around. He made his film debut in 1958 and became the oldest person ever to win an Academy Award in 2012 when he was honored for his poignant performance in the movie Beginners. As we spoke, I tried to find the strength to not bring up his role as Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music but I failed miserably!

Danny Miller: I’m such a huge fan of your work and I loved your strange character in this film. Do you think there are really professors who study happiness in this way?

Christopher Plummer: If there are, they’re probably insane! But it was very fun being this Ambassador of Happiness. I played him like a kind of mad, demented Stephen Hawking.

Is “happiness” something that you’ve spent much time explicitly thinking about?

No, never! I was having far too good a time during my life to ever think about happiness! There’s also something terribly Disney-like about the word happiness, it rather repels me! I think “joy” is a better word. “Joy” is possible in life, “happiness” really isn’t.

You seem busier than ever at this point in your career. How do you decide which films you want to do these days?

To be honest, sometimes it’s the location — even if the film is absolutely ghastly and horribly written! But if it’s being shot in the south of France or Italy, I jump at it! But truly, I’ve been very lucky in the past few years. Scripts have come my way that I’ve liked very much that I feel have something to contribute.


Have you ever worked with these actors before?

No, and I enjoyed it so much. I’m a great fan of Toni Collette’s work and I was glad I got to do some scenes with her. I’m also a fan of Rosamund Pike but we still haven’t met. I think Simon Pegg is very bright, I’ve always been a fan of his. I think he had a lot to do with this film getting made.

At this point in your career, do your fellow actors look to you for sage advice?

Oh, God, no! I really don’t think I fit the description of someone people would come to for that kind of thing.


I wonder if when you talk to people my age if you just wait, through gritted teeth, for the inevitable Sound of Music question! I was five when I first saw that movie and I think I embedded many of my own memories of a happy childhood into the frames of that film. 

(Laughs.) I understand the emotional appeal of that movie. It’s a very “cozy” film and they just don’t make many cozy films anymore — they haven’t for a long time. If any family films are made today, they usually have an edge to them, which, incidentally, I’m all for! Films today are rarely so awash in sentimentality. But I do love older films, particularly the films of the 1930s and 40s. I’m amazed at how quickly and easily and unpretentiously they were made. There’s a certain rhythm and ambiance to many of those films that I wish would infiltrate to the films of today. I miss the smartness and joy so many of those films had.

What are some of your favorite films from that time period?

Oh God, that’s so hard to answer. All the Michael Powell movies, for one thing. He really changed the face of cinema. His films were so original, don’t you think?

Absolutely. Stairway to Heaven is one of my favorite films of all time. I think it was called A Matter of Life and Death in your part of the world?

Yes. Oh, that movie was just enchanting. I love all of the Powell-Pressburger films. I also love the French films that came out when I was in my teens. One of my favorites was Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion. That film has always stayed with me. I still burst into tears at the end of that film, just like clockwork.

Your career overlapped with people from that Golden Age. Did you ever find yourself tongue-tied when you met your movie idols?

Well, no, I never behaved like that — I always thought I was far superior to anyone I met! (Laughs.) In truth, I think I put that attitude on like a cloak to avoid shyness. I was very lucky in my career, I worked with Bette Davis, Sylvia Sidney, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart, so many great people.

I forget, did you ever work with Katharine Hepburn?

No, but I knew her quite well. She had asked me to play Enobarbus when she did Antony and Cleopatra on the stage in 1960. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do it but I got to know her and she came to see me in every play I did. It was very sweet — there she was in the dressing room every time I was in a play. She was an amazing lady.

What kinds of films do you like today?

I love biographical films. And I really enjoy doing real-life characters such as when I played Mike Wallace in The Insider. I knew Mike and I felt very close to that part, I thought it was a very accurate film. There’s a project in the works where I may play the Kaiser. I hope that happens.

I’ve always been a fan of your daughter’s (Amanda Plummer) work as well. I’ve been lucky enough to see her on the stage many times. Do you think it’s harder for young people starting out in this business today?

No, in some ways I think it’s easier. Especially with child actors, they used to be so terrible and now I think many are very good. Most of them seem terribly versed in the techniques of the industry by the time they’re 10. I’m really quite amazed at how talented some of them are — I don’t want to act with them at all, I want to put them down! (Laughs.) Young people seem much more professional now than they used to.

You’ve made so many great movies, but did you ever feel that you were born in the wrong era?

Absolutely, I’ve always felt slightly out of epoch. I think I would have been much more comfortable in the 30s, in the Ronald Colman era. I’m really quite old-fashioned. But don’t tell anyone, please — it’s such an ugly word!

Hector and the Search for Happiness opens on Friday, September 19. Christopher Plummer will be performing his one-man show, A Word or Two, next year in New York.