When you’re a young, up-and-coming film actor with growing cachet, it would stand to reason that if you were living in New York City, you might plant your roots in a trendy area. Maybe the East Village or the Lower East Side for the cool cafes and lively nightlife, Bed-Stuy or East Williamsburg for close access to thriving artistic communities. But when you’re a young, up-and-coming film actor with growing cachet and a kind of maturity well beyond your years, there are other considerations in mind. For nineteen-year-old Charlie Plummer, “looking cool” is not, at the moment, one of them.
“It's such a weird thing that I live on the Upper West Side,” he tells me over an early (would noon be considered an early bird special?) lunch at a cafe on his chosen home turf. “Whenever we lived in the city, we lived here. It's so easy because the train is right there, everything is super relaxed, it's a lot of old people.” He laughs at himself while saying this, realizing how contrary it might seem to be a young, up-and-coming actor who likes to live among pensioners. “I don't have to worry about going out and looking cool or anything. I like how out of the way it is.”
To spend a considerable amount of time with Plummer, as well as watching his films, is to understand why he might feel this way. Plummer, who won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for best emerging actor at the Venice Film Festival last year for his role in the Andrew Haigh-directed Lean On Pete, is not really your average teen. That’s because the characters he’s chosen to play over the few short years of his post-adolescent career have not been easy—they’re dark, sad, abandoned, lonely, often put in tragic circumstances that are out of their control and spiraling fast. It’s no wonder he might, during his down time, seek some peace and quiet.
The most recent of those troubled characters was Charley Thompson, a teen boy who, after becoming unexpectedly orphaned, finds solace in an aging racehorse named Lean On Pete. Acting alongside Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny, and Steve Zahn, Plummer performs youthful idealism that turns into a desperate search for hope, a hope that he looks for in anyone, anywhere. The film is a road trip movie in the loosest sense of the term—Plummer’s character, with his companion horse, are on a trip across the country that gets darker and more traumatic as the slow days pass. But it’s Plummer’s talent for appearing both wizened and child-like that carries the movie through more than a handful of sinister moments. You need not know much about Charley—and by extension, Plummer—to instinctively root for him.
The film was shot almost entirely in sequence. “Eventually there was no escaping it,” Plummer exlpains of his character’s spiraling destitution. “It becomes such a part of you. It was every day, five days a week, and then towards the end, it was six days a week, with twelve, fourteen hour days of just spending time with this story and what this guy is going through.” When the film wrapped, Plummer was surprised to find how much the process had affected him. “I just remember falling. This one wonderful producer named Aimee Lynn [Barneburg], I just fell into her arms. I couldn't keep it together. I was like, all right, get me home, I gotta go home. I can't really watch the movie because it's so overwhelming.”
His close family feels the same way. When the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, Plummer’s parents, grandparents, and then eleven-year-old brother traveled to Europe to support him.
“As soon as the movie ended, these cameramen came out of nowhere and turned the camera onto my face. My whole family was right behind me and everyone was standing and clapping. When I turned around, I saw my little brother just sobbing and sobbing and sobbing. I went over to hug him. He just couldn't stop crying.”
Plummer was born in upstate New York, but his family moved around a lot throughout his life, so the Upper West Side has only recently begun to feel like home. His mother is Maia Guest, primarily a theater actor, and his father, John Christian Plummer, is a writer and producer. Because of their occupations, relocating to places like Salt Lake City and L.A. for shoots and stage productions was treated as an inevitability.
Surprisingly, Plummer’s early career plans had nothing to do with the entertainment industry at all. For many of his preteen years, he believed he would go to college, then work towards becoming a general manager in the NFL. “My parents weren't into it—they never really loved sports, never played sports, never watched sports,” he said of one of his lifelong loves (Plummer played sports here and there growing up). “It's my joke that my rebellion was to watch sports instead of listening to punk music, which my parents would have really loved.”
When the time came to pick a path—at the age of eleven or twelve, when most kids are riding bikes in their sleepy neighborhoods or getting up to no good—Plummer decided to follow in his family’s footsteps. “There was a lot about the football general manager job that I really liked. I liked that there was a lot of pressure on it. Also, you kind of always have to be on, you always have to be doing your best,” he explains, a mirror to the kind of choices he’s made in his acting career so far. “You're really building a team, which I loved. As much as it is about technicalities, it's also about the emotion, how people work together, social skills. I think that's why I love acting. You really need everyone else. There's no chance that I could have done everything I've done without any of the people in my life. Especially on set—it’s impossible.”
That kind of collaboration and teamwork has taken him from projects like the Oscar-nominated drama All the Money in the World (the same one that Christopher Plummer, no relation, was green-screened into after sexual misconduct allegations were made against Kevin Spacey) to the Duncan Skiles-directed suburban thriller Clovehitch. He’s now acted alongside Marisa Tomei, Timothy Olyphant, Andy Garcia, Amber Heard, Mark Wahlberg, and Katherine Langford. Michelle Williams has played his mother. He’s been directed by Ridley Scott. Dylan McDermott has been his father. Steve Buscemi has acted as his begrudging caretaker. One of his favorite moments in the industry so far was meeting Guillermo Del Toro at the Venice Film Festival, where the beloved filmmaker had just won the Leone d'Oro for The Shape of Water.
“We were kind of pressed for time, but I remember Guillermo told me, ‘Don't do drugs, and pick your projects well.’”
Earlier this year, director Ridley Scott said that Plummer reminded him of Leonardo DiCaprio, predicting that, like the recent Oscar-winner, “he’ll have a big career.” In King Jack, where Plummer plays a teenage loner who is often shirtless and wearing a long chain, DiCaprio does feel omnipresent. In his role as John Paul Getty III during his harrowing kidnapping, Plummer telegraphs a pure anguish, oscillating between resignation for the position he is in and frothing anger toward a world that allowed this to happen. The viewer hungrily craves reprieve for Getty, a feeling that DiCaprio has evoked often in his own films.
But DiCaprio is not the first comparison that has been foisted on Plummer, and until the young actor gains a solid foothold in the Hollywood imagination, it likely won’t be the last. For his roles in both King Jack and Lean on Pete, critics compared his demeanor and skill to the late River Phoenix. In looks, it’s obvious—like Phoenix, Plummer’s mien is both boyish and world-weary, innocent and tormented. In talent and style, the effect is more subtle: the pair offer so much openness and emotion to the screen while appearing to do so little. To better understand his predecessor, Plummer tasked himself with watching the thirteen films Phoenix acted in in his short twenty-three years. It didn’t take long for him to grow obsessed.
While slowly working his way through a couple sunny-side-up eggs, Plummer lowers his eyes and speaks intently when talking about Phoenix—on this subject, he wants to get his words exactly right. He just watched Phoenix’s My Own Private Idaho again for the fifth time, in 35mm at The Metrograph, and the actor has been on his mind.
“When I watch him, I feel very connected to him and his lifeforce. He's such an open person—I think you see that when he was fifteen and doing Stand By Me and then you see that in Running On Empty,” Plummer tells me. “I remember reading Gus Van Sant talk about My Own Private Idaho and saying that at the time, River was just so excited to hear that he could do anything. To see a young actor without this idea of ‘Okay, this is how I need to look,’ or ‘This is how this needs to play.’ Instead he was so open to the universe and open to the idea that this character is a human being and therefore there is no right answer.”
Is the hope that Plummer will do a similar kind of thing in his own work?
“I do think that there is an element to who he was as an actor that is impossible to replicate or get close to. I think that just has to do with who he was. There's not a single other actor I’ve seen who was anything like him.”
If you’ve watched any of Plummer’s films, you might beg to differ. But only to a certain extent: with mile-long stares, protracted silences, and hope against hope that a better world exists somewhere out there, Plummer’s characters could not be retrofitted to be played by any other actor. He is a true original, with an evocative talent that is all his own.
For his part, Plummer doesn’t spend a lot of time mulling over past successes, or applauding his achievements. His tendency, he explains, is to always be looking toward to what’s next, though, for his own emotional wellbeing, he’s occasionally had to stop himself from worrying too much about what he can’t control. Either way, one thing seems to be certain—there will be more, and bigger projects to come.
Case in point is Clovehitch, a terrifying thriller about a serial killer who is closer to Plummer’s character than he would like to believe, will release this fall. As we chat about the project, I explain that I found the movie difficult to get through. Before I can say it was because I am easily frightened, he unblinkingly responds, “Oh, no, no, that’s totally fine!” Ever humble, he’s ready to accept that a journalist who had come to interview him did not even like his upcoming film and wanted him to know it. I explain that I did like it—I was just terrified. “I thought you were going to be like, ‘Oh, it's just not good,’” he laughs, gently.
There are other films to come, of course, and each features the weighty subject matter, troubled characters, and emotionally demanding material that has become Plummer’s specialty. He just finished filming three projects back-to-back-to-back: a dark comedy about a town where seniors in high school begin spontaneously combusting; Nabil Elderkin’s first feature, Gully, where Plummer plays a teenager in South Central L.A. who “has to kill and rape people”; and then a film where his character has paranoid schizophrenia. Plummer remarks blithely, “I think I’m probably going to take the rest of the summer off.”
Might he ever pivot to comedy, take a shot at something a bit lighter for a change? He says he’s open to anything, but that doesn’t mean everything is necessarily open to him. “I think maybe the reason why I've stayed away from comedy is because I don't think I'm that funny. I think people can probably see that very quickly.” (For the record, I disagree.) “In Spontaneous, I had to be kind of funny or more laidback some of the time. I watched the dailies and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m so bad at that.’”
We begin to wind down our conversation, but not before I ask Plummer about how he sees the industry evolving, especially now that he is one of the anointed class of freshmen who will inherit it, flaws and all.
“I think we're going to have to do a lot of work to get to a place where everyone is valued and treated with respect. It shouldn't be a hard thing to do but it is for some dumb reason. I would hope that that really changes,” Plummer tells me. “I’ve had really challenging experiences, I've had to do blah blah blah, this and this. But I'm also a white guy. For people who aren't white guys, it's probably a lot fucking harder. I think if we can get it to a place where everyone feels like they're in an environment where they can do their best work and be able to connect with people and grow as human beings and not have to deal with anyone who is attacking their humanity, that’s my hope. It’s a lot to ask, but it shouldn't be.”
If the industry falls short of that goal, or Plummer becomes disillusioned by his place in it, or if the powers that be improbably decide that they were wrong about his skills, he at least has a pretty good backup plan. “If acting doesn't work out, and this year everyone is like, ‘No, fuck Charlie, we're not going to work with him ever again,’” he jokes, “I might try to get a job in football after all.”
Written by Dayna Evans
Photographed by Alex Antitch
Photographer's Assistant: Iain Gomez
Styled by: Christian Stroble
Hair: David Van Cannon
Grooming: Jessica Ortiz