Paul Risker chats with Lean on Pete star Charlie Plummer…
“I don’t know if I could watch it again for a long time because it so beautifully captured such a moment in my life, and it brings back all of these feelings” says actor Charlie Plummer of coming of age film Lean on Pete. An adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel, the film tells the story of 15-year-old Charley (Charlie Plummer) who arrives in Portland, Oregon, looking for a fresh start with his father Ray (Travis Fimmel). While Ray spirals downward into his own personal turmoil, Charley is fortunate to find camaraderie at a local racetrack where he lands a job caring for an ageing quarter horse named Lean On Pete, and befriending its owner Del (Steve Buscemi) and jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny). When he learns that Pete is bound for slaughter, he embarks on an odyssey with his friend across the new American frontier in search of a loving aunt that he hasn’t seen in years.
In conversation with Flickering Myth, Plummer discussed the personal connections with his character and the experience that forged. He also reflected on the place of art in our contemporary world, allowing the audience to be a part of a film and the ability of a story and character to live on through its storytellers and audience alike.
Why a career in acting? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
In my own career there have been so many defining moments, and some that maybe didn’t seem to define me at the time, but I look back on and go: Wow, if that had not happened, I would not be in the position I am in now. Many of those moments were completely out of my control, which is comforting in a way. A big one had to be when I saw a production of the play Jerusalem in New York, with Mark Rylance. I had just turned twelve and I don’t think I had ever seen a performance like that before, and I don’t know if I have again, or anything close to it. The way he was connected to every part of himself and his environment in such a pure way inspired me to do this, or to attempt to do that and to connect with everything including myself, and everyone in my environment. And to then also have that piece of art connect to millions of people around the world. So that was where that was born from. Before I had enjoyed acting and thought it was something I could have so much fun doing; it was something I could stretch myself with in so many fun ways, but not the meaning as to why it is so important, or why it can be for me. So I am grateful for having a moment like that.
In my research I read that you wrote a letter to director Andrew Haigh to express an interest in the project. What was it about this story, the character and the novel that resonated with you so powerfully?
A lot of it was timing, but I also think that I do share a lot of qualities with that character. At the time there was a lot that I was questioning and wanting to know more about, and not just about myself, but people around me. I had questions of what is home for me, and I was also terrified of the idea of being alone, which was something that had scared me for a long time. Also I had just met this young woman who then became my girlfriend, and who I fell in love with, so then it was about trusting someone else with all your stuff; all the good and the bad. Even though those three things are not necessarily happening on the surface with this character, I do think he goes through those stages and of course he’s trying to get to his aunt who is home for him, or this fragment of home. On the way he’s questioning if that is the real thing and he meets all these people, none of who are happy except for maybe a couple. But for the most part none of them are and that begs the question of whether he’s always going to be alone? He then meets this horse that he gives his whole life to, and I’ve always said this is a love story. Of course, maybe not romantically [laughs], but a love story between this boy and this creature, and whether the creature is aware of it or not, which I hope she was, it was such a crucial moment in this boy’s life that gave him a sense of purpose. I think because of all those reasons it hit home on a sub-conscious level for me at that time in my life, and that’s why I wrote Andrew. Also I was a huge fan of his films, so I knew this kind of a story would be done justice. The way Andrew made it, it lets you sit with these characters and lets you experience this world, and ultimately what I love so much about this film is that the audience becomes a character in the film in a lot of ways. I am a huge fan of when you are just as much a part of it as everyone who made the film, and that is always the hope.
Picking up on your point about touching the audience, whilst film on one level is about entertainment, it can help us to understand not only ourselves but our world. Is this one of the communicative tools of cinema that gives it a deeper meaning and explains why individual filmic experiences as well as the medium endures?
Yeah, that is something a lot of people are probably aware of, especially in this industry and it is the reason why they get into it. But that’s something that I have always been aware of and to go back to Mark Rylance, I know it’s not film, but art is the universal language in so many ways, and theatre can be as well. Art whether it be through film, or whether it be through theatre or painting is essential to the human existence, and it is because exactly of what you just said. To be able to connect on such a deep level with people that you have maybe never even met in person, yet to have such a connection tells you everything about our capacity as human beings to have compassion and empathy. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have any films or pieces of theatre that I had not had a similar experience with. I would hope to give as much as I can throughout my career, however long this turns out to be. But to be able to create works people don’t expect, and to just be able to create those for people. Then to ultimately have those characters that I experienced carry on way past my own life and live on through that, and ultimately evolve through the connections with however many people do get to see the film, or do get to see a piece of theatre, or hear a piece of music, whatever it may be. I would say that is my biggest dream, and for this film especially.
Once the film is released and an audience sees the film, does it cease to belong to its filmmakers? Could we say there is a transfer of ownership?
For now, my job is to be fully in this experience, to be completely present with my other actors and present on the story that we are trying to tell. After that, my job is completely done and as much as I would love to know every step of what is going to happen, and the film that everyone will hopefully get to see and have that connection with, I have no control over that. So ultimately yes, the film isn’t mine. I have my own experience in making this movie, and my own experience of watching this movie, and it is different in every way than anyone else’s. Everyone else will decide how they feel about it, and hopefully by then that’s not up to me, and by the end of the experience I will have come to terms with how I feel about the film, and the performance.
Looking back on the experience of the film and the opportunity to play this character, how do you reflect on this chapter of your creative journey?
I will tell you it has really travelled with me, and it’s sometimes overwhelming to watch this film. I don’t know if I could watch it again for a long time because it so beautifully captured such a moment in my life, and it brings back all of these feelings. It has had such an impact on the kind of artist and actor I am, and the kind of actor I want to be, the things that make me uncomfortable and I want to seek out as an actor. Also, getting to make a movie with Steve and Chloë, Steve Zahn and Andrew, to listen to them at that point in my life and to have those creative people giving me advice, guiding me in so many ways without me even knowing, has had such an effect on me that continues. But I will say without a doubt this was not the best, but definitely the most powerful experience I’ve ever had on a film set. That’s always a hope, and every time I start something I hope that’s what happens. But hopefully it can live on in me for the rest of my life, and if it can do that for one more person and live on in them for a long time, if it can do that for a hundred people, or a hundred million, or whatever it may be, then that would be incredible. But it’s definitely a film that’s going to live on in me.
Many thanks to Charlie Plummer for taking the time for this interview.
Lean on Pete is out now on Blu-ray and DVD in the U.S. courtesy of Lionsgate.