If Charlie Plummer has a favorite emotion, it’s passion. It’s the first thing he looks for in the directors he works with, the most important quality for his castmates to exude, and—as he stresses repeatedly—what he hopes to feel every time he takes on a project. It’s also what drew the eighteen-year-old actor to his upcoming film Lean on Pete, from 45 Years director Andrew Haigh. “I distinctly remember finishing the script and I called my dad right up and I said, ‘I have to be a part of this,’” Plummer recalls. “I hadn’t really been that passionate about anything to the point where it was like, ‘This needs to happen and if it doesn’t happen, my heart’s going to break,’ in a long time, so I worked really hard and sent in an audition. Then it was the weekend and I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I wrote a letter to Andrew and I just spewed about how passionate I was about the story because I connected with it so much.”
Plummer eventually landed the lead part of Charley, a troubled teenager who finds solace and purpose in his friendship with the faded racehorse of the title as he tries to make his way to his aunt after being orphaned, opposite Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny, Travis Fimmel, and Thomas Mann. “It’s a really simple premise, and yet it isn’t,” Plummer explains of the plot. “As soon as you spend serious time with these people, you just see their lives start to unfold. In these moments where you feel like nobody’s watching, you get to know a lot about them. It’s about this character’s journey and going through so much adversity but never giving up on hope and love, but never in an overly sentimental way, which was something that I hadn’t seen in a while.”
The chance to work with Haigh—whose subtle voice illuminated the romantic trials of a single gay man played by Jonathan Groff in HBO’s Looking and helped earn Charlotte Rampling an Oscar nomination for 45 Years—was the main draw for Plummer, who, even with his lengthy CV, acknowledges that he still has much to learn, and often looks to the people he works with to teach him. “We talked about the importance of a scene being interesting and intriguing rather than just making a certain point,” he says. “A lot of his stories can seem simple because they’re just about human relationships, but they’re also mysteries about the human heart and the brain and how they work. They’re not so predictable and they really keep you guessing and wanting to know more about these people. Those are the kinds of movies that I really love and that are really moving for me, the ones where I’m like, ‘I’ve never met a person like this, but it feels so real and it feels like I am this person.’ That’s what I think he does so well.”
Now just barely old enough to vote, Plummer came to Lean on Pete with nearly a decade of acting experience already, having gotten his start playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in a stage adaptation of Star Wars written by his father in an attempt to encourage more boys to try out theater. “I was really, really shy growing up and I never wanted to act, but then we moved to this new town and my dad encouraged me to do this play,” Plummer recalls. “I did it and I really loved it, and I was hooked after that.”
Only a few years later at the age of eleven, he joined the cast of HBO’s dark Prohibition-era gangster saga Boardwalk Empire, playing a nephew of Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson. “I didn’t know anything about it,” says Plummer of the show—no surprise given that few parents would have allowed their preteens to watch the violent series. “I was really young—and I still am really young, so I go into every opportunity wide-eyed and ready to give it my all. I think Steve could see that because he was so great to me. I remember I was really into magic at the time and he had just done this film where he played a magician so he was showing me magic tricks and I was showing him magic tricks. That show is so intense and his performance is really intense, but I never knew. I never got to watch any of the show except for the scenes that I was in.”
At fourteen, Plummer landed his first leading role on film in Felix Thompson’s King Jack, a brooding and emotional film that finds his eponymous character on the run from a violent bully. “The director and producers had such a clear idea of what they wanted to do and they really trusted me so much,” he recalls of the movie, which went on to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2015. “That was the first time that anybody really had that confidence in me to the extent of like, ‘I just trust you to do whatever you feel is right on camera and I don’t need to direct every line of it.’ Felix gave me that freedom and that was really incredible to experience for the first time.”
Plummer also credits King Jack with helping him solidify the trajectory of his career, one that arcs in a markedly different direction from those of most actors who start as preteens, with their squeaky-clean toy commercials and broad Disney or Nickelodeon shows. “I said to my agents that I really didn’t want to do that kind of stuff, because I just wasn’t passionate about it and I wasn’t interested in it,” he explains. “I’ve always wanted to be taken seriously and I’ve always fought to be a little bit older than I was. I was lucky that the projects that I did end up getting were great, but for me as an actor, it’s based on being around people throughout my career who’ve really placed importance on certain values that I think a lot of people in this industry don’t usually have.”
Plummer’s path took yet another major step forward this year, when he spent the summer playing John Paul Getty III, the wealthy oil scion who was kidnapped at the age of sixteen in 1973 and had his ear cut off in an attempt to squeeze seventeen million dollars in ransom money out of his grandfather, in Ridley Scott’s new film All the Money in the World. Michelle Williams plays his mother and Christopher Plummer—who stepped in to replace Kevin Spacey after the revelations of the latter’s sexual abuse earlier this year—his grandfather in the big-budget drama from the director of Blade Runner, The Martian, Alien, and Black Hawk Down. “Everyone who’s working on this film is the best in the world at what they do in a lot of ways, so I’ve been trying to learn as much as possible and take everything in,” Plummer says. “Even Michelle Williams is like, ‘Oh my god, this is incredible.’ It’s even mind-blowing for her, to put that in some context.”
For his first time playing a real person, Plummer says he was careful not to cross the line from interpretation over into impression, finding a careful balance and avoiding what he explains could easily have turned into overpreparation. “I tried to take everything in to the point where it didn’t overwhelm any of my performance, but could help support it in the best way possible,” he explains of his research for the role. “I definitely didn’t go out with the intention to imitate this person, because I know that’s just impossible. It was challenging because there aren’t a lot of audio files or video, but that’s also good because I think if there were, it would’ve driven me crazy with certain mannerisms and getting things right that I think at the end of the day aren’t as important as having a sincere performance.”
If Plummer’s favorite emotion is passion, his favorite mental trait would be discernment. He speaks with such self-awareness and considered thought that it’s easy to forget at times that he is still just a teenager. While most of his peers are trying to figure out what college they want to attend, he already seems to know exactly what he wants, even if he isn’t quite sure exactly how to get there yet. “From a very young age, I looked at my favorite actors”—Mark Rylance, Joaquin Phoenix, and Buscemi among them—“and I really studied what they did and the choices they made,” he says. “I love having conversations with producers and directors and other actors about what they thought was important and like, ‘Why do you do a movie?’ It’s turned me into this person who, whenever I get an opportunity, wants to ask myself, ‘Why do I want to do it and what are my reasons for it and, in twenty-five years, will I look back and be really proud of doing that film?’ Whatever I’m doing, I make sure I have a real reason to do it and I think that’s when I do my best work. When I’m passionate and I know exactly why I’m doing it and I can just put every single thing that I am into it, that’s when I ultimately get the best out of it.”
All the Money in the World opens December 25. Lean on Pete opens March 30.
Styling by Julie Ragolia at Lalaland Artists. Grooming by Eloise Cheung at Kate Ryan Inc using La Mer. Photographer’s assistant: Mateo Arciniegas. Stylist’s assistant: Bertille Noiret. Postproduction by Jamie Saunders.