Film & TV

Charlie Plummer is a Veteran New Kid

The 'Looking For Alaska' star opens up about how near-misses, from a first kiss to a first audition, eventually led him to his perfect role.
Reading time 15 minutes

Photography by Evan Browning

Styling by Roberto Johnson

 

"It’s very beautiful over there,” Charlie Plummer observes as he stares out the window, wearing an oversized Versace Hawaiian shirt, when he is reminded of a happy few childhood years spent in Italy. The sunsets. The effortlessly stylish old men. The enviable life where everyday has lovely, but misbehaving weather. Our collective imagination of La Dolce Vita always skews towards Versace over Burlosconi, to Fellini over Tony Soprano. The young actor’s memories do too.

Plummer has spent the day with our team enjoying the finer things from the Italian Icons. Gucci, Fendi, Armani, Prada, Ferrari. Although when he stares out the window he sees not the Rome of his youth, but Queens, the working class New York City borough. The manufacturing and fabricating heart of the city. Not just the steel and stone that create the bones of our bridges and skyscrapers. But also the film and television studios where local artisans create the mythology of this city. In that regard, it carries the spirit of Milan over a more genteel Florence.

In the new Hulu adaptation of John Green’s novel Looking for Alaska, Plummer plays Miles–the New Kid at a southern Alabama boarding school who never stood out in class back home in Florida. Miles’ reasoning for such a change is Francois Rabelais' last words: “Go to seek a great perhaps.”

New Kid Miles is obsessed with famous last words. The final thoughts of great thinkers. Simon Bolivar is said to have cursed, “Damn it, how will I ever get out of this labyrinth!” Ernesto “Che” Guevar was a consummate warrior who believed that ideas were unkillable. When captured by the Bolivian army, he said to the man who would kill him, “Shoot, coward. You are only going to kill a man.”

Leo Tolstoy left the world with an unfinished sentence, “The truth is...I care a great deal...what they...” Or Henrik Ibsen, whose nurse remarked that he was looking better and then he uttered his last words, “On the contrary...” and died.

The reality of death is such a confusing mix of terror and serenity that most of us will probably echo Princess Diana who last said, “Oh God, what’s happened?” The Hollywood version of last words is, “You’re only as good as your last picture.” The greats don’t get to enjoy their past glory when they stop making other people money. The great Italian director Federico Felini shot his last film in 1992. It was shelved for ten years. But it did get his name back in the spotlight long enough to win him an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1993, thirty years after his 1963 masterpiece 8 ½. Felini died that October.

Most actors don’t know when they’ve uttered their last words on screen. You work until you don’t get any more work.

Everyone likes to imagine who would play them in the movie of their lives. Plummer is the perfect stand-in for Alaska author John Green onscreen. Handsome, winsome, and contemplative, he looks and talks like the way that all of Green’s idealized characters look and talk in his books.

Although he turned 20 this summer, Plummer still walks with the stooped shoulders of someone still growing into themselves. If Atlas shrugged with the weight of the world on his shoulders, Plummer walks with his head down, lest someone add one more kilo of adult responsibility to his young life.

On camera, this shy demeanor makes the audience root for their underdog, the New Kid. Something Plummer knows well from attending eight–eight!–different schools in his life. Over and over, he had to go to a strange place where his clothes were scrutinized, his last name mispronounced on the first day (“Charlie Ploomer?” “No, it’s Plumber.” Pronounced like the English word for a person who fixes toilets. A plombier.)

But every new school presented Plummer with a new plate of desires. At one school he just wants to fit in, at the next one he wants to stand out, the next just to be left alone. And then at the next school he, like Miles in Alaska, wants to meet someone–a girl–whose entire life and persona leaves him full of desire.

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The greatest Italian exports have always been what we call “objects of desire.” We don’t envy Italian highways or legislation or their lax attitude towards “business hours.” But when a Bugatti rumbles past a four-year-old boy, you know exactly how he feels as his eyes widen when he first sees a machine beyond his wildest dreams. When a Lamborghini pulls up next to you on the highway, you find yourself wondering who could possibly drive a thing like that. And you desire their whole life along with it.

The Italians have no shortage of cheap, but stylish clothing. Yet when you try on a Fendi Merino wool sweater you wonder, briefly, if you could make the €1000 price tag work if you never bought another sweater again for as long as you lived.

The pursuit of the objects of desire is often half the fun, and in many cases the only fun part. Many people decide on their life’s path in hopes that this job will get you the car/house/spouse you’ve always wanted. The hero who goes out to get the girl of his dreams is a much more admirable character than the one who sits at home unhappy with his life. But there are drawbacks.

Sports cars break down a lot. Big houses cost more in taxes. And have you ever worn Fendi leather dress shoes in a crowded bar? They’ll make you want to go home early.

Plummer has led the kind of life that most 20-year-olds could only dream about. But it has left him isolated.

“In middle school I was acting professionally and at the last minute one of the high school kids dropped out of the school play, and the drama teacher asked if I would come in and play this part," he said. "I was nervous because I was really shy and the high school kids seemed so much cooler and I didn’t know any of them. And then I went for my first rehearsal and I realized that the coolest girl there is my girlfriend in the play and we have to kiss. Now I’m nervous and excited. At the first rehearsal, she kisses me in a scene. And so in the middle of rehearsal, in front of everyone, the girl just blurts out, ‘Do I have to kiss him for real?’”

“The drama teacher was trying to be nice and said she could just kiss me on the cheek for rehearsal,” Charlie says “I ended up just hanging out with the foreign exchange students until the play ended.”

If Charlie had hard luck in school, he had harder luck in his career. In 2011 he landed a three season, 8-episode role as the son of Eli Thompson on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, during the height of prestige television. The point of showing Eli and his nine children was to show the audience that he had too much stress and too many mouths to feed at home. Plummer had no discernable lines or scenes. “I describe myself as glorified set dressing on that show.” He had three lines in total over three seasons.

Each one could have been his character’s last.

Prestige TV itself doesn’t always pan out. In 2012 Plummer appeared in Not Fade Away, the much-anticipated directorial debut from David Chase, creator of the great Italian-American drama The Sopranos. The film starred Tony Soprano himself, the late James Gandolfini. Plummer played the little brother of the love interest. The film ran a $20 million budget and barely took in $600,000 at the box office. That’s about as big of a flop as you can get from a theatrical release.

Luckily for Gandolfini, those weren’t his last words. In 2013, he went on to star opposite Julia Louis Dreyfus in the critically acclaimed Enough Said. Plummer only did one movie over the next five years. His marketable years as a teen actor slipped away.

In 2014 Plummer returned to regular school life. Once again as the New Kid. But that year he also read and fell in love with Green’s novel Looking for Alaska. He understood Miles, the New Kid of the story. He was Miles. Eight times by then. The next year, at 16, he even tried out for a short-lived attempt at a movie adaptation helmed by Josh Schwartz, best known for casting 27-year-olds to play teenagers.

“I really wanted the part because I was such a big fan of the book," he says. "I got pretty far along in the process and they just said, ‘Sorry dude. You’re just too young.’ I couldn’t believe it. I even said, ‘But I’m the actual age of the character!’” The movie never happened.

In 2017 it looked like he’d finally caught his big break. He appeared prominently in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World as the kidnapped grandson in the true-crime story of John Paul Getty III of the famous Getty oil and art hoarding family. English filmmaker Scott has directed some of the most iconic films of all time including Bladerunner, Alien, Thelma & Louis, Gladiator and even the Apple ad they played at Steve Jobs’ funeral.

A legendary director, an iconic family, and bad things happening to rich people at the height of the true-crime podcast mania. How could this film possibly fail?

People who watched the fallout from #metoo in 2017 will know this as the film that re-shot all of Kevin Spacey’s scenes with Christopher Plummer (no relation) after allegations of sexual assault made Spacey an industry pariah. ($50 million budget and $56 million at the box office, so at least they lived to fight another day.)

For Plummer, it didn’t matter either way. He had wanted a serious career in film and now he got it. “Seeing how he works and getting to be in a room with Ridley Scott, I just felt like the luckiest guy in the world,” he says. He went from being the dork no one wanted to kiss in the school play to getting to be the New Kid on set with Scott. All grown up now, Plummer landed his first adult role at 17. He debuted as an unknown actor with seven years' experience.

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Now, in Looking for Alaska, Plummer has taken a curveball. Josh Schwartz is best known for bringing the early 2000s to life in Orange County, California in The O.C. And doing the same for Manhattan teenagers in Gossip Girl. Now he and Plummer will have to do the same for Alabama boarding schools of the early 2000s.

When compared to the constantly online era of today, the year 2003 seems almost quaint. Southern boarding schools look a bit more like sleepaway camp than the Jr. Harvard institutions up north. It creates an insular society with its own rules and traditions.

When the music industry collapsed in the post-Napster days of the early 2000s, it let loose a whole bunch of bands that few would have heard before. In Alaska, the kids jam out to the bands that your cool older cousin would put on your first “Mix-CD.” Think “Clap Your Hands Say Yeah” by the Killers.

A decade before Instagram and Snapchat, students have to actually seek out their friends to tell them what happened in their day. In one of these early catch-up sessions, Plummer’s character Miles meets Alaska Young. A firecracker of a young woman who presses Miles’ hand to her breast five seconds after meeting him just to illustrate a crazy story.

From then on Miles wants to learn everything about Alaska, but there is no road map to figuring out a person who fills you with so much longing. A person like that stirs to life an empty part of yourself that you will spend the rest of your life trying to fill up with your desires. Remember this happens in an era where people print out Mapquest directions and–quite stunningly–none of the teenagers have a phone to suck them in for hours at a time. On the long drive to school, one student’s family listens to the audiobook of The DaVinci Code from a binder that must contain fifty CDs.

This kind of life must be endured, not ignored. Or to quote the poet Walt Whitman–via the graffiti on Miles’ wall at school–“These are the days that must happen to you.”

Although it may seem like money can buy the perfect life for a teenager, character comes from discomfort. Looking for Alaska is an instant classic that could only have come from people who know all too much about the sting of rejection. And what it takes to get back up again and give it another try.

“I don’t know if it counts as an Italian film, but that’s the reason I loved Rocky.” He also has a soft spot for Moonstruck, the eighties movie where Cher falls in love with two Italian brothers.

We know at the end of the first episode that beautiful, impulsive, life-affirming Alaska Young will die by the end of the season. We don’t know how long we will get with her. Miles will never know if she chose her last words. Although all this seems foreign to a teenager–the group of people waiting for their lives to finally begin. The truth is that none of us know when we’ve said our last words. Life doesn’t have a timer, but it also doesn’t have a limit to the depths of experience that any one person can get from setting out to live a life just beyond what even they think they are capable of. Death isn’t choosy. But in the end, everyone gets picked.

Alaska’s death leaves Miles full of a lethal amount of grief. In that regard, he is like US President William McKinley, who lived for several days after an assassin’s bullets landed in his abdomen. Toward the end, as Miles notes, his wife started crying and screaming: “I want to go, too! I want to go, too!” And with his last measure of strength, McKinley turned to her and spoke his last words: “We are all going.”

Speaking of which, the studio we’ve booked for Plummer’s first big fashion spread has another shoot starting in just a few minutes. It’s time to leave. I ask Charlie, “Any last words?” He laughs.

“Actually, my favorite last words are also the last words in the book.”

Oh, what is that?

“It comes from Thomas Edison on his deathbed. Just before he nodded off, he opened his eyes and said, ‘It’s very beautiful over there’.”

Credits

Grooming Jessica Ortiz (Forward Artists)

Photo Assistant Andrew Espinal

Production Mariana Cantu (MC Colectiva)

Special Thanks Gullwing Motor Cars, Inc.

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