Sometimes an interview seems to sneak up on you and ends up being pretty special. I feel like this interview with Charlie Plummer (in support of his work on Hulu’s Looking for Alaska) took place by total chance. It was the day after TIFF, literally, immediately after Plummer appeared on BUILD Series, and just, well, read on.
Looking for Alaska stars Charlie Plummer as Miles “Pudge” Halter (called as such because he isn’t pudgy at all) who is the new kid in town at a boarding school who comes across pretty beguiling people, including the enigmatic Alaska (played by Kristine Froseth). It’s a fascinating adaptation of John Green’s first YA novel (and Green is on board as a producer), and it feels like a limited series that is well worth your time to watch.
The following is a condensed and edited version of a not very brief (sorry, not sorry) interview with the humble and charming Charlie Plummer of Looking for Alaska. *Mild spoilers ahead*
*This interview was originally published on October 17, 2019*
Brief Take: Tell me about reconnecting with your cast mates on this press tour. It must be so great seeing them again!
Charlie Plummer: It was kind of crazy because we only wrapped the show, jeez, I think it was the end of July, beginning of August. It’s really only been a couple of months since we finished everything, which is pretty surreal. It’s been pretty easy to talk about it and you know, most the time when you’re doing this stuff, you haven’t seen the people in a year, a year and a half, whatever it is, but most of these guys I saw last month. It’s been really easy to fall back in that rhythm and spend time with each other. And it’s also been so much easier when you genuinely really love the project and the story and all the people, and so I haven’t had to do any lying or anything like that. [laughs] This has all been coming from a very truthful proud place, except for one thing, which is that I don’t like to wake up early. [laughs] I get to bed often pretty late.
BT: What did you enjoy about shooting on location in Birmingham, Alabama and Louisiana?
CP: It was so important to me and I was so delighted because for me, as an actor, the space that you’re in is incredibly important. I mean, I don’t even like to do too much work ahead of time until I really get an understanding of what the space is going to be like, and it personally has a big effect on me. I was delighted to hear that we would actually be shooting in a location that really felt like a school, that it wasn’t like some soundstage or something that was thrown together. I mean they really built this entire campus, and most days we were just there, and we didn’t have any cell service or anything like that, and it was hot, and we were playing guitar. It was really, in a strange way, replicating, to some degree, what this experience would probably be like. I mean, you know, we have 300 some extras, always there, that are in the campus on school, it was really like building that environment out and also being in an environment that was so secluded and kind of separate from the rest of the world.
It’s really important for me because I think for the character of Miles, he’s very much walking into this almost Narnia-esque environment in which there are these people that are kind of magical figures in a sense. I mean, Alaska (Kristine Froseth) and The Colonel (Denny Love) and even The Eagle (Timothy Simons) and Dr. Hyde (Ron Cephas Jones), they’re all people that he’s never even come close to coming across in his years before that moment. Really making sure that the rest of the environment really reflected that tone was something for which I was hoping. And then I was very fortunate that Josh (Schwartz) and Stephanie (Savage) and John (Green) and Sarah (Adina Smith) and everyone who was a part of it from the beginning shared that passion for making sure that this was really on set what was going on and making sure that was a priority.
BT: You’re committed in pursuing your own arc. You previously penned a letter to Andrew Haigh in order to get the part in Lean On Pete. In terms of this project, you’ve said that this is one of your favourite books of all-time. Why do you enjoy taking an active role in choosing your projects?
CP: Honestly, man, it’s crazy, especially with these two: Lean on Pete and then with this one, I feel like I got lucky. Other than good fortune, I can’t really boil it down to much else I did. [chuckles] It’s funny, I wrote, I still have it. After I got this job, for Alaska, my manager sent me this letter that I had actually written to John back when I was 15, and it was when they were talking about making his new movie, and I was a huge fan of the book at the time, and I wrote him this whole letter about who I was and at the time, I had done one movie before, I had done a tiny, little indie movie, I was giving him the pitch of who I am and everything. I was really talking about where my life was at, also at this time. And it was really interesting that since then, even in the last five years, so much has changed for me, but what has remained consistent is really that I have continued to get to work on projects that are stories that I have such a deep yearning to tell, but also of which I’m really proud that I get to be a part. And again, I boil it down to good fortune. When people ask: “What are the kinds of things that you want to do next?” It’s really that. I really don’t care in what medium- whether that’s theatre, whether that’s television, film, whatever it is. If I can continue on this streak, then I will be very, very happy by the time that it is done. [laughs] But I also know that Lean on Pete, and then this, have really set a high bar for myself in terms of working on projects that are personally really fulfilling and having experiences in which I grow tremendously as an actor, but also as a human being. We’ll see. [laughs] Hopefully the next one is as good as this, but at the same time, I was really having a moment last night about it. I was like: “It’s crazy, I’m really living my dream, in a very literal sense of it”. This was a dream I had five years ago and now this is the reality, and it’s a pretty fucking surreal thing. I’m really fucking grateful, honestly. I’m really fortunate. I come from a family in which my Mom’s a working actor, my Dad’s worked in theatre his whole life, I know that this isn’t stuff that just happens to people. That if you’re lucky and you work really hard, you might get that opportunity, but to know that I’ve gotten that opportunity a couple of times now, at the age that I’m at, is really something of which I’m aware, and very, very appreciative.
BT: I cried a little bit watching this series – it was so heartfelt and meaningful. How did you build your connections?
CP: First of all, thank you for saying that because that’s a huge compliment. I’ve never really been a part of an adaptation of any sort, really, and it’s something special because it’s such an important book to me, but known to millions of people around the world and a personal book for many people. I remember when we had our first cast dinner, everyone knew what we were getting into. It wasn’t at all like: “Cool! This is my cool Young Adult title which we are trying to make money from”. It was very much like this is a story which each person is really passionate about for their own reasons, and we very much want to do it right.
It obviously started with John (Green). We went on this trip with John – Kristine, John, Sarah and myself. The first episode, we went to Birmingham, to the school to which he went, and spent a few days driving around and listening to music and him really being so generous with his memories of the area and his memories of being at the high school and all that, but really gifting off these characters and being like: “these are yours now”, and giving them off to people, and being like “I don’t want you to copy an idea of what is the book, but really make it your own”. And then for me taking that – and my favourite actors are the ones that, for me, set the tone and make sure that this tone is one that’s an open space, everyone feels really welcome and warm and then also feels like they are respected, but also genuinely collaborative with one another and they give each other everything that they can.
We had about four weeks of rehearsal before we started shooting and I wanted to make sure that even when we weren’t rehearsing, we were spending time together and trusting each other and trying to gain that trust, because I don’t think that’s something that you can fake, and especially for this show, it’s about how much they trust one another and love one another and all they go through. I think that I knew going into it that we wanted to do it right and we couldn’t really fake those things. And we got lucky that, I genuinely say this: Jay and Kristine and Denny and myself, I really think that, and I’ve been doing this long enough to realize that this is not always the case, although I haven’t been doing it for that long, but I really do feel like we’re going to be a part of each other’s life for a very long time. I think that we were fortunate. Patrick Rush, our casting director, and John and Josh and Stephanie, they know what they’re doing, obviously, which is assembling groups of young people – they have a lot of experience doing that – they were very smart about doing it. I think we also got really lucky as well.
BT: How did you handle the scenes and dynamic where Sofia Vassilievea’s Lara liked Miles, and Miles didn’t return those feelings?
CP: That was something I talked about early on, I talked about it with Sarah (Adina Smith), the director, who directed the first episode, and with Sofia who plays Lara, early on. In a lot of ways, their relationship is one that you frequently come across in high school, that a person is trying to figure things out, and these are the things that you’re supposed to do, you’re supposed to have a girlfriend and you’re supposed to do…whatever. I think that Lara is such an open person and really has some infatuation with this guy, and then for my character, I think that he doesn’t have the wisdom yet to know how to handle that, because then he looks to his left and sees this other person who he feels so strongly for, I think that in his words would say: “madly in love with” and I think that it’s difficult the first time when you’re going through all that and learning how to operate, what’s the best way to do that? And also, even though the phrase “coming of age” gets used a lot, it really is a good way to sum it up, kind of understanding: “What kind of person do I want to be in the world?”. Miles really starts the story not having a flicker of what that could be, but then as soon as he meets these other kids, who are already kind of living that kind of life, I mean, Alaska, who buys all these books and has this grand plan of opening a bookstore eventually, The Colonel, who has gone through so much, and Takumi who has this incredible style and has gone through so much, they’ve all had these incredible life experiences. Then for my character, he wants to jump into that world as much as possible, and I think really understanding that, that was a huge influence for me, particularly all of the relationships of the characters that really knowing what really was the intent of my character through the story and that urge to live an extraordinary life is massive. I think that it’s influenced all of the relationships that I then had with each one of the characters.
BT: This leads us naturally into the Thanksgiving episode, which was my favourite. Tell me about filming that particular pivotal episode.
CP: It’s interesting for me because that’s arguably one of my favourite sections of the book. I remember when I first got the script, I was excited that there was going to be a whole episode dedicated to that portion of the book. I think that’s huge, it’s really the first time that Miles feels like he’s an independent person, and he’s with Alaska for all of it, of course. But they’re getting to play house for a little bit and actually getting to step into, for him, especially, this world about which he’s been dreaming, which is really a life with this person with which he feels in love. And then, of course, that dream gets you that far, but the reality of it is that you’re going to go through hard times with this person and I think that understanding the tone of that episode is especially one that is very, to have it be most of the people leaving the school and leaving this magical environment that had already been established, and then really getting to sit in the space, that was a huge thing for me. Something which I talked to Kristine about a lot was really making sure that that episode especially was the opportunity for us to kind of take a breath, and especially with the character of Miles, be able to sit with his new world into which he’s been welcomed, which is this extraordinary, beautiful environment of the school, but also next to this beautiful, intelligent person who he feels so strongly for.
And then of course, toward the latter half, trying to navigate the relationship with The Colonel. One of my favourite moments of the show was when Miles and The Colonel and they all have the Thanksgiving dinner and we’re all dancing to ‘Lovely Day’ by Bill Withers, which was really such a joyful thing for me because it was a moment of the truth of all these characters. They share such a bond and such a love for one another, and being able to celebrate that for a second was really special. It’s one of those things in which you talk a lot about the story and the arc of it and what scenes were really important and what we wanted to make right, but once we started actually shooting it, we really didn’t have time to do too much. It was really about jumping in, and pretty much everyone was like: “let’s go all in”. That episode, definitely, or the last one, were my favourites, but definitely a very special moment in time for me personally, but also for those characters.
BT: What can you say about your movie Spontaneous?
CP: We had a great time shooting that. We shot that a little over a year ago now and again, that was really my first experience with an adaptation of a Young Adult novel. But it was great! I love Katherine Langford, who is the lead of the film, it was a joyful experience working with her, and then Brian Duffield, who directed it and wrote the adaptation. It was really a fun, collaborative experience, and Brian was super receptive and it was very relaxed. I was getting to play a character who was probably the closest to who I am, in terms of my normal life, but I got to see it myself a month ago and I really love it. It’s definitely weird and different, and probably unlike anything anyone has ever seen, and I’m sure that you could gather that from the logline itself, but one of which I’m very proud and on which I had an phenomenal experience, so, I can’t wait for people to see it. It’s going to be something which people connect with and that they’ll have a love for.
BT: Have you seen any films or shows lately that you’ve wanted to be a part of?
CP: [laughs] It’s funny that you bring that up because I was talking to somebody about this recently. About a year ago, I found out the news that Joaquin Phoenix was doing the Joker movie, [laughs] and I called my agent immediately. I saw that they were shooting it in New York, and I was like: “I need to be a part of this. I don’t care if I’m a PA, I don’t care if I’m someone’s assistant, I don’t care if I’m cleaning the toilets, I want to be on that set”. Joaquin is probably my favourite film actor working today and I’m a huge superhero fan, [laughs] and so my very sweet agent talked to the producers and emailed back and forth with them for a month trying to get me a job as a PA, and ultimately, it didn’t end up working out, [laughs] scheduling issues and all that, as one would imagine. But yeah, that’s the way that I go about things. I think that all you have, especially in this business, is your instinct and your heart and what your heart is telling you, and I think that you really have to follow that. The thing which I pride myself on as much as possible, what’s gotten me this far, is really listening to that and being courageous as much as you possibly can in those moments, saying “I want to be a part of this”, even if it’s a selfish thing, saying: “I want to be in that environment. I want to work with these people that I respect, I want to tell a story that’s really important for me.” It’s not something that always works out and ends up falling your way, but when it does, you really end up appreciating it that much more.
BT: What’s something that you hope viewers will get out of this series?
CP: I hope that they can go on this ride with these characters and fall in love with these characters as much as I did reading the book, and then as much as I did again making the show. Also, whether there is really a specific character or a specific moment, having a deep, heartfelt connection with some element of it- that’s really my wish. I mean that’s always my wish for anything which I’m a part of, but especially for this, because it’s really about these young people and their hearts and their attempt to grow and learn more about themselves and each other, and the universe, and all these things which we should always be talking about, regardless if it is or is not a story about young people. I hope that it’s able to start those conversations, but I also hope that it means something to young people, even if it’s a fraction of what this story means to me and these characters mean to me, I hope that people connect with it in that way. We’ll see, you know. [laughs] October 18th, we’ll see.
Looking for Alaska premieres exclusively in Canada on CBC Gem today and is available on DVD on April 21 from Paramount Home Entertainment. To learn more about the show, read our interview with Denny Love here