I didn’t put on the suit,” says Charlie Plummer, with a laugh. It’s October 2017 and the 18-year-old actor is telling me about the time he auditioned for the lead in Spider-Man: Homecoming. “It was a very cool experience. I got very, very close. I got to the point where I was reading with Robert Downey Jr and screen-testing for it. But yeah, I didn’t put on the suit. That would have been too much.”
He doesn’t seem unduly bothered that he lost out to Brit actor Tom Holland – and nor should he. His career is already on a pretty impressive upward trajectory,
thanks in part to his role as the kidnapped grandson of oil tycoon John Paul Getty in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, a film that made headlines of its own after Scott recast the part of Plummer’s grandfather following the sexual harassment allegations against Kevin Spacey.
That controversy is still a few weeks away when we meet, so when he talks about the film, he just talks excitedly about bonding with Michelle Williams, freaking out about being in a Ridley Scott film and the practical effects work that went into slicing his character’s ear off.
It’s a big movie and Plummer more than holds his own in it, but it’s his leading role in 45 Years director Andrew Haigh’s first American feature Lean on Pete that really showcases what this softly spoken teen can do. He plays Charley, a sensitive, troubled, somewhat transient teenager who gets a job as a stable boy for Steve Buscemi’s grizzled racehorse trainer Del and ends up bonding with one of his past-its-prime steeds – the titular Pete. More Kes than War Horse, the film – which gets its Scottish premiere at next month’s Glasgow Film Festival – is a heartbreaking slice of Neo-realism in which the fate of the fading Pete gives Charley purpose as his own tough life worsens around him.
“I had a very visceral emotional connection to the character and his journey,” says Plummer of the role, which he says he fought harder for than anything in his career thus far. “I sent in my audition tape on a Friday and I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I wrote Andrew a letter explaining why I connected with the story and the journey and the character.”
And why did he?
“I think I connected with a lot more than I was even psychologically aware of,” he says. “I connected with the search for home he goes on. That was a huge element of the story from the get-go. And I connected to the demons he has. He’s a really good kid: he’s compassionate; he’s loved; he does the right thing a lot of the time. But I think his real demons come in the form of isolation and rejection and his battles with fear in general. Without getting personal, I really connected to that as well.”
In the film he’s surrounding by an incredible cast, including Chloë Sevigny, Steve Zahn and, of course, Steve Buscemi, who’s actually been a bit of a mentor since Plummer played the pre-teen nephew of his corrupt politician Nucky Thompson in HBO’s Prohibition-era gangster saga Boardwalk Empire. “My character was tiny on the show,” laughs Plummer. “I was in eight episodes. I probably said five words the whole time I was on set. But I did get to work with him on one episode. And when I say I had a scene with him, I really mean I was in the scene. I was basically just set decoration.”
Still, just 12 at the time, he got to see how Buscemi worked and it had a big impact. “He was just so generous, even with all the probably-annoying kid actors that were around.”
Buscemi is the kind of actor Plummer wants to be: a character actor rather than a movie star. He could be both, of course, though he’s not sure about the demands of doing CGI – another reason, perhaps, why he’s not losing any sleep over not being cast as Spider-Man. “Even on this film [Lean on Pete] there’s one scene with CGI and it was a particularly difficult thing to grasp. It really put me off. I really admire anyone who can step into that world and give an honest performance and be really present in the moment.
“Maybe one day,” he adds after thinking about it some more. “That’ll be the next challenge I guess.”
Lean on Pete screens at Glasgow Film Festival on 24 and 25 February and is on general release from 4 May