Amanda Plummer is not the girl next door — unless, that is, you live on Mars. It's not that she's a space cadet. She's just unlike any other actress you've met.
She came out of nowhere less than five years ago and burst onto the stage and screen — not just a promising lump of flesh begging to be noticed in small roles, but a full-blown actress with imagination and mannerisms of her own. Her professional debut as a wizened 14-year-old farm girl in an off-Broadway play called Artichoke earned her raves that have been echoed ever since. One critic called her "charming," while another said, "She quivers, her voice is a nasal squeak, her stare is glittery and hypnotic, and her upper lip moves in perpetual rumination." That performance even earned her the honor of being singled out for attack by critic John Simon, who said she was like "Shirley Temple doing Boris Karloff." Plummer broke into movies as the star of the offbeat western Cattle Annie and Little Britches, which prompted Pauline Kael to write, "The only other actress I've ever seen make a movie debut this excitingly, weirdly lyric was Katharine Hepburn."
Dorothy Parker once said of Katharine Hepburn, "She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B," and one could similarly characterize the range of roles Amanda Plummer has thus far essayed. There was Vera, the high-strung teenage orphan in A Month in the Country; Frankie, the teenage ugly duckling in The Member of the Wedding; Jo, the pregnant teenager abandoned by her mother in A Taste of Honey; Ellen James, the teenage orphan who has her tongue cut out by rapists in the movie The World According to Garp. Get the picture? If it were anyone else playing such an unbroken succession of orphans and eccentrics, the world would be sick and tired of her. They would be clamoring for Boris Karloff to eat this pathetic little Shirley Temple.
But Amanda Plummer is no doe-eyed simp, no professional victim. She's, how you say, special. She won a Tony Award on Broadway for Agnes of God, a poor play but one that she made riveting with her performance as an emotionally disturbed nun who kills her baby.
Possibly her most spectacular performance yet is in Sidney Lumet's new movie, Daniel, in which she and Timothy Hutton play characters based on the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Before our eyes, she degenerates from an Ivy League revolutionary proud of her police-inflicted battle scars to an institutionalized Thorazine receptacle, burned up by her own anger, her past, her sense of social injustice. Plummer acts — no, lays herself bare — with an animalistic intensity, an alien vitality that's enough to make anyone wonder, "Where is this girl coming from?"
Technically speaking, Amanda Plummer came from the brief marriage of two flamboyant actors, Tammy Grimes and Christopher Plummer. To some people, that explains everything. Hamlet meets the Unsinkable Molly Brown. No wonder their daughter is funny and flighty, grave and giggly, solemn and spooky: It's all in the genes. Or is it? It's true that Amanda inherited her father's aquiline profile along with his last name, and that she has her mother's eccentric voice; she chews her vowels and swallows her consonants in a high-pitched, squawky slur. But there's more to Amanda Plummer: Anyone who's seen her perform can tell she's got a whole secret life going on inside her head. And no matter what kind of frail creature she's playing, her secret makes her strong.
But the secretiveness that makes her so provocative onstage can make her appear spacey in real life. Plummer shows up for an interview looking like something from Loon Lake, barefoot and bedraggled, with a boy she met on the beach whose name she can't remember. "This is … I forget your name," she says to the sullen youth, who sticks out his paw and mumbles, "Matt." Plummer is wearing her bathing suit under what looks like a rumpled nightgown. Her short, reddish-brown hair is tucked into a purple headband. She's carrying a pair of baby-blue shoes, and she tows her handbag along the ground like a bobsled.
"How you doon?" she says, tilting her head to one side like a nervous crow and crooning in a voice eerily reminiscent of beatnik girls and diehard Method actors. Al Pacino meets Rickie Lee Jones. In the car, she runs her toes through the plush carpeting and talks about her cat, Isadora, who tore up the apartment she was staying in, forcing her to move. When we get to the restaurant she's chosen for lunch, she lags behind, humming to herself and dragging her feet like a bored child. Where is this girl coming from?
Although she's 26, you'd never accuse Amanda Plummer of being adult. She giggles and gets ahead of herself when she speaks, babbles and backtracks. Ask her a question, and sometimes she goes so far into herself looking for an answer, a word, a feeling, that you wonder if she'll ever come back. And then, sometimes, a surprisingly sophisticated response will come off the top of her head. When she's not tuned in to another planet, she seems so defenseless that, as one person after another will testify, you just want to throw your arms around her. Meet Amanda Plummer, space puppy.
"Because you are an actor's daughter or son, it's assumed that you're terribly unhappy because they were working and not around," she says. "But I had a fascinating childhood."We're sitting in Fairfield's, a suburban San Diego bar and grill with loud cha-cha Muzak, where actors from the nearby La Jolla Playhouse repair after the show to discuss how well the audience performed that night. Plummer orders cheesecake for lunch, between Cokes and cigarettes. She has the day off from rehearsing the lead in Romeo and Juliet, a part she's craved since she was nine.
"My parents stuffed me with poetry and music and beauty," she continues. "Mum … Mum's great lady. And Dad, who didn't spend much time with me when I was growing up. The way I saw him was on stage and screen." She doesn't mean it to sound so pitiful. "It's not a sob story, that's just the way it was. I love my father so fuckin' much. I don't know what to do with all the love I have for him. We get together now, and we have a great time."
That doesn't mean she wasn't a weird kid. Left alone with her mother when her father asked for a divorce, left alone with nannies when her mother went on tour, left alone with her imagination when nannies came and went, she retreated into her own private world.
"I was a morbid child, obsessed with blood and darkness," Plummer says pleasantly, like some Victorian great-aunt recalling a favorite niece. "I didn't like being Amanda Plummer. I never liked being Amanda Plummer, not since I was so big," she says, nibbling cheesecake while a chintzy version of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" blares from the bar. "I was always being characters, ever since I was in first grade. I would make up a character that would last a whole year, and I would go to school as him or her or it. I had some that were its. When I was a kid, it was easier to be animals. The psychology wasn't quite there — it was more like kill or be eaten. You know, stalk, fight, play. Being an animal had its hierarchy, too. The highest was a cheetah. She's the sleekest, and she can run the fastest. When I was feeling my best, then I was worthy to be a cheetah. Lions were for when I was very lazy. After I ate, I usually was a lion."
She pushes her plate aside and lights a Parliament. "But as I got older, it got into boy stuff," she says. "First, I started with people in movies, like To Kill a Mockingbird. I saw that when I was 13. I was Jem — Jem Finch. You know, Gregory Peck's character's son. And my girlfriend Leslie was Scout. We would go to school as these people and think and act and walk like them. Then I started inventing my own characters and keeping diaries of the people I was. I still have some of them, and they're really weird."
Plummer laughs all of a sudden, and her low, lusty chuckle comes as a shock. You forget she's a 26-year-old woman who's been around the block a couple of times. It must be because she's so skinny and wide-eyed and so, ah, in touch with her childhood fantasies. "When I was 15, I hadda be somebody I hated, 'cause I really hated myself at 15," she continues. "I hadda be Asenath Baleland. Asenath was awful, and she wrote tiny. She wrote, you know, that tiny little perfect kind of writing, flowery and … oh, she was a pain in the ass." She sighs. "But — I had to be her. You know that time when you're going through sexual realizations, and they're not that comfortable? She embodied that totally. Characters that I would be were what I was going through a lot of times."
She puffs on her cigarette. "I don't really know how to explain it," she says in her baby voice, stubbing out the butt. "See, I wanted to belong in a boy's world vary badly, ever since I was a kid. I loved playing with boys. I was considered a different kind of girl because they could talk to me and fight with me on their level. But on a girl level, I was so introverted, I'd race through the halls. I had crushes all the time, but I was too shy. Then I found a happy medium— that I am a boy and I am a girl. You're everything, so it's okay. Asenath eventually passed, and I worked my way up to Thomason Harboard, boy-girl."
Boy-girl in what way? "She was very free, she was a free person," Plummer says, as if she's talking about a sister or a cousin instead of an imaginary version of herself. "I was a slob, and I didn't wear colors. I wore brown and black, or dark blue. Yeah, it was sort of mystical. I was very interested in going back and forth in time. And the body was always something that kept me confined. Amberstwyth was, like, the ultimate leaving of the body."
Uh, Amberstwyth? "She could fly! She was the rain, she was the sky, she was anything she wanted to be. That was the hardest one. I failed all the time, and I went into a depression because of it. When I couldn't be her, all of a sudden I had to be Amanda, 'cause she was the highest of highs, and I couldn't go backward. It was the height of my wanting to leave this time. I'd do things to kind of click me out of time so that I'd end up somewhere else. I would brush my teeth, wash my face, go to the bathroom all in different orders every morning. If I caught the right order on the right day, I would disappear. This is serious. This is weird!"She does that strange, throaty laugh again. "I was seventeen — rather old to be doing things like this," she says, "It's funny now; it wasn't funny at the time." No kidding. These characters sound cute and exotic — definitely not girl-next-door-type stuff. But imagine how lonely it must be to tour the ozone by yourself, and how painful to return to earth. "When I was in high school, I was goin' through a very unhappy time. I was depressed. Most kids are, aren't they? An' 'I'd go, 'What am I gonna do with my life?'" Plummer reaches for another cigarette. "It was hard, because I didn't know what to do. I didn't have friends, except for Leslie. And I had a very hard time in the world. I still do. I'm working now, so I have someplace to put it all. Then I didn't. I'd go home and go into crying fits because I saw a fur, a mink coat in a window. I couldn't stand killing animals. I would follow women who wore leopard-skin coats down the streets. I would follow them and swear at them. They'd walk faster and faster, I'd walk faster and faster. It was, like, crazy, you know? I couldn't deal with it. Everyone seemed murderous to me. I think I identified a great deal with animals. I felt very victimized."
Gust of cigarette smoke. "It's complicated stuff. I just got very unhappy. I didn't know what to do. How am I gonna live? Can I live? Can I live in this world? How can I be a part of this world? Do I wanna be a part of this world?"
Things got really bad during her senior year in high school. She skipped school for a whole month. She refused to answer the telephone. She tried her damnedest to click herself out of time, to be Amberstwyth, the highest of highs. She was on the verge of flipping out. She couldn't contain her sensitivity and imagination any longer. She had to find a way to let it all out before it destroyed her. She couldn't be Asenath or Thomason or the rain or the sky anymore. She had to be herself. She had to be an actor. She went to Middlebury College in Vermont and tried out for plays. Wouldn't you know it? The first part she got was the one for which her mother won a Tony Award— the character in Noel Coward's Private Lives that she had been named after. Finally, for the first time, she was Amanda.
Where was this girl coming from?
Born in a trunk isn't far wrong. her first home was on Bank Street in Greenwich Village, actually, but she was barely out of diapers before she was already appearing on Broadway as the baby in the boat in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, the long-running musical that made Tammy Grimes a star. And she played nonspeaking roles on tour with her mother in Finian's Rainbow and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. She grew up fast.
"Backstage isn't a child's world," says Grimes over the phone in her trademark brandy-for-breakfast whisper. "You have to be quiet and professional, and everyone has a job. A mother can't be a mother, because you've got this work to do. A child is an outsider, a guest."
Grimes tries not to sound defensive about being a working mother with divided attentions. When she had Amanda, she was only 23, a shy girl from a rich Boston family and shocked at sudden stardom and equally swift parenthood. So don't think ill of her for bringing up baby Amanda as an outsider in that quiet world halfway between art and life. Sitting on the sidelines in darkened theaters taught the child about silence and observation. Watching her mother plan her days around those three hours onstage each night taught her about discipline and instilled in her the routine of performance. You have to be worthy of the role, whether you're Molly Brown or Amanda.
Or a cheetah. Did Amanda ever discuss the characters she invented? "There were signs," says Grimes. "There was a whole world going on in her room. All over the wall were directions, like 'Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins won't be home for tea' or 'Go to the North Pole and turn right.' I never asked. A kid has lots of secrets."
In fact, Amanda's desire to act came as a surprise. As a child, she was so obsessed with animals, especially horses (she spent every summer in riding camps), that it was assumed she would be a veterinarian or a jockey. "She was a beautiful writer, though," her mother recalls. She reads Amanda's inscription on a book called Poems That Have Missed Their Mark, which Amanda gave her for Christmas years ago: "I hope I've rid myself of improvised crap — onward to preciseness."
Grimes begins to read from her daughter's own poetry — romantic verses surprisingly dense with Shakespearean imagery for a 10-year-old— and she becomes increasingly emotional. "I had the strength for my work and for her," the actress confesses, breaking off her recitation. "Because I could never get a marriage to work, she's the most important emotional relationship I have." She returns to the book of the poems, reading only snatches now. "Please, Mommy, never be sorry that you miss me so. ... My mother's beautiful eyes. ... I love you so. ... My mother. ..."
Grimes begins to weep softly. "Sorry." Sniffling. "Guess I'm not sorry." This must be what it's like to have an actress for a mother. She's forgotten who she's talking to. "Now your weepy mother is gonna sign off, Amanda. I miss you."
"I never wanted to go into the theater," Amanda Plummer says. "I never even liked actors. They seemed to be very loud and very theatrical, and I didn't believe anything they said. Give an actor a drink and. ..." She giggles. "I thought they were all liars."After lunch, Plummer says she needs to pick up some things at the drugstore, so we walk across the parking lot to the shopping mall. She's still barefoot. She likes the feel of the hot pavement. "George C. Scott was real, I liked him," she reminisces. "He wasn't ever patronizing to a child. Beatrice Lillie spent a lot of time with me. She loved to play with balloons, letting them go. And Gregory Peck! I met him one time in his swimming trunks. He put me on his back and dove into the pool and played whale with me. I was just a little girl, but" — she leans in close and speaks in a low, gruff voice — "I was aware of what was in his swimming trunks!" She laughs and runs off to buy Tampax and Clearasil. Watching this strange bird tiptoe across the cold floor of the drugstore, singing to herself and rummaging through her purse, where 20- and 50-dollar bills are flying around loose, I wonder what Freud would have to say about Amanda Plummer. That she refused to be a Plummer when she was growing up because she was mad at her daddy for leaving her? That she resisted her natural calling for years because she resented her mother's lifestyle and profession? Actors can be amazingly blatant about the emotional needs that drive them to exhibit themselves in front of an audience. And the way Plummer talks about roles she's played betrays a transparent identification with the characters.
"Romeo and Juliet taps into the most insecure part of me — to actually be loved, to open yourself up that much! I mean, I'm not loved onstage. I'm usually abandoned or tortured. You become very strong and decide, 'I don't need anybody.' But you have to accept people. That's what happened with Jo in A Taste of Honey. She had to breathe in a little and understand and accept her mother."
But great acting defies analysis; Freudian or otherwise. Whatever the secret ingredient is that makes acting more than an imitation of life, whatever it is that translates childhood bruises into universal truth, Amanda Plummer's got it. Wherever this girl is coming from, I can't wait to see where she's going.
The next day, Plummer is rehearsing a soliloquy from Romeo and Juliet. The rest of the cast has gone home, and she's working alone with director Des McAnuff, a young playwright and rock musician who is also one of the most talented directors in America. It's an indication of Plummer's canny instincts that she turned down an offer to play Juliet on Broadway in order to try out the role at the brand-new theater in La Jolla, where McAnuff is the artistic director.
"She's phenomenal," McAnuff whispers in my ear, like a man who's won the lottery and doesn't want anyone to hit him up for a loan. "She's the most emotionally free actor I've ever worked with. She seems so young — you believe that her Juliet is 14 — yet she's also very practical and direct. There's so much emotion there!" He shrugs. "She just blows me away."
The speech they're working on is the one that begins, "Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds…." Juliet is waiting for the night to fall so her newlywed Romeo can show her what's in his swimming trunks. Plummer does the speech four or five times, stopping and starting, correcting herself, toying with inflections, giving completely different line readings, not discarding them because they're wrong but moving through them, trying them on for size. From her fantasies as a child, she's apparently learned to be completely oblivious to the reality around her, so she really seems to be talking to herself yet at the same time extravagantly physicalizing her inner thoughts.
"With Amanda, it goes past acting. It comes from some secret place beyond being an actor," says Daniel director Sidney Lumet, who compares Plummer to the young Marlon Brando. "She's got a wellspring of talent that's unfathomable." He speaks of his favorite moment of Plummer's performance in the movie — the scene in the hospital where she tells Timothy Hutton, "I feel like something's torn…" and then, her eyes flashing, mind drifting, she forgets who she is or what she's saying. In that instant of falling apart, she embodies everything the movie means to convey about the burden of heredity and the price of political idealism. Says Lumet, "You don't get acting any better than that."
Other directors and stars who have worked with Plummer offer similarly high praise, but she is not so easily pleased. Much as she liked working with the director and cast of Daniel, she isn't satisfied with her performance. "I think I overacted, damn it," she grumbles. "It seemed all right at the time."
Even some of her admirers object to Plummer's work in Daniel — they've had enough of her wounded-creature act. A Vogue editor hisses, "I wish she'd play someone healthy." A well-known director feels the same way about her decision to play Laura, the crippled young dreamer, in the upcoming Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie: "You could call her up at four in the morning and she could do that part."
Plummer knows she needs a change of pace. That's exactly why, when Daniel debuts before American moviegoers, she'll be treading the boards in Southern California as Shakespeare's Juliet. A 14-year-old suicide, it's true, but for once, a lover. "Yeah," she says. "It's about time. I've been 'waifish' long enough. I'm lucky not to have a conventional face or a conventionally beautiful body, because the kind of roles I get are the most fascinating of any roles. But I'm dying to do the girl next door."
She peers up through her spiky hair with a crooked grin.
"I could make the girl next door pretty interesting."