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Michael Hoffman Talks About Casting Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren in ‘The Last Station’

Neither Christopher Plummer, 80, nor Helen Mirren, 64, the stars of Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station, took home Oscars from last Sunday’s awards ceremony. But as far as Hoffman is concerned, their work remains indispensable, the key to breathing the intensity of life into his screenplay, adapted from Jay Parini’s 1990 novel, about the last days of Leo Tolstoy.

Plummer, recognized by the Academy for the first time in a remarkable career spanning more than five decades, secured a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his portrayal of the celebrated author-philosopher as a warm-hearted but conflicted cultural icon. Tolstoy was one of the foremost celebrities of his day, regarded, both to his amusement and annoyance, as a sort of omniscient sage in his native Russia.

In the movie, Mirren, a Best Actress winner for her performance as the self-contained Elizabeth II in The Queen (2007), earned her fourth Oscar nomination playing a very different role: Sofya, Tolstoy’s explosive, sometimes paranoid wife. Together, they are a most combustible yet compatible couple. (She was, after all, the mother of Tolstoy's 13 children.) But forces, embodied by Paul Giamatti as the author’s friend and fawning publicist, conspire to keep them apart.

“It’s such an extraordinary event – the biggest media celebrity and most famous author in the world wakes up in the middle of the night, when he’s 82 years old, and runs away from home.Then his wife gets on a train and follows him across Russia,” says Hoffman, who first read Parini’s historically inspired fiction 19 years ago. “You should be able to make a movie about a story like that.”

Hoffman admits it took him until 2004 to figure out how to turn Parini’s story, which is told from a variety of perspectives, into cinema, and says being married himself gave him insights into Leo and Sofya’s struggles. Soon enough, after directing Out of the Blue, a documentary about the Boise State University football team, he was ready to find the actors to play the tempestuous lovers.

“I wasn’t looking for naturalism in the performances,” says Hoffman, 53, who originally lined up Anthony Hopkins and Meryl Streep for the project before his financing fell through. “I wanted to commit to the spirit of the story, the extremity of the emotion. This is a tragicomedy about marriage. Some people might not appreciate its sense of humor, but that’s the same approach I’d take if I were directing The Cherry Orchard or Uncle Vanya.

“I could not be more grateful for Chris and Helen’s participation. Now, I couldn’t watch the movie and imagine it starring anyone but them.”

Hoffman wasn’t happy to lose Streep, whom he has considered the greatest living actress since 1978’s The Deer Hunter, but he never thought of it as a fatal setback.

“In terms of box-office appeal, Helen is just as big in Europe as Meryl, so that aspect of it didn’t bother me,” he says. “But Helen’s sexuality, and the sexual tension between her and Christopher, is incredible. I’d never approached the movie as a romantic comedy before, but watching their chemistry made it so obvious it should be.”

“She’s a bit younger than Chris, but the passions they provoke in each other fuel the movie. And one of the things that I loved about Chris, besides the fact he’s a phenomenal actor, is that he’s 80, playing Tolstoy when he was 82. I didn’t want to put a 50-year-old actor in makeup. I got a sense of authenticity from Chris, and from Helen, that gives the movie the kind of power Tolstoy’s story deserves.”

The Last Station is playing now at the Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco and the Albany Twin in Albany.