In Lean on Pete, 15-year-old Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer) and his father Ray (Travis Fimmel) arrive in Portland for a fresh start. While Ray spirals into personal issues, Charley lands a job at a local racetrack under the watchful eye of no-nonsense owner Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi).
Charley is tasked with caring for an ageing Quarter Horse called Lean on Pete, and they develop a close bond. When Charley finds out that Lean on Pete is bound for slaughter, he goes to extreme measures to save the horse’s life.
As Charley and Pete embark on a journey across America in search of Charley’s aunt, they experience adventure and heartbreak, but never lose hope as they try to find a home.
Lean on Pete was written and directed by Andrew Haigh (45 Years, Weekend), and premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, where Charlie was awarded the Marcello Mastroianni Award for best emerging actor.
Charlie began his career as a child actor. “I started acting professionally when I was about 11, but I started doing it in community theatre and at school when I was about 10. There was always a sense of playfulness for me, that’s really why I fell in love with it. Theatre especially is so playful – it’s all about connecting with other people, and being in that space was just so wonderful.”
After trying his hand at a few school plays, Charlie started to think more seriously about acting as a career. “As soon as I dedicated a lot of time to it, I became very driven and I wanted to give it everything I had. I’ve been steadily working at it for a while, and just more recently I’ve had more success. I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t enjoy it, and if I didn’t really feel fulfilled by doing it, and I think that reflects in the actors that I really admire. My favourite actor is Mark Rylance, I think he does a tremendous job at displaying that playfulness of acting; even if it’s a particularly intense performance, you can still sense that enjoyment that he has.”
Despite having an actress for a mother [Maia Guest] and a writer for a father [John Christian Plummer], Charlie’s parents were initially against him becoming an actor. “They didn’t want me to do it, because they know how tough it can be, especially for a kid. Which is why I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for everyone, only those who are really passionate about it. My parents sensed how serious I was about it, so then they supported it, of course.”
Charlie was cast in Boardwalk Empire when he was 11 years old, and this is where he met Steve Buscemi for the first time. “I did an episode with Steve, and I was so happy when I found out he was going to be in Lean on Pete, because he’s such a lovely person. He’s such a compassionate human being, and I could see that when I was 11. I mean, at that point, most of the actors I knew were very intense and were just so much about struggling through the work. So, to see Steve come in and just be moment-to-moment, so generous and compassionate with every person, and then to see that reflected in his performance, was just remarkable. I was the first one cast in Lean on Pete, so when they offered the part to Steve they told him I was going to do it, and he immediately remembered me. I think that indicates the type of man he is, because I barely worked with him. He just cares so much about the human connection, and I really do believe that you can see that in his work. He’s such an enjoyable person to watch onstage or on screen, so that was really inspiring, to be in this film with him and to be around him.”
One of the reasons Charlie was so drawn to Lean on Pete is because he relates to the nomadic, unstable life of his character. “I had a very strange upbringing, in that I was always very close with my family, but I went to 10 or 11 different schools and lived in heaps of different cities. I’ve lived in NYC, upstate NY, LA, Salt Lake City Utah, and lots of other places too. I definitely related a lot to the character’s search for a home. I loved the character from reading the script, and that just grew when I read the book, because I got to understand his inner monologue. The character doesn’t speak much in the film, and the book [by Willie Vlautin] showed me what’s going on in his head.”
Charlie was so committed to playing the character in the film that after his audition, he wrote director Andrew Haigh a long letter explaining why he wanted the role. “I’ve read a lot of stories about actors writing letters to directors and I’ve always thought that’s kind of hammy, but I was just so passionate about the story and the character, and then also seeing Andrew’s previous work I was so excited by the idea of working with him. I remember, I auditioned for the film on Friday, and I couldn’t bear spending the weekend without doing everything I could to get the role. So, I wrote him this letter saying how much I connected with it and why it is such an important story, and why I would love to be associated with it.”
Thankfully, Andrew saw Charlie’s talent and dedication and gave him the role. It wasn’t all sunshine and daisies from there though, as Charlie tells us that playing his character was physically and emotionally exhausting. “It was so tiring, physically and emotionally. The whole experience was pretty difficult, especially towards the end of the film, as we shot pretty much n sequence. I wanted everything to come across as truthful as possible. I’m not a method actor, but I try to do my best to open myself to everything in my environment. In that regard, I just opened myself to everything I was actually going through. I’d just turned 17 and I was just getting the sense of becoming an adult and everything that comes with that, and also just lots of other things in my personal life. It was the first time I was away from both of my parents and my little brother, and my girlfriend for a really long-term, so that really got to me. I lost heaps of weight on the shoot – not intentionally. It was just the story, and I was just so tired and working very hard. The whole shoot was a very intense experience for me.”
Charlie seems to be making a name for himself as someone who can beautifully portray isolated and lonely characters. Prior to this role, he played kidnapping victim John Paul Getty III in All the Money in the World. “Lots of the characters I play are very isolated and lonely. There’s definitely parts of my life where I’ve felt the same way. I loved working on Paul Getty’s character. He had a very crazy, nomadic lifestyle – he was 16 and hanging out with The Rolling Stones, then suddenly he’s taken away from all that and is held in captivity for 5 months. He had all these horrible, violent things happen to him. That part really spoke to me as well, especially the relationship he had with his mother, and his specific and unusual upbringing.”
After shooting Lean on Pete, Charlie went straight into filming The Clovehitch Killer, in which he plays a young man who suspects his dad is a serial killer. “It’s a small, independent film set in Kentucky. I’m really excited about this one actually. Dylan McDermott plays my dad, and Samantha Mathis plays my mom. It’s really different, but I’m super excited about it.”
Like many actors, Charlie finds it challenging to jump straight from one role to another. “It’s challenging sometimes. It was quite hard for me to leave the character of [Lean on Pete’s] Charley behind. I was so exhausted, it was pretty challenging to work up the strength to be able to start something new. It depends on the project, really, but I don’t like to just sit around and do nothing. I always like to have something to do, and something to work on. But you also have to balance it out with the rest of your life and make sure that you have time for other things.”
In 2015, Charlie was almost cast in Spider-Man: Homecoming (the part was given to Tom Holland), and the young actor is the first to admit that his career would have taken on a completely different trajectory if he’d scored the role. Although he was heartbroken when he missed out, in retrospect, he is glad that he didn’t get it. “I think everything kind of happens for a reason, and I’m really happy with the people I’m working with right now. At the time, it was a really heartbreaking thing to not get that opportunity. It was down to me and a few other guys, and the whole thing was a really weird, crazy surreal experience. It feels like a long time ago. It was a different time for me. The reason I wanted that project and that part were for very different reasons than for why I want to be a part of projects now. It was important for me to go through and assess why I want to be making films, and why I want to be acting. At the time, I really wanted to play that part – I wanted to wear the costume and be in a movie that everyone saw – that was really appealing to me, but now that’s a lot less appealing. What’s exciting for me now is to be part of films that have a serious, sincere impact on people’s lives. And also, films that can reach people in a completely different way, and encourage them to be truthful in their lives rather than to just escape them.”
This perspective doesn’t mean that Charlie thinks he’s above superhero films. “I grew up a comic book fan – I loved Spider-Man and Batman. The Dark Knight is one of my favourite movies of all time. I love comic book films, but I think the focus should be on the characters and the story, not just on the spectacle or on pure escapism. I’d definitely consider being in a superhero film, but at this point in my life, I’d like to continue doing films like Lean on Pete and All the Money in the World. As long as it’s something that interests me, a character who is truthful, a director I admire, cast members I look up to, I’m all for it – and I don’t care if it’s film, TV or theatre.”
Lean on Pete is in cinemas November 29, 2018