The story, adapted from Jay Parini's novel of the same name, concerns Tolstoy's late-in-life decision to follow his own precepts and give away all his worldly possessions to his beloved peasants, much to the dismay of his wife Sofya (played by Helen Mirren) and the delight of his foremost disciple, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti). The Machiavellian Chertkov then hires the very nervous and decidedly naïve Valentin Bulkagov (James McAvoy) to perform double-duty as his personal spy and Tolstoy's assistant.
It may sound like fiction, but it's the absolute truth. "All of this is very well documented because all of these people kept diaries," says Hoffman, who began working on the project back in 2004. "In fact, Tolstoy kept three diaries: a public one, a faux-private one, and a truly secret one!"
For Plummer, taking on the role of Tolstoy was an easy decision. "I jumped at the chance to do it," he says. "I have a history of playing real-life figures, such as Rudyard Kipling and the Duke of Wellington. I've discovered if they put enough make-up on you, it does the work for you."
Giamatti was equally thrilled to take on his role in the film, even if he may be considered the villain of the piece. "If there's a bad guy in the film, Chertkov's the bad guy, but in theory he's motivated by good things. He believes in what he's doing; he just uses questionable methods," says the Emmy Award-winning star. "He's an ambiguous character and it's that ambiguity that I like to play."
McAvoy, who's been acclaimed for his work on the London stage as well as in films such as Atonement, notes how much fun there was both on the set as well as in the seemingly serious script. "It was a wee bit different from what I was expecting," he says in his delightful Scottish burr. "I was surprised at how much comedy there actually was. I was waiting for the rubber chicken and the sliding on a banana skin -- and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't pushing for them."
He may not have done any sliding, but McAvoy did an awful lot of sneezing on the screen. "It might be because it's Russian and all, but Bulgakov actually did sneeze when he was nervous," he notes. "Now in most films, if you are supposed to play nervous, the director usually says, 'just look straight ahead and we'll play some nervous-sounding music around you.' But Michael had me sneezing all over the place! It was about filling the room with how you feel."
The actor's wife, British stage star Anne-Marie Duff, also appears in the film as Tolstoy's daughter Sasha. "My friend Laura Kennedy, who's the head of casting for Warner Brothers, originally suggested James for the film, and since I had only seen him in The Last King of Scotland, she also showed me a tape of a very popular British television show called Shameless that he was in," recalls Hoffman. "We were also looking for actresses, and when I saw Anne-Marie onscreen I thought she'd be great as Sasha, so I told Laura that I wanted to meet her. And she says 'Well, you probably will since she's married to James!'"