Feb 18, 2024 - Culture

The Mount Vernon actor who brings Washington's world to life

Tom Plott, head of character interpretation at Mount Vernon, dressed in 18th century clothing (a blue wool suite and striped vest) as Dr. James Craik

Tom Plott in character as Washington's doctor and friend. Photo courtesy of Mount Vernon

You probably know Mount Vernon as George and Martha Washington's historic estate near Alexandria, but it's also one of the D.C. area's largest living stages.

Why it matters: A cast of six "historical interpretive actors" keeps 18th-century history alive through a nuanced form of acting that's part method, part improv, and all rooted in PhD-level research and accuracy.

The intrigue: One man runs the whole show (as well as playing two leading roles himself). Meet Tom Plott, Mount Vernon's "manager of character interpretation."

Zoom in: You'll often find the 59-year-old dressed in a dapper wool or linen suit as James Craik, Washington's longtime physician and best friend. Or as James Anderson, a prominent farm manager at Mount Vernon whose character guides tours of the grounds and heritage-breed animals.

  • They're both Scottsmen — an accent Plott keeps for eight hours a day. "Sometimes I maintain it for 12 hours, and my wife is very upset when I get home because I'm still speaking Scottish," the Alaska-born actor tells Axios.

Zoom out: As the head of character interpretation, Plott helps direct a cast that varies by season and programming — George and Martha, yes, but also Tobias Lear, George Washington's personal secretary, or Ona Judge, an enslaved woman who escaped to freedom from Mount Vernon.

  • "It can be anything from working on scripts to performing myself, giving walking tours, or talking to school groups," he says.
  • The research in the estate's library is never ending. "We're always discovering new things that are added in, which gives a more rounded performance."
Plott talking to a school group at Mount Vernon
Plott in action. Photo courtesy of Mount Vernon

Between the lines: Historical interpreters aren't the only actors to perform at Mount Vernon. Big Hollywood names like Denzel Washington have filmed at the Potomac River estate.

Driving the news: Plott will lead the hunt for a new big man on campus, George W. himself. The criteria sound arguably harder than running for president: An in-depth knowledge of Federalist-era America. Laser-sharp historical accuracy. And a master of 18th-century dialect and mannerisms.

  • "You need the knowledge and improvisational skills to talk off the cuff," says Plott. "It's one thing to go off the top of your head, it's another to do it in 18th century language."

As he embarks on his search, we caught up with Plott about the role of a lifetime.

How it started: Plott's a classically trained actor with a Shakespeare-heavy résumé. It was a natural progression that led to him playing roles as Leonardo da Vinci, John Wilkes Booth, and other historical figures. When a job opening came up at Mount Vernon, he jumped.

Work BFF: Aladdin the Christmas Camel, a local dromedary who plays one that Washington summoned in 1787 to entertain holiday guests. "Aladdin and I both started in 2008, and he was just a little fella then," says Plott. "He remembers and will nuzzle up to me. It's like having the biggest puppy in the world come visit."

Aladdin the Christmas Camel outside Mount Vernon with Tom Plott
Besties: Plott and Aladdin. Photo courtesy of Mount Vernon

Least favorite part of the job: Federalist footwear. Mount Vernon's costume department hand-makes period clothing, but when it comes to the shoes, "I will cheat," says Plott. "Being an old man, I'll put insoles in so I'm not just walking on flat pieces of leather."

Biggest presidential surprise: "George Washington was a farmer, first and foremost. Everybody knows him as a general and president. But this is a guy who was growing corn and wheat. He was selling flour. And at one point, he was the largest distiller of whiskey in the United States."

Most frequent question: "How did George Washington die?" Plott helped create a death-and-mourning tour for each anniversary of the president's sudden and painful death from a throat infection.

  • "It's an emotionally charged piece, to recount the death of your best friend, being unable to save him," he says.

Biggest challenge: Telling historical truths. "Everyone expects the perfect history — we've been taught for so long how perfect the first president is. But one of the big difficulties is that George Washington is like everyone else."

  • "He's had bad things that he's done in his life — great things and mediocre things. The trick for us is to include all of that truthfully and not biased, and to make sure the truth of George Washington is told."

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