A chat with Jim Broadbent, Jim Broadbent interview, Another Year, Topsy-Turvy, Moulin Rouge
Tony Cox

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Though he's an Oscar winner with over 118 film and television credits, don't be too alarmed if you don't instantly recognize Jim Broadbent's name. If you ever see movies where people speak in English accents, you know his work.

Broadbent won his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the 2001 biographical drama, "Iris," opposite Judi Dench, but he was seen by far more viewers that year as flamboyant MC/manager Harold Zidler in Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge!" Before that, Broadbent made a gigantic splash as the authoritative dramaturge and master of silly wordplay, W.S. Gilbert, in Mike Leigh's 1998 historical back-stage musical, "Topsy-Turvy." He was also widely seen as Bridget Jones' dad opposite Renee Zellweger, and in his 1990 breakthrough role in Leigh's "Life is Sweet."

More recently, Broadbent has been England's King William in "The Young Victoria," Hogwarts prof/magical starf*cker Horace Slughorn, and the untrustworthy Inspector Frank Butterman of "Hot Fuzz." He also pulled off an Alec Guinness-like acting coup in the TV film, "Longford," where he almost completely transformed his appearance to play 1970s anti-death penalty campaigner Lord Longford. In addition, Broadbent was the powerful former Leeds United coach, Sam Longson, in the hugely entertaining "The Damned United." That film, like "Longford," was written by Peter Morgan ("Frost/Nixon," "The Queen") and directed by Tom Hooper ("The King's Speech"). Broadbent was also political strongman Boss Tweed in Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York."

The very busy Broadbent is back again in the latest drama from Mike Leigh, "Another Year." This time he's Tom, the happily married engineer husband of Geri (Ruth Sheen), who over the course of a year's worth of social events must deal with a number of problematic friends and relations, including a needy and depressed alcoholic played brilliantly by the already award-winning Lesley Manville. He'll shortly be portraying yet another historical figure, Tory Prime Ministerial husband Dennis Thatcher, in "The Iron Lady," a biopic about the game-changing Conservative Party P.M., Margaret Thatcher. It will be Broadbent's first film with Meryl Streep, who'll be taking on the title role.

I met with Broadbent in the middle of the "Another Year" junket. Affable and friendly, but perhaps also a bit shy, Broadbent is no chatterbox. He answers questions slowly and deliberately, but with the precision of a man who, as I learned, has also been a writer as well as one of the most accomplished actors around.

Bullz-Eye: We'll start out talking about "Another Year." Lesley Manville is probably going to get more attention than anybody on this movie, partly because everybody is fairly certain that she's nothing like that her character. There's this idea out there that it's somehow easier to play someone who's more "normal" and who people might assume is therefore closer to the actual personality of the actor.

"I enjoy investigating real people because it gives you such a lot of information. You can see the real person, how they talk and how they walk. It's a shame not to use that and get into it. In many cases, doing those sorts of jobs, you can actually come up with a more interesting character than a fictional character who's just completely come from the writer's imagination. You can never quite come up with anything as original as a real person who's had a long life to create all their foibles and quirks."

Jim Broadbent: The last time I was doing a lot of [interviews] over here was the Oscars and Golden Globes for "Iris." I think the reason I did particularly well in that season was that "Iris" and "Moulin Rouge!" were out together. So, then you could see, "Oh, one of those must be acting." At least one of those performances, which are very different, one of them's got to be acting. So, it's not just somebody being themselves. Lesley's doing a character who is clearly not herself, or she wouldn't be able to hold down a job. Sometimes when you can tell that something more obvious is going on, it's bound to attract attention.

BE: We'll get back to "Another Year," but about the roles you've gotten the most attention for, "Iris" was not that radical of a role, but I think people just felt a lot of compassion for your character [John Bayley, devoted husband of Alzheimer's afflicted writer Iris Murdoch].

JB: He was considerably older than me, so there's an aging aspect. It was ten years ago now and I'm probably still too young to play it.

BE: Another one would be"Longworth"...

JB: "Longford."

BE: "Longford," sorry. I mixed it up with "Bullworth" and put them together. You did a pretty astonishing physical transformation there, to the point where during filming someone mistook you for [Lord Longford], even though he'd been dead for several years. Do you think the fact that you talked differently, you looked very different -- that obviously seems to generate more buzz and more awards.

Jim BroadbentJB: Maybe, but I enjoy getting into that as well. I enjoy investigating real people because it gives you such a lot of information. You can see the real person, how they talk and how they walk. It's a shame not to use that and get into it. In many cases, doing those sorts of jobs, you can actually come up with a more interesting character than a fictional character who's just completely come from the writer's imagination. You can never quite come up with anything as original as a real person who's had a long life to create all their foibles and quirks. Certainly with Mike Leigh, that's what you try and get. You're going for that.

BE: You basically write up a whole biography.

JB: But it depends on the job. Something like "Moulin Rouge!," you're not expected to do that. It's a different requirement.

BE: You were just saying elsewhere that you didn't do a lot of research for "Hot Fuzz," either.

JB: It wasn't a requirement for that one, either. One of the first things you have do is recognize what sort of film you're in. [Chuckling]

BE: Right. But it is interesting. You've played a lot of authority figures. I was trying to get a hold of it, and, unfortunately, it's impossible to find "Topsy-Turvy" anywhere right now in the States...

JB: Really? Last year [cinematographer] Dick Pope came over and did a whole restoration.

BE: They've probably pulled everything to re-release it. [Note: I was right. Criterion will be releasing a deluxe new edition on Blu-Ray and DVD next March.] But I did see one of the scenes online where you're rehearsing for "The Mikado" with the Japanese ladies.

JB: Oh, yeah.

BE: You just project that this is a very successful man who's completely in his element. Again, the character in "Moulin Rouge!," "Hot Fuzz"...

JB: William the 4th? Did you see "Young Victoria"?

BE: I actually missed that one.

JB: That was only two days. Obviously, he has to die so Victoria can become [queen]. That was nice being king. That was the first time I've been king.

BE: [Laughs] One of the other things I've learned about you is that you like to work from the outside in, which is a fascinating thing to me about actors. There seem to be roughly two schools, the inside-outers and the outside-inners.

JB: I never put it in those terms. I don't know.

BE: I didn't listen to the entire DVD commentary [for "Longford"] but Tom Hooper actually said that.

JB: Did he? I never look at those. I mean, that's fine. I'm sure he's right. If you get the physical and vocal characteristics right, then what created those characteristics falls into place. So, then you do get the psychology of the man from getting those external tics.

BE: So, on "Moulin Rouge!" I imagine wearing the costume, or the policeman's uniform in "Hot Fuzz"...

On "Topsy-Turvy": "I think you’re going to see such a change in everybody in this season. The stakes are much higher. Jesse goes through a huge change throughout season three. He kind of accepts who he is and maybe he accepts he’s not really that good of a person. It’s very sad. This season is really intense. It’s much darker, if that’s possible."

JB: Yes. On these jobs you're choosing the costume at the same time with the director. Actually, in "Moulin Rouge!" Baz Luhrmann and his wife, [production designer] Catherine Martin, they had a very strong image of what they wanted before we started. But, yes, I suppose. A lot of that came from the fact that he has to dance and sing and run around wearing a red coat and a lot of padding and riding britches.

BE: It sort of makes you feel like the guy.

JB: Yeah, absolutely.

BE: Now, getting back to "Another Year." This movie is almost too true-to-life and it just reminded me a lot of family things I've been to and so forth. And I kept wondering what your character, Tom, made of Mary, [the aforementioned depressed alcoholic played by Lesley Manville]. Can you tell us?

JB: He's quite fond of Mary, but he hasn't really got a great deal of time for her. She's Geri's friend and that's the main thing that's important in his life, that Geri's happy. He would never say -- or he might say but he wouldn't make an issue of it. He might say, "Does Mary have to come today? I'm not really in the mood." But if Geri said [Mary should come] he'd say, "'alright, yeah." He's got a dry sense of humor and Mary has no sense of humor, she hasn't got an ironic bone in her body. He gets a certain amount of cheeky pleasure by teasing her and knowing that she won't understand that she's being teased, so he can make sarcastic comments that go straight over her head. Very often, he will absent himself and go upstairs and work and leave Geri to entertain her. He bears with her, really.

BE: And, of course, he's got his own friend [the slovenly Ken, played by Peter Wight] who's maybe not quite as difficult, but...

Jim BroadbentJB: Maybe even more difficult, but doesn't come around every season. It's not a trade-off exactly, but that's how they both work.

BE: So this is you're fourth or fifth movie with Mike Leigh?

JB: First was "Life is Sweet," "Vera Drake" I had a little bit of a role, "Topsy-Turvy," this one, and the one that I wrote, "A Sense of History." Did you see that?

BE: No, tell me about it. You wrote it?

JB: I wrote it. It's a mock-documentary.

BE: I missed that entirely researching this. When did that come out?

JB: '92, I think.

BE: So, it's a mock documentary.

JB: It was on in the States. It was in the New York Film Festival. It got me "Moulin Rouge" and "Gangs of New York."

BE: I will look it up.

JB: It is traceable on the Internet, but you might have to look at it in sections.

[The comedy short subject, the only time Mike Leigh has directed a film entirely written by someone else, will be viewable on that upcoming "Topsy-Turvy" Blu-Ray/DVD from Criterion. However, my attempts to find it on the 'net came to naught.]

BE: And have you written anything else?

JB: I have. A couple of other short films, but I'm not really a writer. I have written another feature length film. I think it's too off-the-wall for people to do but I might return to it. I'm not really a writer and I don't have a writer's discipline. ["A Sense of History"] was finding a character in a Mike Leigh way, but on my own. Improvising on that character until I had a full script. It's about a psychopathic earl wandering around his estate telling his terrible story to the camera. You haven't seen "Downton Abbey" yet, have you?

BE: No, I haven't.

JB: I'm not in it. It's a new costume drama in a sort of "Upstairs/Downstairs" pre 1st World War vein,  written by Julian Fellowes who wrote "Gosford Park." They use the same house we used for "A Sense of History." So, I see "Downton Abbey" and I keep slipping into the Dastardly Earl of Leete. So, that was the fifth, yes.

BE: [Laughing] I forgot why I asked the question.

JB: Five films with Mike Leigh.

BE: "Topsy-Turvy" just fascinates because I'm a sucker for musicals, and it's easily my favorite Mike Leigh film, probably for that reason.

JB: It's my favorite of all my films, I think.

BE: It was a fantastic part for you. I've always wondered about it, though. We all know the way Mike Leigh works. He enlists the actors as essentially co-writers. On that film it seemed as if the task was all the more greater because you're doing period and you're basing it on real people.

JB: We had all the facts. As many facts as we had at our disposal, we got. We were faithful to absolutely everything we knew. The rest we had to fit in around being true to those known elements. 99 percent of it is fiction, but being very close to all the known facts. When it was on, who was in the cast, and what the stories were. What they actually said in meetings between Gilbert & Sullivan and [theatrical impresario Richard] D'Oyly Carte -- there are lots of very educated guesses going on.

BE: Right.

Jim BroadbentJB: We worked on the characters in a similar way, except we knew what we were leading towards. It's still building up the character and getting the voice, the manner, the tempo, and the whole rhythm of the man and then improvising and distilling tightly written scenes from the improvisation. In a way, Mike had even more to do with the writing than normal. After an improvisation, where we'd be doing it in character as much as possible, we wouldn't be naturally speaking in a 19th century vernacular. So, we'd have to then go through and make sure that what we said didn't have anachronisms or too many "yeahs" or "you knows" or whatever, and make it as accurate as what we thought 19th century speech was. Mike was hugely influential on that. In a way, more writing went on in that. I say "writing" but there was nothing ever written down. You had to be so careful about the language.

BE: Right.

JB: I got one thing wrong. I said "If you want to go and work with Mr. Ibsen in Oslo, I'm sure he'd be delighted..." Somebody at Cannes said [doing a very funny Norwegian accent], "Mr. Leigh, can I just point out that Oslo didn't exist [in 1885]...It was Port Christiania."

BE: I just found out about this, but I think it's fascinating. You're going to be playing Dennis Thatcher opposite Meryl Streep in ["The Iron Lady"]. You didn't say who was writing it. It sounds like a Peter Morgan project, though.

JB: It's an Abi Morgan project, in fact.

BE: Is she any relation?

JB: No relation. Another family of Morgans.

BE: I know it's early, but can you tell us a little about this film?

JB: It'll be filmed around London. It'll be [Margaret Thatcher] in her late years but flashing back to her youth in Grantham with her father. It'll be some form of biopic, I suppose, really. But, there is another element. As I say, I just got the new draft so I don't know which way it's gone yet.

BE: And you just met Meryl Streep for the first time. That must be pretty exciting.

JB: Very exciting, yeah. There's only so many of those experiences in a life, that's great.

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