Wednesday 22 November 2017

It's life Jim, but not as we know it...

His many fans imagine him to be chatty, but Jim Broadbent is actually rather reserved

Jim Broadbent and Michelle Dockery in 'A Sense of an Ending'
Jim Broadbent and Michelle Dockery in 'A Sense of an Ending'

Aine O'Connor

Everyone knows who Jim Broadbent is. Even people who think they don't know who Jim Broadbent is, know who Jim Broadbent is.

He's Bridget Jones's dad, Prof Horace Slughorn from Harry Potter, Pod from The Borrowers, Fr Flood from Brooklyn and a hundred other characters. Reaction to him is warm, "Oh, I'd say he's very chatty," being a popular perception. Among people who have interviewed him, however, there have been mutterings involving words like "lugubrious".

The truth lies somewhere in between. Chat show gold, no. Lugubrious, neither. He's quietly spoken, thoughtful, he chuckles softly and often, almost to himself, answers every question carefully but doesn't run with it into chat territory. And he is 6 foot 2in.

Broadbent is promoting The Sense of an Ending, Ritesh Batra's film adaptation of Julian Barnes's novel. It's a rich story with well-drawn characters, the main one being the one he plays, Tony Webster.

Sixty-something, long-divorced and a somewhat distant father who has been emotionally isolated for many years, he is bequeathed a diary which even in its absence (there is a Charlotte Rampling shaped obstacle to his receiving it) digs up history, regret, buried memories and lost love. This injects a kind of passion and meaning into his life.

I mention that this character is a more aware, evolved version of other characters he has played in recent years like Nick from Le Week-End and Logan Mountstuart from Any Human Heart. He concedes on Nick, not so much on Logan.

"Are you sure it's not because I played all of them?" he asks. I'm sure.

He considers the questions carefully and says that maybe the roles he is drawn to have changed over the years. "I'm always looking for change in what I do, I don't like doing things I've done before. But he adds: "The characters I'm offered have changed over time. As you get older it's an inevitable process, there's less choice, you move into a minority, certainly in terms of casting. It's a young to middle-aged person's game for the most part, film."

What drew him to the role of Tony Webster is that he felt he knew him.

"I went to a boarding school, just like the character does - and we thought we had all the answers And then coming out of that all boys' school and not really knowing how to relate to women, we were clumsy and awkward and making mistakes. It's very much my generation - we're the same age and I know people like him.

"I know there are aspects of me that are like him, it's familiar. He's so well drawn, this complex character, he's a bit of a pain really. He's nice when he remembers to be, but I think in his solitude he becomes selfish. It was irresistible."

He has said before that his wife, the sculptor Anastasia Lewis to whom he has been married for 30 years, says he is "more complicated than he appears to be". He has two stepsons and his own childhood in Lincolnshire was happy and unusual. Born in May 1949, his twin sister died at birth. He once mooted a theory about having absorbed her personality but distances himself from the theory now.

"I said that decades ago, it was something I had vaguely heard about Elvis and it came out in a conversation but I don't really think that is the case. But you never know."

His father used an inheritance to set up a commune for conscientious objectors and both of his parents, Roy and Doreen, were artists. They also set up a theatre and at five he began acting, feeling instantly at home, "liberated", on stage. After his years in a Quaker boarding school he spent a year in art college but, at his father's suggestion, switched to drama college. He graduated in 1972 and worked steadily on stage, gaining his foothold in film in the 1980s.

He has worked most often with Mike Leigh but also with Woody Allen, Scorsese and many more. On the heels of his Best Supporting Actor Oscar win for Iris in 2002 he was offered an OBE. In Iris he played John Bayley who looked after Iris Murdoch when she had Alzheimer's. It tapped into his own mother's death from the disease in 1995. His father had died in 1971 and Broadbent turned the OBE down, in part to honour his father's "quite anarchic spirit" and in part because he feels actors should be anti-establishment.

In his own spare time he sculpts four-foot high wooden figures.

"When I'm not acting I have to do something and at the moment it's the sculpture and the woodcarving that's where my creative energy goes." He says it is like acting, and writing in which he dabbled briefly, "making up characters". He thinks he might one day exhibit them: "The work's building up and eventually I might put it out there, I can't leave it just piling up in the shed," he chuckles again.

It's a wonder such a prolific actor gets time to make so many sculptures, why does he work so much?

"I don't know that I do really. It looks like I work more than I do probably sometimes. Christmas before last I did Scrooge, Christmas Carol in the West End and then I didn't do any work for the next six months, I was exhausted!"

The Sense of an Ending was actually shot in 2015, last year he reprised a role in Paddington 2 and, top of Google searches of his name, he had a role in the seventh series of the juggernaut that is Game of Thrones. "I'm not allowed to talk about it but it was five quick visits to Belfast and I was done." GOT aficionados have been quick to work out that that most likely makes him a Maester on The Wall. The trips to Belfast are just another of his connections to Irish-related films (The Crying Game, Widow's Peak, Gangs of New York, Brooklyn) and he has recently finished work on Lance Daly's famine-set drama Black 47.

He says the publicity circuit "gets exhausting, but you get there [chuckle]. It's alright." He is on his way, and looking forward to seeing the film for the first time in a while. There's an audience Q&A afterwards, "Sometimes you get interesting questions and it's nice to get feedback."

He doesn't read reviews avidly. "Sometimes I'll dip into them and get a vague impression of what it's about, I don't want to read anything that's going to be offensive," he says with another chuckle.

He believes it's peculiar not to watch your own films. "I think that's perverse. For one thing, every job I do, I partly take it because it's a film I'd like to see, I'd like to be in the audience so it's perverse not to want to. And for another, you just learn so much by seeing it all."

'The Sense of an Ending', now showing nationwide, cert 15A

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