I thought an actor as versatile as Jim Broadbent, with a Golden Globe, a Bafta, and an Oscar under his belt, would be a rather daunting interviewee. He is not known for courting the press or nurturing his status as a celebrity, and I assumed he was someone who would have little time for a baggy trousered student trying to grill him about his long career. Fortunately, I was proven wrong, and as I stumbled through my notes, he answered my questions as if he had all the time in the world, with immense modesty and the occasional self-deprecating laugh.
His career spans from his beginnings as an assistant stage director to international stardom, and it may best be described as impressively varied, portraying everything from an ageing academic to a nightclub lothario singing Like A Virgin. This refusal to be typecast or pigeonholed seems to be at the core of his work, and most importantly, he enjoys the fact that an inspiring role can unexpectedly turn up to take him in a new direction. “I’m always open to the next surprising thing”, he explains, when questioned on the variety of work he has taken for the last thirty years, “I welcome what comes through the door”.
However, there have been rather unpleasant surprises to arrive on his doorstep. A recent project, Tulip Fever, a film Jim is incredibly passionate about (and stars in), has stopped due to a tax problem with the British government: “It has an excellent script by Tom Stoppard and also involves Jude Law, but now it’s closed or at best postponed…it’s a shame that the British government doesn’t do more to help homegrown film production”. How does he feel about puerile disasters such as Sex Lives of the Potato Men, gaining lottery funding with comparative ease and tarnishing the British film industry? Jim could not possibly comment on the film itself (having not seen it) but he did suggest that aside from the problems in large scale funding, there are a lot of smaller efforts that are equally significant in this country. Regardless of whether a production is a blockbuster or a locally funded short, he maintains that “the script comes first” in whatever he chooses to do, and not the reverse. Perhaps, I thought, those behind Sex Lives.. should have thought in a similar fashion – content first, money later.
In the realm of British filmmaking, where an unshaven Johnny Vegas takes precedence over Tom Stoppard, I wondered why Jim Broadbent has never really been tempted to live in the excessively glamorous world of Hollywood. His answer is simple – he has nothing in common with it. “I like reflecting the world I know”, firmly rooted here in the British Isles, even though he has brushed with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicole Kidman. Getting a balance between colossally expensive efforts such as Gangs of New York and his work here in Britain, however, does not represent a problem: “I have to look at the whole project, and think whether it is something I’d like to watch, something I’d be proud to be in”. Again, a simple but foolproof explanation that seems to have served him well over the years. There have been only a couple of notable disasters in the past, such as Broken Glass, but now Jim is in the position not just to choose roles that interest him, but press institutions such as the BBC to take on more original programmes.
Most recently, he used his experience as an actor of diverse roles to challenge the BBC to take on the excellent Young Visiters, a tale of Victorian social climbing told through the imaginative perspective of a nine year old girl: “it’s good to work outside of the boxes presented to you and make something that doesn’t quite fit in them”. He is no stranger to the BBC, netting a famous role as “the slag” Slater in Only Fools and Horses, and has seen it progress through different stages in its development. He has seen it in its relatively early years, when “TV used to be a very middle aged medium”, progressing to a corporation that has a far wider appeal. As far as Jim is concerned, this can only be a good thing – as he says he is “spreading the net very wide” in terms of his career, this can only be complemented by an organisation doing the very same in terms of audience appeal.
Spreading the net further, Jim has also written the acclaimed short A Sense of History, a mockumentary in 1992, with himself cast as a modern day aristocrat exploring his family history. When I asked him about the critical success of this, and whether he had anything more to write, he responded with characteristic modesty. “I could write A Sense of History as it was one character, that I could develop and improvise – there was no dialogue or anything more to it”, he explained, and went on to say he didn’t see himself as a great authority on writing itself – “I’m afraid I don’t have many words of wisdom on that”, responding to my rather persistent questions on how he works on his writing.
Still, he is a great authority on acting itself, and as the interview drew to a close I gained the overall sense that Jim Broadbent is possibly the least self-publicising individual imaginable, unwilling to give out possibly misguiding platitudes on the methods of his craft and emphasising the value of groundwork, and precision in character acting. He won’t name a favourite director or actor he has worked with, as there are just so many projects that he has enjoyed over the years, nor can he break down his career into significant turning points or moments of inspiration. In short, he won’t be typecast for one aspect of his life as an actor, and it looks as if he will continue to keep on building upon the collection of characters he has worked on over the years until he can no longer.