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Another Year - Jim Broadbent interview

Jim Broadbent in Another Year

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JIM Broadbent talks to us about creating the character of Tom in Mike Leigh’s critically acclaimed Another Year and why he loves the research process.

He also talks about bidding farewell to Harry Potter, preparing to play Denis Thatcher and why he was able to avoid being typecast and therefore enjoy a rich and varied career…

Q. I loved the characters of Tom and Gerri because they provide Another Year with such a reassuring presence. Was that part of the appeal when creating him?
Jim Broadbent: No, there’s no agenda really. You don’t talk about who they are going to be. You build it up stage by stage and it turns out that’s who they are. So, you don’t start out by thinking: “Right, we’re going to create a happy couple…” You create the character and the relationship and it turns out they’re a happy couple.

Q. But is that then pleasing to be able to play once you get to that point?
Jim Broadbent: Yeah, because it’s a different thing to get the chance of playing a sort of consistent couple in that way. There’s not any great dramas between themselves as a couple, but there is drama in their lives because of the third parties. So, it’s unusual, I suppose, to investigate and play throughout the whole film people like those who haven’t got great dramatic things going on in their own lives, to that extent, but at the same time they’re real, recognisable and complex… hopefully! And they’re like a lot of people that we know in different ways. So, in a way it could be seen as a challenge to make those characters interesting. But there’s so much back story and research that you do that it gives a sort of hinterland to the characters that makes for a depth and an interest to them.

Q. I gather you even visited the Halls of Residence in Manchester where they first met?
Jim Broadbent: Yes, we went to the Halls of Residence, I went round the geology department, the students’ union… all that stuff is there in some way in the memory bank of the actors. So, I can picture Tom’s life. It has a whole lot of memories. I went to Derby and researched Derby and the different jobs he did as a geologist… on the M25. It takes five months of preparation before you start filming but that five months is planned with research, which builds up a complicated and quite precise memory bank for the actor to lean on for the development of the character.

Q. So, you then feel fully equipped for anything that Mike throws at you?
Jim Broadbent: Absolutely, so the improvising isn’t like: “Oh, what do we do now?” You’re on a very secure ground when you’re improvising because you know an awful lot about the characters, what they think about everything, what they’re experience has been, what their relationships have been with each other… so the improvising, as such, is in a way the easiest part of the process because you’ve done so much work before that.

Q. Which part of that process do you like the most? I gather you’re very fond of the research process? Or is it the improvising because it’s so different from other films?
Jim Broadbent: Some of the research bit is really… I love that. I met lots of geologists in universities and on site. I had long chats with them and they were, to a man and a woman, delightful. They’re lovely people. I suppose that had… apart from what they could tell me about geology, which was very hard to understand when you get to their level if you haven’t done the degree, but also you get an awful lot from the kinds of people they are. They were so interesting and charming and easy to talk to, so all that goes into the mix in some way as well.

Q. I also gather you drew on three friends in particular who might not necessarily know you did so?
Jim Broadbent: And I can hardly remember who they were now [laughs] because some of them I hadn’t seen for 30 years anyway! But it was ideas that you initially use to seed the character, but as you start creating this fictitious character, whoever it was you used in the beginning gets completely lost and they become insignificant in the character that develops.

Q. Do you also draw a lot from yourself?
Jim Broadbent: Oh yes, a lot of it comes from yourself because I’m playing him and he’s got an awful lot in common with me and he comes from what I’ve observed. So, it’s a particular relationship.

Q. How has working with Mike changed over the years? Is it as challenging as it once was?
Jim Broadbent: It’s not as challenging in as much as you know what the process is, in as much that you no longer think: “What are we going to do now?” Or: “Why is he doing this?” You know what’s going on. So, to that extent, it’s not as fascinating because you’ve done it before. But his way of working actually hasn’t changed at all over 30 years. It’s the same basic principles applying. The amount of time that it takes to do the preparation, because it’s not novel to you, is harder work in a way than it was because you know how necessary it is, and how vital it is, but actually it takes such a long time – particularly as you get older yourself – that your back story is 60 years rather than 30!

So, there’s years of stuff to fill in – all the Christmases, all the birthdays, all the relationships, all the growing up of the son, the relationship with his brother and his friends over the years. There’s a massive amount of stuff to conjure up, which you know a lot of which won’t be in the film. But it’s all necessary to have that hinterland of character knowledge.

Another Year

Q. Would you like to be able to bring that level of research and character knowledge to most roles?
Jim Broadbent: No, luckily not. Good writers do that themselves, fortunately, and present actors with what they’ve done. So, that’s another way of doing it. Mike’s way is delightful for actors because we get to be involved on a level that we’re not usually involved in – from the research and the structuring of the piece, through the improvising and then being there for the structuring of the script, as it were, out of the improvisations. So, we’re really very much a part of the creative process, which is fascinating, but after doing that it’s very nice to get a script that you just have to learn and understand what the character is about and take it from there. His way of working is another way of getting a good script, but there are good scripts that are done in the traditional way as well.

Q. Since Another Year, you’ve gone back to playing Prof Slughorn in the final Harry Potter movies, The Deathly Hallows. Was that easier to go back to this time?
Jim Broadbent: It’s not a huge contribution from Professor Slughorn in the final films. But it was fun to go back to and visit, but he’s not a central feature of these films. It’s a lovely job to do and it’s such an excellent series of films. They’re a real credit to the producers and how they’ve sustained it over the years… 10 years or so. The kids are also great – clever and they’ve grown well. There’s no brattish behaviour.

Q. Has Daniel Radcliffe ever come up to you and expressed an interest in doing a Mike Leigh film? Do you think he’d be good at that process?
Jim Broadbent: We haven’t talked about it [laughs], but I think he’d be up for anything. I mean, he went off and did his theatre with Equus, so I wouldn’t be surprised if one day…

Q. That’s the big challenge for him now, to make that break away from Harry Potter…
Jim Broadbent: I think they’ve all got that now. But I think they’ve got a good chance of going in some different and interesting directions.

Q. How easy was it for you not to get typecast early on in your career?
Jim Broadbent: I was alright really. For some reason, I was quite lucky that people… my whole premise of taking jobs initially was to do a job where I was going to learn something I hadn’t done before – whether that was doing a job because it was going to be in a big theatre, or a small theatre, or a classic, or a new play, or an improvised play. I was always looking out for new experiences and new characters. I always wanted to play different characters from what I’d played before.

So, I think that’s meant that I haven’t been typecast-able really, because lots of people have seen me in different things and they’ve cast me in different sorts of roles. So, it was never a problem that I was being cast in similar sorts of things – maybe because if something repetitive came up, I didn’t want to do it anyway. So, that might have been why it happened, or I just wasn’t perceived in that way.

Also, I didn’t have to take jobs. I didn’t have a family when I was very young, so I didn’t have to put food on the table from an early stage in my career, so for quite a long time all I had to worry about was myself. That meant I could do theatre jobs for no money and develop, or go away and travel and do something. I could be completely selfish about what I wanted to do, which meant I could avoid being typecast or trying to get in a TV series that went on for 10 years, or go into the RSC for two years, or something.

Q. The short film that you wrote with Mike Leigh – A Sense of History – helped get you the part in Gangs of New York
Jim Broadbent: Yes, and Moulin Rouge… That was set at Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is set! I watched Downton Abbey and thought: “That’s my castle!” [Laughs] It’s the Earl of Leeds’ place.

Mike Leigh directs Another Year

Q. How come you didn’t write more than that? Was it because your opportunities became so great that you couldn’t find the time?
Jim Broadbent: A bit of that and I knew at the time I wasn’t really a writer. I have written a couple of other short films that have been made and I’ve written one film that hasn’t been made because I think it’s probably too off the wall and beyond the imagination of investors. But I’m not really a writer. That one, A Sense of History, was a monologue, which was really about developing a character, and developing his back story, and telling that story straight to camera – so it was quite appropriate that Mike Leigh directed it in a way, because I developed it in a way that was very similar to Mike’s way of working, albeit on my own. I improvised and taped a lot of the improvisation of him talking and then reduced that to a very tight script. Once I’d done that, I did an audio tape of it, in character, which I gave to Mike and he said: “Let’s film it!” So, I was very lucky.

Q. Do you still get pinch yourself moments when you get phone calls from people like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg?
Jim Broadbent: Yeah, absolutely. They still come along occasionally, when you get something exciting like that.

Q. I imagine something similar happened when you got the part of Denis Thatcher alongside Meryl Streep [in The Iron Lady]?
Jim Broadbent: Yeah, that would be the most recent one! “Ooh, Meryl Streep, really?” That was exciting.

Q. Have you started your research work for Denis yet?
Jim Broadbent: I’ve been doing a bit of research on that, yes, but it’s not until January.

Q. Which are the roles you look back fondest on?
Jim Broadbent: Oh, the short – A Sense of History… I loved doing that. I also loved playing WS Gilbert in Topsy-Turvy. I loved Moulin Rouge and playing John Bayley in Iris. I loved playing Lord Longford in the film for Tom Hooper. I did a lot of The National Theatre of Brent with Patrick Bower. I think that’s when I probably had the most pure fun and laughed of any other jobs I’ve done. But I’ve been quite picky, so most of the things I’ve done I look back on with fondness.

Read our review of Another Year

Read our interview with Ruth Sheen