Like a patient in a dentist’s waiting room, a patient regretting the neglect of his gums, Jim Broadbent sits on the sofa and stares at his shoes. I have been warned by his publicist that he is ‘painfully shy but friendly when he warms up’, and that’s about right. On the rare occasions he makes eye contact, it is with a rictus smile, as if friendliness for him requires physical rather than mental effort, as if he has to remind his knobbly face that smiling is the way to signal warmth. It is the awkward manner of his speech that most clearly betrays his introversion, though. He stutters slightly and punctuates his sentences with a soft, nervy chuckle that makes his words melt away like butter on crumpets. They are desultory, these sentences, and full of old-fashioned turns of phrase. Many remain unfinished.
It does occur to me that he could be acting all this. He is a great actor, after all, an Oscar-winning actor indeed. He often plays sweet, gentle, lugubrious types, such as Bridget Jones’s father, or John Bayley, the academic who looked on in helpless anguish as his wife, Iris Murdoch, succumbed to Alzheimer’s, or Lord Longford – he may have been given a bald pate and prosthetic nose to play that role, but the sympathy for Myra Hindley seemed to be all his. People who know Broadbent privately say that this is what he is like away from the cameras. Yet in front of them he will as often play loud extroverts, such as the bombastic ringmaster in Moulin Rouge! (a role for which he won a Bafta) or the bumptious nightclub owner in Little Voice, or the corrupt police officer in Hot Fuzz. Some might call it versatility, but Broadbent has another theory as to why he is capable of such extremes, and we shall come to this.
Curiously, in his latest film, an adaptation of Blake Morrison’s best-selling memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father?, he somehow combines the two. The character he plays, Blake’s father, is a GP in the Yorkshire Dales. He is embarrassing, overbearing and boorish, but also capable of great tenderness and pathos. Already this is being talked of as an Oscar-winning performance. The scenes in which he lies in bed dying from cancer and tries to communicate with his angry son, played by Colin Firth, could not be more emotionally charged and affecting.
When I ask him what his relationship with his own father was like – Roy Broadbent was a furniture maker who died of cancer when Jim was 23 – he crunches slowly on a shortbread biscuit before answering. ‘M-m-my father was a Yorkshireman who moved to Lincolnshire in the war. He was like Blake’s father in some ways. Almost an exact contemporary. He would come down to see me in London and fix things around the house. He was always the black sheep of his family, a conscientious objector.’ (During the war the family had gone to live in a bohemian, anti-war commune in rural Lincolnshire. His mother, Dee, became a sculptor.)
Broadbent felt some sympathy with Blake’s father, then, even though he was an unsympathetic character. ‘I think some people felt I was too sympathetic to play Arthur. I disagree, obviously. I think I can be unpleasant.’
There is still the trace of Lincolnshire in his vowels, which is surprising given that he has lived in London for most of his adult life. He also dresses like a countryman, in anonymous greens and browns, as if trying to camouflage himself, deflect attention, fade into the background.
The death scenes in his new film, I note, really bring home the dribbling, incontinent ugliness of dying. ‘It helped that when we filmed those scenes it was with a small crew in a real house.’ He frowns. ‘Was it? Just trying to think if there was a studio involved But it was certainly a small set. Quite claustrophobic.’
Did those scenes require a sacrifice of vanity on his part? ‘Well that is always the first to go, vanity. Can’t hang on to vanity as an actor. It’s one of the paradoxes, really, that to be an actor you have to have a big enough ego to want people to look at you, but ultimately you can’t be vain. I reckon I did remember when my father died at home after a year-long illness when he was about the age I am now 58 I was touring around the North in my first job and was able to get home at weekends and was at home when he actually died I remember watching him and’
And? ‘And so I brought some of that to the role.’
Did he find it painful, reliving those moments with his dying father? He blinks. Tears are welling up in his eyes, tears that catch the light, eyes that still stare at shoes. ‘I found it upsetting to read the book, and the script, that was when it all came back to me. But not as much not so much when I was doing it. You just try and remember how it was.’
Did he have any unfinished business with his own father, things that needed to be said, as Blake does in the book? ‘I was quite young, 23, I think, so there was an awful lot I hadn’t worked out. Ten years later there would have been a lot I wanted to ask him talk about.’
I ask if his father had worried about him becoming an actor – it’s not the most secure profession in the world, after all. ‘No, he was encouraging. He had huge confidence. In fact, it had been him who had suggested I go to drama school in the first.’
Broadbent had attended Leighton Park, a Quaker school in Reading, before taking a place at art school. He left that to transfer to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. A tutor at his college described him as strange-looking and predicted that he wouldn’t find work until he was in his forties. Following his graduation in 1972, he worked as an assistant stage manager at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, and while he was waiting for acting work to come, he joined the Ugly modelling agency (although he never landed a job because, as he puts it, ‘Perhaps I wasn’t ugly enough’). After that he co-founded the brilliant and eccentric National Theatre of Brent, a two-man troupe. Then came work with the (real) National Theatre and, finally, film stardom in Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game and Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet.
Does it make him sad to think that his father never knew how successful his son went on to become? ‘I think he was quite the doting father. Unlike Blake’s father, mine would praise me constantly, unwarrantedly. He did say as he was dying that he regretted not knowing how it would end for us, what was going to happen to us all.’ His eyes well up with tears again and he blinks them away. ‘It was an unfinished narrative. He didn’t mind his own story ending But’
I ask whether tears come easily to him when he is acting. ‘Actually no. I’m always impressed when women can summon up real tears. I can never do that. I have to use that fake stuff.’
Away from acting, does he find it easy to cry? ‘I don’t know when I last cried but I do choke up easily. Usually documentaries about bravery get to me. I can be choked up on a cheesy documentary, not even a good one, one where my emotions are being deliberately manipulated.’
His mother died of Alzheimer’s in 1995. ‘Mmm, mmm, much later than my father. I was around for that, too. A few hours before and a few hours after. It was 18 months of deterioration. A year in a nursing home. She was older, so it wasn’t as heartbreaking as it might have been. Some people die of Alzheimer’s quite young.’
It was this experience that coloured his Oscar-winning performance in Iris. He relived his mother’s death for that; now he is reliving his father’s in his latest film: why does he suppose he is drawn to roles that evoke painful memories? ‘I’m not sure I suppose with Iris it was partly about wanting to draw public attention to this little-understood disease. The film was appreciated by the Alzheimer’s charities. When my mother died there was much less information about it. I remember when my mother got it we were searching for information and help and couldn’t find any really.’
Do his parents still cast a shadow on his life? ‘I had exactly twice as much time with my mother as my father, so it was spread out? so I didn’t have a feeling of being orphaned It is not like when both your parents go together and you are suddenly on your own. With Alzheimer’s, as well, the person becomes a stranger before they die: that separation happens earlier. The person you know goes quite early on in the course of the disease. You lose the shared memories and the conversations you normally have in a relationship.’
Some men find it almost liberating when their father, the moral arbiter of their formative years, dies. Was that the case with him? Did he, say, get an urge to appear in Hair fully naked? He gives the gentle chuckle. ‘No, he would have been up for all that. I’d never felt constrained by him. My father was “small l” liberal.’
Are they temperamentally similar, father and son? ‘Not really, personality wise I do think about him a lot, probably as you get older and get closer to the age it all becomes a bit more relevant than it was when I was 23. I sometimes catch his reflection in the mirror, especially when the hair goes. The driving mirror. The corner of the face. The glasses. A little bit of that. Some of his qualities I wish I had. Others I’m pleased I didn’t have.’
Silence again, followed by a chuckle. Qualities such as? ‘Wouldn’t know really. Quite contradictory. Someone once told me I was waif-like. Can’t see it myself. Perhaps when I was younger. I don’t think about myself too much. Not that interested. I think I’m quite boring.’
Surely when he was younger he must have been curious about himself? ‘A little bit, I would ask: What am I about? What am I going to be? But I’m not so bothered now. It’s set. No need to fret about it.’
Given his obvious shyness, for him to have chosen a profession where he would get on stage and draw attention to himself does seem a little perverse. ‘Yes, I don’t understand it. There is a split in my personality because sometimes I can be loud in person as well as on stage.’
He believes he may have taken on the personality of his twin sister, who died at birth. Her personality sits alongside his own, he reckons, giving him a split one. And this explains why he can be anxious one day and a risk-taker the next. It also explains how he can be an extrovert as an actor – veering between caricature and naturalism, between strength and vulnerability – and yet still be an introvert in his private life.
I wonder whether this split might also have helped him cope with rejection early on in his career. ‘I gave myself a 10-year plan. I thought that after drama school, if it didn’t seem to be going anywhere after 10 years, I would rethink it. It does make you insecure, acting. There were some really talented people with wit and style at drama school who couldn’t hack the insecurity from the word go. But if you stay with it for a few years you learn to handle the insecurity and the rejection. You can’t be too fragile. You have to be a bit tough about it
‘When people ask my advice and say, “My son or daughter is thinking about going into acting but can’t make up his or her mind”, I say, “If you have any doubts don’t do it.” You have to be completely driven and have no option. It is a form of madness, actually.’
For all his seriousness as an actor now – and the demand for him in Hollywood; he will be appearing in the latest Indiana Jones movie next – he started out as a comic actor. ‘I think what I was trying to do was spread the net wide. Different directors see me in different ways. Anyway, a lot of that stuff in theatre, the National Theatre of Brent stuff, mostly went unnoticed because not many people go to the theatre compared with television.’
I ask whether, when he was at drama school, he ever saw himself as the handsome lead in Hollywood films. ‘Every actor would think that at some stage. It’s part of the wanting to do the job. I wasn’t one of dozens of handsome young men after the one role for the handsome young man, though. I was never up for that. I was always part of an odder group of character actors. I wasn’t impatient.’
He never considered himself good-looking. ‘Not really, no probably quite a poor self-image actually, until I got used to myself Yeah,? wouldn’t have thought?#x0027;
He says that he doesn’t see the films he appears in more than he has to. ‘If I haven’t seen a film for a long time, though, and it’s a comedy, and I’m being funny, I do laugh at what I’m doing, as if it’s another person up there’
He has written his own screenplays, most notably the black comedy A Sense of History, directed by Mike Leigh. What about an autobiography? Is he planning one? ‘I’ve got my title for it, but I’ll never write it.’
And that title is? ‘My Grandmother was a Snowball.’
Er, right. Yep. Good title. ‘That was her maiden name.’
Has he kept a diary? ‘No, but er’ The wheezy laugh. ‘I get so bored. What I did I’m too self-conscious. I would always assume I wouldthat people would read it one day and I couldn’t bear that because I would think it was so badly written.’
So he does have a certain vanity, after all, I say. Intellectual vanity. He glances up from his shoes and gives a grin that is shy, lopsided, apologetic. ‘I’m a contradiction.’
‘I suppose I am very aware that I am not academic at all, that university was never an option. I suppose I’ve got a what’s the word thing.’
Complex? ‘Complex about not being intellectual.’
So how did he overcome that complex to play an intellectual in Iris? ‘I think I might be intelligent but not clever. I didn’t have the A-levels.’
He was expelled for drinking, he adds in his monotonal way. ‘But only after A-levels. I was told I had to leave immediately after sitting my A-levels, which wasn’t a great hardship. Except I didn’t get to do the leavers’ play.’
I’m sure that he has been asked back to his school as the conquering hero many times since. ‘No, I haven’t actually. I must be down on the list: Expelled.’
On the wall of shame, I suggest, with a skull and crossbones by his name. The foggy chuckle again. I ask what the Quaker element of his school meant to him.
‘It was semi-progressive. No corporal punishment or cadet corps, because it was pacifist. Very little uniform. There was a blazer if you wanted one. There was no dogma or hierarchy. ?And we had Quaker meetings in the school hall where you sat in silence.’
It occurs to me that the silences he drifts into to this day may have taken root at school and that he carries them around with him like a comfort blanket. Could that be it? ‘I don’t mind silence And they were very nice people, the Quakers. If I was ever to go back to religion I would likely go to the Quakers first. I never did have it, really, though. I was at that school because my parents were pacifists, not Quakers.’
So what does he think happens to you when you die?
‘Absolutely nothing. I’m with Arthur Morrison on that one.’
Does the prospect of his own inevitable death frighten him? ‘I don’t think it does. I don’t fret about it. I think it was partly to do with seeing my father go. It didn’t frighten him. Upset him a bit but not I think if you are an atheist, what’s there to be frightened of? But I don’t want to die yet.’
What about his own death-bed scene (many years from now, I hope)? Will he want his two stepsons there? ‘Yes, I think so. I am as a father to them. Twenty-five years now.’
In 1983 he met Anastasia Lewis, a theatre designer and textile artist who was mother to two sons. The couple married five years later. Did he ever wonder what it would be like having his own biological children? ‘My wife didn’t want to go down that route and for various reasons that was fine by me. I wasn’t going to say, all right, I’m off, I’ll find someone else. It was obviously never of driving importance to me because on some level I would seek out someone who would provide that but I’m terribly close to my stepsons and their young ones.’
Another legacy of his having to sit in silence at school may be his patience on set. With his mild manner, the opposite of temperamental, he has a reputation for being easy to work with. The tedium of film sets, meanwhile, the sitting around for hours waiting for your next scene, never bothers him. He retreats into himself. He whittles gargoyles from wood; his hobby.
He likes working with directors such as Mike Leigh and Woody Allen (he starred in Bullets over Broadway) who don’t go in for much shouting. ‘Good directors like actors and enjoy what actors bring in terms of improvisation,’ he says. ‘Woody and Mike are different in that with Mike you do all the improvisation in the rehearsal before the script is finalised, whereas with Woody he asks you to improvise away from the finished script. Make it sound natural and real. But there are more similarities than not between them.’
Both directors are known for their melancholy; is that something he can identify with? ‘Melancholic is as far as it goes. I don’t get depressed. Enjoyable melancholy. I don’t know what real depression is.’
In terms of his career, Broadbent doesn’t have much to be depressed about. He is one of Britain’s most recognisable actors and has won more awards and critical acclaim than seems decent. He was offered an OBE a few years ago but turned it down. Such is his diffidence. (Although that was also partly on the grounds that he didn’t think the militarism of the British Empire was something that should be celebrated – his father’s pacifism coming out.)
Given all these achievements, all these laurels to rest on, what motivates him to keep going? ‘I live in London but I’ve had a cottage in Lincolnshire for 17 years and we’ve just got a slightly bigger place there. So it would be nice to get that right. And I can imagine taking a sabbatical for a year and then just extending it.
‘I don’t like to do work that doesn’t appeal to me. I’m often cast as people older than myself so I’m sure there will always be work. But in not wanting to repeat myself I find there are more and more jobs I don’t want to do.’
He takes another bite of his shortbread biscuit and crunches on it slowly. ‘And that’s about it really.’