Jim Broadbent is one of those ubiquitous British actors whose face you’d recognize long before you knew his name. I first spotted him as Dr. Jaffe, the quack plastic surgeon in Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” (1985), but others will recall the small parts he played in cult TV show “Blackadder,” and the art-house hit “The Crying Game,” and his roles as Professor Horace Slughorn in the “Harry Potter” series, Harold Zidler in “Moulin Rouge!,” Boss Tweed in “Gangs of New York” or the heroine’s father in “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”
Then, of course, there is his best supporting actor Oscar for “Iris” (2001) and his many acclaimed films with director Mike Leigh, including “Life is Sweet” and “Topsy-Turvy.” Broadbent seems to have worked with everyone at one point or another, with a filmography as long as a Norwegian winter.
His latest, “Le Week-End,” is a sharp romantic comedy about a long-married couple trying to revive their feelings for each other on a holiday in Paris. It is a rare top billing for the 65-year-old veteran. Read any profile of Broadbent and the term you invariably see is “character actor” — a stereotype which earns an actor varied and frequent work, but few traditional leading-man roles.
The late Philip Seymour Hoffman was another such actor, yet despite commanding the screen whenever he was on it, he harbored a certain amount of insecurity and dissatisfaction that he would never be the hero, the lover or the conventional star. It was this demon, among others, that reportedly drove him to depression, relapse into substance abuse, and death.
On the phone with Broadbent, I ask if he recognized Hoffman’s angst.
“Not at all,” he says, and somehow I’m not surprised. “I don’t have a desire to play a traditional leading man at all, really. I feel completely free from it. I mean, I have a very low boredom threshold — I hate repeating myself, hate doing the same thing, so I’m always looking for a new adventure, and doing something totally different than what I’ve done before. Although, I say I have a low boredom threshold, but I’m perfectly happy to be on film sets and sit around for hours doing nothing, which is a different sort of boredom,” he says, laughing.
“Le Week-End” is a striking film. It’s both wickedly funny and painfully accurate in its depiction of marital dysfunction, similar to the couple in Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight” (2013) if they were given another decade to stew in their resentments.
It’s a perfect vehicle for Broadbent, who can handle both comedy and drama with equal confidence. Asked if he prefers one over the other, he says, “I don’t differentiate, really. The overlaps between them are huge. To get drama — if you’re accurate in finding the truth in it — is often inevitably funny, and vice versa. I sometimes wouldn’t know whether to describe what I’ve been doing as comedy or drama,” he says.
In “Le Week-End,” Broadbent plays Nick, a schoolteacher who’s been married to Meg (Lindsay Duncan) for decades. He thinks revisiting their honeymoon haunts in Paris will put the spark back in their marriage, but his neediness comes off as stifling to his wife.
It’s a sharp contrast to Broadbent’s role in Mike Leigh’s “Another Year,” (2010), where he and Ruth Sheen played Tom and Gerri — just about the most stable, contentedly long-married couple you could ever imagine. I ask Broadbent — who’s been happily married to artist Anastasia Lewis for decades now — which role was easier to slip into.
“I think, as characters, I prefer Nick to Tom. Personally, I found Tom rather an irritating man, sort of self-satisfied in his own comfort bubble, but I find Nick edgy, difficult, questioning, more appealing in a way. They’re such different types of work though. With Mike Leigh, you spend six months developing the character before you start filming, and with ‘Le Week-End’ you have a wonderful script ready-made by Hanif Kureishi.
“It was a beautiful way of working though: a very light crew, and not top-heavy with the technicalities of filming. We were in a couple of mini-buses running around Paris and shooting in an economic and fast way, which is very pleasing,” says Broadbent.
The interesting aspect of Nick’s character — and this is pure Kureishi — is that he turns out to have been quite the rebel as a young man, before slowly slipping into the routines of middle-age.
Broadbent himself was reportedly a bit of a teen rebel, getting kicked out of high school for drinking, and that streak is still present: He’s in the company of those precious few who have declined an OBE (Order of the British Empire, a monarchical honor). Did he recognize that aspect of himself in Nick’s character?
“I think that’s something that’s true of a lot of us, really,” says Broadbent. “Our youths are more rebellious than we turn out to be in the end. I certainly understood that and, from both my own personal experience and observation, Nick’s sort of disappointment in himself. As you get older you see that in people your own age, who have promised more than they’ve been able to deliver. So that was something that rang very true.”
That, I admit to Broadbent, was a very typical journalist’s question — the idea that a character must have a connection to the actor himself. But is it a mistake to always focus on that aspect. How much of the actor’s craft is sheer fabrication?
“I think we all vary,” says Broadbent. “But I think I’m incredibly nosy about people and how they operate. I’m always peering into other people’s lives. Perhaps that’s the nature of the sort of actor I am: the character actor who gets fun out of developing characters that are removed from me, whereas other actors draw on their own experience more. But inevitably, any character I play is going to be 99 percent of me and one percent not of me — whatever I can invent and bring into it.”