Jim Broadbent: A movie about memory, a memorable career

He’s among the best living actors no one ever talks about as being among the best living actors. 

An Oscar winner. 

Sought out by Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Terry Gilliam, and other legendary directors.  

A fixture in popular entertainment -- including Game of Thrones, a couple of Harry Potter movies. 

I’d ask you to name him but you could probably guess by the large picture accompanying this article: Jim Broadbent. (Who, by the way, won his Oscar for Iris, and has appeared in Gangs of New York, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Bullets Over Broadway, and Time Bandits.) 

Now he’s in The Sense of an Ending, an adaptation of the Julian Barnes’ novel about an older, divorced curmudgeon who receives a mysterious inheritance that prompts him to look back at his life. In the process, he realizes his memories are in many ways a fictionalized aggregation of a subconsciously constructed, self-serving myth. 

Alternative facts, if you will.

“That’s a very strong thread in the story. And I’m surprised, actually, that it hasn’t been investigated more often in film,” Broadbent said, speaking the other day by phone. 

“And it’s so true to life. If I meet anyone from my past, and we talk about shared events, you instantly realize you’re talking about two very different experiences. We’re totally subjective in the choices we make about how to remember. It’s fascinating.” 

It all makes for a plum role for Broadbent, who anchors the film, and whose character changes (at a stage in life when change is difficult) after he’s led to reconsider major events in his past, to see them from the perspective of the other important people in his life (Charlotte Rampling is an old school chum, Harriet Walter his wife, and Michelle Dockery his daughter). 

He also works with director Ritesh Batra, making his first movie since his debut sensation, The Lunchbox

“People ask me what it’s like to work with such a young director. Well, you’d never know that he was in any way inexperienced. And he has what so many of the great directors have, a very caring attention to every detail. He’s absolutely at home on the set, very confident, and, as an actor, you love that.”

I asked Broadbent, who has worked with so many directors (he has a staggering 153 film and TV credits), what makes a good one. 

“People ask me if I’d like to direct, and I say no. Directors, especially the good ones, have a depth of commitment that I couldn’t manage. They have to be slightly mad, really.”

Was he thinking of Gilliam when he said that? 

Broadbent laughed. 

“Mad in a good way,” Broadbent said, "to have to make that kind of commitment to these formidable and time-consuming things, to be in charge of every detail, and to do it with so much passion." 

If Broadbent likes working with the top directors, the feeling is obviously mutual. 

“It’s such a privilege to work with Jim,” Batra said. "He has an ability to take something deep within himself and attach to the character, and to give you the compliment you are in this process together.  At the same time, he’s able to grab something from the outside environment, to work off the energy of the other actors. He has that rare ability to do both.”

As a consequence, Broadbent has been amazingly busy in film and television (though his first love is the stage, where he started at age 5), and he credits that to being versatile and open to anything. 

“I’ve spread my net very wide over the years. I realized fairly soon that I was going to be a character actor, that I was going to have to do lots of different things. And I love that. Also, I don’t mind looking silly, wearing prosthetics. I’ll do anything. I’m not proud. “

Broadbent, at 65, is also aware he’s not going to have too many more meaty leading-man roles. 

“I have recently, for the first time, suddenly realized I’m moving into part of a minority, being old, in terms of casting. There are not so many parts for people in my position. You don’t want to just play the grandfather. I’ve already done a couple of Santa Clauses,” he said. 

Broadbent has spent more time recently on hobbies -- woodworking and clay sculpture (his parents were sculptors and amateur actors). 

“I’m getting more and more picky. Maybe I’m going to pick myself right into retirement.”