After trading art school for drama school, actor Jim Broadbent launched his professional career on the stage.
His earlier credits included: Illuminatus, The Government Inspector and A Place with the Pigs at the National; Our Friends in the North, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and Clay for the Royal Shakespeare Company; Other Worlds, Kafka’s Dick, The Recruiting Officer and Our Country’s Good at the Royal Court; A Flea in Her Ear at the Old Vic; Habeas Corpus at the Donmar Warehouse; and, with the National Theatre of Brent, the two-man troupe which he co-founded, The Messiah, The Complete Guide to Sex and The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Broadbent has also worked on numerous occasions with director-deviser Mike Leigh: Goosepimples and Ecstasy on stage; and Life Is Sweet, Topsy Turvy and Vera Drake on screen.
Following acclaim for the first Leigh film Life Is Sweet in 1990, Broadbent featured in a number of films that brought him to a much wider audience. These included The Crying Game, Enchanted April, Princess Caraboo, Bullets Over Broadway, Widow’s Peak, The Borrowers, Richard III, Little Voice, The Gathering Storm, Nicholas Nickleby, Bright Young Things, Vanity Fair, Gangs of New York and the two Bridget Jones comedies.
For Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 screen musical Moulin Rouge, Broadbent won Best Supporting Actor BAFTA Award for his performance as club owner Harold Zidler. The same year, he starred opposite Dame Judi Dench in Iris, playing husband John Bayley opposite her Alzheimer-stricken Iris Murdoch, and won two more Best Supporting Actor trophies, a Golden Globe and an Oscar.
He returned to the stage in 2003 for the world premiere of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman at the NT Cottesloe and promptly won yet another Best Supporting Actor prize in the audience-voted Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Awards.
Broadbent is now back at the National, playing Edward Lionheart, a hammy Shakespearean actor who wreaks bloody revenge on drama critics, in the stage adaptation of 1973 cult film Theatre of Blood.
Date & place of birth
Born 24 May 1949 in Lincoln.
London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA).
What made you want to become an actor?
My parents were keen amateurs in rural Lincolnshire after the war. Rather than the usual am-dram fare, they did Shaw and Ibsen and things like that. People were always coming round our house for play readings. As a little boy, I was one of the children in A Doll’s House. My parents also took me regularly to the local rep in Lincoln. Whenever they asked for children to come up on stage in the pantomime, I was the first one bounding up there – much to the embarrassment of my family, I fear. So as far back as I can remember I was always going to the theatre. It was something I was open to, and I knew I wanted to act.
First big break
Doing Illuminatus here at the National, the first play in the Cottesloe. It became quite a big cult thing and put me on the map I suppose. Because of the energy and imagination of Ken Campbell (the director), it was a remarkable experience. We all knew then it was special and that everything after that for us would be defined as either pre- or post-Illuminatus.
Career highlights to date
In a way every job has been a highlight really. Working with Mike Leigh on stage and on film has been wonderful, over a few years we did a lot of shows together. Doing The Government Inspector here with Richard Eyre, working with the National Theatre of Brent, and shows like The Recruiting Officer at the Royal Court like. In film, Iris was obviously a great success, and Moulin Rouge was a very stimulating thing to be part of.
I can't begin to single out people because inevitably I will omit the best, but there have been lots of wonderful people. Almost without exception, in the casts I’ve been in, we’ve all been like-minded in our approach. That’s about the directors and who they choose. The approach is: we have enormous fun taking it seriously. I think that’s the way to do it. If it goes either way too much, that’s not as good.
Richard Eyre is a very clear director to work with, Ken Campbell is an entirely different sort of director but really exciting. Phelim (McDermott) and Lee (Simpson) on Theatre of Blood are superb. I’ve been really impressed with their way of working and their enjoyment - in a very natural, pragmatic and honest way - of the whole game of theatre. I love working with them.
You work extensively in film & TV. Why do you like to return to the stage?
It’s always the script. If it’s an exciting script, if I think I can bring something to it and have a good time with it, then I’ll do it. You need a bit of arrogance to take a role. You have to think, “I don’t want anyone else to do this. Anyone else will muck it up and I want to do it!” Equally, you turn down things when you think, “this is a brilliant script, but if I do it, I’ll muck it up”.
Why do you think theatre is important in modern Britain?
It’s fundamental really. It’s one of the most natural things to do. There are other ways now of telling stories, with film and television and all the technological advances, but getting up and acting out a story, that’s the basis of human communication. In theatre, it’s so direct, the relationship you have with an audience - you can’t get it in film. I love film as well, but it’s a different sort of game.
What was the last stage production you saw that had an impact on you?
I’ve never been a huge theatregoer, but I do still go quite a lot. Before Theatre of Blood, the last thing I saw that I really enjoyed was Hedda Gabler at the Almeida. I also saw Acorn Antiques which was a joy. And Mary Poppins was fun.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
If I couldn’t act now, I might get into writing. When I first left school, I had a notion about being a journalist, but I don’t know if I’d have been any good at it, and then I got offered a student job in a theatre before I went to art school. I thought, “oh, that’s much more interesting” so I didn’t follow up the journalism thing. I do write occasionally. I’ve written short films and, when I’m not acting, I start thinking in terms of stories and writing, but I can’t do both at the same time. Or I might have followed up the art and been an art teacher. I don’t think I’d really have been good enough to be an artist, but I might have been good enough to encourage others.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I never have a list of roles. I wait for other people to have the ideas and they are probably more interesting than the ideas I would have come up with.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
As long as I didn’t have the responsibility, I’d probably swap places with a professional golfer to go and see what that world is like on the inside, that would be interesting. I’m intrigued to find out what their lives are like. I play extremely badly but I love watching golf and I’d like to know what goes on behind the scenes in golf. Or cricket or snooker. What do those guys do when they’re not out there?
I’m not really into reading and rereading books, but every couple of years I read another Dickens. I really love Dickens, and I love 19th-century Russian literature, Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekhov’s short stories. I also like American crime thrillers.
Favourite holiday destination
I love going to France. I go one way or another almost every year. I speak French to O-Level standard but it’s really bad French and getting worse.
Favourite after-show haunt
I invariably go to the nearest bar and have a Guinness. I do like to do that after a show. Sometimes I go for a meal, but generally the Guinness is my preferred activity.
Why did you want to accept the part of Edward Lionheart in Theatre of Blood?
I was very impressed by Phelim and Lee (who co-adapted as well as directed), and it looked like a great caper. And, even though we mock him, I actually have a great fondness and affection for that sort of actor and that sort of acting. I love the script. It is full of broad gags, but it’s also posing some interesting questions and creating a lively debate in a very funny way. I thought I had seen the film before but it turned out I hadn’t. I watched it after I was sent the script and liked it. I always loved Vincent Price horror films.
Lionheart can quote bad reviews chapter & verse. Do you read reviews?
When I started out, I read them religiously, mainly to see if I got any mention at all – which I usually didn’t. When I did get mentioned, it was helpful because it was really the only way of getting an objective opinion. All actors would like to think they’re great and your friends aren’t going to tell you otherwise. But the more often I got mentioned, the less interested I became. I don’t avoid reviews. With this play, it would be sort of perverse not to read them so I’ve read a few.
Can you recall the worst review you ever received?
Well, I was once described as a “comedian of limited dramatic range”, which I found offensive as I had never been a comedian and didn’t think I had limited dramatic range either. That was for a TV film I did called The Last Englishmen. I shouldn’t say who wrote it – he’s since given me glowing reviews.
What’s your view of critics in general?
There are some very strong arguments for critics in the play and sometimes you get very good critics. I think there’s an argument for putting them out to grass at a certain stage when they get so jaded with it and don’t have a fresh approach and a natural interest in theatre any more because they’ve seen so much of it. But you have to be able to gauge reactions to work and get some objective opinions, so it’s good. There are some critics I know enough to have a chat with if I saw them at a function or on the tube, but I don’t think I’ve ever been round to a critic’s house. Oh yeah, years and years ago, there was one but I don’t know what happened to him, he might have died. It’s all very subjective which ones you like. I think “oh, he likes me” so then I like him.
The National also comes in for a roasting in Theatre of Blood. How do you feel about the place?
I like working at the National. I’ve always had a great time here. It’s an exciting place, and I think Nicholas Hytner is doing a great job of changing the rules a bit. The fact that the National is putting on this play that is giving it quite a hard time is hugely in its favour. Don’t forget, though, the play is set in 1974. It was a time of change. In a way, Theatre of Blood is a period piece.
What’s your favourite line from Theatre of Blood?
It depends which one gets the biggest laugh on a given night. You have to be careful about choosing favourites.
What was the press night like for Theatre of Blood?
Strange. ”What had I become that craved the love of those that cannot love” is a difficult thing to say with all the critics watching. And they then have to go and write an objective review of the play!
- Jim Broadbent was speaking to Terri Paddock
Theatre of Blood continues in rep at the NT Lyttelton until 10 September 2005.