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Another Year – Jim Broadbent and his complex character

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Another Year - Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen
Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) © 2010 Thin Man Films Ltd

Like most of the actors in Mike Leigh’s movies, Jim Broadbent has appeared in several of them, including Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake. In Leigh’s latest film, Another Year, he portrays Tom, a geologist who is happily married to a medical counselor, Gerri (Ruth Sheen). The movie tracks a year in their life with friends and family, a birth and a death.

As with all of Leigh’s movies, the actors get together for 18 weeks with the director to carve out the characters and the story from scratch. I spoke with Jim Broadbent about this movie, and the final Harry Potter film, in which he makes a return appearance as Professor Horace Slughorn.

Do you like the process Mike Leigh uses to create a movie?

Another Year - Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville and Ruth Sheen
Tom (Jim Broadbent), Mary (Lesley Manville) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) © 2010 Thin Man Films Ltd

It’s a good way to work occasionally. You wouldn’t want to do it back-to-back. It would be impossible; you’d do your head in completely!

If the actors make up the dialogue and even a majority of the story, why does Mike Leigh take credit for writing it?

In the old days when if first worked with him the credit was ‘Directed by Mike Leigh and Devised by Mike Leigh and the Cast.’ But I think that became a bit top-heavy and logistically it became cumbersome, so he decided it was more practical to have it straightforward, ‘Written by Mike Leigh.’

Was the fact that they’re called Tom and Gerri [like the cartoon characters] coincidental? I was thinking someone was going to point their names out.

From our point-of-view it was coincidental. Mike half claims it was coincidental but I don’t know. We spotted it immediately!

You play such complex characters, and I’m sure this is as complex for you as any other character, but to me he just looked like a nice guy. Was this as complicated for you as the other parts you’ve played?

Another Year - Lesley Manville and Jim Broadbent
Mary (Lesley Manville) and Tom (Jim Broadbent) © 2010 Thin Man Films Ltd

Yeah, it is complicated. You said he looks like a nice guy, a lot of people have said to me he seemed like a smug, self-satisfied person. I welcome that, I think that’s good, I think that means he’s a complex, complicated character that could be seen in different lights. It’s entirely valid to be seen both ways.

As actors you look out generally for dramatic scenes, but as you don’t have a script in the first place you don’t have to think, ‘How am I going to make this interesting?’ Our job is to develop these characters and be in character and be consistent through the rehearsal process and the filming process. So in retrospect I hope it worked, and even though he’s potentially rather a bland character, hopefully it’s more interesting than that because of the work [we did beforehand].

How close to your personality is Tom?

Another Year - Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent
Gerri (Ruth Sheen) and Tom (Jim Broadbent) © 2010 Thin Man Films Ltd

I’ve got more in common with Tom than I have in most characters I play. He can probably cook a bit better than I can, and he can probably play golf better than I can. I’m not as organized and I’m not quite as calm as he is.

Harry Potter is coming to an end now – did you ever read the books?

I haven’t read all the books, I read the first one when it came out and I’d seen the films, and I read the sixth book, which is when I was asked to be a part of it. It was a great experience. I’m not in the first part of the finale. I’ve got a bit in the second part. Not a great deal, I think everyone is brought back for some sort of walk down!

What has it been like to watch the kids grow up in front of you?

It’s amazing. It’s a great tribute to the producers, because all the kids, not just the main three, all of them are charming, balanced people. There was a great discipline of going to their classes and there was no brat-ish behavior, no starry behavior at all. They all remain grounded, intelligent and pleasant human beings.

What do you have coming up next?

Another Year - Jim Broadbent
Tom (Jim Broadbent) © 2010 Thin Man Films Ltd

Next year I’m doing Dennis Thatcher with Meryl Steep as Maggie Thatcher. It’s called The Iron Lady

Will you have to do a lot of research on that?

There isn’t much you can do on Dennis as he was kept in the background. Carol Thatcher made a documentary about him and she wrote a book about him, so that’s the main thing, but it is the daughter’s view. Between now and the end of January I’ll be finding out as much other stuff as I can.

Have you worked with Meryl before?

No, it’s exciting. We met the other week, and she did a little bit of her Margaret Thatcher just by way of illustrating a point, and it’s going to be chillingly brilliant.