NEW YORK -- American arthouse audiences first fell for Jim Broadbent 11 years ago, when he appeared in Mike Leigh's sublime Life Is Sweet (1990). Broadbent plays a husband and father who manages an industrial kitchen and dreams of his own business; he idles around the house with an inertia that speaks volumes about the weekend laziness afflicting the working man. Then he snaps into ramrod control when he commands his kitchen.
Broadbent appears to be totally natural in this small-scale masterpiece, though now he admits he was on a campaign "to get over that alarm when you see the lens 2 feet from your face" and "to relax on camera, which is the key." His performance compelled the question: Who is this brilliant and robust comedian, and how vast is his range?
The range part got answered when he struck gold twice more with Leigh. In the 1992 short film A Sense of History (which Broadbent also wrote), he's an affably malignant aristocrat (the movie is like Kind Hearts and Coronets boiled down into one character and done in 22 minutes). And in Topsy-Turvy (1999) he is the dour, brilliant and hilarious W.S. Gilbert -- both a wonderfully bizarre, endlessly entertaining character and, thanks to Broadbent's inside-out interpretation, one of the few spot-on depictions of an artistic innovator in any movie.
The year 2001 gave us Broadbent's movie career in miniature. First came a high-sitcom supporting role as a confused and cuckolded father in Bridget Jones' Diary, then a mad, stylized caricature of a nightclub impresario in Moulin Rouge. It's all part of his campaign "to go with something that surprises me" and prevent himself from reaching his "boredom threshold." He went from those two films to six months playing the young Boss Tweed in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York (scheduled for release this year). And now, in Iris (opening Friday after December engagements in New York and Los Angeles), he offers a beautifully empathetic portrait of the aging English literary critic John Bayley. The movie depicts how Bayley's love for his wife -- the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, played by Judi Dench -- is tested when she succumbs to Alzheimer's disease. Broadbent's performance already has won a Golden Globe and awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Board of Review; he is also up for a British Academy Award. Oscar nominations will be announced Tuesday.
All the performances in Iris are so persuasive that I rushed from a Manhattan screening room to a cafe interview with Broadbent under the impression that Broadbent played Bayley as a youthful man, too. Even though I knew that Kate Winslet and not Dench played the younger Murdoch, there was such a continuity of expression between the young and old Bayley that I couldn't wait to ask Broadbent how he pulled it off.
"There are two actors," he said, setting me straight immediately, and kindly adding, "Don't worry; you're not the first." (Hugh Bonneville plays the young Bayley.) Then he opened up about his intelligent, intuitive and self-effacing artistry. Only his friends and close collaborators may know exactly who Broadbent is, but audiences and critics get the pleasure of savoring his ability to put his imprint on a marvelous variety of characters -- and to make the best of them marvelously various. Here are some of his thoughts about finding drama in "a soft, gentle man."
So if there are two of you playing Bayley, how did you come up with such a seamless character?
Hugh Bonneville and I worked together in the theater before, so we knew each other well -- we had done an Alan Bennett play, Habeas Corpus, with Sam Mendes [American Beauty] as the director, about six years ago. It never occurred to us that we were in any way similar. But we listened to the same audio tapes, so we had the same sort of vocal reference. And then it was up to Hugh, really, because Judi and I did our stuff first, and then Hugh and Kate did their stuff afterwards.
The way you bring Bayley to life, he's almost like a comic hero in a tragedy -- he's quizzical, watchful and determined to be hopeful until it's no longer possible even to hope.
I think he's a profoundly eccentric man. We've understated his stammer and his eccentric dress sense. He's a fine writer and observer, obviously, and he's got a brilliant mind. He is also child-like and self-deprecating. He was totally in love with Iris. Now he's married again and totally in love with his new wife.
Did you do much background reading before you attempted such a literary role?
I read John's books about Iris [Elegy for Iris and Iris and Her Friends] and I read one Iris Murdoch novel, The Italian Girl. It was incredibly useful because of its setting in an artistic, bohemian family. It gave a very good flavor of the life Iris and John would have led in the '50s and '60s. Not that it's an autobiographical novel, but it's set in a world that Iris and John would have known. You know, they were completely unaware of some of the things the rest of us worry about, including cleanliness and tidiness.
I thought early on that John Bayley was not out of my range, although we're so different -- age-wise [Bayley is 20 years older] and intellect-wise and height-wise. Hugh and I are both 6-foot-2 and Bayley is only 5-foot-4. Facially we're a million miles apart, but I got a lot just from looking at his posture in photos. I did want to diminish my height a bit -- not just to echo John, but to keep myself in the same frame as Judi; otherwise I'd be chopped off at the neck! That seemed to age me, as if a collapse had taken place somewhere within me. From the audio tapes I got the soft quality to his voice, the tempo of his speech and the stammering -- and then other things started to come together.
The private world of Iris and John, in his books and in the movie, comes off as one of those secret places usually shared by friends in childhood.
A big clue for me was something he said in a radio interview. The interviewer asks, "Have you ever had children, Professor Bayley?" And he stammers, "No, no, no, Iris didn't, didn't really want to. I think she felt she already had one in her spouse!"
You and Judi are so free with the wordplay Bayley and Murdoch share -- their love of words is part of their love for each other -- I wonder how specific the throwaway lines were in the script.
Most were in the script, but we played with them a bit, especially in the scene when we're going through the supermarket; we changed the lines depending on what was on the shelf. It's lovely, all that. And so is their little game of throwing literary quotes at each other.
The arcs most characters follow in movies lead to a change, but in Iris we mostly see how elastic a tender personality like Bayley can be under stress.
I think there's some sort of change when he flips -- when they're in bed together and all that pent-up jealousy and resentment comes out. We've seen frustration earlier, but that's a turning point, or at least the point of utmost stretching.
We're surprised because his humor becomes clinical -- he advises friends to say everything to the Alzheimer's-ridden Iris as a joke, because she'll laugh at anything she thinks is a joke.
But I knew that to be absolutely true, because my mother died of Alzheimer's. Over the years, you do get very protective. You also learn that to make her happy, you can say [shifting into a jovial, goading voice], "Well, you're a terrible thing today, aren't you. You're pissing everyone off, giving them fits?" That cheers her up, she feels good.
Similarly, if you would talk about somebody who's dead, like my father, and acknowledge that he was dead, she would get terribly upset, like it was news. And then she'd forget why she was upset and she'd be sad for a while but she wouldn't remember why she was sad. It was like she'd been tripped.
Her care wasn't up to me alone; she had my brother and sister. And my mother was in a nursing home, so it wasn't the full-on Bayley experience. But it was certainly a lot. Acting in the film, it was sometimes very moving to be reminded of what it was like. Alzheimer's is a long process, so you get a lot of your grieving done in advance -- you know you've lost them when you've had your last lucid conversation. In our case, it was 18 months from that point to when she died.
You realize you're never going to communicate with her in any normal sense. Still, you do, in some way. You recognize, as Bayley does in the film, that there's another communication taking place. In the film, if it works, you don't just feel, "Oh my God, we're losing a great mind." A lot more comes out. There's huge love -- reciprocal love -- strange and unquantifiable.