‘I like jobs that are a little bit dangerous’
Jim Broadbent tells Mick Brown why he took the part of Hans Christian Andersen in a ‘very violent’ new play
‘Iwas reading an article yesterday,” Jim Broadbent says,
“about the cult of personality, saying the people interviewed in the press more than any others are actors – and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m doing one tomorrow.’”
There is this fascination, I say. Why do you think that might be?
“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s worse than it used to be – this whole fame thing, reality TV, these social networks, which I don’t have anything to do with…” The thought peters into silence.
Fame, the cult of personality, social networks – the very conjunction of the terms seems to provoke in him a palpable shiver.
Walking into the offices of his publicist a few minutes earlier, Broadbent – polite, the barest glimmer of a smile on his face – had greeted me with all the enthusiasm of someone who had been asked to fill out his tax return. Softly spoken, the traces of his Lincolnshire upbringing still detectable in his vowels, he has the air of a man with something on his mind, but he’s not about to tell you what it is. The interview, he says, is “part of the job”.
Broadbent is back on stage for the first time in two years, playing Hans Christian Andersen in a new play by Martin McDonagh, A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter.
In a sense, all McDonagh’s work for stage and screen – In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Pillowman – deals with very dark matters, but this, it seems, is darker still. The poster image for the new play shows a rather scary looking eye, staring out through a tear in a black curtain. But what’s it about?
I’d asked to see the script before this interview, I tell Broadbent, but I was refused. Virtually all I know is the publicity line describing it as “dangerous, twisted and funny”.
“I think that’s all they want you to know, really.” He gives a slight smile.
“It is a wonderful play. A short play. An hour-and-a-half, no interval. It’s very funny, very dark, very violent, and raises a load of different issues about all sorts of things. It’s going to be such a surprise that hopefully it will be quite controversial.”
Can he tell me some of those “sorts of things”?
“Mmmmm.” There is a long pause. “The nature of creativity.
The massacres in the Congo in the 19th century – and that’s probably as much of a teaser as I can give.”
And you play Hans Christian Andersen…
“Yes. Or Martin McDonagh’s version of him. But that’s probably not much of a reveal. And Phil Daniels is playing Charles Dickens [the two writers were friends]. But not really Charles Dickens as anyone has ever pictured him, so that’s…” Another pause.
“It’s a costume drama. I can let you know that.”
Broadbent, who is 69, started out acting in theatre. His parents ran an amateur dramatic society and his first role was as a four-year-old in a production of A Doll’s House
– “I started with Ibsen,” as he likes to say. After drama school he worked with the National Theatre of Brent and appeared in Ken Campbell’s nine-hour Illuminatus!, but his appearances on stage have dwindled in recent years as film and television took over.
If something really exciting comes along, he says – which this play most definitely is – then he’s interested. “But I no longer want to do theatre purely for its own sake.”
Across theatre, television and film – from sitcom to drama, from Only Fools and Horses to Mike Leigh 2001 1992 2001 2009 2012 2014 2013 dramas, to Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway – Broadbent has long been Britain’s most versatile character actor. “Fairly flexible, I think is the thing,” he says, when I ask what it is that makes directors keep coming back for more.
“My whole thing from the word go has been to do something I haven’t been doing recently. And I’d rather do something risky and odd than carry on doing the same thing.”
By way of illustration he points
SERIOUSLY GOODJim Broadbent; and in rehearsals with Martin McDonagh, right