In Early Works, we talk to artists young and old about the jobs and life experiences that led them to their current moment. Today, it's The Sense of an Ending actor Jim Broadbent, who talks about his long road to film acting, turning down Shaun of the Dead, and why he's not likely to work with legendary director Mike Leigh again.
Both of my parents were amateur actors, and they were both trained in the arts. My father was an architect designer, and my mother was trained as a sculptor at London's Royal Academy. After World War II, my mother stopped pursuing sculpture to focus on the family, and my father had a furniture-manufacturing company, but they acted in their free time and started an amateur theater group in rural Lincolnshire that continued into the early 1960s. Then, the theater burned down in a fire, the company disbanded, and ten years later, it was resurrected under a different name by somebody else who founded a Methodist chapel. My father put on his architect hat and helped convert it into a small theater. When he died, they named the theater after him.
When I was a little boy, the theater was something that was always happening in the background. My first role was at five years old, as one of the children in a production of The Doll's House. It was my one and only stage appearance for the next 20 years. I had only one line: "A big black dog ran after me." I was very pleased to be there, and I wasn't nervous. Nerves came later.
Acting and art were the only two things I was good at. The drama wasn't very good at my school, but we did a lot of comedies. I was always up for being on the stage in front of an audience. After I left school, I thought I'd look into being a theater designer. I went to art school for a year, and I took a job as a student assistant stage manager at a big repertory theater in Liverpool for six months. I wasn't quite good enough, though.
Since both my parents were of an artistic nature, they not only encouraged but almost assumed that I would do something creative. When I was at art school, my father and I went out for a meal and sat next to a table next to some loud drama students. He said, "How about you go to drama school?" He probably knew I was probably more interested in acting and drama and probably might be better at it than art. I realized all I really wanted to do was act, so I went to drama school, too. I was immediately happy in that world—it was the one thing I wanted to do, but I'd discouraged myself up until that time. Acting was the only unstable profession in those days—the archetypical profession where you're likely to be out of work. Now, there are a lot of them.
My first film role was in The Go-Between in 1971, during the summer holidays when I was at drama school. I was an extra and didn't have any lines. One of the actors who was in it, Michael Goff, was a family friend. I absolutely loved the summer in rural Norfolk, and I loved seeing films being made—how everyone worked together in this very effective way. It was a while before I had any sort of role in a film again, though—Jerzy Skolimowski's The Shout, in 1978. I was doing lots of fringe theater work in London—provincial repertory work on short contracts. I was always working more than I wasn't, and it was about four years before I got an agent and started getting recognized.
For many years, the theater was the center of my life. I loved the community aspect, the friends I made, and the nomadic quality of the work. You didn't know where you'd be working in the country; you might be on tour. The romance of being a traveling player—a rogue, a vagabond, a troubadour—was very exciting for me as a young man. The excitement of getting on the stage and making people laugh is thrilling.
I met my wife when she was doing freelance costume design work for a TV play I did. She also had a costume company, but later on, she sold the company and became a painter, which is what she always wanted to do. We're not doing the same thing, so we're not in competition—if anything, we complement each other, in a good way. She understands actors and what they're like, and I understand the art world to some degree. We don't question what each of us are doing because we know what it's about.
I first met Mike Leigh in 1978 or 1979. I did two plays with him—Ecstasy and Goose-Pimples—within two years of each other at Hampstead Theater, and then I did one of his workshops, and we got on well. We ended up working together nine times after that. Topsy Turvy was my high point with him. I knew it was going to be about Gilbert and Sullivan and that I was going to be playing Gilbert, but I didn't know what the story was going to be or how it was going to play out. That was one of the most thrilling jobs in my life. I didn't do Mike's last film, and even though you never say never, I've probably done enough [of his films]. His process is effective, but it's very time-consuming, and it's not as interesting when you've done it nine times. There are other things I want to do.
I was asked to be in Shaun of the Dead, but I hadn't wanted to do it, or I was busy with something else—I can't remember. Then I saw it and loved it. I saw Simon Pegg at a BAFTA event, and I told him how I regretted not being in it, and if he was doing anything else, please get in touch if he still felt inclined. I schmoozed him, and it worked. Hot Fuzz was a wonderful job—a real meeting of contemporaries and young, bright, comedic actors. I had a lot of fun. I'm always on the lookout for doing something different and new—something that I haven't done before. I generally do jobs because they're films that I'd like to see, and I think I've been really lucky.
As told to Larry Fitzmaurice