Jim Broadbent Talks Oscar Stress, Working With Spielberg, Scorsese and Woody Allen

Jim Broadbent Headshot - P 2013
Getty Images

Jim Broadbent Headshot - P 2013

The star of the big and small screen, who began on the stage, is the latest Oscar winner to grace the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for its prestigious "Life In Pictures" interview series.

LONDON – Oscar-winning actor Jim Broadbent talked Oscar-race stress, working with Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and what an old actor's joke about Steven Spielberg actually feels like when it comes true.

Broadbent, who won an Oscar in 2002 for his turn opposite Judi Dench in Iris, discussed his 40-plus years on the stage and screen at a packed British Academy of Film and Television Arts HQ in the British capital on Wednesday.

Broadbent confessed to being a nervous wreck when he got wind of his Oscar nomination.

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"It was very scary being nominated for an Oscar," Broadbent said. "I seriously debated whether or not I wanted to be nominated for an Oscar. It was a weird journey [the Oscar campaign], but exhilarating."

He even went so far as to hire a PR advisor for the first time in his entire career "to handle all that stuff" that goes with an Academy Award nomination.

In Iris, he played John Bayley, the husband of celebrated English author Iris Murdoch. The film centered on her life and her ultimate decline while suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

Broadbent received his first-ever award in 1999 at the Venice International Film Festival, the Volpi Cup for best actor in Topsy Turvy, which was directed by key career collaborator Mike Leigh. He said that recognition marked a change in his standing as an actor. 

"I became awardable," Broadbent grinned. "Winning awards changes your attitude to yourself," Broadbent mused. "That [Venice award] put me on the map. The Golden Globe [that followed for Iris in 2002] was completely shocking. And then there was the Oscar nomination."

Over the 90-minute discussion hosted by journalist, broadcaster and critic Boyd Hilton, Broadbent talked through highlights of a career that began with a turn on the stage at age 5.

"I started with serious work and that was the end of it," Broadbent said smiling, adding later in the conversation that he had "stopped working seriously after that for the next 20 years."

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After a clip from Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, Broadbent detailed how he got the call from the New York filmmaker as he stepped off the plane to shoot Widow's Peak opposite Mia Farrow.

Farrow was fresh from the New York courts, having just finalized her divorce from Allen.

"I got the call [from Allen's people] on day one of filming with Mia [Farrow]," he said. He decided not to tell Farrow about his next acting assignment, opting to keep it a secret for a couple of weeks.

After he had worked with Farrow for the first part of the Peak shoot in Ireland, he told her about his next job with her ex-husband.

Broadbent said Farrow advised that he should be glad to "work with Woody, he's a great director. Just don't have a baby with him."

He said Allen, like Broadbent's frequent British employer Leigh, allowed improvisation with the script "as long as you get the salient points of the scene across."

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He said he had asked Allen one time after a long take if his performance was "all right?"

"It was quite funny," Allen said simply, which was a huge compliment as far as Broadbent was concerned.

Broadbent, who has over 130 screen credits to his name covering a range of genres from comedy to fantasy and from biopics to animation, also sketched out his onscreen adventures with Martin Scorsese in Gangs of New York and his BAFTA award-winning outing in Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge in 2002 with a pinch of incredulity at his own success.

He described Scorsese as an amazing "general" and talked of being slightly awe-struck by the director's ability to direct huge set pieces, hundreds of extras and "colossal sets" while still remaining "warm and approachable" with questions of performance or the minutiae of the history of cinema and the movies.

And he described Luhrmann as a man possessed with "such enthusiasm and determination to get his vision on the screen" that "you couldn't help but enjoy the energy".

He said that his rendition of Madonna's hit "Like A Virgin" has yet to receive any feedback from the singer.

"Well, we never speak," Broadbent deadpanned about what he described as one of the "many challenging moments" for him and his role in Moulin Rouge.

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Broadbent also mused that he would like to do an out-and-out action role -- something he has never done -- after seeing some of the set pieces in Spielberg's Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

"I was in the film but wasn't involved in the big set piece action scenes," Broadbent said, noting a driving force in his career choices is a desire to try new things.

He said that there is an old actor's joke about a group of actors sitting around in the green room after a show when the telephone rings and one thespian turns to the other and says, "if that's Spielberg, tell him I'm busy".

Broadbent noted that "when you actually get that call it's sublime" adding that there were still many directors and actors with whom he would like to work.

He spent a long part of the evening discussing his working relationship with Leigh, having been in "seven or eight" of the director's movies and also several of his stage productions.

He noted that he has become quite impatient with Leigh's famous method of months of rehearsals before shooting begins.

"I suppose I just want to cut to the chase these days and get filming," Broadbent said before adding that Leigh's methods always result in brilliant work.

He also noted an amount of disappointment at the reception and audiences that Cloud Atlas, directed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis, had gotten. "It was an independent film and needed a lot of money behind it to get it out there. Warner Bros. had the distribution rights but it wasn't one of their own, so I think it might have been pushed harder if it was [one of their own rather than a pickup].

Broadbent can currently be seen in Le Week-End, a film from Roger Michell and written by Hanif Kureishi, Starring opposite Lindsay Duncan, it's a role for which he finds himself nominated for best actor at the upcoming British Independent Film Awards.

At the BIFAs in 2006, Broadbent was presented with the Richard Harris Award, an honor created in the name of the late actor to recognize an actor's outstanding contribution to British film.

He told the audience that the Le Week-end script probably contains the most of him. "I could see so much of me in my character and Lindsay's role," Broadbent said.

Broadbent's early roles included the film Time Bandits and television dramas Silas Marner and TV's Crown Court.

Broadbent was awarded his second BAFTA at the British Academy Television Awards in 2007, as well as a Golden Globe Award, for his portrayal of the titular character in the single drama Longford.

He said he found the rhythm and timing of making TV more agreeable to him than film.

"I love television," Broadbent said. "I think the balance of work and time is quite suited to me and the way I like to work."

Previous talent taking part in BAFTA's life in pictures events, sponsored by Deutche Bank, most recently included Emma ThompsonTom Hanks and Dustin Hoffman.

BAFTA A Life In Pictures is a long-running series of onstage interviews in which some of the film world’s leading talent talk about their lives and careers and share insights into the experiences that helped them hone and develop their crafts.