Oscar winner Jim Broadbent slips into the skin of 'Longford'
Watch his recent gallery of performances -- as testy librettist W.S. Gilbert in "Topsy-Turvy," manic impresario Harold Zidler in "Moulin Rouge" and his Oscar-winning turn as John Bayley, the long-suffering husband of Alzheimer's-stricken writer Iris Murdoch (Judi Dench) in "Iris" -- and you may find yourself doubting that you are watching the same actor in all three roles.
In fact, it's a little tricky to get a read on Broadbent himself even when he's sitting just a few feet away from you, his face and shoulders backlit by sunlight streaming through the windows of a California hotel room, where he has come to talk about his new HBO movie, "Longford."
Written by Peter Morgan ("The Queen"), the fact-based drama, which premieres Saturday, Feb. 17, stars Broadbent, 57, as Lord Longford, the eccentric and controversial British politician who put his reputation and career in jeopardy by campaigning for the release of a notorious serial killer, Myra Hindley (former Oscar nominee Samantha Morton, "In America").
Set in the last three decades of his life, the movie follows Longford as he becomes increasingly driven to win parole for Hindley, who was convicted of acting with her lover, Ian Brady (Andy Serkis, Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" movies), to murder several children in the 1960s. While the case is not very well-known in the United States, it remains a hot-button topic in Broadbent's native England, he says.
"My generation, anyway, has always been aware of Lord Longford in some way, because he was quite a character on the political scene," Broadbent explains. "And the Myra Hindley story was massive and continues to be a benchmark of how serial killers are treated in the press. It's been a few years since she died, but she was always presented as archetypally wicked."
The actor says he and screenwriter Morgan were attracted to the project for the opportunity it provided to examine what motivated Longford to champion Hindley's cause despite the harsh toll his advocacy took on both his family and his reputation.
"[We wanted] to investigate and portray a man who was far more complicated and a better man than he was represented as being by the tabloids over many years," Broadbent says. "Longford actually had done a huge amount politically, of enormous value, but he was a very interesting character: an aristocrat who renounced that to become a socialist and a Protestant who renounced that to become a Catholic.
"Even though he had a privileged life, he visited prisoners on a more than just regular basis: three different prisons, every week, for 50 years. There were various sorts of obsessions and drives that consumed him. We wanted to show the core of humanity that was inside him. It wasn't just vanity and a need for attention. He was actually a very compassionate man."
Brady, Hindley's partner in crime, made frequent attempts to convince Longford that he was being played for a fool by the woman for whom he was serving as a champion, but Longford rarely wavered in his conviction that Hindley was being treated more harshly than a man would have been under similar circumstances.
"He was struck by her wanting to return to the Catholic Church, because he was an ardent Catholic, and he was struck by her engaging personality," Broadbent says. "Myra was, as he saw, so unlike the tabloid representations of her. Maybe he thought she had been misrepresented, but he was quite charmed by her to an extent.
"I think she was a very complex woman who could be all things to all people. She presented what she knew people wanted her to present. Amongst fellow prisoners, she was a very strong character who was clearly somebody who was not to be messed with. She seemed to be a different personality to different people."
The actor says he approached this complex role from the outside in, using extensive video and audio footage to master Longford's walk and manner of speech.
"I love playing real-life characters, particularly when they are as idiosyncratic as he is," Broadbent says. "You can attempt to get under the skin by getting the rhythm and timbre of the voice, getting the walk and this slight speech impediment that he had. All that is very telling towards a character for me, getting some of those externals going. Then, hopefully, I get an understanding of the personality and psychology of the man. I think all those internal clues do give you an idea of what makes the man tick.
"The voice, I think, is principal in these characters. [With Longford], there's a very slight stammer, an arrogance but a tentativeness as well. You get those clues."
Throughout this interview, Broadbent is cordial and soft-spoken, although he clearly is an actor who prefers to let his work speak for itself whenever possible.
"I don't like to talk about myself generally," he confesses. "I've gotten a bit better, but I used to be famously bad at it. A lot of the interviews would talk about my hesitant, stumbling speech and lots of unfinished sentences. I mean, what's to talk about, really? Actors do what they do because they want to do the part and play the character and tell that story."