The prolific British actor Jim Broadbent is best known for a wide variety of supporting parts over the years — including “Gangs of New York,” “The Iron Lady,” “Moulin Rouge!” (which he cites as a personal favorite), recurring roles in the “Harry Potter” and “Bridget Jones” movies, and his Oscar-winning performance (opposite Judi Dench) in 2001’s “Iris.”
In “The Sense of an Ending,” based on the novel by Julian Barnes, Broadbent is front and center as Tony Webster, an unassuming elderly businessman in London whose reckless youth comes back to haunt him. Directed by Ritesh Batra, the film co-stars Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walter and Michelle Dockery as the various women in Tony’s life — both past and present.
Broadbent, 67, spoke about the film during a recent telephone interview from New York.
Q: Had you read the novel prior to getting this script?
A: No, but when I got the script, I made a point of reading the novel first, and I loved it. It seemed like an exciting opportunity, a rather unusual and different kind of part for me. Then I read the script, and I was impressed with how well the story translated from book to screen. Inevitably, there was a lot in the novel that seeped into my understanding of the character, mostly in terms of his internal thoughts and feelings, but (accepting the role) was an easy choice to make.
Q: You’re primarily known as a character actor, but it’s great to see you getting to play the leading man for a change.
A: Well, that was something that certainly appealed to me, too, and another reason why this was different for me. I love playing those strong or extreme supporting roles, but this one felt easily recognizable and quite close to me — the same age, the same middle-class background. It wasn’t a very huge leap away from my own voice or physicality. I understood where he was coming from, his motivations and vulnerabilities in life, his gentleness. It’s uncommon for me to identify that closely with the characters I often play.
Q: Does an actor need to identify or relate with a character in order to play it?
A: Not always, although I have turned down offers before to play characters that I couldn’t identify with. When I’m occasionally asked to do jobs in the States, I feel like there are so many other American actors who would be 100 percent better suited and more qualified to play those roles.
Q: I was a big fan of “The Lunchbox” (director Batra’s 2013 debut feature). Is there much difference when you’re working with a relatively new or inexperienced director?
A: I loved “The Lunchbox,” too. I suppose it’s a testament to him that he never seemed like a novice, or that he had only made one other film before. When I first met him, I was immediately impressed with how bright and confident and intelligent he is. Like all good directors, he cared deeply about the project and was really committed to it, and he appreciated what actors can bring to the process, by giving us a lot of input.
Q: Did you have a chance to meet or compare notes with Billy Howle (who plays the younger version of the character)?
A: Ritesh arranged for us to have lunch, just to get to know each other a little and make sure we were on the same page.
Q: Some of your best scenes in the film are with Charlotte Rampling (as the former flame Tony hasn’t seen in nearly 50 years) and Harriet Walter (as his ex-wife). Talk about working with them.
A: It’s interesting. Both of them were terrific, but for different reasons. Harriet and I have known each other since our days at college, and we’ve worked together many times over the years. We have exactly the same background, starting out in London theater, and we’ve actually played husband and wife three or four times before, so that made the relationship between these two characters very easy for us to get into. On the other hand, I’d never met Charlotte, didn’t know her at all, which made for an entirely different dynamic, but one that also worked in terms of the characters we were playing. I was slightly in awe of her reputation in England, slightly challenged by her somewhat inscrutable personality, but I loved how that edge worked in the context of our scenes together.