I had the chance to speak with Academy Award winning actor Jim Broadbent about his new film The Duke, a true story about a British citizen who stole a priceless piece of art and held it hostage… to try to make BBC free for the elderly.
Broadbent is an actor of great renown. An Oscar winner for Iris, his remarkable career includes roles in the Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Indiana Jones, and Paddington franchises. Other highlights include Brazil, Life Is Sweet, Moulin Rouge, Hot Fuzz, Le Week-End, and Brooklyn. The Duke is an excellent and comedic slice of period storytelling. Broadbent is perfect casting as a man willing to go to great lengths for his beliefs in creating a slightly more just society. Much of the film is spent in courtroom sequences where Broadbent’s natural charisma and humor work beautifully, nearly as well as it works in the film’s textured family scenes. I found Jim to be a warm, compassionate interview subject, and a particular joy for me to speak with as a great admirer of his work.
The following has been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.
How Jim Broadbent selects a role
This is a great pleasure for me! I’m very excited to have the chance to speak with you today.
Broadbent: Ah, that’s great.
Starting a little bit big picture here, at this stage of your career, you’ve won an Oscar, done big franchises like Harry Potter and Indiana Jones, and you’ve taken on a lot of smaller, more personal roles. I’m curious what you look for in a part nowadays.
Broadbent: I think it’s always a good script, beautifully written, and something that I haven’t done before. Something exciting. I want to be able to bring something to it and be challenged. I don’t want something I just trot out. I want something that needs a bit of investigation, a bit of effort, and a bit of excitement on my part. A bit of adrenaline is always helpful. I’m always looking for something, but it always depends on a great script really.
Director Roger Michell’s passing and his influence on Broadbent
It’s hard to talk about this movie without discussing director Roger Michell’s passing. He made a number of wonderful films, including a handful with you, and I know you’ve spoken warmly about your relationship with him in the past. I believe sometimes a small story can help give someone perspective on a life and I was wondering if there were any anecdotes you might be able to share about Roger that might help an outsider like me to get to know him just a little bit.
Broadbent: He was the most wonderful director. I would say my favorite director I’ve worked with. I did the two films with him, Le Week-End, which was the film about this couple going to Paris for a weekend, and then this one, The Duke. He was the most subtle and easy director I’ve ever worked with. You never felt you were being directed, for one thing. He was so clever. I remember about three weeks into filming that this was like an Ealing Comedy. The Ealing Comedies of the 50s and early 60s in the U.K., which were wonderful family movies with a good message. I thought there’s an Ealing quality to this. Only later on did I realize that Roger and the writers had been steeping themselves in Ealing Comedies for weeks before in pre-production. That was never spelled out to me, which was right or otherwise I’d be trying to do an Ealing Comedy sort of performance.
There were lots of little things in his direction like one scene where Kenton [Broadbent’s character] comes out of a shop and forty people come past on bicycles. I never knew that was going to happen and suddenly there they all were. It conjured up this whole period in time when everyone knocked off from work and went home on their bicycles. They didn’t have cars or motorbikes, basically in Britain in the 50s everyone went home at 5 on bikes. It’s just an image that came through, which was obviously in Roger’s mind. He had this great vision. It was a small thing that maybe most of the audience wouldn’t notice. It was this subtle attention to detail that was really exciting. That comes all across the film – the little things he brought to it. His casting was perfect for everyone in the whole film. You never question any of it. Everyone knew exactly why they were there, even if they come in for one scene. They nail it completely. It was the happiest film I’ve ever been on. His death is even more painful for that. Everyone who ever worked with Roger wanted to work with him and that fact that it can’t ever be possible is a huge loss to many many people.
The changing audience tastes in film
It feels like films like this – a sort of positive enjoyable experience – used to be the norm and now are such a rare treat. It seems like this sort of storytelling has either shifted to television or in some cases evaporated. I’m curious what you make of the changes in taste and the way the industry develops projects more broadly.
Broadbent: Yea this is obviously one thing that drew me to the part. Up front and center stage is a man of my age, which doesn’t happen very much in movies these days. It’s very much a young person’s medium in terms of what you get on the screen. There are various films that are for the older generation, I suppose. This was particularly exciting – he’s a hero, and that’s very unusual in films these days. I don’t follow much of the young action films of the time. I can’t quite keep up with all that. I can’t really talk very authoritatively, but I do know when this one came up I thought it was totally unusual for the time. It’s a wonderful piece of writing really – it’s got wit and tension and humanity. Everything you could want really.
The Duke as a portrait of male grief
The film is very funny but one of the things I thought was interesting was the portrait of male grief on screen. It seems that so often you have very extreme reactions to how grief is handled on screen and I appreciated the more subtle long term mourning that your character is facing. I’m curious how you approached that as a performer.
Broadbent: The approach always comes from the script and when the script is so good you’re guided through it. I didn’t have to do research in particular. I had to get the accent right; the accent of the Northeast is very particular, a Geordie accent it’s called. That was my main concern. In terms of following the emotional journey, the writers depicted it so well that it was a question of following that. I’m sure Roger guided me in ways I never knew. I’m sure I got things wrong but he, in the most subtle way, would have probably changed the direction I was pushing it. Also, I very often bring too much to it. A good director will say “I liked it, but bring that back.” I like to present more than is necessary and then people can reduce it. Better that way than trying to start with nothing.
Broadbent’s relationship with co-star Helen Mirren
I gather we’re coming to the end of our time so one final question, I really appreciated the lived in quality of your marriage with Helen Mirren on the screen. There’s that great scene where you ask her “what were you doing in there?” and she responds “I live here!” It nicely captures the tensions a marriage can have, but also the affection that goes with it. I was curious what it was like to build out that relationship with her.
Broadbent: My favorite scenes in the film are the family scenes, particularly the ones with Helen and myself. She was just wonderful to work with. Everything felt so natural. We didn’t feel like we were acting at all. We approached it all in a very similar way. We knew what we were dealing with and everything flowed so easily. I keep saying it but it’s how it was. The whole atmosphere for the family scenes was absolutely something I loved through their bickering and his outright lying to her. But it’s full of love, even through the difficulties.
I really appreciated the chance to speak with you. I loved this film . And I have to say as someone with two small children I see your face on my TV screen nearly every day between Harry Potter and Paddington so this has been a real joy. Best of luck. Thank you for taking the time.
Broadbent: Thank you very much. Thank you!
The Duke is in select theaters now and will expand nationally in the coming weeks.
The film is currently playing at Angelika Film Center in New York City which was once one of my main movie going enclaves for quality cinema. Angelika Film Center and Sony Pictures Classics have announced an initiative “Bring A Friend Back To The Movies” which will provide one complimentary ticket to anyone who purchases a ticket directly from the Angelika website, app, or in theater to see The Duke during the first week of its release. The goal is to bring audiences back and remind them that nothing beats seeing a film on a big screen with a friend. Sony Pictures Classics will release the film in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on April 22, 2022 before expanding to additional cities over the following weeks.
In addition, Angelika Film Center separately announced the Angelika Membership program which will be free to join and launches April 29, 2022. The membership offers exclusive rewards and benefits for film lovers.