If you aren’t in a relationship before watching Mike Leigh’s new film Another Year, rest assured you’ll be frantically trying to land a partner after its denouement. Partly, that’s because Lesley Manville’s performance as a lonely, aging single woman provides such a bleak cautionary tale, but mostly, it’s because Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are so warm and lived-in as the central married couple, Tom and Gerri, that they comprise one of the screen’s best testaments to long-term coupledom. It’s Broadbent’s seventh time working with Leigh, and that convincing rapport he has with Sheen is attributable to Leigh’s unique method of assembling the cast months prior to shooting, then asking each actor to develop their character from scratch. Vulture sat down with Broadbent recently to ask him how it works and to dig up a little bit of information on the upcoming Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady, where he will play husband to Meryl Streep’s Thatcher.
You won the Oscar in 2002 for Iris, and now Lesley Manville is gearing up for the awards derby. Have you given her any advice?
I kept it down to a minimum as much as I could. Sam Mendes advised me beforehand: “If you get a nomination, keep everything down to a minimum, otherwise it’ll do your head in completely.” So that’s probably what I’d say to Lesley if it cropped up.
Tom Hooper is also in the mix this year for directing The King’s Speech, and you worked with him on Longford.
Yes, I think Tom has a good chance. I don’t think I’ll be in the frame this year. There’s a lot of very strong, eye-catching performances this year, I would suggest. It’d be pretty much a long shot for me, although that’s not why I do it.
Tell me about the rules Mike Leigh has when developing a movie. To what extent do you get to familiarize yourself with the other actors? I’ve heard that you don’t get to learn the motivations of the other characters.
The motivations are completely off-limits. You don’t talk about your character with the other actors at all. You don’t talk about your character in any terms except for what the other actor would know. With Ruth, we talked about what Tom and Gerri had done together, and we’d be sent off to go and invent eight friends of theirs or something, or decide what they did for the Christmases between 1980 and 1990. You do all that, but I would never say to Ruth that “Tom wouldn’t like to do that because … ” You can only say that if Tom actually said that to Gerri, do you see what I mean? It makes the improvisation totally pure, so you can be genuinely surprised and react to it in an organic way. That sort of stuff stacks up in the memory banks so you can create a rich and varied backstory — most of which will never come out in the film, by the way.
As actors in one of his movies, you’re so involved in developing the film during preproduction and shooting. Does it seem odd that he then goes and edits it without your input?
No, no. I’ve been doing it with him for 30 years, so it seems natural. It doesn’t necessarily feel like preproduction when you start rehearsing — all the work is done with characters and getting them researched and on their feet, moving and acting. You try to get the character as interesting as you can, and part of that is choosing where they live and choosing the decor and choosing the clothes. We make those decisions, but we’re not part of what the flavor of the film is going to be, the mood, or how it will be shot or edited. We don’t really feel sidelined, because we’re doing our job.
Does Mike Leigh really not know what the movie is or what the plot will be when he begins? I find that hard to believe.
Well, he has some idea based on who he’s cast. He knew Another Year was going to be about older people, just as he knew that Happy Go Lucky was going to be about younger people.
So does that give you a hint as to how you want to develop your character, by looking to see who else he’s cast?
You might try to sort of guess as a party game, “I wonder who I’ll be married to?” [Laughs.] And you can tell when it’s moving toward the moment where you’ll go into work one day and find out which actress you’ll be with, who’s going to walk through the door for that rehearsal.
You’ll be shooting The Iron Lady opposite Meryl Streep soon.
We start filming at the end of January.
Do you think there will be any resistance in the U.K. to an American woman playing such a quintessentially British role?
I think years ago a film about Thatcher was attempted, and they had a phone-in vote on a BBC morning news program: “Who do you think should play Margaret Thatcher?” And Meryl actually came out on top! I think it’s perceived that Thatcher needs a star, really, and she’s perfect casting in many ways. She’s got a good look, and she’ll absolutely do it in a brilliant way. She’s also got an interesting eye on the script: She can bring an outsider’s view on the story, so that it won’t become a lazy, parochial piece that Brits understand but where nobody else really knows what’s going on. She can ask the questions that foreign audiences will ask.
Do you think it will change your previous views of Thatcher to make this movie and inhabit these people?
It’ll be interesting. I don’t know, as I just got the new draft. You know, when Peter Morgan told me about Longford before he wrote it, we both knew of him, and he doesn’t remember this, but I think he wanted to do a hatchet job on that man! But when he did all the research and the writing, it was much more interesting and complicated. That process might take place on this project. We know what they did, and we’ll find out why they did.