Flashy and larger-than-life acting wins attention and plaudits, but anyone with a gift for theatricality can go big and broad.
It takes a special kind of actor to compress things in the opposite direction, to look inward instead of outward, to take even the most restrained figures and invest them with deep pathos and feeling.
Jim Broadbent has been doing that with quiet, understated excellence for decades, winning an Oscar for his efforts in “Iris” and offering the sort of magnetic empathy in his work that sets apart the greatest of actors, while playing everyone from W.S. Gilbert in “Topsy Turvy” to key cogs in the ensembles of everything from “Moulin Rouge” to the “Bridget Jones” series and the upcoming seventh season of “Game of Thrones.”
The 67-year-old has one of his finest parts at the center of “The Sense of an Ending,” an adaptation of the Julian Barnes novel opening Friday, in which he plays a lonely, divorced British man named Tony Webster who finds himself increasingly overwhelmed by his evolving understanding of a key moment in his past.
It’s a performance that is so natural and authentic, so effortlessly complicated, that you feel as if you’ve always known Tony, or someone like him. Broadbent felt the same way about the character on the page.
“I just identified with him,” Broadbent says. “Because he was exactly my age, we’d been through contemporaneous [things] in our art school days and teenage years. ... I knew exactly who he was and I’ve known people like him, so the actual character fell into place quite easily.”
There’s a quietly comic quality to him that balances the intense seriousness, Broadbent adds.
“In spite of his serious, grown-up behavior in some ways, he’s actually still as anxious and vulnerable and arrogant as a teenager in some ways,” he says.
We understand, then, why Broadbent signed on to “The Sense of an Ending.” But how about a bit more insight into his process? What’s something unique he thought he could bring to such a rich part?
“I thought I could bring a sort of vanity to him, in a way,” Broadbent says. “He’s rather pleased with himself. In a very obvious way, my choice of beard for instance, that sort of beard where you shave every day [to style it], there’s something vain about that.”
Broadbent himself seems almost painstakingly modest in a phone conversation, especially for someone who’s reached the pinnacle of his profession.
“I wouldn’t have the clout or the wit or [be] articulate to make a strong point,” he says when he’s asked about whether he’d ever personally speak out on political or other offscreen issues ala his “The Iron Lady” co-star Meryl Streep.
And the day-to-day experience of being a famous and beloved actor, at least as Broadbent experiences it, sounds almost refreshingly conventional.
“I try to keep a fairly low profile,” Broadbent says. “I just carry on with life. I go on public transport, I go on the subway all over, and it doesn’t affect my life really in any way. ... I don’t go out and seek it and try to shove myself in people’s faces.”