Jim Broadbent has no trouble remembering the murder trials of Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, two child killers whose exploits rocked Britain in the 1960s.
“It was like the O.J. trial or Manson or Jeffrey Dahmer,” recalls Broadbent. “Myra Hindley’s mug shot was an iconic British image back then, and it still is.”
So it’s understandable why Broadbent might have been reticent about playing the title character in HBO’s “Longford,” a telepic that explores the real-life relationship between Hindley (played by Samantha Morton) and Frank Pakenham, the seventh Earl of Longford, a controversial British politician who was a passionate advocate for prisoners’ rights and, later, a fierce foe of pornography.
Yet Broadbent has profited by trusting the instincts of writers and directors who see him in roles he’s sometimes reluctant to play.
“I think, ‘That’s a ridiculous idea; I’m not right for it,’ ” he says. “Then I think, ‘Well, they’ve been right before, so I’ll trust them.’ And with characters who are real, there’s research I can do, like reading things, watching films, hearing tapes.”
Longford was brought low by Hindley, who used him to campaign on her behalf while concealing important details about the murders. But Broadbent decided to look beyond the headlines and learn what made Longford tick, a task made easier thanks to Peter Morgan’s sympathetic script.
“My impression was that Longford was something of a buffoon, a large ego who wanted to be in the media all the time. I think Peter had that idea at first, but became more impressed by the battles Longford fought. And I went on the same journey. Initially, the draw was playing an extreme character, but then you dig deeper, and it’s much more interesting.”
Ultimately, making this telepic changed Broadbent’s view of Longford.
“Certainly I have a lot more respect for him than I did before,” the actor says. “I’m sure I wouldn’t have fought the battles he fought — I’m not that sort of person — but I admire him taking on those causes. We could do with more politicians who stand up for their principles.”