The last time British actor Jim Broadbent snagged an Oscar, it was for the role of devoted husband John Bayley caring for his Alzheimer’s afflicted wife in “Iris,” the 2001 biography of British novelist Iris Murdoch.
Broadbent’s garnering Oscar chatter once again for his role as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s similarly supportive spouse, Denis, in the biopic “The Iron Lady,” with Meryl Streep in the title role.
Director Phyllida Lloyd says she didn’t pursue Broadbent with his “Iris” role in mind. Instead, it was the spirit Broadbent embodies that was required for the character of Denis, whose motto for the perfect prime minister consort was “always present, never there.”
“The critical thing about Denis was that he was Margaret’s unconditional supporter, her rock. He never let her down,” Lloyd says. “So when looking for an actor to play him, we needed someone with immense compassion, warmth and humor. ”
Thatcher’s deadpan humor coupled with tenderness proved to be a perfect match for Broadbent’s minimalist approach. Rather than being overshadowed by Streep, Broadbent holds his own in a role that could have easily gone into buffoonery.
“Meryl has said that Jim has an antic spirit, and I think that’s very true,” Lloyd says. “Jim is the most understated and economical of performers, but has that kind of trickster humor that works well in his portrayal of Denis.”
Broadbent’s extensive background in the theater served him well in executing the role.
“Jim bungee-jumped through situations that other actors without that improvisational experience might have balked at,” Lloyd says. “I knew his work for 30 years in the theater and always wanted to work with him. I’d seen him in plays all over the spectrum and knew he could do this role better than anyone.”
In “The Iron Lady,” Broadbent’s character provides the touchstone for those in the audience leading more average lives.
“(Margaret Thatcher’s) life is so large and full of drama and his is more mundane,” Lloyd says. “He’s the person a lot of people will identify with and understand who she was through the prism of Denis as Jim portrays him.”