LONDON — In Room 45 of the National Gallery here, Jim Broadbent surveyed Francisco de Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington. It was not his first encounter with the painting. But, “I haven’t seen him next to Napoleon before,” he said, nodding toward Vernet’s study of the French emperor hanging nearby.
Broadbent’s latest film, “The Duke,” is based on the real-life theft of the portrait in 1961, and comes to theaters on Friday. The actor, 72, plays Kempton Bunton, who held the painting ransom in protest against what he saw as unfair taxes on ordinary people.
If any of the hordes of tourists visiting the museum over the Easter holiday knew they were standing a few feet away from one of Britain’s great character actors, they didn’t let on. To many young people, Broadbent is Professor Slughorn, the affable Hogwarts potions master in the Harry Potter films. Their parents may have seen him portray Harold Zidler, the mustachioed owner of the Moulin Rouge, or Bridget Jones’s father.
The story of Bunton, a mischievous taxi driver, failed playwright and possible cat burglar from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, has given Broadbent another eccentric character. “You couldn’t sell it as a piece of fiction,” Broadbent said earlier, in the gallery’s restaurant. “Stealing a picture from the National Gallery? It’s too far-fetched.”
On the 50th anniversary of the heist, Bunton’s grandson, Christopher, 45, had the idea to tell his family’s story. Inspired after reading his grandfather’s plays, he drafted a script, he said in a recent video interview, and emailed 20 British production companies. He received six replies, including one from the producer Nicky Bentham. Richard Bean and Clive Coleman reshaped the script and Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”) signed on to direct, followed by Broadbent as the lead.
“I don’t remember reading a script quite like it,” said Broadbent, remarking on its old-fashioned quality. With a whimsical sense of humor softening its satirical bite, it reminded him of the films produced by London’s Ealing Studios in the 1950s, like “The Lavender Hill Mob” or “The Ladykillers.” When Bunton is tried in court, he addresses the jury as though they were the audience at a stand-up show.
Broadbent has been honing his own comic instincts since childhood. He grew up in Lincolnshire to artist parents, and attended a Quaker school, where he would impersonate his teachers with studied accuracy, realizing that if he got it right, people would really laugh. “I think that’s what drew me into character acting,” he said. The impressions weren’t just about mimicry, “It was actually observing and nailing essential characteristics.”
His alert blue eyes and gawky 6-foot-1 frame lend themselves well to physical comedy, though his looks, he said, have facilitated a versatile career. “I was never going to be the regular sort of good-looking, handsome chap,” he said. “From the word go, since I wasn’t easily castable in any particular thing, I knew I had to cast my net very wide.”
When he graduated from drama school at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in 1972, he wrote to 100 theater companies looking for work. He soon became a fixture on London’s repertory scene.
When the filmmaker and theater director Mike Leigh met Broadbent over drinks in 1974, he found the actor “very, very cautious,” Leigh said in a recent phone interview. Leigh is known for his improvisational style of working, which Broadbent “wasn’t sure whether he could do,” Leigh said.
But the director saw an emotional intelligence, and cast Broadbent as a “very gentle, Northern, working-class guy” in “Ecstasy,” at the Hampstead Theater. Impressed by Broadbent’s rare sensitivity, and anticipating his range, Leigh cast him again in his next production, “Goose-Pimples,” where the actor “played the exact opposite, a really nasty fascist character.” In total, the pair have worked together seven times.
In the 1980s, Broadbent was rarely offstage — except when he was on TV. Helen Mirren, who plays Dorothy, Bunton’s wife in “The Duke,” said in an email that it was impossible to remember when she first encountered her co-star’s work, “as he has been a part of our theater and screen landscape for so long, but it was probably in ‘Not The Nine O’Clock News’ and ‘Blackadder,’ two iconic comedy TV programs in Britain.”
Soon, Broadbent was craving new challenges, and a change of pace. “I felt very easy onstage, and hadn’t felt that on the bits of filming I’d been doing, and was so self-conscious in front of a lens being put up your nose,” he said, and so moved more toward films.
Another collaboration with Leigh, the feature “Topsy-Turvy,” won him a prize at the 1999 Venice Film Festival, and was a hit in the United States. “That was the beginning of that: You become awardable,” Broadbent said. The awards led to work with Hollywood directors like Baz Luhrmann and Martin Scorsese.
“There’s a whole bunch around that time, like ‘Moulin Rouge!’ — it’s completely out of my comfort zone, I certainly wouldn’t have cast myself in that role at all,” Broadbent said, “you know, singing and dancing.” But he won a BAFTA for his performance. And then in 2002 he won an Oscar for playing the literary critic John Bayley in “Iris,” a role “I tried to persuade Richard Eyre that I wasn’t right for,” Broadbent said. Bayley, he thought, was “a sort of cerebral academic, which is not me at all.”
This Hollywood period gave Broadbent the freedom to be more selective when choosing his later projects. He described himself as “quite famously picky” and in 2002 politely declined to be named an officer of the Order of the British Empire, an honor awarded by the Queen. In person, he is modest and self-effacing — not one to draw attention to himself.
When he isn’t acting in work that appeals to him, Broadbent turns to carving life-size puppets from wood to “find my creative outlet,” he said. “It’s another way of just inventing characters,” and the sculptures have a gnarled quality with haunted expressions.
The appeal of “The Duke” came partly from being directed by Michell again (the pair worked together on the 2013 film “Le Week-End”). Bunton’s story turned out to be Michell’s final project, and he died in September last year. “Roger had it all,” Broadbent said. “He was very sensitive to people, and their vulnerabilities and strengths.”
Broadbent was also drawn to Bunton’s complexity. “He was a failed playwright, an activist, fairly unemployable for any extended period,” Broadbent said. According to Christopher Bunton, the actor made his grandfather “slightly more lovable” than he was in real life.
Though Broadbent’s parents were conscientious objectors to World War II, the actor said he personally prefers to “keep a low profile.” He described himself as “resistant to authority” but said he “never wanted, particularly, that resistance to define who I am.” Bunton, by contrast, campaigned for what he believed in, like an exemption for retirees from Britain’s annual TV license fee. “He was prepared to stand up, and make his presence felt, and complain in a way that I have never done,” the actor said.
Broadbent, Leigh said, “is a consummate character actor. He doesn’t play himself.”