The Actor as Writer by Dan Souder

Let an actor write his lines for himself. Let him construct the scene, delineate the conflict, invent the characters, and marshall all the forces of composition, as the Elizabethans did.

Jim Broadbent has won awards for his performances in Moulin Rouge and Iris, and he’s appeared in films about Harry Potter and Indiana Jones. But there are two writing credits on his resume, for the short television films Revolution!! and A Sense of History. It can be uncomfortable for a performer to switch his discipline, when one is as accomplished as Broadbent is in it.

When two strangers meet, there may be awkwardness. It is the same for an actor in a new play. His audience is a stranger to his character. Awkwardness can take them out of the play, can break the spell of illusion. But there is no awkwardness with honesty. If the actor is honest, he sets the audience at ease. They release their reservations and let the players carry them away. An honest actor is utterly convincing, never overdoes it, never breaks character, nor lets the audience catch him performing, though they know he is. He seizes, without permission, the audience’s belief. Broadbent has this honesty. More uncommonly, he has it in his writing.

Belief is not the burden of the actor. The task of maintaining belief falls to the audience. That is, it is a two-way street. It is incumbent on the performers to weave a spell of plausibility. But it’s up to the audience to go with it. If something ridiculous occurs in the playing, the audience may find themselves snapped out of the story, skeptical and bothered. As long as the actor is performing honestly, the burden to put themselves back into the story is the audience’s alone. Should a drunk crack wise on the proceedings, the audience must choose to allow themselves to remain under the spell of the play.

In this way, the audience member is like the religious man. Gods may commit murder, support slavery, and place impossible regulations on sex, all of which snap the religious man out of the story he’s been told. Now the burden is his, whether to will himself back under the story’s spell.

While the audience is hesitating, uncertain of how to respond, the actor must carry on. He’s not insensible to what they are feeling. What then to do with ego? A great actor perforce must possess a great ego. What does it take to proclaim before strangers? Confidence is too little a word to capture what this is. It’s not a belief, nor something learned like catechism. It’s a relentless attitude that whatever he does is worthy of attention.

Yet the actor must at the same time have no ego, in order to subsume himself into his role. This is the distinction that makes an actor great. Consider Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow becoming entirely new people in every role. They have this power into their old age. Or, perhaps more familiar, consider Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain and Emma Thompson in Angels in America. These two transformed themselves into characters so complete that we’re convinced they could tell us the details of their every class fieldtrip. Thompson’s angel was something never before seen on screen: spastic, shouting, otherworldly, incomprehensible. Ledger’s Ennis was taciturn, undemonstrative, yet his angelic nature was visible, like a light under an algaed pool.

This no-ego is important. It is why most movie stars do their best work at the beginning of their career. Meryl Streep put more soul into Sophie, and Robert De Niro into Bruce Pearson, than either actor has in their hundreds of characters since. It’s no coincidence these roles came at the head of their careers, before the injections of mega-fame reached meth insanity and blew their egos into gas giants. Once that happens, total subsumption into a character is impossible.

This is also why character-actors are superior. Their egos bear the scars of scalpels: passed over for roles, left out of reviews, sat for hours under heavy makeup, unrecognizable. For much of his career, Jim Broadbent was one of these. Twice during this time he tried his hand at writing.

Writing is an action technically but a lesser of the sort. It is one of constricted movements, seated, hands and fingers moving, as well as all the fidgets of distraction: the lifting of the glass, the cleaning of the nose. Acting though can be charging into battle, wearing armor, thrusting a heavy broadsword as a hundred men around you do the same. Or in a show like Revolution!!, it is putting on a modern suit and tie with a tri-color sash about the waist and a powdered wig, a fashion clash of centuries. But first it must be written.

Broadbent has a co-writing credit on Revolution!!, the principal writer being his co-star Patrick Barlow. It was filmed for television. It is a farce. It’s two guys playing the historic men and women of the French Revolution, not straight but frivolously. It is jokes. It tests an actor with the honesty of Broadbent: it is a part with no depth.

Broadbent and Barlow play the hosts of a program on the history of the French Revolution. They’re a couple of English schmoes. As the hosts they then play all the figures of the time, from the king and Marie Antoinette to Marat and Robespierre. The program’s shot in Paris. But while some locations are palatial, more are done on the backdrop of the modern city, in hotel rooms and on the street. The passing cars and electricity reinforce the farce.

Broadbent and Barlow play a scene as king and queen, still wearing ordinary office suits with wigs and shawls atop them. Then there is a cut to the streets of modern Paris. They speak over the noise of traffic. There is no crowd control. Passersby look into the camera. Being French they are too dismissive to disrupt it.

“The people were hungry,” Barlow says, standing in front of a Burger King.

The actors come out of the Bastille metro, up to the street, ready to storm it, but it isn’t there.

Broadbent: “Ah ha, there is the La Bastille with its huge perpendicular arches, its flying mattresses.”
Barlow: “It’s a cinema, Wallace.”
Broadbent: “It’s got Bastille written on it, Desmond.”
Barlow: “It’s also got Zazie Dans Le Metro written on it.”

It seems as though it were a right good fun to make: the stolen shots, the silly non-costumes. But while it has laughs, none are for the dearest ones, surprise. As far as historical satire, it is no Life of Brian, where the Pythons told a narrative, and wedged big ideas into the silliness. R!! is a pratfall in comparison. Which isn’t to say Broadbent is bad in it. He exudes control. Barlow however breaks a couple times, suppressing laughter at what Broadbent does. Broadbent makes something out of little. Then in the midst of the gosh-wow escapades, he does something unexpectedly sincere. Louis is about to go to the guillotine.

Broadbent as Antoinette: “I just want to say, that even though I found you boring when we was together, in fact very boring (we had virtually nothing in common between us whatsoever), for some reason, now that we’re apart, I miss you more than I can say. I just want to say that. Please stay with me.”

A fine note of sincerity, delivered sweetly straight. It’s Broadbent stretching his legs in this one-note piece, bringing humanity to the endless piss-takes. It is honesty.

No doubt Broadbent enjoyed playing in it and contributing to the writing. But the Grecian actor wore two masks. Revolution!! is the farce. A Sense of History is the drama. But this latter, wholly written by Broadbent, has great subtlety. It has nuance. As such the umbrella of drama does not cover it. It is also very funny, but in a different vein than the dumb dad versus exasperated straight man of R!!. There is the humor of surprise, even shock.

America’s demon is race, Britain’s is its aristocracy. In A Sense of History, directed by the great Mike Leigh, the demon is revealed in the person of a lonely earl. As Leigh is an auteur, the film is directed better than was R!!. He helps Broadbent, the lead, do no more than stick a bayonet into the aristocracy and dig the black bile from its spleen. Seeing the pus inside it is more upsetting than the act of killing, whereas to fire the gun would simply lend him sympathy. Broadbent sat before the empty page and wrote this extraordinary piece. On the barrel goes his weapon, humor, and a psycho drives it home.

Broadbent plays the 23rd Earl of Some Importance, who conducts us on a walking tour of his vast estate. His family has held the lands since William the Bastard had his nickname changed. To speak more on the plot is to diminish filmic mastery. Here instead a monologue:

“Mother was a great, great beauty. Of that there can be no doubt. But as far as her qualities are concerned, that is quite simply the end of the story. She was stupid and vain, lazy and craven. We adored her but she paid us scant attention. I do remember her, particularly her smell. It was a heady, exotic mixture of expensive toilet water, fine talc, exquisite perfume, and something else, which was sweet and mysterious. I now know what that was. For a great many years, until it was taken off the market, she was addicted to a certain proprietary cough medicine of which the active ingredient was some sort of opiate. I think as a child it was her odor I craved most. I’d maneuver myself so I could bury my head in her blouse or skirts, and inhale as deeply as is humanly possible, that I might experience her more intensely, more completely. But I was usually asked to refrain.”

The way Broadbent delivers it, especially the last sentence, is the height of acting. He lowers his voice a hair, just catching that piece of the throat where the phlegm collects. His speech is dry and the cadence is unchanged, but that hair difference delivers whopping scorn. Until this point he is big in his indifference, and impossible to ruffle. Character is revealed most effectively, in distaste and surprising humor.

As a child the earl murdered his elder brother, who would have inherited the title. This is not the worst that he will reveal. Here Leigh shoots Broadbent in close up, a technique he employs only for the open wounds. Mostly our earl is in motion, limping with his cane, giving a speech whose undercurrent, not its vehemence, makes it a harangue. There are lakes and fields, and few tall trees. The only paths are roads. Here the air is visible, as mist and chilly breath. His is a world of greenish browns and yellows, the colors of a bruise.

The history of his family and their land, indeed they are the same, is both the earl’s captor and his vindicator. Everything he’s done is in the service of his lineage. His monstrous actions are forgiven by this greater good. But as his speech goes on he gives madness away. Purported values are as removable as his jodhpur tweeds. When by himself he leaves them in a pile. Personal property is no ideal to him, though he may protest it is. In fact his secrets prove that morals are not things he understands. The demon is revealed. He has not acted for his progeny and what he will pass on — the manor, lands, and income — but merely to keep the other English out.

What we remember most from stage and screen is not the setting or the plot. It’s the characters. The hosts of R!! are colorless. They rely on the audience knowing all about the historic figures, offering no insight into their backstories. The figures’ names are the placeholders for jokes. ASoH on the other hand is a long confession. It reveals character. The earl is unlikeable, but because the audience is told about his struggle, he has our sympathy. Both portray the aristocracy, but there’s no question ASoH is the greater film.

In fact the upper class is not portrayed in ASoH, it is revealed. The only aristocracy proper in R!! are the king and queen. It is the nature of government that those who take power become the new aristocracy. Thus Marat and Robespierre became in effect what they despised, until the wheel turns and they are killed. But the characters in R!!, like water spiders, live only on the surface.  ASoH‘s earl confesses secrets he has kept for years. We know more about this aristocrat than some of our personal friends. Though this was not R!!‘s intention, and it must be judged as another farce would, there’s no denying that Broadbent on his own composed a more trenchant satire than he was able as a co-writer. ASoH annihilates the upper crust using their own customs, speech, and peculiar sociopathy. R!! merely mocks. It mocks well, but we the audience have within us such depths that a farce will only ever skitter on our surface. Its spidery steps can barely make us feel. It gives a laugh, then is forgotten.

A Sense of History lingers. Broadbent but for perhaps a minute or two of screen time gives the film entirely over to the earl. There are two scenes with other people. One is striking for the way in which he brightens. A worker on his land is driving a tractor. The earl signals him to stop and have a word. The earl asks after the man’s father. When he answers, the earl talks over him and dismisses him. We get the sense this was for the benefit of the camera he’s addressing. It pleased the earl to demonstrate his control over big machines, and other men.

When his son and daughter appear, he shows as much interest in them. Though he calls them “my darlings,” he lies to them about what he’s been doing and shoos them off to see their mother. She remains off-camera in the film. For the earl people are of a piece with the nameless black dog that follows him around. It’s clear he wishes they would be as quiet.

None of this should denigrate the gag. Gags themselves are fine. Broadbent uses them in ASoH. There’s a fine one with his cigarettes. It’s the usage of the gag that marks the presence of taste, and it’s here where R!! falters. Yet after being rather relentless with them, it has a good one for an end. The hosts wrap up their show inside a house of worship. Barlow tries to tie everything together, asking why the revolution began and what it had achieved. He and Broadbent trail off. This is a wink at the audience. They knew all along, as we quickly figured out, that they never had any real discourse to add to the subject. Then as they try to think of some, the dancing girls come on stage. They are in the Moulin Rouge. Broadbent’s beatific. No answer is expected. The spectacle begins.

Broadbent has worked with Leigh four more times, in his feature films Life Is Sweet, Topsy-Turvy, Vera Drake, and Another Year. Barlow’s had a few bit parts in Broadbent movies since.



Dan Souder is an American living with his family in O Distrito Federal. He’s been published by The Missouri Review and X-Ray Magazine, among others.