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Originally published Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 7:01 PM

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'Another Year,' another improvised Mike Leigh script

Jim Broadbent, who stars in Mike Leigh's new film, "Another Year," explains the fascinating process the director and his actors go through to improvise a script.

Seattle Times movie critic

Most movie characters begin on the page of a script — but not the one played by British actor Jim Broadbent in Mike Leigh's "Another Year." As with all Leigh's films, the characters are created through many months of improvisation, before a word is ever typed.

"It's a painstaking, meticulous process," said Broadbent, interviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. He noted that Leigh's methods have changed very little in the 30 years he has been working with the director, which began with the stage play "Goose Pimples." Even for a work based in historical fact, such as the 1999 Leigh film "Topsy-Turvy" (about the legendary musical team of Gilbert and Sullivan), "the process of finding the script was exactly the same as it always was."

In "Another Year," opening Friday at Seattle's Seven Gables and Bellevue's Lincoln Square, Broadbent plays a contented and happily married geologist named Jerry, living in contemporary London. The actor began by searching through memories of the many people he's met to create dozens of brief character sketches. These were presented to Leigh, who chose three that most interested him. Broadbent then began crafting a character who was "an amalgam of those three real people" — though ultimately, he said, the final character bore little resemblance to the three seed characters.

Working with Leigh, he built up a back story for Jerry: his family history, where he was brought up, where he went to school.

"When your character would meet other characters who are in the story, you start collaborating together and building up the shared back story," Broadbent explained. "Eventually, you bring that all up to the present day, and at a suitable time you start improvising with the other actors, parts of their lives, their shared lives, developing a shared history together. Eventually you get so you can all improvise together, and from those improvisations a very precise script is distilled."

Though the script does eventually get written down — "for the purposes of the technical department" — the actors never consult it.

"You learn it as you distill it," said Broadbent.

And yet, by the time the cameras roll, there's no improvisation at all — the script is by then set in stone. The entire process, said Broadbent, takes about six months — and while he thoroughly enjoys it, he admits that afterward "it's very nice to go to something where there's a script!"

A ubiquitous character actor whose thoughtful portrayals pop up in multiple films every year, Broadbent began his career on the stage, but decided "about 20 years ago" to focus his work on the screen, choosing projects that range from low-budget indies to British television films to vast studio blockbusters. At the time of our Toronto interview, he still had one more day of shooting left on "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part II," in which he reprises his role as Professor Horace Slughorn and which he describes as "a happy job to do." ("The kids are all great," he noted of the franchise's young stars Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint. "They're all very well-grounded and balanced and talented and serious ... The producers made sure to look after them very well.")

Looking back on favorite roles, Broadbent singled out the writer John Bayley in "Iris," for which he won an Academy Award; "Moulin Rouge" and its "larger than life" characters; and the title role in the TV movie "Longford," directed by Tom Hooper (currently the toast of Hollywood for directing "The King's Speech"). He also mentioned a special fondness for W.S. Gilbert in "Topsy-Turvy." The Leigh process was tweaked only a bit for this film, set in the 1880s during the making of "The Mikado." The actors would know, when improvising, where the scene was supposed to end up, and were careful to "make sure we had the dialogue and grammar of the period as accurate as we could make it. We were very fastidious about trying to get that as right as possible — taking out all the 'yeahs'!"

Next up for Broadbent is the role of Denis Thatcher, opposite Meryl Streep as the former prime minister of England, in "The Iron Lady." Beyond that, he's waiting for the next great script to catch his eye — or nonscript, in the case of Leigh's eventual next film.

"I choose quite carefully," he said of his projects. "A high proportion of the scripts that come my way are interesting. Maybe those are just the ones that reach me!"

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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