CLOUD ATLAS written and directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy and Lana Wachowski, from the novel by David Mitchell, with Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae and Ben Whishaw. A Warner Bros. release. 172 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (October 27). See listing. Click to read the review of Cloud Atlas.
In person, Jim Broadbent looks unassuming, the kind of man you wouldn't notice on the street. But he's been part of some of the flashiest, most memorable movies of the past couple of decades, like Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge!, Martin Scorsese's Gangs Of New York and Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy.
Now you can add Cloud Atlas - which is more ambitious than any of those - to that list.
"These were all hugely demanding, impossible films created by obsessive directors who wanted them made," says Broadbent, in a corner of a suite at the Shangri-La Hotel during the Film Festival, where Cloud Atlas - the collaboration between the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer - is receiving its world premiere.
"There's something thrilling about working with directors who are so driven and at the top of their game and have a vision they care about."
When his agent approached him about the film, Broadbent didn't need to be sold. He'd already read David Mitchell's novel that connects six stories - each set in a separate era and written in a different style - through a couple of symbols and the theme of reincarnation and freedom.
Understandably, when he met with the three directors, he wondered how they were going to adapt a book considered unfilmable.
"It was one of those situations where it wasn't clear who was interviewing whom," he says, chuckling. "But I loved the whole idea of what they were doing."
The directors' approach was more cinematic than literary, casting actors in various roles spanning several stories. Broadbent, for instance, spends most of his screen time playing Timothy Cavendish, a contemporary London publisher who mistakenly ends up trapped in a nursing home, but he also plays Vyvyan Ayrs, an early 20th century composer who passes his amanuensis's work off as his own, as well as Captain Molyneux, who's helming a ship sailing the Pacific in the 1850s.
"It reminded me of some of the most satisfying and exciting theatre work - like the nine-hour Illuminatus! in the [1970s]," says the actor, who won an Oscar playing the devoted husband of Judi Dench's Iris Murdoch in the biopic Iris.
Because of the scope of the project, the Wachowskis and Tykwer divided the directorial duties. The Cavendish scenes were directed by Tykwer, who had never worked on comedy before.
"But he obviously knew what he liked and what he didn't," says Broadbent. "So I got to try various things, push them too far, then pull back. It was fun. I'd go, ‘I can show you this and this and this...' and Tom would go, ‘Great. More of that. Less of that.'"
As for whether the film made him think about its themes of karma, redemption and freedom, Broadbent smiles and shakes his head.
"You can't act a message. I can act a character and get that character right, but if you start to act what the film's about, it can be fatal. You end up being generalized. That's no way to create a precise character."