Why the fuss? nominee wonders

'Iris' star Jim Broadbent in spotlight as awards season hits full stride

— Jim Broadbent, an Oscar nominee for his role in "Iris," has been called a reluctant movie star. He gently demurs.

"Oh, no. I feel quite eager," Broadbent says with a smile, and not a trace of the stammer he brought to playing John Bayley, husband of the late novelist Iris Murdoch.

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AP Photo

Veteran British actor Jim Broadbent is nominated for an Oscar for his role in "Iris." Broadbent won critical raves for his role of W.S. Gilbert in "Topsy-Turvy," but the 52-year-old had never been nominated for an Oscar until this year.

"What I am is the reluctant celebrity, probably. That would be fairer."

The quiet, modest Broadbent is in the spotlight this awards season as never before. He took home the supporting-actor Golden Globe for "Iris" and won another supporting-actor award at Britain's top film awards for a different role: that of Harold Zidler, the fevered impresario in "Moulin Rouge."

The 52-year-old Broadbent won critical raves two years ago for playing W.S. Gilbert in "Topsy-Turvy" but had never been nominated for an Oscar.

"I thought the Oscars meant you were nominated one day and thought to yourself 'that's nice,' and then a little while later, you went along to win or not win," he says, chatting over breakfast at a cafe near his home in north London's Belsize Park.

"I was unaware of the awards season � the fact that if you're nominated for one thing, you're probably going to be in the frame for loads of others. It's mindboggling really."

Three of Broadbent's female co-stars are in Oscar contention for best actress: Judi Dench in "Iris," Nicole Kidman in "Moulin Rouge" and Renee Zellweger in "Bridget Jones's Diary," in which Broadbent plays the lovesick heroine's father.

"All my three girls are nominated," Broadbent chuckles. "I'm glad I don't have a vote."

He is delighted to bang the drum for "Iris," a small British movie � its budget was in the $5.2 million region � that has created a stir on the strength of its acting. Besides Dench and Broadbent, Kate Winslet is up for a supporting-actress Oscar for playing Murdoch as a brilliant young Oxford student.

Knowing the subject

Broadbent wasn't sure about the project when it was first put to him.

"I thought, I can't," he recalled. "I'm entirely wrong for it."

Not only is the 6-foot-2-inch, square-shouldered Broadbent physically at odds with the short, squat Bayley, but Bayley was 25 years older.

It was the material that won Broadbent over � the story of a lifelong love affair pushed to the limit and then brutally snuffed out when Murdoch succumbed to Alzheimer's disease and died in 1999.

"I read the script and it got me, and that initial reading is always a good sign," the actor says. His mother, who died six years ago at age 82, suffered from Alzheimer's.

"I knew that world, in a way, so I knew how accurate and honest a piece of work (the script) was. I realized after doing the film that I never once had to stop and think, 'How would you behave with an Alzheimer's patient?' I never had to question that all."

Broadbent was chosen over Michael Gambon, from "Gosford Park," among other venerated British actors who sought the part.

The film "didn't want a vocally impressive English actor, although we talked about a lot of them, frankly, in the way that you have to," said co-producer Scott Rudin.

"It needed what Alec Guinness had as a movie actor, not what stage actors have."

That is to say, a talent for transformation and self-effacement and an unaffected sweetness.

The result, Rudin says, is "this incredible quality that Judi and Jim have of seeming to be two big babies roaming around this house together," a feeling reinforced by the ailing Iris' newfound fondness for the Teletubbies.

Future projects

Dench calls Broadbent "a magical, magical man. He's got a wonderful innocent quality about him � those huge round eyes."

The actor will next be seen on screen playing Boss Tweed in Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York," and appears with Albert Finney and Vanessa Redgrave in an HBO film, "The Lonely War," about Winston Churchill.

After the Oscars, he expects to start work on a new film adaptation of the Dickens novel "Nicholas Nickleby," playing the wonderfully named Wackford Squeers.

"I like playing the whole character-actor side of it," Broadbent says. "I like playing that game" � even if it often means taking supporting roles (Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway," from 1994, is a relatively early example in Broadbent's movie career).

For the moment, though, all roads lead to the Hollywood red carpet. Broadbent will be attending the Oscars with his wife, Anastasia, an artist.

"It's fascinating, and there's no denying it's pleasing to get all this attention," Broadbent says, but adds: "I'll be quite glad when the season's over."

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