Matthew Broderick and Kenneth Lonergan first met at The Walden School when they were 15 years old, and have remained close ever since. Broderick was just getting into acting at the time—they initially crossed paths while both were auditioning for the school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—and Lonergan was starting to write plays, upon the encouragement of his theater teacher. In 11th grade, Lonergan wrote his first play, a play which gave Broderick his very first leading role.
In addition, Broderick’s mother, Patricia, became a mentor of sorts to young Lonergan and continued to offer valuable feedback to him throughout his career, from his earliest high school plays all the way through Margaret, which was the last thing he sent her before she passed away in 2003. She also introduced both Broderick and Lonergan to one of her favorite poems, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child”—a poem which Lonergan wound up using in Margaret decades later, and from which the film’s title draws its name.
In the nearly 40 years since they first met, while both of their careers have flourished in different ways, the two have remained best friends and worked together numerous times. Broderick had a sizable role in Lonergan’s first film, You Can Count on Me, and plays a small but important role in Margaret—a high school English teacher at the fictional Ralph Waldo Emerson school, which was modeled in no small part on the now-defunct high school which he and Lonergan once attended. And, fittingly, it’s Broderick who reads the Hopkins poem aloud during the film.
Broderick spoke with us recently about Margaret, poetry, juice boxes, and what it’s like to work with your best friend.
The character you play in Margaret, John, was based on a teacher the two of you had at Walden – is that accurate?
Matthew Broderick: Yeah, well at least one of the moments that happens in the classroom, the argument about King Lear that we have, is very much based on something that actually happened. I was there, I remember that.
So that was drawn directly from real life?
Pretty close, as I remember it. And the teacher’s name was John. But we didn’t really base the entire performance on John exactly, but there was a John and that argument did happen pretty much verbatim.
I’ve heard that the idea to have the character sip on a juice box and eat a sandwich was your idea?
Yeah, that’s true. (laughs) It’s based on mixing up actual people that we knew. We had a wonderful English teacher who was hypoglycemic and he used to have to stop and have a juice every now and then. So it was based on that.
And it ends up being such a memorable, defining part of your character.
Well, somebody once told me that it was the only bad part of the whole movie.
No, it was great!
I thought it was fun.
So is the high school in Margaret, in general, a lot like the one you attended?
It was quite a bit like that. The whole premise of it, I mean there was an actual girl Kenny knew who had seen somebody killed by a bus. I remember her, too. So a lot of it was based on what happened in our high school, but then of course it becomes its own thing as he writes it and as it gets performed. But all of it is familiar if you went to Walden, certainly.
Was that surreal at all for you, to be filming a scene where you’re playing a teacher that’s based on an actual moment you took in as a high school student?
It was fun. Kenny has an amazing memory for what people say, and so he often uses dialogue that’s very accurate in that way. But it’s not like you’re just doing an imitation of somebody from 30 years ago; you sort of have to create a whole new thing, too. So it’s really just about trying to make the scene good. And it’s always fun to work with Kenny, I’ve done it a lot.
Is there a version of Margaret that you prefer, between the theatrical cut and the extended version?
Well, I like both of them – but I’ve seen so many versions of it at this point that it’s hard to keep in mind what’s what sometimes. I certainly think the last one that he made is the best, and is the closest to what he always meant. The three hour version.
You saw various edits of the film as it was in development then?
Yeah, he would show friends the movie every now and then as he was working on it. It was a very long process and there were a lot of screenings. Also, I would be hanging around when he was editing it at home and watching scenes, or I’d come see him at the editing suite sometimes. He always likes to show pieces of it, so it’s hard for me to remember which cut was the actual final cut.
And does he want a lot of feedback during that process? Or is he just wanting to show it to get a sense of where he’s at and if he might be going off track?
I think he’s looking for feedback, but at the same time he very much likes to do everything his own way. He does like feedback though, even if he doesn’t agree with you. There’s a little group of us that he likes—not that he even necessarily wants us to give him advice or anything, he just wants us to be there so that he can read the feeling of it.
You’re in a handful of scenes in the movie; the King Lear scene, which everybody remembers, and then another one which is a very central scene to the whole movie, where you’re reading the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem.
Yeah, and I think Kenny knew about that poem from my mom. She always really liked that poem. And I’ve always been aware of it, but I didn’t know it very well. My mom knew it by heart. She knew a lot of poems by heart. And so we were aware of it when we were kids—I don’t remember how or where or when Kenny knew about it—but I don’t really know how to read poetry that well.
Does he tell you how he wants you to read it then, or was that up to you?
No, I mean I don’t remember him telling me how to read it. I remember we recorded it lots of times. Neither of us are really poetry experts, though. I sometimes wanted to have somebody who was a scholar of poetry to help me more with the meter, because I don’t always know how to handle all of that. But on the other hand, we both thought that the teacher I was playing might not necessarily know exactly how to do it either. So I just thought, well, I’ll just be a high school teacher trying to read a poem.
Were you surprised at all when you saw the poem in the script?
No, I knew where it was from immediately. A lot of that script, when I read it, I know those scenes because a lot of them happened. Like a lot of the things in This Is Our Youth or The Waverly Gallery—which was across the street from where I grew up—I know a lot of the characters in his scripts. Every time I read one there’s a lot that we don’t even have to discuss, I just know what it is. I think he wanted that particular scene done simply, so we never really talked much about it.
Is it odd at all being directed by your best friend?
No, not really. Maybe at first, but we’ve done it lots of times now. We’ve been basically best friends since we were 15, so there’s nothing really new that happens. I just do what he says. But I’m sarcastic and nasty about it and he enjoys that. (laughs)
Well, given what you said about his memory and how he often uses things he remembers in his writing, is there ever any hesitancy to say certain things around it? Or any kind of “hey don’t use this thing I just told you in one of your scripts”?
Yeah, I know what you mean! I never think of that though actually. Luckily he’s a really decent person, so he’s pretty careful to never really do that. I don’t think he’s ever been in a situation where he’s hurt anybody by using their stuff. He’ll use a sentence here or there, but out of context. I don’t think he’d ever write a tell-all or anything about me, but he might, like, use something that happened to me and just not say it was me. I could easily see that happening. I’m pretty comfortable that he’d always protect me though.
And as his friend, what was it like watching him go through all the legal battles to get the film released?
All his friends just tried to keep him going, and also to let him know when to stop and not fight. I mean it was a difficult and long road, so it wasn’t as simple as “just keep going.” It was very difficult. But I’m amazed at how well he got through it. And I guess I’ll always wonder, had they just said make it whatever length you want early on, the whole problem might have never happened. It’s a shame. I can see why the other side thought it was important to stick to their guns for a little while there, but really, at some point, if somebody had had the sense to say we’re going to lose, I think maybe everything would have been different.
It also would have been interesting to have the film come out closer to 9/11, closer to when the film actually took place. By the time it came out it was almost a nostalgia thing, which was obviously not what he intended while he was making it.
Yeah, I know. It’s not the same at all. There were all sorts of problems.
But I imagine there’s a good deal of happiness among his friends now, since it seems like he’s about to have a pretty big moment with Manchester by the Sea?
Yes, it’s amazing! It’s great. It’s the opposite kind of experience, which he also had with You Can Count on Me. And I’m very proud that he finally got the full-length cut of Margaret into a few theaters recently. I think it’s a movie to really be proud of, no matter how difficult it was to make. I’m glad that he’s survived it, really, and that everyone will gradually come to watch Margaret eventually. I think it’s something that will last.