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From 'tragic character' to 'bad guy,' Hugh Grant takes his time picking roles

From 'tragic character' to 'bad guy,' Hugh Grant takes his time picking roles
Hugh Grant, star of "Florence Foster Jenkins," which is returning to theaters just in time for a late awards season push, admits to having recurring stage fright while performing. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

Hugh Grant is driving through London traffic for an 8:30 a.m. production call time. He's headed to set for his role in the sequel to 2014's critical and family hit "Paddington," which is currently shooting. The "About a Boy" star claims he gets car sick when someone else is behind the wheel, but spend a half an hour talking to Grant and you realize he simply might believe there's no reason he shouldn't just drive himself to work.

It might also be the self-deprecating manner that quickly reminds you why he has charmed audiences since gaining worldwide fame in "Four Weddings and a Funeral" a little over 20 years ago. As he describes his character in "Paddington 2," Grant notes, "It's an enormous stretch for me because I play this [guy who] used to be a very famous actor who is enormously vain and narcissistic to the point where he actually stopped getting work because he refused to work with other actors because he thought they were stealing his limelight. So he's now doing dog food commercials.  He's kind of a local celebrity in the area where Paddington lives, and he turns out to be the bad guy."

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If his humble demeanor is for show, he's truly a greater actor than he gets credit for. Especially with his half-serious claim that he's no longer famous. When pressed on the subject Grant admits that "the people-asking-for-selfie quotient is still very high, but you know, clearly, I'm not as young as I once was."

He's young enough that a makeup artist was needed to age up the 56-year-old actor for his role in "Florence Foster Jenkins," which returns to theaters this weekend just in time for a late awards season push. The Stephen Frears drama earned raves not just for star Meryl Streep's ability to sing so badly so well as the notorious New York heiress of the title, but for Grant's nuanced turn as St. Clair Bayfield, the husband who attempted to shield her from the nasty truth about her talents. The project came out of the blue for Grant, who sent Nicholas Martin's script to a number of friends to confirm it was as good as he thought it was.

"It was just a very classy kind of project with Stephen Frears, who makes prize-winning films, which I'm not sort of accustomed to, Meryl Streep, who I've revered essentially all my life I suppose at least since my 20s and then I loved the tone of the film," Grant says. "I liked that you were never quite sure if you're laughing at these people or with these people, and I thought that would suit Frears very well."

Jenkins might have been a horrible singer, but Bayfield was just as terrible an actor. The audience discovers this in one of the early scenes that Grant pushed to include in the movie.  It ended up being part of reshoots months after the production originally wrapped.

"I was afraid that audiences would think, 'Oh, he's just a smooth, aristocratic Englishman,' which I think would have been boring, and I really wanted them to know that without Florence he was nothing, which was, in fact, the historical truth," Grant says.  "After she died he went back to being this tragic character writing letters to every theater he'd ever worked in as a young man saying, 'I don't know if you remember me, but I was the third spear carrier in "Antony and Cleopatra" and have you got a gig?' "

As for his own career, Grant has been more in demand than his recent resume indicates. He was just saying no more often than not over the past five or so years.  Out of 20 scripts he receives, he admits that outside of "Florence," "I think five are bad and then I'm brilliant at finding reasons to turn down the other 14."

Those reasons include his attention to charitable causes for children and a campaign to enact laws to protect British citizens from illegal surveillance after a massive phone hacking scandal came to light in 2011. It could also have something to do with a recurring case of stage fright that first appeared out of the blue during production on "Notting Hill."

"For about 20 years I've had a little touch of stage fright, which means that I am happily acting away and thinking, 'I'm not bad in this' and then suddenly out of the blue I get absolutely side-swiped by a momentary attack of stage fright where I can't think, I can't remember my lines," Grant says. "It's a nightmare — apart from the fact it's deeply humiliating. So, I think that has been behind my ability to find reasons not to do jobs, but I'm still working on conquering it."

But after his success with "Florence" and the fun he's having on "Paddington 2" chances are Grant will pop up on the big screen sooner rather than later.

"There's one or two things I'm flirting with," Grant says. "I have a cruel habit like my old cat. He used to bring in half-dead animals and torture them for a long time and then not eat them. I'm a bit like that with some scripts."

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