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Hugh Grant Is Veddy Veddy Busy : The 33-year-old actor may or may not be the next great British romantic leading man--remember Cary?--but he’s working on it with three new films, including ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’

<i> Chris Willman is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

A British leading man who has the fair features to turn young girls’ and aging matrons’ knees wobbly; the graceful, spot-on diction that suggests breeding commensurate with beauty; the urbane quick-wittedness that cements the intellectual desirability . . .

. . . but who also, all-importantly, counterbalances all that perfection with a nervous self-deprecation, or befuddlement even, that makes him a dashing yet daffy Everyman, unthreateningly endearing to even the least secure heterosexual male.

Sounds like a Grant, all right.

Mention to Hugh Grant, though, that some have suggested he might be the rightful successor to Cary as the first real romantic-comedic leading man from England to hit big here in decades and he does precisely what you’d want an ingenuously modest Brit to do: demur.

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“Does a romantic leading man still exist, though, in the cinema today? Discuss in not more than 500 words,” he says, doubtfully reposing the question. “If we were still in the ‘50s or ‘60s . . .”

If we were still in the ‘50s or ‘60s, Grant’s star might already have risen. The odds aren’t terribly lopsided in the ‘90s, at that. The sleeper comedy that’s causing all the commotion, director Mike Newell’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” opens Wednesday, and offers Grant, 33, his first true leading role in a film that has any likelihood of breaking out beyond the art-house circuit. The sweet, sharp farce has him striking up romance with Andie MacDowell in a circuitous route that takes the tentative couple through a “meet-cute” times five, encompassing all the title ceremonies.

He also shares star billing in two other pictures opening in Los Angeles in the next two weeks, albeit in far less sexy, more reactionary parts. He plays the prototypical repressed Brit in two international productions--John Duigan’s “Sirens,” also opening Wednesday, and Roman Polanski’s controversial “Bitter Moon,” which opened in Europe a year and a half ago but finally hits here March 18.

These round out the inadvertent homage au Hugh Grant , as he puts it, and make him very probably the only actor going with four feature films out at once--considering that he’s still on screens with his small part in “The Remains of the Day,” as the grown godson whom Anthony Hopkins strives to teach about the birds, the bees and fishing.

Off-screen as well as on, those charmed by Grant most often mention his likably self-effacing quality.

“I’m gonna get rid of that,” he announces, suddenly, when the subject comes up. “I’m going to efface my self-effacing quality, I’ve decided. It’s not a good idea in Hollywood. Too often I’ve said, ‘Oh no, no, please, it’s a terrible film, I’m awful in it,’ and people have taken me at my word, which is not what they’re supposed to do at all. They’re supposed to shout me down and say, ‘On the contrary, it’s excellent, and you’re wonderful!”’

Grant’s longtime girlfriend, British actress Elizabeth Hurley, who currently lives in L.A., “is furious with me when I do that, furious ,” he says. “But I can’t believe how people don’t do it here. I’ve had lunches with people I’ve never met before where they’ll say just in passing, ‘Yeah, I made a film two years ago which got 14 awards and was called the most exciting film since “Jurassic Park,” ’ he says, marveling at the gaucheness of it all. “Just in passing they’ll blow their own trumpet like that, and maybe that’s what you have to do, I don’t know.”

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Well, it is amazing how many. . .

“I just want you to know I won the best actor prize in the Venice Film Festival in 1986,” he interrupts. (It was for his debut lead in Merchant-Ivory’s “Maurice.”) “Anyway, do go on.”

. . . is amazing, as we were saying, how many unsolicited verbal resumes one collects in Hollywood.

“And I think that’s what gives me the creeps a bit here, actually, because I see too much of myself in the people around me, the self-obsession,” Grant says. “Conversations you have here, it is literally just ‘my turn to talk about myself, your turn to talk about yourself, my turn'--and there’s no contact, no one has any interest in anyone else at all unless they can. . . .”

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He suddenly hushes. “This is terrible. This is the L.A. Times! What am I doing? What am I doing? I love Hollywood. I’ve liked everyone I’ve met,” he says, the rather unconvincing last bit muffled by his burying his face in his hands.

He really isn’t the first person to have noticed it, we point out, trying to be reassuring.

“No, I know, but it sounds terrible coming from a foreigner. I would hate any foreigner who had the audacity to criticize one single thing about London.”

And--as someone who prefers to carry on a bi-continental love affair rather than do something so unnatural as resist the “strange impulse to base myself where I’m to be indigenous"--he means it. Grant complains with a resigned bemusement that one question he seems to get from a lot of American journalists is: “You’re very British, aren’t you?” Stupid or apocryphal as the question might be, you can kind of see where it’s coming from.

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At the ’94 Sundance Film Festival in Utah, Hugh Grant, the toast of the festival, is learning to schmooze in a big-time way. Here, “Four Weddings and a Funeral” was the opening-night premiere and “Sirens” also had its stateside debut; the buzz on Grant is prompting a lot of glad-handing on the snowy streets, with many a glove or mitten extended in instant friendship.

There’s a beautiful Hollywood-in-Park-City scene happening as Grant puts on his winter parka and bids adieu to Elle MacPherson, who is dressed unseasonably in a remarkable skintight bodysuit.

“Missing you already,” Grant coos to MacPherson, blowing a kiss as he exits, eliciting a good super-model laugh.

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This affectation is an inside joke between the “Sirens” co-stars, adopted from one of Grant’s earlier festival encounters. Indulging in such mockery seems to be his way of shielding himself from the pressure of being buttered up as a golden boy.

“Certainly I have been schmoozed, and although I’m cynical about it now, there’s a huge side of one which is drinking it in thinking, ‘Yes, how right you are, I am a huge star.’ And I don’t want to be disappointed,” he admits, sitting down inside a nearby ski-town coffeehouse. “I know that people do talk you up a hell of a lot in Hollywood--I’ve had it to a smaller extent before--and you don’t want to come crashing down. And although I can’t pretend I’m not excited when they say it, I realize that I ought to take it with a really big pinch of salt.

“I met a person the other day from Hollywood--I’d known them for literally one minute--and when I said goodby, they said, ‘Missing you already.’ And, uh, that couldn’t be true.”

To be fair, folks can’t be blamed for feeling endeared to Grant after seeing “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” though he insists he’s not nearly so nice as the character on screen. Variety, for instance, has come out with the film’s first review during Sundance, a rave that says, “Grant’s got just the combination of good looks, rueful self-disparagement, quickness and bespectacled nerdiness to carry off refined, sophisticated screen comedy.”

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Grant saw the film for the first time himself at the festival premiere, and says he breathed a huge sigh of relief. “I don’t think in many ways it was a perfect first time to see it, because although Salt Lake City’s a lovely place, that particular audience was quite full of middle-aged religious people, and the first nine words of the film were ‘f---'. A few people left quite near the beginning.

“I understood the script because I have the same sort of background as the screenwriter, Richard Curtis, and used to do quite a lot of comedy myself, and knew exactly where all the beats and all the timing should be. And Mike Newell was directing very deliberately against the natural sort of comic beats. So I panicked and thought, ‘Are we making it too serious?’

“But watching it, I realized he was doing exactly the right thing. In a comic scene Newell makes you play the truth, and to hell with any timing, to hell with comedy, as if we’ll let that take care of itself. And although that made me nervous when we were playing it, I see now he was right.”

As for the character, “There are elements of the thing which are me--like the chaos in my life, and I suppose to a certain extent being 33 and not being married and worrying about it a bit,” he says. “But the niceness is not really me, no. When people like that character, they’re really liking Richard, the screenwriter. I think I’m a nastier piece of work.”

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Mike Newell, surprisingly enough, agrees.

“I believe him,” Newell says by transatlantic phone, laughing. “He is, of course, two people. And one of the sides that made both of us very nervous was that he has a very cool side to him, a side that observes with irony and candor, and not necessarily kindness, either. He’s a very bright man, and he sees people’s foibles and mannerisms very clearly, and you can sometimes see his eyebrow cocking at these things, and you just know that something devastating and witty and not necessarily kind is about to come out of his mouth.

“Now, there is also that kind of shaggy Irish ‘Oh God, another piece dropped off me and I’m terribly sorry’ charm to him, and it was a matter of emphasis, bringing on one and keeping back the other. Oddly enough, I’m working with him again now on a new film where that polarity is exactly reversed. I want the cruel side of him and I don’t want all that lovely, raffish charm.”

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In most of his films, though, Grant hasn’t been raffish or cruel--just constricted.

He was typecast to the point that a recent Los Angeles magazine review of “Bitter Moon” referred to the actor as “perpetual twit Hugh Grant.” That perception might not have been entirely unreasonable based on the handful of Grant’s films that have made it to the United States. His starring breakthrough, “Maurice,” had him as a troubled young man slowly coming to terms with his homosexuality in the 1910s; his next major film, “Impromptu,” was a bit more of a romp, but even there, as the ever-sickly composer Chopin, he was more an unwilling foil for Judy Davis’ wiles.

And two of the three films opening this month have him quite repressed. “Sirens” features Grant as a 1930s Anglican priest who visits a painter of nudes, Sam Neill, to try to convince him to tone down his work, only to find his very proper minister’s wife drawn into the local sexual experimentation.

In “Bitter Moon,” he’s an all-too-proper Brit on a cruise ship who’s repelled yet captivated by Peter Coyote’s tales of sexual abandon, his wife again resorting to lurid satisfaction in another cabin.

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With “Four Weddings,” though, Grant’s days as a mostly reactionary presence in films may be through, as he gets offered parts a little closer to his own dry screwball charisma or the Newell film’s joie de vivre .

Duigan, the “Sirens” director, believes one of Grant’s most exploitable qualities is “his ability to laugh at himself, and in a way that perhaps not all that many current actors can. He’s very open about humorous things that have happened to him; minor humiliations, he quite relishes actually talking about, whereas most people would probably keep them under wraps.”

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Back in Los Angeles a few weeks after the Sundance Festival, Grant is holed up at the Four Seasons Hotel, and isn’t keeping his frustration under wraps. The second Newell film, “An Awfully Big Adventure,” has been confirmed as a go in the interim, and he’s been rehearsing himself for the Dublin shoot in his suite.

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“When you get a role, there’s that terrible sort of fear, am I gonna be able to do it or not? I’ve been laughing like a maniac in this room for the past two days. I think the maids are quite wondering about me. He’s got a laugh, this character, and they describe it. . . .”

Grant picks up the script and reads: “‘Meredith laughs his attractive, open, nervous bray of a laugh, which--little to do with his real character--seduces. Using it, he enslaves impressionable people.”’

Says a frustrated Grant, “Could you give me an ‘attractive, open, nervous bray of a laugh’? A bray is what a donkey does, right? Hee-haw. But what’s an attractive bray of a laugh? I can’t f---ing do that!”

In “An Awfully Big Adventure,” a comedy-drama based on a Beryl Bainbridge novel, Grant is cast rather against type as the “absolutely vile” antagonist, a charismatic regional theater director in 1946 Liverpool who, being both nasty and gay, inspires the very misplaced crush of a naive teen-aged actress. (Alan Rickman is also cast unusually, as the hero.)

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Grant is spending the rest of his hours in the Four Seasons reading through the dozens of scripts that his new American agent has been collecting since the Sundance buzz.

He resists questions about his “stock,” but is prepared for it to rise.

“The only place where they really adore me right now is Japan, where I think for some reason they have a thing about English gentlemen. After ‘Maurice’ came out, I got hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of letters with lovely origami dragons and Japanese sweaters and things like that. There’s a whole book in Japan called ‘Hugh Grant Vol. 1,’ and now there’s a ‘Hugh Grant Vol. 2' coming out--which I just had translated, and it’s a very astute work . . . how I like to eat when I’m relaxing. . . .

“I got a script from Japan actually the other day. The translation wasn’t quite as good as it could have been. It began, ‘A worker is making a hole in a statue with a dribble'--which I assume is meant to be a drill. And then it said, ‘Peter enter'--Peter is my character--'he shout, “Stot, stot, give me the dribble.” ’ And it was tempting in a way to do it, without having it retranslated.

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“But do you know, they’re tailing off. How dare they? When I got back from Sundance to London, there were not nearly enough Japanese letters, not nearly. I think I’m a bit long in the tooth for them, actually. I’ve since discovered a lot of my presents never got to me. My (former) agent intercepted them. I thought I’d seen him in Japanese jumpers and that beautiful origami mobile hanging in his office . . .

“And yes, disappointingly few fan letters from the rest of the world. Only nutters, really, strictly speaking. There are a few maniac kind of waiters or something who say, ‘Hey, “Lair of the White Worm,” great movie, man,’ and then you know that they’re about to go off to McDonald’s and machine-gun a hundred people.”

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Grant has the same doubts about marriage as fame. He implies that he and Hurley may soon start living together again--probably on home turf, given his proud nationalism--but very much shares the hesitancy of his “Four Weddings” character to jump into matrimony. He also shares his movie persona’s philosophical uneasiness about being single, though it’s not easy to cut through the cheekiness on these more personal subjects.

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“You start to feel a little bit strange, don’t you--I mean, most of my friends from Oxford now have got paired off. A few, I’m delighted to see, are getting divorced. It cheers one up no end, if you have been worried about ‘is there something wrong with me? Why am I not married?’

“Did I tell you my views on marriage? About the Von Trapp marriage and ‘The Sound of Music’? This is my dream of a nice marriage: to be in a big schloss , with enough space so that you and your wife can avoid each other, with a lot of servants to bring the children down, in sailor suits, preferably in step, at 6 o’clock in the evening, have a quick look at them and then send them off to bed again.

“But I cannot seem to envision myself living in a nice semi-detached house in South London with two squawling children on the floor with all those hideous toys that they seem to have now. I can’t bear those horrid primary colors--they’re really offensive.”


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