Hugh Grant never wanted to be Hollywood’s ‘romantic Englishman.’ So he gave it up
Just how stressed is Hugh Grant, you ask? Let him tell you:
“Well, apart from the fact we’re having a second spike of coronavirus and we’re about to be smashed by a no-deal Brexit, and food shortages and medicine shortages, and everyone is furious and terrified in the streets, and my children won’t sleep and I’ve got a terrible hangover, everything’s perfect.”
The actor is speaking by phone because a Zoom call was thwarted by technical difficulties, likely contributing to an already chaotic day. Make that year. Like many of us, Grant has spent the majority of 2020 at home. And as a 60-year-old with five children under the age of 10 — three with his wife, Anna Eberstein — that comes with challenges.
“I’m an old man with very young children and a very exhausted wife. So it’s just about survival from hour to hour in terms of childcare,” says Grant. In between reading scripts and torturing various colleagues “by pretending I’m going to do their project, like a cat with a dead bird,” Grant has whiled away his months of isolation “going in and out of a 2-year-old’s bedroom and saying ‘shh’ or words to that effect, though not always that gentle.”
Grant’s transformation from renowned bachelor to harried stay-at-home dad matches the recent course change in his professional trajectory. For decades after his breakthrough role in “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” his name was synonymous with romantic comedies that relied on his prodigious wit. But after a period of semiretirement a decade ago and a stint as a fierce critic of the British tabloid press, he’s sparked a career renaissance by playing an array of fascinating creeps, dastardly villains and vain enablers who all happen to be, in his words, “rampant narcissists.”
These include an egomaniacal actor in “Paddington 2” and a closeted politician who plots to have his male lover murdered in “A Very English Scandal,” which earned Grant his first Emmy nomination. The streak continues in “The Undoing,” a glossy HBO limited series that features Grant as Jonathan Fraser, a dashing, wealthy pediatric oncologist who may or may not be a homicidal psychopath.
Nicole Kidman, who plays Jonathan’s glamorous therapist wife, has been friendly with Grant for decades, but “The Undoing” marks their first onscreen pairing. She says Grant has “always had a love-hate relationship with his work,” perhaps because it’s difficult to find roles that tap into “his extraordinary combination of humor and dramatic acting ability.”
In “A Very English Scandal,” streaming as of Friday on Amazon Prime, screenwriter Russell T Davies) and director Stephen Frears tell the story of the British politician Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Josiffe (later Scott), the former lover he allegedly tried to have killed.
Susanne Bier, who directed “The Undoing,” offers her own take: “The darker side was always there in his romantic comedies. But the last few years he has allowed the melancholic side to gain more territory.” In casting Jonathan, Bier was “looking for a weird mix of compassion and unpredictability, and Hugh has both to an extreme degree. On a scale of innocuous mischievousness to sinister mischievousness, you can’t tell where he is.”
Bier says she constantly fielded phone calls from Grant, who “worried about every line.”
“He is very meticulous,” she says. “Because he is so amazingly charming, people don’t realize how incredibly talented and deep he actually is. I think that must have been, at some point, frustrating for him. Not anymore.”
Grant spoke to The Times in advance of “The Undoing’s” finale on Sunday . The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.
“The Undoing” may be your first purely dramatic role in some time. Is that something you were eager to do?
There’s not a huge number of laughs in “The Undoing.”. But I’m not sure that was why I did it. I did it because it was a very classy project and it was a script that made me turn the pages, which is very rare because normally I’m asleep by page six of most scripts I read.
For 10 years now at least I’ve been trying not to be [the] sort of romantic Englishman who is in love. I’ve been trying to do more character roles. I’m not entirely sure that this is a character role. I wanted to make it that way and then, quite near to production, Susanne Bier very politely told me to dump all that.
Tell me more about making it a “character” part.
I’ve done all these parts recently where I’ve had to put on accents and strange haircuts and been very far away from “Hugh Grant.” And in the end I had to bring this back quite close to a version of me, so much so that I’ve had to warn my wife. I said, “When you watch it, this isn’t me.”
In HBO’s ‘The Undoing,’ starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant, David E. Kelly creates a kind of East Coast companion to ‘Big Little Lies.’
Do you see Jonathan as another version of Hugh Grant?
Well, it’s not young Hugh Grant in love. It’s married, parent Hugh Grant with a job that takes up a lot of time, living a life in the Upper East Side of New York. That’s not entirely unlike my life in here in the west of London; my children are in a posh little school. I go to fundraisers just like those fundraisers.
This is your second series after “A Very English Scandal.” How did you adjust to the rhythms of television?
There are several things that have put me off television apart from pure snobbishness. The idea that different directors direct different episodes — I always worry about consistency. And actors don’t necessarily get all the scripts before they start a series, so they don’t know where their character’s going. But neither of those were the case with this. I regard it as a film. I refuse to even admit to it as television.
Your career has had a bit of a revival that began three or four years ago. Do you have any thoughts about what might have changed? Was it a conscious effort on your part?
I have to be very thankful for Stephen Frears, who, out of the blue, asked me to be in “Florence Foster Jenkins” with Meryl Streep [and later cast him in “A Very English Scandal”]. That gave me a new kickstart. I’ve returned really to where I began, as a character actor. I just did silly voices and imitations for sketch shows and commercials back in the ’80s. That’s what I was good at. I never for a moment thought I was someone who would be a leading man, especially in romantic comedies. That was never a genre I had any particular affection for, but that’s where I ended up. I’m not ungrateful. I loved the money, of course, and I’m proud of a lot of those films. But if someone said to me, “Do you have any talent as an actor?” I’d say, “Well, only in regard to character acting.”
Do you think you brought character acting into the romantic comedy?
I did try. Whatever it might be, “Four Weddings and a Funeral” or “Two Weeks Notice,” my process was always the same as it is now. I do a ridiculous amount of homework and granular analysis of every moment in the film. I build up these vast biographies of the character. Hiding behind the mask of someone else seems to loosen me up and make me better. And in the end, one thing I have discovered over the years is all you really want in film acting is to be loose.
That’s interesting. I think for a long time there was a perception you just played versions of yourself.
That always made me grind my teeth a bit. Because that character in the Richard Curtis films was a bit repetitious. But it wasn’t me. It’s really kind of Richard.
So what does your preparation involve?
There are roles that lend themselves to research more than others. “A Very English Scandal” was riveting to research. I now know everything there is to know about the politics of the ’70s.
With something like this, you’re looking for things that can give you a thought or a trigger. I met a lot of child oncologists. Although they were all charming men, as you’d expect, it wasn’t terrifically helpful until my brother and his wife, who live in New York, recommended a doctor from a completely different field who was beloved of all the Upper East Side ladies. He was extremely charming but I could see how one might think, “You might be a little bit too good to be true, my friend, with your wonderful bedside manner and your perfect suits.”
At one point in the new film that (ahem) bears his name, Paddington Brown, the Peruvian-born, London-dwelling ursine hero with the blue coat and floppy red hat, rattles off the recipe for an unusually large quantity of marmalade.
I wanted to ask about “Paddington 2.” You seem to be having a lot of fun as Phoenix Buchanan, a washed-up West End star reduced to starring in dog food commercials.
I’m delighted it looks like fun but it’s never fun. All of that old cliché about “Drama is easy, comedy’s difficult.” It’s bloody hard, comedy, particularly hard with that director Paul King, who I think is a great, great filmmaker. One of the things that makes him so good is that he never compromises.
But it was great fun for me to use some of my characters I’d met in my early career working in provincial theater in England. [He slides into Phoenix’s haughty voice.] You know the wonderful old lovey actors, slightly predatory thespians, who did long, long warmups and taught me how to use greasepaint — which we were still using in 1983. Little tiny dab of red in the eye, my darling, makes the eye dilate.
You said comedy is harder. How so?
Harder in the sense that they’re more thankless, because audiences throughout the history of entertainment have always been naturally and inextricably drawn towards the baddie. They just love the baddie and they slightly yawn at the goody. No one wants to play Romeo, for Christ’s sake, they want to play Tybalt or Mercutio. To be the good guy and not a yawn or a bore is very difficult.
Have your kids seen you in “Paddington 2?”
Yes. I arranged a special screening actually and I took several of my children and they hated it. One of them turned to me after a short period of time and said, “Why are you in it so much?” which was very hurtful. But I have to say subsequently they’ve come to love it.
In the last 10 years, your life has changed profoundly. Has that given you any clarity or affected your choices at all?
When you say how have I changed as an actor, I strongly suspect that having these children has really helped. Because suddenly, instead of being a half-atrophied, middle-aged golfer, I’m a man with a life full of love. I love my wife, I love my children. They love me. And, suddenly — very unusual for an Englishman — I have all this access to emotion. Almost too much access. Sometimes it’s hard to keep it down.
Which of your romantic comedies do you think have stood the test of time?
I’m amazed at how well they have stood the test of time in terms of people still wanting to see them. They’re scattered all over cable channels and streamers, so they must provide some service. There’s some that I’m particularly fond of, including a film called “Music and Lyrics.” Adam Schlesinger, who wrote all that music, died of COVID earlier this year. It’s awful. But what a genius he was.
Adam Schlesinger, cofounder of “Stacy’s Mom” rock band Fountains of Wayne and songwriter for film and television, died from complications related to COVID-19. He was 52.
There was a period about a decade ago where you stepped away from movies. What happened?
I developed a bad attitude from about 2005 onwards, shortly after “Music and Lyrics.” I just had enough. Then I went back in 2009 and made another film. At that point, it wasn’t me giving up Hollywood. Hollywood gave me up because I made such a massive turkey with that film with Sarah Jessica Parker [“Did You Hear About the Morgans?”]. Whether I wanted to or not after that, the days of being a very well-paid leading man were suddenly gone overnight. It was slightly embarrassing but it left life free for other things. That’s when I started getting very political and had a fascinating few years as a rabid campaigner for reform of press regulations.
What inspired you to take up that cause and support the Hacked Off campaign for new press standards, beyond your own interactions with the tabloids?
Print journalists [in the United States] are much closer, it seems to me, to doctors, dentists, psychiatrists — you’re professionals who take an enormous pride in your work and in accuracy. It’s a completely different culture over here that has really become toxic over the past 30, 40 years. They were really able to operate above the law.
I always stress this was never about celebrities. People with really sad stories — [with] kids who’ve been killed in road accidents or brothers who’ve been killed in terrorist atrocities — had their privacy intruded on, all to make stories for the profit of newspapers.
The other thing that really upset me was that incredible power they had to make or break political careers and therefore pretty much run the country. Our last 10 prime ministers have basically been chosen by Rupert Murdoch and a couple of other newspaper owners. That seemed to me wrong.
But it was never an issue that interested the public until one particular atrocity by one of the big tabloids [the News of the World], when they were caught hacking the phone of [Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old] who’d been abducted and was subsequently murdered. That really revolted the British public.
In the new biopic, “Florence Foster Jenkins,” Meryl Streep plays the title role of a wealthy philanthropist with the desire — but not the talent — to be a singer.
You were not known for your activism before this. Were you reluctant at all about speaking out?
During this whole campaign, I got to see politics in Britain very close up, which made me angrier and angrier. That’s what’s made me somewhat of a Militant Mary now and I’ve moved on to ranting about Brexit and [British Prime Minister] Boris [Johnson].
I have always thought that actors should shut the f— up because no one wants to hear it. During the Hacked Off years I was always in furious debates with my comrades about whether I should go on big political news programs making our case. Although I could get on those programs in a way that [my colleagues] couldn’t, it was an open invitation to the enemy to just say, “This is all about whinging celebrities.” It was a double-edged sword. I have taken enormous flack for being yet another woke celebrity. People are not wrong. Nothing is more repulsive than being preached at by someone who’s got a very privileged and lucky position in life and I totally accept that. I just was, and remain, very angry.
From what I’ve read, it sounds like acting was never Plan A.
I was drifting, like most people do when they come out of university. I thought acting would last about a year. Here we are, 35 years [later]. There was a sort of excursion in those early years where I was also writing my own material with a couple of writing partners. Those were very happy days. I remember feeling the most satisfied and like a human being at the end of those days, more than any day on any film set ever. You know this: Any kind of primary creativity where you actually turn a blank page into something hits a very profound spot and one that is deeply satisfying.
Is writing something you still have the urge to do?
Yes, from time to time I sit down with a computer and tap away. I have been telling myself recently, “This is how you should be spending your 60s. Otherwise you’ll be dead and it will be too late.” I have half a novel that I need to finish. I think that is what I’m best at, really. I’m quite good at use of language. I’m not sure I’m really good at story and movies need story. Plot’s a bastard.
What’s your novel about?
It always sounds so lame when I try and describe it. It takes place almost entirely in what you would call the trunk of a car. A man is hidden in the back of the car, spying on his girlfriend because he thinks she’s having an affair. At least that’s where we start. Anyway, you see, I told you it was lame.
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