Hugh Grant Is the Complex Master of Ceremonies in ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’: Awards Spotlight

How the film's well-known co-star found a way to make a complicated character so satisfying.

Hugh Grant

Daniel Bergeron

Meryl Streep is good at just about everything, but in Stephen Frears’ crowdpleasing “Florence Foster Jenkins,” she turns her talents to being bad. The fact-based film follows the remarkable final months of Jenkins, an American socialite and arts patron who spent many years having a go at her own musical career, despite being thoroughly terrible at singing.

Her turn as the lovingly deluded Florence is anchored by Simon Helberg as Jenkins’ dedicated pianist and Hugh Grant as her hard-to-pin down hubby, St. Clair Bayfield. A struggling artist in his own right, St. Clair is tasked with, in Grant’s own words, being the “master of ceremonies” in Florence’s wild world. While Frears’ film shows St. Clair is clearly devoted to his older wife, it also finds the time to chronicle his longstanding affair with another woman and doesn’t skirt the self-dealing reasons for his affection for the tone-deaf heiress.

It’s a thorny role in a charming feature, and Grant is the perfect fit to play the complex St. Clair. As the beloved British actor told us, even he thinks it’s hard to find features that can be both very funny and very sad. All the better if they also lead to “a really good, complicated character” like St. Clair.

Grant liked St. Clair for a number of reasons, including the strange path that led him to the real-life Jenkins.

For St. Clair, a man who had been searching for his place in the world for so long, his wife opened up an entirely new stage for him to play out his dreams, letting him into her “crazy little world” where his presence was key.

And there may be one other thing about St. Clair that struck Grant, perhaps a bit too close to home. As he puts it, it was all about finding the fun in a guy who was, deep down, a “desperate, out of work actor.”

Grant also relished the chance to play a real person, even if the task comes with drawbacks. The production offered Grant the chance to pore over St. Clair’s own letters and diaries at New York City’s Lincoln Center to get a sense of the real man behind the persona.

Grant admits that he works “like an archeologist” to pick up the meaning behind even the smallest of details in each script he reads. He even goes so far as to pen massive biographies for the characters he plays. Another element crucial is using costumes, even period-appropriate hairstyles, to embody a character.

And what of Florence? Well, she was a “hilariously bad” singer and true original. Grant wouldn’t have had it any other way.

This year’s Awards Spotlight series is produced with help from our partners at Movies On Demand, who shot and produced the video interviews, and from Hollywood Proper, who provided location services for our Los Angeles shoots.

You can find all Contender Conversations at our Awards Spotlight homepage.

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