When Hugh Grant visited my office a few weeks ago, I told him the last time I interviewed him was for Entertainment Weekly on his breakout 1994 movie “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” That was the first of several Richard Curtis-written roles that cemented his career trajectory as what he calls a “dishy leading man.”
Cut to his mid-50s, when Grant has broken out of that box into a series of roles that showcase his wide range of skills: the tap-dancing villain in “Paddington 2,” the conflicted husband opposite Meryl Streep in the title role “Florence Foster Jenkins,” and most recently, the role of the murderous, closeted politician Jeremy Thorpe in another Stephen Frears project, “A Very English Scandal” (BBC/Amazon Studios), which scored Grant a Golden Globe nomination en route to the Emmys.
Anne Thompson: I got a kick out of watching you have a great time in “Paddington 2.” I did not know you were a song-and-dance man. Were you doing this the whole time?
Hugh Grant: I wish I had! I can’t tell you how much I love it, both to do and to watch. It’s so simple. People need to be entertained. What happened to MGM? Bring it back! We should be having 20 of those a year, it’s just lovely.
You just prepared then?
I had to do that scene on the first day of shooting, in my lycra pink prison suit. I had months of dance lessons and a very good choreographer. I mean, I adore the scene. I am ashamed to say my children can do the whole thing and all the moves –even my two-year-old.
Why are you playing such rich parts now, as opposed to the ones when you were supposedly in your prime? Maybe you are in your prime now.
Well, it’s pretty simple really. It goes back to “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” After that people threw truckloads of money at me to do romantic comedies. In most cases, I’m proud of those films, I watch them to this day and like them, I’m not negating them. But there is a whole other career I could have had and didn’t. Look at films like out “About a Boy,” or a film I did with Mike Newell that no one has ever seen, “An Awfully Big Adventure.” There’s a whole other character actor career I could have had, not me having to be a dishy leading man. Ask any actor: actually dishy leading man is quite a thankless task acting-wise. It can be lovely and well-paid, but no one wants to be Romeo: they want to be Tybalt or Mercutio.
I also think for some reason when I play baddies or complicated people, it rings more true because that is me. A funny thing happens on the screen: if there’s a harmony between me and the part there tends to be a ping. If there is a complete mismatch, there isn’t. Anyone who knows my real personality, knows that I am not those very nice characters Curtis wrote. I love the material, all that, no question, but the character he wrote in “Love Actually,” “Notting Hill,” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” was him. He’s full of love and goodness, loves people and is saving the third world single-handedly. That’s not me. I am much more dark and fucked up. That may be the reason why some of these less likable roles appeal to me and seem to appeal to audiences to a certain extent.
Have you moved from depression to joy?
I wouldn’t go that far! I’m still a miserable bastard. Still, of course it’s such an awful cliche, I’m happier as a person because of having these kids. It’s definitely made me a better actor because I got into a state in my late 40s where my heart had become a shriveled carapace. It suddenly gets opened up again, it’s very useful. You can do all sorts of emotional scenes now.
How difficult is it to make something hard look easy?
Well, people who work with me might say that it’s the other way around, I make something easy more difficult. I feel a lot of anxiety and like to spread it around the film set.
Because you want to deliver?
There’s a lot of pressure, perhaps particularly with comedies, because it’s so binary, so stark: it’s funny or or it’s not funny. That adds to the pressure. Equally if you have managed to do some decent work in the recent past it adds to the pressure. My main comfort is everybody feels this. I’ve done a lot of research on this, I should write a book. I’ve asked the Tom Hanks and Meryl Streeps: “Do you start to get a bit clammy when they say, ‘we’re turning around on you,’ ‘or ‘coming closer,’ or those terrible words, ‘tighter please?'” They say to camera but your body takes it as a Pavlovian instruction. 90 percent of film acting is tricks, methods to avoid tightening all the time, because very often the scene plays beautifully in rehearsal. It’s getting it onto camera — in that nice easy, flowing, instinctive way — that’s hard.
Doesn’t developing chops and skills make it easier?
It probably does. It’s learning tricks. I’ve done very little cooking, but when I’ve had a little burst of enthusiasm for cooking, the American word for tricks is tips: “soak the rice for two minutes before you cook it,” whatever that might be. So much of film acting is like that. I might want to pass it on to young actors. It’s taken decades to learn some of these things.
Do you like rehearsals, to try different things in front of the camera? Jack Nicholson does wildly different things on each take.
Meryl did that. I’ve copied that. The camera loves anything fresh, anything minted in that moment. I very often used to improvise jokes in scenes. They ended up in the movie, however funny or not funny, they were fresh, it came in that moment. The camera loves that. Anything pre-rehearsed is dead as a dodo. Very good film actors like Meryl freshen it up each time. Mike Newell’s mantra before each take, “Never before, darlings! Never before!” With Newell, you don’t know what is going to happen. You see what comes back at you and react to that. Whereas if you’re thinking, “This is the place where I make my sad face, put my glasses down, shout,” it will come out stilted.
Streep is a character actor.
That’s right, in her case.
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Is it in yours?
It might be. It’s certainly the most enjoyable parts when you depart from yourself physically and emotionally.
You went quiet for a while. What was the deal? You became an anti-Murdoch activist?
Yes, I was bit bored of it all. That would be in the mid-2000s. I thought, “I don’t really want to do this much anymore,” and backed off. And then was occasionally tempted back. When I did go back to make a romantic comedy, I made a massive turkey. At that point, not only had I backed off from Hollywood but Hollywood had backed off me. In that gap, I got drawn into this campaign in Britain about the power of a few newspaper owners and how they run the country.
We applauded you. Was it fun?
Yes. Frightening as well. I was up against a formidable foe who are pretty ruthless. But I loved the people I came to campaign with, lawyers, academics, and victims of terrible personal tragedies who had been badly treated by the press. Our group grew and grew and our camaraderie. It’s nice to have a cause, to get you out of bed in the morning, to see a whole new side of life that has nothing to do with show business.
So you became a politician?
Yes, but it was scary. I was not going on the Today program in America to talk about romantic comedy. I was going on News Night or Question Time to talk about politics in Britain. They take no prisoners. It was extremely nervewracking because you need to know your facts and you cram like crazy, in the hours beforehand, especially when current affairs are changing as the hours go by. It was quite intimidating, I did ultimately enjoy it. It created a fascination or me in politics that I didn’t have at all before.
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Which must have come in handy with “A Very English Scandal.” You reveal what’s behind the politician’s cheery facade.
That is the trick isn’t it? You are working from both ends, especially with a character from real life who’s out there – you can watch him on YouTube. I grew up with him, I’m good at imitations, I could do quite a good Jeremy Thorpe. But that’s just the exterior, that’s not enough. I dug and dug, read books, went to see people who knew him. That builds up a whole inner psychodrama, that’s the important stuff. Really for me it was all about pain. He had two sources of pain beneath the smooth, witty, jocular exterior: one was living in the closet, and I think his narcissism was a source of unhappiness, too. It is a kind of prison, when you find it hard to love anyone else apart from yourself.
Where winning and succeeding becomes more important than any other value.
As he got older he glimpsed again some real feeling. He felt it for his son, and felt it, oddly enough, for both wives, who were beards to a certain extent. He managed to love them.
They were supporting him; they were part of the whole thing.
Which brings up the question, if someone’s love for someone who loves them is pure – “I love being around you because you love me like a dog.” A rationale for why he wanted to commit or order a murder was to protect what he loved.
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You also worked with Stephen Frears on “Florence Foster Jenkins.” Does he bring out the best in you?
He sees things that I might be able to do that I might never have dreamt of. When he sent me “A Very English Scandal,” we were having dinner one night after “Florence.” “What are you doing?” “There’s something I might do.” “Don’t do that; hang on.” He sent me this script – it was in fact three scripts for TV – “I don’t think so, dear.” But I read them and they were absolutely brilliant. I did email him: “They’re brilliant, but what part?” I couldn’t see it at all. Was he thinking of me for Norman Scott or the dog? I had no idea.
He saw something there. Pain?
He’s good at that. Pain. Narcissism. All my recent parts have been narcissists, it’s quite worrying. “Paddington”: Phoenix Buchanan is the ultimate narcissist. Jeremy Thorpe: definitely. And to a certain extent poor old Bayfield in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” in so far as he was an actor who really should not have have been an actor. He wasn’t talented, but he had that disease, he craved the limelight like Florence.
Did you bring preconceptions about Thorpe before you started?
He was tried in 1979; I was 19. Those were fairly distant memories – still joyful ones. The whole of Britain rejoiced in that trial, it was juicy and Monty Pythonesque great entertainment. I had that in my head, then it was all down to miles of research. I did a very forensic study of the script and the book, lots of other books. I went to see dozens of people that Thorpe knew and the variety of opinion was bewildering. I spoke to people who knew him extremely well who said there was no way in the world Jeremy would hurt a fly, while others said he was very creepy and dangerous. So which?
He was an actor.
Yeah. I did struggle with his reputation for being amusing and witty. I watched TV and radio interviews, the audience laughing. I realized it was dated. He got away with jokes in 1965, possibly 1970, that now seem hopelessly out of date. Being dated became a key for me for his character. He is the last of the old world, while [his lover] Norman [Ben Whishaw] is the beginning of the new world. What happened at the Old Bailey at that trial is that Thorpe expects the jury, press and public to rally around this establishment figure and dismiss the ridiculous homosexual, a man with no money and career. They dismissed Thorpe and thoroughly enjoyed Norman Scott, he became a cult hero.
The series walks the line between sincere character study and comedy. Frears is good at balancing that.
That’s his favorite tone right there. I would not go to Stephen for an out-and-out balls-out comedy or deep, dark, Greek tragedy. But where the two meet is his sweet spot.
I have an image of you coming up with the right Jeremy Thorpe hat.
I remember, in the first couple of costume sessions, wondering, “Why isn’t this quite working?” I went to the loo in the costume place, scraped my hair into that ridiculous haircut. The clothes were perfectly Thorpe-like, but I couldn’t see it in the mirror. Then someone dug out this old hat and put it on. It still wasn’t right. One of the costume guys said, “Tilt it back two inches.” I tilted it back: there was the character. It was so weird, from that moment on, I put the hat on, tilted it back a bit and there he was.
You started out your career playing another closeted gay man.
In “Maurice,” they didn’t have a physical relationship; they had a platonic homosexual love affair at Cambridge. Then my character Clive supposedly goes straight. We can tell at the end he is living a lie. I think Russell Davies, the screenwriter of “A Very English Scandal,” subconsciously borrowed from the last scene of “Maurice” for the last scene of “A Very English Scandal.” In “Maurice” my closeted character, by now married to Phoebe Nichols, is staring mournfully out of the window. We cut back to Maurice crossing the quadrangle. Then at the end of “A Very English Scandal,” Thorpe is on the balcony celebrating after his victory in court. His mother says, “Of course you know you are ruined.” My smile freezes a bit, cut to Norman on a bus, a happy scene 15-20 years before at the height of our love affair. This man is living a lie, this is his tragedy.
The older I get, I think we are basically quite dark and tortured and our niceness to each other is quite a thin veneer put on for the sake of conformity. If you play a character that is nice, it’s never going to quite ring as true as a character who is clearly tortured and dark, because I think that’s the true nature of human beings.
With your new freedom to do whatever you want, are you now more open to TV?
I’m making TV as we speak in New York with Nicole Kidman, “The Undoing” [HBO], a thriller written by David Kelley of “Big Little Lies.” It’s a very good script [based on the book by Jean Hanff Korelitz], directed by Danish director Susanne Bier.
Can you go deeper with TV?
You have more time. But I’m not convinced of that. Sometimes the discipline of needing to be 90 minutes or two hours is good for screenwriters. Sometimes these series get stretched out. And I lose the will to live after four hours.
But are the best stories in film now?
It is an interesting phase. There are very few commercial films where people talk to each other. They have to blow each other up. That is odd. That has all migrated to television, the grownups talking to each other in a drama or a comedy.
Have they ever offered you a Bond film?
Would you do it?
Yeah, it would be fun.
Are you still criticizing the Murdochs?
Yes. It’s not just them. The problem has expanded since I started. Now we have a serious problem with social media, the misuse of data, and the ability of agents to corrupt democracy. It’s really terrifying. It’s like a moment of no return. Something’s got to be done. The whistleblower who came out of Cambridge Analytica, Chris Wylie, used to work there. I met him. It’s a terrifying tale. First you work out through Facebook who are the swing voters in any election. There are not many. Then you digitize that personality via their Facebook profile, gotten by nefarious means. “These 300 are hockey moms living in Philly.” You send them ads and dark material that doesn’t have to be true in any way, tailored specified ads. And it works. They tried it first of all in places like the Caribbean and Africa on little elections and found that they had a 100% success rate. A lot of people, like sci-ops in the military, are involved. They need a lot of money, the source of the money remains obscure. A lot of people think it’s Russia. Democracy is losing badly.
Are you on Facebook? Twitter?
I never have been on Facebook. I am on Twitter, my fellow campaigners made me. It might be just an echo chamber, whenever I tweet, 99.9% agree anyway. We’re all just patting ourselves on the back.
See you in 24 years!