[Editor’s Note: The following interview contains spoilers for “The Undoing,” Episode 6, “The Bloody Truth,” including the ending.]
After six weeks filled with denials, fresh accusations, and alternate theories, “The Undoing” finally answered its central question: Who killed Elena Alves?
Well, it turns out the answer was hiding in plain sight, behind the endearing veil of an extremely charming Hugh Grant. Dr. Jonathan Fraser, the prime suspect all along, was officially confirmed as the killer in Episode 6, ending a lengthy guessing game that spurred intense reactions on social media — in addition to high ratings for HBO.
The actor in charge of deceiving not only his fellow characters, but also an attentive at-home audience, is a bit relieved the secret is out. Speaking to IndieWire the morning after the finale aired, Grant discussed an “exhausting” month-and-a-half of gauging reactions to the HBO limited series, why it was important he knew the truth before joining the project in the first place, and how his latest role examines “the black side of charm.”
The transcript below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
IW: Did you know your character was the killer before shooting?
Grant: Oh God, yes, yes, yes. I couldn’t have done it any other way. I’ve heard that some television is made like that — most television — but we had all the scripts before we started shooting anything. And I was very fussy about it. To get me involved, they showed me one or maybe two scripts, and I said, “Well, I can’t do this until I know how it ends and, especially, am I guilty?” It was obviously infinitely more interesting for me to be a sociopath killer than just an unfaithful husband who has to persuade everyone he’s innocent and is innocent.
How did that knowledge inform your scenes in the first five episodes? Jonathan was lying all the time, but you couldn’t give that away.
There is that slight conflict because your first duty as an actor is always to be true to the character. So for instance, I go to the fundraiser, and the woman who’s stalking my wife and ruining my life is there. Clearly, my duty as an actor would be for a little misgiving or anxiety to pass over my face, but you can’t do it because you’d give the game away. People would smell a rat. The solution for me was to make him such an accomplished and profound narcissist and sociopath. He’s just one of those guys that believes entirely in his own lies — in the same way that I think Trump really believes there was cheating in your election, although he probably knows intellectually there wasn’t. Jonathan knows intellectually that he killed this woman, but he passionately believes that he didn’t.
Jonathan’s charm is so essential to his performance. At the same time, “charming” is a word often used to describe your performances. At this point in your career, how do you feel about the word “charming”?
Well, I don’t mind this demonstration of the black side of charm; that charm can just be a veneer for an absolute beast beneath. I think that’s fun and interesting. But… yes, of course, I still bridle slightly when someone says “Hugh Grant just does charming parts,” “[he’s] just a charming Englishman.” I think, “Hang on, hang on. That’s fine up until about 2005, but give me a break since then.” And I can’t say I think that my character in Guy Ritchie’s film, “The Gentlemen” was exactly charming. I wouldn’t even say Phoenix Buchanan in “Paddington 2” is charming — he might be funny, but he’s a monster, really.
In regard to your recent surge of awards-friendly roles, do you have a preferred shorthand for this period in your career? Matthew McConaughey has the McConaissance, and a colleague named yours Art Hughveau.
I don’t have a name for it, really, except Feeding Children. I mean, I have a lot of children. I have a lot of mouths to feed.
What do you think about the strong audience reaction to “The Undoing”?
It’s been quite an exhausting six weeks, either resisting looking at Twitter to see how people are reacting, or giving in after a few drinks and spending four hours of the night either being pleased or outraged at how people are reacting to certain things — or depressed, when they say, “Christ, he looks ancient.” “He looks 150.” “Let’s give him a facial.”
Were you tempted to check in last night? Once the secret was finally out?
I didn’t want to do that — it would be 2 a.m. for us, so I thought I’d go to bed. I needed the rest. My children have literally never been asleep in their lives. But one of them woke up, of course, so then I did check the phone for a moment to see if they’re enjoying the first scene. Then I was lost for a few hours, down the well of Twitter.
I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing. In the old days, you just sat in the cinema with people and if they laughed you were happy, and if they didn’t you were sad. But you didn’t know any of these terrible things, [like] they think you’ve got awful bottom teeth.
Some of their criticisms are fair and some of them are so unfair. In that scene where I tell Grace that I had a little sister who I allowed to get hit by a car, the day we shot that, I remember thinking how marvelous I am because I’m really crying here — it really moved me, that scene. Everyone said, “That’s terrific, Hugh, well done.” And I felt good. That’s something people will appreciate when it comes out. No one appreciated it, and quite a few people on Twitter said, “He can’t cry. Hugh Grant can’t cry.” Well, I was crying!
So I felt sad about that. But the other big moment to get worried about was in the second half of Episode 6, where I’m a bit crazy in that car with the boy, singing. We cut away to the real murder, and I thought, “This is make or break. If they like this, we’re OK. If they laugh at it, we’re sunk.” And my experience of Twitter last night is that they liked it.
The crying scene is a good example of how a show like this can create such strong reactions. One viewer could watch it thinking Jonathan’s the killer and this is all a front, while another could really believe him. And your performance has to be read both ways.
It is! All that’s true. So then maybe you project that it’s fake, onto [me]. I don’t know. But then Jonathan is such a brilliant performer, as a sociopath, then real tears come [for him in that moment]. Anyway, that’s how I saw it.
David E. Kelley shows have a way of coming back, even if they’re a limited series. If they wanted to make more, would you consider returning?
I don’t see how there’s a future for Jonathan. I don’t think it’s death row because it’s New York, right? So unless it’s my prison romance, or like Phoenix Buchanan, I start a theater group there, I don’t know what an interesting TV future for Jonathan could be. But maybe there could be one about Grace and everyone else.
If played both roles, Phoenix and Jonathan putting on a show in prison, I think people would watch that.
That’s a brilliant idea.
“The Undoing” is available to stream on HBO Max.