Learning to lie back and enjoy it?;Cover story;Hugh Grant
In his romantic-comedy roles with Julia, Renee and now Sandra, Hugh
Grant ranks with his namesake Cary. But, as Jeff Dawson finds, he's
not satisfied with that
Sorry ... For Elton John, seemingly, the hardest word. For those in
love, apparently, an unutterable term. No such inhibition in the
world of Hugh Grant.
Onscreen, Grant begs more pardons than a death-row lawyer. Off it,
too, the apologies spill with compulsive abandon. Some years ago, in
an uncharacteristic display of road rage, when Grant jumped on the
bonnet of his antagonist's motor and ripped off the windscreen
wipers, he swiftly implored forgiveness - then offered his victim a
lift home. "Like all Englishmen, the moment it's done, you
immediately start apologising," he says. Contrite and English: if
"Hugh Grant" were an adjective, that's what you'd find next to it in
Still, mercy is being sought. Grant, you see, rarely squats with the
British press. Not since (cough) you-know-what, when he was hung out
to dry by our mischievous tabloids. You can't really blame him. The
breaking of bread today has thus involved the signing of a paranoid
release document threatening high-court action lest any quotes be
sneaked to the gutter press (as if!). With lesser publications, Grant
has even taken to securing copy approval. Not even Barbra Streisand
demands that. "Me and Barbra are very similar nowadays," he offers,
rather sheepishly. He searches for something better but fails. "Well,
I don't know. F*** it. If you can get it, get it." Here it comes
again. "Sorry about that."
Hugh Grant is an immensely likeable sort. He welcomes you into his
Manhattan hotel suite, thrusts out a palm and pumps manfully. "Now,
what can we offer you?" he ventures, employing the royal pronoun
while poking and rattling the drinks cabinet (soft stuff, sadly, for
we are on the dollar of an American film studio). He commands an
exiting lackey to return with grub - "Something healthy, please ... a
fruit plate" - then grumbles that living in hotels, as he has done
lately, does not serve well the needs of the nutritionally conscious.
Recently, Grant took to the services of a personal trainer. Trim,
unseasonally tanned (and dazzlingly white of teeth) - it certainly
shows. "About two years ago I realised I was fat and middle-aged," he
says. The hair, having outgrown its About a Boy spikes, is back to
its floppiest and finest. "Byronically sensual", as someone once put
it. We may be at the uber-chic Drake Hotel, high above the crawling
limos of Park Avenue, but Grant's garb, reassuringly, still screams
Pitcher & Piano: City-boy civvies of Arran jumper over dress shirt
and pressed jeans. His fitness routine, he adds, includes doing his
pelvic-floor exercises, a legacy of reading "too much Cosmo". But
then Our Boy Hugh also has an instinctive tendency to reach for the
retort, the class quipster diverting you from undelivered homework.
Who else could go on Desert Island Discs and proclaim his favourite
songs as Viva El Fulham (his team's 1975 Cup Final record), the
Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Verdi's Nabucco ("dedicated to my
agents") and The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies? "'We don't care, we
don't care, we don't care a jot,'" he trills. "'If there's nothing in
the larder, Peter Rabbit's got the lot...' It's a wonderful
philosophy. Very soothing.
I still hum that to myself."
Grant is in New York to tub-thump on behalf of his new film, Two
Weeks Notice, a feelgood romantic comedy in which he stars opposite
Sandra Bullock (with whom he has been inevitably, and erroneously,
linked). In it, a self-absorbed property tycoon (him) and do-good
civil lawyer (her) go down the trusty route of
can't-live-with-'em/can't-live-without-'em. Grant peddles the
American model of himself (see also Mickey Blue Eyes), a slightly
fluffier version of that familiar from his British outings. The movie
marks the directorial debut of Marc Lawrence, who wrote both an early
version of that Grant-meets-Mafia caper and also Bullock's Miss
Congeniality. Two for the price of one, as it were, and giving Grant
another big female star to bounce off.
He compares his various experiences. "I couldn't honestly say I fear
Sandra Bullock, but I still fear Julia," he announces. "She has a
scary quality." Though as with Roberts and Zellweger, Bullock is
given the chance to be intimate. In one scene, she gets her hair
trapped in Grant's fly. He grins. "Sandy was at her happiest that
day, her cheek pressed up against my bits and pieces." Already a
sizeable hit in the USA (the film, not Grant's bits), Two Weeks
Notice will probably do a roaring business here. For the record, it
contains neither horses nor hounds. (If there were one incident to
alter irrevocably Grant's relationship with the press, it was that
scene from Notting Hill in which he ripped down the curtain on
celebrity journalism.) Much has been made, including by Grant, of
how, in his past few films, he has become somewhat "darker" - "just a
terrible cad with a posh voice and a bad character," to use Richard
Curtis's marvellously scripted send-up in Bridget. It's Browbeaten
Bachelor tweaked to Bachelor Bastard, more akin to the "real Hugh",
according to his retinue. But was About a Boy's new direction really
much more than a trendy haircut? Hugh Grant is Hugh Grant. (Try this:
give the full names of three characters he has played in his entire
career.) The point is that actually to be Hugh Grant onscreen and
carry it off so effortlessly is a remarkable thing.
Grant is severely underestimated as a comic actor. As others have
said, he sits comfortably in the presence of namesake Cary. You don't
get to be Britain's most successful film thesp by accident. "I think
I'd be a very good cowboy. I always thought I bring a certain menace
to the screen, sort of a danger, a mystery," Grant joshes. Then he
turns serious. He's tried straight stuff, action romps and all sorts,
but life is too short. Stick with what you're good at. "It's quite
enough of a challenge to do light comedy," he asserts. "I don't feel
that doing deep, dark drama is more of a challenge than that. In
fact, I imagine it might be less."
"Comedic acting is not easy. You see a lot of people doing it very
badly," endorses Eric Fellner, co-chief of Working Title films and
producer of Grant's biggest hits. "He is truly brilliant at it. He
really thinks about every single aspect of every prop, every set,
every line, every interaction, and he works it and works it and works
it until he feels it's absolutely perfect." He's a renowned
ad-libber, most notably for that bit in Bridget Jones when he
uncovers Zellweger's big knickers and declares: "Hello, mummy!"
"There's no time he spends in his trailer. There's no time he's not
on set," adds Bullock. "Even when he's not shooting. He's a
workaholic." As queen of the genre, she should probably know. "She
would argue that I am the queen of romantic comedy," replies Grant.
Grant explains that being able to be funny, on cue, in front of lots
of people, with millions of dollars at stake, is the source of
considerable anguish. "I'm so tense and pernickety and perfectionist
that I haven't really enjoyed making a film for ages," he concedes.
He goes all Tony Hancock and maudlin, yearning for the days "where if
you won a silver seashell at San Sebastian, that was all you could
ever hope for", before it became this "permanent state of terror".
Poor old Hugh.
Though I suspect he's milking it now. "Do you know, for the long
night shoot, I might have a beer round about five in the morning," he
confides, recounting how John Hurt once told him he always acted
better after alcohol. "So I've been trying it, and find, in fact, I
think I'm better, but I'm actually way worse."
In the nearly nine years since he became a household name, Grant's
life has been pored over endlessly, as, by association, has that of
Liz Hurley, whose fame, despite no discernible product, has also
outlived their 13-year union (Grant refers to Hurley here simply as
"my ex-girlfriend"). Grant's potted history goes: west London
middle-class upbringing, private school, Oxford, fringe theatre, then
a decade of art-house films, from the "ponce pack" days of Maurice to
the Euro-pudding of Polanski (Bitter Moon). In the beginning, he
financed his acting habit by driving a van around the capital.
Delivering what? "Mainly quiches." He did enjoy a sideline in
scripting radio commercials.
But his evolving screen work, most of it playing repressed types
(without recourse to David Cassidy lyrics), never marked him out as
anything more than a journeyman.
A script by Curtis about thirtysomething love on the summer nuptials
circuit, good as it was, did not seem to present new possibilities.
"I was on the verge of quitting," he says. "I remember walking up the
stairs in Soho to that audition - I was 32 - and thinking, 'This is
positively the last audition I ever go to. It's undignified, and I've
never really been that passionate about this job.'" And then, quite
unexpectedly ... poof!
Four Weddings and a Funeral was never meant to be a global hit. The
low-budget affair was designed as an offbeat vehicle for Andie
MacDowell (the official "star"), Grant her toff totty. For Working
Title, Curtis and Grant, it was kismet.
Curtis, who has written all of Grant's big British hits bar About a
Boy, had finally found his screen alter ego. "Hugh is an unbelievably
lucky thing. An unbelievably lucky thing for me to find somebody who
was so capable of doing this," says Curtis. "The credit does entirely
have to go to Richard. You know it's all about writing. It always is,
every time," returns Grant. Curtis, he adds, "is the only person in
the world who pulls off that trick of being simultaneously nice and
quite cynical at the same time". Using the writer as his acting
template in both Four Weddings and Notting Hill led to gross
misconceptions, however. "I'm always annoyed when people describe me
as bumbling, because I don't find that I am, and nobody who
particularly knows me particularly finds that I am," he groans.
"It was a source of great amusement to Richard and Eric Fellner when
the world thought I was this nice guy."
Not always. While late blooming clearly had its advantages ("Well, I
haven't gone completely off the rails and been found in a smashed-up
hotel room full of cocaine ... yet," says Grant), he was ill equipped
to shoulder the burden of fame. In 1995, while contractually obliged
films were still being flung out (Sirens, The Englishman Who Went Up
a Hill But Came Down a Mountain), new-model Hugh was whisked off to
Hollywood to make Nine Months, his first big studio comedy. And in
the wee small hours of June 27, two weeks before its release, Hugh
John Mungo Grant was arrested for lewd conduct (copping a $1,180
fine, two years' probation and helping to launch the short-lived
career of someone called Divine Brown). The details can be spared.
Let's just say that dear old Hugh, by certain accounts, was naive
enough to keep his foot on the brake pedal, the on/off of the rear
lights alerting the police.
Grant, who by now has relaxed enough to rock back in his chair and
put his blue Hush Puppies up on the coffee table, fidgets, gets up
and goes to the drinks cabinet. He fiddles around with the ice again.
I offer that he needn't talk about it if he doesn't want to. "Oh
God." Indeed, he can happily sling me out of the room, but it would
be negligent not to bring it up - not in a salacious way, but merely
to establish how, in retrospect, The Incident fitted into the big
scheme of things. He sits back down. Was it, in some ways, for want
of a better expression, a career leg-up? No such thing as bad
publicity and all that? He chews it over.
"I think, ultimately, the pros and cons about evened out, actually.
I remember saying to my agent the night of the event ... I was very
drunk (affects weak voice): 'Is this bad for my career?' He was a
very Hollywood guy, for whom everything is fantastic, and even he,
who had just been woken up from his deep, sleeping-pill-induced
sleep, had to say: 'Oh, it's not great.' But on the other hand, there
were odd things coming out of it that were quite positive, in a way.
So I have to say, in all honesty, I think it was kind of neutral."
Grant's marvellously self-effacing performance on the US talk shows
soon after was the kind of positive publicity you simply couldn't buy
(for if there is one thing Grant does without peer, it's
self-effacement). "I would just like to emphasise one thing, though.
I'm always irritated when people say, 'Hugh Grant went on this
apology tour,'" he counters. "I didn't do that. I was booked on all
those shows to promote the film. All I did was fulfil the
obligation." He slips into showbiz mode. "What people care about is
that old adage in Hollywood of 'How well did your last film do?' And
because Nine Months did very good business - though I was not good in
it - that's really what people care about."
The experience was enough for Grant to take a lengthy sabbatical,
diverting attention into Simian Films, which he still runs with
Hurley (all questions along the Hurley line come to nought, other
than that they have a very good working relationship. "Hand in hand
... Oh yeah, it's very friendly"). Their first produced effort, the
thriller Extreme Measures (1996), fared badly. The next one, Mickey
Blue Eyes, showed a greater sense of purpose. A third one, with
comedy director Jerry Zucker, is in the works (Grant has never been
formally acknowledged as producer. Hurley takes credit alone).
Not until 1999's Notting Hill, though, did Grant end his exile,
nestling into the familiar bosom of Working Title/Richard Curtis. It
marked the beginning of a regular output. Now the gang are at it
again, with the episodic romantic comedy Love Actually imminent. In
Curtis's first outing as a director, Grant plays a fictitious prime
minister who, in a nicely parochial version of the Clinton legend,
cops off with tea-lady Martine McCutcheon. "Not quite like that.
There's love involved," stresses Grant. Neither is the PM, he
insists, modelled on anyone - subsequent John Major revelations
notwithstanding. "No, emphatically not. He's completely fictional,"
he says. "He's again quite Richardy. And, in fact, I had to say to
Richard, wonderful though the script is, and it really is, I just
don't know that anyone will buy me as this nice any more. I don't
know if I buy myself.
I do think you require some steel when you're running a country, so
I have tried to inject whatever steel I can into it."
After that, though, nothing. Grant talks about writing and directing
(as he does periodically), kicking himself for not having made
further progress along that avenue (though notably, he has been
spending time in New York with the screenwriting guru William
Goldman, picking his brains). "I mean there are huge questions for me
about what to do next. I've deliberately kept the slate clean for the
next year. And if ever there were a good time for me to make a little
segue, perhaps not do so much acting or any acting, this could be it."
Grant talks fondly of other diversions - his new "James Bond" pad,
as the tabloids are calling it ("More Doctor Evil", he says);
scraping his Aston Martin on the garage door; bumping into Fulham FC
manager Jean Tigana in his local paper shop. Then there's golf, his
new religion. All the trappings of an Pounds 8m-per-picture salary.
And therein lies the danger. "I'm potentially the idle rich," he
says. "The only thing that ever got me doing anything in the past was
the need to pay the rent." There's just no drive any more, he
confesses. Not since it became "a 'proper job' - because of the
Barbra Streisand factor".
"In the old days, when I was doing my show in London, The Jockeys of
Norfolk, or even writing radio commercials, I did feel like more of a
man at the end of the day," he mourns. "Writing book reviews for the
Daily Mail. Just anything to be creative. Even writing a letter now
will do the trick for me. I feel more like I deserve my beer come six
o'clock than I do if I've just been poncing about on a film set."
Contrite, English - and unmanly? Surely not.
Some years ago, Grant's parents were at a dinner party. His mother
explained to the host that she had two sons - one an investment
banker, the other a film star who'd appeared in several big movies.
The man's eyes lit up. "Really?" he enthused. "Which bank?"