“The films I like best really involve a lot of violence and death, so in my fantasy world, I’m in a Martin Scorsese film,” said Hugh Grant at a Saturday night BAFTA Life In Pictures event when asked about folks with whom he’d like to work. He mused, “I can’t really imagine why I haven’t been cast in one when you think of the natural menace I bring to the screen.”
Yet, the actor who last year came out of semi-retirement to critical praise for his turn opposite Meryl Streep in Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins, noted he’s been “doing more and more what you might call character parts. I think I’m better at them, to be honest, and they’re a lot more fun.”
He’s currently playing villain Phoenix Buchanan in Paddington 2. The sequel has a 100% Fresh Rotten Tomatoes score and has already made over $50M at the overseas box office. It hit China this weekend, looking strong behind juggernaut Coco and releases domestically via Warner Bros on January 12. Grant said, “It’s kind of a masterpiece, I think.”
For a little over an hour on Saturday evening, he charmed the audience at BAFTA headquarters as he reflected on his career beginning with 1987’s James Ivory-directed Maurice — and through to such classics as Four Weddings And A Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary, About A Boy and more. The actor also touched on Nine Months, the film that was about to release when he was arrested for lewd conduct in 1995. And, he had a word about his work as an advocate for a free and accountable press in Britain.
Starting out, Grant said he wasn’t convinced acting was for him. It was his “evil banker” brother who encouraged him to audition for Maurice, a drama about homosexuality in the Edwardian era. It ultimately brought Grant the Best Actor prize in Venice which, “propelled me into more films. I could have gone up and picked classy things, but instead I chose to go down and picked worse and worse sort of American miniseries.”
He notably cited 1989’s Champagne Charlie and Til We Meet Again, adding a nod to 1988’s feature Rowing With The Wind, a Europudding exercise in which “everything was translated so badly.” There was also a word for Ken Russel with whom he worked on 1988’s The Lair Of The White Worm. He and Roman Polanski, with whom Grant did 1992’s Bitter Moon, were both “proper filmmakers.” Russel “was also quite mad.” In the mornings, “he was relatively normal, but he had a good lunch and in the afternoon could be quite different.”
When Grant finally received the script for Four Weddings And A Funeral, he rang his agent: “I think there’s been a mistake, you’ve sent me a really good script.” Auditioning, he said, director Mike Newell “seemed to quite liked me” and writer Richard Curtis “seemed to want me dead.”
Curtis had written the part of Charles “in his own image and when I waltzed in, he didn’t think I was him; and he was right. The bottom line is, it was Richard. Once I met him, I played him basically.” Also, he noted, “They wanted to give me the worst haircut in the world — and it backfired on them all because it became a haircut that was copied.”
When the cast first screened a cut of the eventual Oscar-nominated film which shot Grant to global stardom, they did not know what they had. “Rowan (Atkinson) was funny, the rest of it was just awful and I had to be helped sobbing back onto the set… Then they had a screening in Santa Monica and suddenly everyone loved it. It was a total surprise to everyone.”
Then came choosing what to do next. “I horrified my scary new LA agents by turning everything down and then finally made an appalling choice,” Grant said referencing Nine Months. “I made the wrong film with very good people… I overacted grotesquely,” panicking because “they were paying me so much more.” He noted, “The film did fine despite me being arrested on the eve of its release.” That’s when Grant was picked up near Sunset Boulevard with prostitute Divine Brown. He subsequently made the talk show rounds, contrite and offering no excuses, for which he was applauded at the time. Reviews for Nine Months were bad, and Grant called the film a “horrid” experience. “But, it made money and that’s all they care about. I was offered some huge children’s film almost as I emerged from the police station,” he marveled.
Four years later, Grant returned to blockbuster territory with Roger Michell’s Notting Hill opposite Julia Roberts and again written by Curtis. “Richard showed me some cut footage and it had the ‘She’ theme song and I just immediately thought, ‘Well, f***, that’s just gigantic.’”
Asked if there was ever any question that he play Colin Firth’s character Mark Darcy in the Bridget Jones movies, Grant deadpanned, “Generally speaking, I should play all of Colin’s parts, really. And I think Colin knows that, too.” He said he opted out of the recent Bridget Jones’s Baby, despite “having easily enough greed to do it” because he “couldn’t make the character work in that story… I drove them mad for a year. We went back and forth and in the end, I just said ‘I don’t see how he fits in.’”
In 2002, Grant scored strong notices for Chris and Paul Weitz’s adaptation of Nick Hornby’s About A Boy which was something of a departure for the actor. “I have learned that the further away I get from my own cultural sort of roots, the better I am, actually. Or less bad,” he allowed last night.
Grant said he “permanently” considers writing and directing but claimed he’s too lazy and has “absolutely nothing to say.” Still, he has become a vocal member of Hacked Off, Britain’s campaign for a free and accountable press. He sits on the board of the movement that was formed in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal. “It’s equal measures terrifying and refreshing. It’s nice to be in a world where no one is being nice to you because you’re a star or ex-star or an actor. It’s a cruel jungle, politics.” The enemy in this campaign, “is quite frightening. If you’re up against (Daily Mail editor) Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch, they’re not that cuddly as enemies.”
Turning back to his role in Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins, for which he received BAFTA, Golden Globe, and SAG nominations, Grant said working with Streep was “intimidating… She’s a genius because she’s absolutely dedicated and ruthless. She talks that way about acting: ‘I will never do a scene in which I’m not emotionally present.’ And I thought, ‘Well, f***, I’ve done thousands.’”
Still, he allowed, “I think I’ve been acting about 34 years and I think I was s*** for 17, and then better for 17.” Grant has just completed Frears’ A Very English Scandal opposite Ben Whishaw, who coincidentally voices the titular ursine in Paddington.