Just how stressed is Hugh Grant, you ask? Let him tell you:
“Well, apart from the fact we’re having a second spike of coronavirus and we’re about to be smashed by a no-deal Brexit, and food shortages and medicine shortages, and everyone is furious and terrified in the streets, and my children won’t sleep and I’ve got a terrible hangover, everything’s perfect.”
The actor is speaking by phone because a Zoom call was thwarted by technical difficulties, likely contributing to an already chaotic day. Make that year. Like many of us, Grant has spent the majority of 2020 at home. And as a 60-year-old with five children under the age of 10 — three with his wife, Anna Eberstein — that comes with challenges.
“I’m an old man with very young children and a very exhausted wife. So it’s just about survival from hour to hour in terms of childcare,” says Grant. In between reading scripts and torturing various colleagues “by pretending I’m going to do their project, like a cat with a dead bird,” Grant has whiled away his months of isolation “going in and out of a 2-year-old’s bedroom and saying ‘shh’ or words to that effect, though not always that gentle.”
Grant’s transformation from renowned bachelor to harried stay-at-home dad matches the recent course change in his professional trajectory.
For decades after his breakthrough role in “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” his name was synonymous with romantic comedies that relied on his prodigious wit. But after a period of semiretirement a decade ago and a stint as a fierce critic of the British tabloid press, he’s sparked a career renaissance by playing an array of fascinating creeps, dastardly villains and vain enablers who all happen to be, in his words, “rampant narcissists.”
These include an egomaniacal actor in “Paddington 2” and a closeted politician who plots to have his male lover murdered in “A Very English Scandal,” which earned Grant his first Emmy nomination. The streak continues in “The Undoing,” a glossy HBO limited series that features Grant as Jonathan Fraser, a dashing, wealthy pediatric oncologist who may or may not be a homicidal psychopath.
Nicole Kidman, who plays Jonathan’s glamorous therapist wife, has been friendly with Grant for decades, but “The Undoing” marks their first onscreen pairing. She says Grant has “always had a love-hate relationship with his work,” perhaps because it’s difficult to find roles that tap into “his extraordinary combination of humor and dramatic acting ability.”
Susanne Bier, who directed “The Undoing,” offers her own take: “The darker side was always there in his romantic comedies. But the last few years he has allowed the melancholic side to gain more territory.” In casting Jonathan, Bier was “looking for a weird mix of compassion and unpredictability, and Hugh has both to an extreme degree. On a scale of innocuous mischievousness to sinister mischievousness, you can’t tell where he is.”
Grant recently spoke to The Times. The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.
“The Undoing” may be your first purely dramatic role in some time. Is that something you were eager to do?
There’s not a huge number of laughs in “The Undoing.”. But I’m not sure that was why I did it. I did it because it was a very classy project and it was a script that made me turn the pages, which is very rare because normally I’m asleep by page six of most scripts I read.
For 10 years now at least I’ve been trying not to be (the) sort of romantic Englishman who is in love. I’ve been trying to do more character roles. I’m not entirely sure that this is a character role. I wanted to make it that way and then, quite near to production, Susanne Bier very politely told me to dump all that.
Tell me more about making it a “character” part.
I’ve done all these parts recently where I’ve had to put on accents and strange haircuts and been very far away from “Hugh Grant.” And in the end I had to bring this back quite close to a version of me, so much so that I’ve had to warn my wife. I said, “When you watch it, this isn’t me.”
This is your second series after “A Very English Scandal.” How did you adjust to the rhythms of television?
There are several things that have put me off television apart from pure snobbishness. The idea that different directors direct different episodes — I always worry about consistency. And actors don’t necessarily get all the scripts before they start a series, so they don’t know where their character’s going. But neither of those were the case with this. I regard it as a film. I refuse to even admit to it as television.
Your career has had a bit of a revival that began three or four years ago. Do you have any thoughts about what might have changed? Was it a conscious effort on your part?
I have to be very thankful for Stephen Frears, who, out of the blue, asked me to be in “Florence Foster Jenkins” with Meryl Streep (and later cast him in “A Very English Scandal”). That gave me a new kick-start. I’ve returned really to where I began, as a character actor. I just did silly voices and imitations for sketch shows and commercials back in the ‘80s. That’s what I was good at. I never for a moment thought I was someone who would be a leading man, especially in romantic comedies. That was never a genre I had any particular affection for, but that’s where I ended up. I’m not ungrateful. I loved the money, of course, and I’m proud of a lot of those films.
Do you think you brought character acting into the romantic comedy?
I did try. Whatever it might be, “Four Weddings and a Funeral” or “Two Weeks Notice,” my process was always the same as it is now. I do a ridiculous amount of homework and granular analysis of every moment in the film. I build up these vast biographies of the character. Hiding behind the mask of someone else seems to loosen me up and make me better. And in the end, one thing I have discovered over the years is all you really want in film acting is to be loose.
So what does your preparation involve?
There are roles that lend themselves to research more than others. “A Very English Scandal” was riveting to research. I now know everything there is to know about the politics of the ’70s.
In the last 10 years, your life has changed profoundly. Has that given you any clarity or affected your choices at all?
When you say how have I changed as an actor, I strongly suspect that having these children has really helped. Because suddenly, instead of being a half-atrophied, middle-aged golfer, I’m a man with a life full of love. I love my wife, I love my children. They love me. And, suddenly — very unusual for an Englishman — I have all this access to emotion. Almost too much access. Sometimes it’s hard to keep it down.
From what I’ve read, it sounds like acting was never Plan A.
I was drifting, like most people do when they come out of university. I thought acting would last about a year. Here we are, 35 years (later). There was a sort of excursion in those early years where I was also writing my own material with a couple of writing partners. Those were very happy days. I remember feeling the most satisfied and like a human being at the end of those days, more than any day on any film set ever. You know this: Any kind of primary creativity where you actually turn a blank page into something hits a very profound spot and one that is deeply satisfying.
Is writing something you still have the urge to do?
Yes, from time to time I sit down with a computer and tap away. I have been telling myself recently, “This is how you should be spending your 60s. Otherwise you’ll be dead and it will be too late.” I have half a novel that I need to finish. I think that is what I’m best at, really. I’m quite good at use of language. I’m not sure I’m really good at story and movies need story. Plot’s a bastard.
What’s your novel about?
It always sounds so lame when I try and describe it. It takes place almost entirely in what you would call the trunk of a car. A man is hidden in the back of the car, spying on his girlfriend because he thinks she’s having an affair. At least that’s where we start. Anyway, you see, I told you it was lame.
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