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September 18, 2019

The Right Kind of Wrong

When director Stephen Frears suggested Hugh Grant play the lead in A Very English Scandal, the actor promptly listed reasons he was wrong for the role. Fortunately, he would come around, drawing raves for his villainous politician.

Mara Reinstein
  • Charlie Gates
  • Charlie Gates

"I'm a rather cold person," Hugh Grant declares with a smile.

He means it in the literal sense, which is why he asks if it would be all right to talk by the fireplace in his New York City hotel suite.

Otherwise, he greets a guest with the hospitality of a true English gentleman. Answers the door with a smile and firm handshake. Takes the coat. Offers to make tea. Pours cold water into a glass and serves it.

"You can have Evian or something fizzy with cucumber!" he shouts from the kitchen. Having just arrived from England, Grant is about to start work as the devious husband to Nicole Kidman's therapist heroine in the HBO limited series The Undoing, which is based on Jean Hanff Korelitz's novel You Should Have Known.

Though it contrasts with the impish side Grant showed in 2016's Florence Foster Jenkins and 2018's Paddington 2, the role puts him on familiar terrain. "It is frightening how many narcissists I've played in the past few years," he notes. "Either that or I've interpreted them all as narcissists."

None has been so deliciously reptilian as Jeremy Thorpe in A Very English Scandal. Both madcap farce and historical drama, the four-hour BBC miniseries tells the headline-grabbing story of the wealthy and powerful — and very closeted — leader of the British Parliament's Liberal party.

He was arrested in the 1970s on charges of conspiracy to murder his former lover (played by Ben Whishaw in a Golden Globe–winning role). Thorpe, who married twice and had one son, was acquitted on all charges, thanks to a chummy and biased judge; his ex, Norman Scott, still lives in England.

Grant's nuanced Thorpe is an archvillain, his face tightly fixed in a permanent scowl. It's a testament to the performance that he makes viewers feel sympathy for a man who's been forced into a duplicitous life, thanks to public stigma and an anti-homosexuality law that was enforced in Britain until 1967.

Thorpe has an upper-crust approach to sex and love, and he's sufficiently self-obsessed to try to mastermind the murder of a desperate, innocent man.

After A Very English Scandal premiered on the BBC in May 2018 (and on Amazon Prime a few months later), Grant nabbed a Golden Globe nomination for his performance.

The veteran star — now a quarter-century removed from his breakout role in Four Weddings and a Funeral — also earned some of the best reviews of his career. The New Yorker raved, "Hugh Grant gives a brilliant performance as Thorpe, whose arrogance, charm and profoundly evasive nature he captures with subtlety."

Grant monitors all his notices. "I think people who say they don't read reviews are lying," he confides. "I read them all and interestingly only really focus on the bad ones. I go to the green tomatoes on Rotten Tomatoes. Because I always think, 'They speak the truth!'"

Perhaps nobody is as tough on Grant as the man himself.

He rarely watches his own work. He says he dreads acting with a passion. He admits that he's still prone to panic attacks on the job. "It's just a total loss of confidence," he says. "And then I start shvitzing and forgetting my lines. I'm in a permanent state of terror that these attacks are about to come, and if you fear fear, it comes."

Stephen Frears, who directed A Very English Scandal and also worked with Grant on Florence Foster Jenkins, shrugs off his leading man's neuroses. "A lot of the time you just ignore it," he explains. "But he is that self-deprecating. We're all like that in England! It's always 'I'm not the right person.' Of course, that's what I wanted him to be in A Very English Scandal. He's very English!"

Indeed, Frears (The Queen, Dangerous Liaisons) thought of Grant immediately when he read the script (by Russell T. Davies, based on the book by John Preston; Davies and Frears also executive-produced).

"I said to Hugh, 'I've got something good for you that you're going to like.' That was the extent of the persuasion. He was so clearly, so obviously right for the part. He has a wonderful sense of narrative, he can do jokes, and he's perfectly capable of murder."

In Grant's version of events, he says he immediately compiled, on his phone, a list of reasons he was all wrong for the project.

"I thought maybe Stephen wanted me to be the judge, because I'm too old for the part," he says, adding that at the start of the story, Thorpe was just 31 to Grant's own 56. "But I realize now it's a dream job. It's such a clever tone. This was British grotesquery as I remembered it and feel fondly toward."

Once he signed on, Grant prepared by "doing a very good deep Thorpe bath." To add to his own vivid recollections of how the scandal rocked the stiff-upper-lip Brits, he met with politicians who'd been in Thorpe's circle. He says he was too frightened, however, to meet with Scott or with Thorpe's son, who's a paparazzo in Los Angeles. Thorpe himself died in 2014 at age 85.

Grant also sat in front of his laptop and, per his usual research method, crafted a roughly hundred-page biography. "I started by writing where Thorpe might have grown up, what music he likes and who his friends were. Then it becomes bigger and bigger and vaster. It doesn't matter if it's fictional. It suits me." He quickly adds, "I don't know if it has any effect at all, really. I almost never read them after I write them."

"The truth is, he's a method actor," Frears says. "He's just as much a method actor as Marlon Brando, but he conceals it. He does an enormous amount of research and doesn't do it frivolously, and then he looks like he made it up that morning. I expect actors to turn up and be very good, and he is."

Would it be surprising to learn that Grant never imagined he could be a professional actor? He grew up a talented rugby and cricket player in Hammersmith, England, the second son of a longtime schoolteacher and a military officer-turned-electrician. Sure, he studied English at Oxford University and made his debut in a 1982 school-financed film called Privileged, but he viewed acting as more of a creative outlet.

While taking parts in repertory theater and working as an advertising copywriter, he formed a comedy troupe called the Jockeys of Norwalk. "I was writing and producing and, in some cases, performing radio commercials, and I was very happy doing it," he says. To this day, he muses, "I think even a mediocre writing career might have been more fulfilling at the end of each working day than acting."

His career path changed for good after he played a sexually conflicted Edwardian in Ismail Merchant and James Ivory's 1987 period drama Maurice, for which he earned a Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival. It would be another six years before he charmed audiences in Four Weddings and a Funeral, which was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

The role of a lovelorn, stammering Englishman turned Grant into a floppy-haired romantic-comedy sex symbol. For the next decade, he played the charmer in films both iconic (Notting Hill, Bridget Jones's Diary, Love Actually) and, well, not so much (Nine Months, Two Weeks Notice). Looking back, he has mixed feelings about his marquee status.

"I probably did too many romantic comedies," he says nonchalantly. "It was lovely in the sense that I was lucky to be given great big expensive films and be paid very well, but they didn't particularly suit me as an actor. What suits me are weirdos and narcissists and freaks."

That said, he does ruminate about the time he turned down an above-the-title role in a mega-blockbuster. He refuses to name names. Give him another 10 years and he'll spill.

The period between Maurice and Four Weddings is when he was happiest as an actor, Grant says.

"I was doing some nonsensical Euro-pudding films and mad Spanish and French films and miniseries where you knew you were making rubbish," he recalls. "You would just have fun and flirt with the actresses, and no one really cared. I never thought my career was going anywhere, anyway. All that seems to have gone now."

He tried American TV as well. The 1991 ABC telefilm Our Sons is notable because it features Grant, as a gay man whose lover is dying of AIDS, attempting his one and only American accent. He also appeared with a pre-Friends Courteney Cox in the miniseries Till We Meet Again, based on Judith Krantz's period romance novel of the same name.

"I was always an evil champagne baron!" he says, laughing. "I did about 20 of those." As his star began to rise, he admits he was a "snob" about returning to television. Yet, interestingly, he was approached to replace Charlie Sheen on CBS's top-rated Two and a Half Men in 2011 — and seriously considered it before saying no.

"I really liked the show," he says. "But I didn't want to live in L.A. and do a sitcom, and they wanted me to accept the part before it was even written! I can't do that. But I think I would have been marvelous in a sitcom, actually. It would have suited me extremely well."

Ashton Kutcher took the part. Now, like many of his peers, Grant prefers to move between the mediums. "Everything has changed now. TV isn't TV. The best sort of writing is when people are talking to each other. Those films don't really exist. You have to become a monster or have superheroes."

He loves the BBC's Killing Eve and The Crown, though he's just discovered them. "My little boy had to teach me about streaming," he says with a sigh. "I didn't even know what Netflix was." Come on, really? "I promise you. It's pathetic." Oh, and don't even get him started on social media.

Now 58, Grant wears his age — and his status as a former leading man — proudly. "I'm delighted about getting older, because it's a relief," he says. "I don't want to keep revving up for a performance, because I get so nervous and make everyone's life a misery. I'm so tense."

He plans to spend the second half of 2019 holed up and writing one of the many screenplays knocking around in his head.

"I have a whole slew of ideas," he says, adding that he wants to write something in the tragic comedy genre. "I've been promising myself for decades that I'd do it, but I really feel the time is now. I'm going to sit in my house in France and write and not have to worry about hair and makeup and learning lines."

And the man who so convincingly played the anti-family man in About a Boy? He's married to Swedish television producer Anna Eberstein, and they have three children (he has other children from a previous relationship). "When I got to New York I was so excited for the peace and quiet, but now I have to say that I really miss the noise," he says. With the older kids in school, he plans on taking breaks to visit them.

But he's not done with his day job just yet. Aside from The Undoing, he's excited about portraying a sleazy private detective in the new Guy Ritchie crime flick The Gentlemen. And for all his fretting about rom-coms, he recently reunited with the cast of Four Weddings and a Funeral to make a short for Britain's Red Nose Day. That's why he winces ever so slightly when asked if he's enjoying his career renaissance.

"The word renaissance doesn't bother me, but it would be helpful if I'd been rejected in the past," he says. "But I've never felt rejected. I've just gotten closer to finding what I'm good at."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2019

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