'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Hugh Grant ('Florence Foster Jenkins')

The king of the rom-com, who is now 55, discusses why he stopped making movies for several years ("terrible and embarrassing" stage-fright attacks) until he was coaxed out of retirement to star in a dramedy opposite Meryl Streep ("If you play tennis with Rafa Nadal, you play better tennis").
Courtesy of Katrina Wan PR
Hugh Grant

"It's actually equally difficult to make a big commercial success as it is to make a film that pleases the intelligentsia of North London — some people argue it's harder, in fact," says British actor Hugh Grant, king of the rom-com genre and star of the new dramedy Florence Foster Jenkins, as we sit down at The Four Seasons to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's "Awards Chatter" podcast. "Why do people assume that deep and dark and miserable is better than light and amusing and uplifting? That must be what we deep-down think is the default setting for human existence and therefore somehow more truthful, and that if people are dancing about like Fred Astaire or being charming like Cary Grant it's a big lie or something, I don't know. But, just from personal experience, those things, that lighter stuff — and I know it's a cliche, but I happen to believe it's true — it's bloody difficult and incredibly technical. And when you actually get to do a bit of drama, although it's far from easy, at least in terms of results, many, many shades of gray can be correct, whereas with comedy it tends to be black or white. It's binary. It either makes people go 'ha-ha-ha' or it doesn't. And that's pretty scary."

(Click above to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey WeinsteinAmy Schumer, J.J. AbramsKate Winslet, Samuel L. Jackson, Jane Fonda and Michael Moore.)

The 55-year-old, who was visiting Los Angeles for the first time in years, tells me he became a professional actor quite by accident. "I was always an obnoxious show-off," he acknowledges, and he enjoyed "theater acting when it really didn't matter," in the years before he headed off to Oxford University on a scholarship. But once there he was focused on English literature, with plans to pursue a graduate degree in art history thereafter. It was only after being invited to appear in a student film that things took a different course. His performance in the film "piqued the interest of some agents" so, at the urging of his brother, Grant decided to explore his options in acting "for a year" after graduation. Then, he says with a smile, "One job turned into two turned into 35 years."

Grant landed the lead in James Ivory's 1986 drama Maurice — "It sort of came out of the blue" — and for his efforts he was awarded the Venice Film Festival's best actor prize. "That did put me on a whole different path in life, because once you've done one relatively successful film, suddenly you've got a sort of ticket." In the ensuing years he made films for the likes of Ken Russell, Roman Polanski and, once again, Ivory (1993's The Remains of the Day). "Those were all excellent projects," he acknowledges. "But I also did some very dodgy stuff at that time, some really ridiculous miniseries and what we called Euro-puddings."

Grant's life changed forever when he was asked to read for the leading role in Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1993. "I thought it was a mistake because I was sent a script — and it was good," he says with a grin. ("It happened again with Jerry Maguire," he adds, "and they said, 'Yeah, that is a mistake.'") He still remembers the session at which he landed the part: "It was a surreal audition because it was at the Henson Studio in London, so I was surrounded by Muppets." Five million dollars and 36 days later, the film premiered at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival — at which another of his pictures, Sirens, also had its U.S. premiere — and he instantly became a star. (Four Weddings went on to become the highest-grossing British release of all time, up to that point.)

Over the ensuing year, several other films in which Grant had appeared were rushed into release — "Whatever genre they were, they were all marketed as romantic comedies," he recalls with disbelief. But he made few new films before 1999, when he starred, opposite Julia Roberts, in the blockbuster rom-com Notting Hill. The long gap partly was because of his then-scandalous 1995 arrest for "lewd conduct" in a public place after police found him with a prostitute. But, after Notting Hill, he continued to appear primarily in rom-coms, including 2001's Bridget Jones's Diary, opposite Renee Zellweger; 2002's Two Weeks Notice, alongside Sandra Bullock; 2003's Love, Actually, paired with Martine McCutcheon; and 2007's Music and Lyrics, co-starring Drew Barrymore.

"I did end up doing more than I expected to of those," Grant says of rom-coms, although he thinks he knows why people kept coming to him for them: "I suppose I'm not bad at knowing where the joke is and how potentially you might maximize it and bring it out and how to offset or cut sentimentality with a joke so that you get away with quite sentimental stuff without people realizing it. I have, I think, quite a good nose for that. Of course, I'm not bad verbally — that was my strength. But what I dread is the sort of Juliette Binoche French film shot where they just track in on you and you've got no lines and you just have to go from happy to crying. Then I crap myself."

In fact, Grant reveals, he "crapped himself" with increasing frequency after the release of Notting Hill. "I got these absurd stage-fright attacks," he acknowledges. "I really don't know where it suddenly came from." He elaborates, "They would just hit me in the middle of a film and they would only last a morning or something, but it was devastating. It would be some very simple scene, you'd rehearsed it perfectly, maybe shot the other guy's close-up, they turned around on you, you'd walk in there whistling and then suddenly, out of nowhere, you've got sweat shooting from your armpits and you can't remember your lines. These were terrible and embarrassing occasions. You could almost never use the scene, you actually had to cut the scene from the film." As a result of the "dread" of these — and also because he "kept telling myself I was going to go and write my novel" — Grant announced his retirement from the silver screen.

During his years off, he focused much of his energies on "Hacked Off," a campaign against the "scary newspapers" that wield immense power and influence in England and have terrorized people in the news, from the family of murder victims to movie stars, not least of all through phone hacking that came to light in 2011. "Although you never want a state-run media, it's equally bad to have a media-run state," Grant says. "I object to them harassing the innocent people around one — an 87-year-old father or a two-year-old child photographed naked on the beach and published in a national newspaper. I think it's disgusting. But I've tried never to complain about the fate of the actual performer, because I think when you become a performer there's always gonna be a little more attention than you might always like."

Fortuitously, Grant's involvement with "Hacked Off" led to his big-screen comeback in Florence Foster Jenkins. The film's director-to-be, Stephen Frears, also supported the campaign, and lobbied Grant to read the script. "It was not only a brilliant script, but it had an amazing part for me," the actor says of the role of St. Clair Bayfield, a British actor who was married to and shielded the title character, a socialite who loved to sing opera, from discovering that she was terribly untalented. "Plus Stephen Frears, plus Meryl Streep! So I had to do it." He acknowledges that he was "scared" to be back on a film set, and had to actively take steps to fend off further stage fright — "Day after day, you know, 'I better go for a run this morning' and 'I better take these herbal calmers now' — it's a pain in the ass."

Still, Grant feels it was well worth the hassle. "Once I was over it, in many ways it was a treat," he says. "Performing with the greatest female actress possibly of all time is no hardship. Things go better. You know, if you play tennis with Rafa Nadal, you play better tennis." So is he officially out of retirement and back in the game? "I don't know quite what will happen now," Grant says with a smile. "I did enjoy enormously making this film, Florence, and I think I got a bit better at acting doing it. And when you improve, it's like when you improve your serve at tennis — you want to play again."

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