In an attempt to loosen up the six actors gathered for The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual Drama Actor Roundtable, the moderator tossed out an innocuous question: What would people be surprised to learn about you?
Pose‘s Billy Porter, 49, jumped in first, offering an honest, if mild, response. “As I’ve grown older,” he shared, “I’ve become more of an introvert.” Fosse/Verdon‘s Sam Rockwell, 50, seized the opportunity to agree, noting that he suffers from social anxiety.
Next up was Richard Madden, 32, of Netflix’s Bodyguard, who had a little more fun with the query. “I like really crap pop music,” he revealed. The actor, who finds himself suddenly being rumored to play James Bond, didn’t cite a single song on his iPod, but he assured the table: “Really rubbish, cheesy stuff.”
And now we were getting somewhere. Enter Hugh Grant, 58, who looked down at his clasped hands then deadpanned: “How nasty I am.” With the rest of the group — which also included Narcos: Mexico‘s Diego Luna, 39, and Homecoming‘s Stephan James, 25 — howling with laughter, the Very English Scandal star continued, as if to convince his peers he was serious: “People saw all those romantic comedies where I was being a nice guy written by Richard Curtis, who is a very nice guy, and they used to think, ‘Oh, Hugh must be like that,’ ” he said. “But I’m vile. Really.”
Not so — as Grant ably proved over the course of the hour, keeping the group in stitches while still managing to reveal some serious stuff about the challenges of fame. From an invitation to the White House to a tuxedo-dress turn on the Oscar red carpet, the stars all weighed in on the moments and choices that make or break a career.
Let’s start simple. Complete this sentence: “I knew I’d made it in Hollywood when …”
STEPHAN JAMES I found myself in the White House. Barack and Michelle Obama invited us for a special screening of Selma. And I remember when I got the email, I sent it straight to my junk because I thought it was fake. Literally, the email said, “The White House.” And you want my passport and my Social Security? Yeah, no way. (Laughter.) A week later, I’m in the White House theater with Michelle, and she’s like, “The popcorn is over there, make yourself at home.”
SAM ROCKWELL Wow.
RICHARD MADDEN Yeah, I’m not going to top that …
DIEGO LUNA I started working when I was really young and did terrible films as a kid that no one got to see. And the first time I did a horrible film here, it got screened everywhere. It haunted me no matter where I was. (Laughter.)
ROCKWELL What kind of movie?
LUNA I had to dance a lot. The film opened in every country, and I was like, “That’s what Hollywood does to your career.”
BILLY PORTER I’ve been in this business for 30 years, but they just started paying attention. I wore a tuxedo dress to the Oscars, that’s when I arrived.
ROCKWELL For me, there are these little moments where you meet somebody you admire, like Kathy Bates or Don Rickles.
HUGH GRANT Bah, it was so long ago that anyone was nice to me [in Hollywood], it’s kind of hard to remember. It was after I made Four Weddings and a Funeral, and I came out as a hitherto unknown crap actor. (Laughter.) And suddenly big studio people were sending me baskets. You know, there are endless baskets.
ROCKWELL Oh, yeah.
GRANT I was spending all day, every day just undoing baskets. Turning on and off lights in enormous suites. It was quite fun. And people used to say extraordinary things to me, like, “Missing you already.” What? I’ve only just met you today. (Laughter.) The level of phoniness was fantastic. I enjoyed all that.
Why are you speaking in the past tense?
GRANT Well, I never really spent any time here [in Los Angeles], to be absolutely honest with you. I’ve not made a film … [or only] one tiny film I made here. So I still feel like an outsider. I remember the first time I arrived here, pre-Four Weddings, I came out to see a girlfriend, and I checked into the hotel, and the man behind the counter said (puts on an American accent), “OK, and how are you going to take care of your room?” That’s an American expression, we don’t say that in England. So I said, “Well, as well as I possibly can. As tidy as I can.” (Laughter.)
At this stage of your collective careers, what are the roles you’re each tired of being approached for?
MADDEN I played Romeo for about 10 years in different ways. Literally, I played it when I was 21 and when I was 30. I’ve checked that box. I’m done playing good guys that bad things happen to.
PORTER I was labeled very early the flamboyant clown, and I fought that for decades. Nobody minds stopping a show, let’s get that straight — it’s fun and fabulous — but I’m finally in this moment in my life where I’m able to play that character as a fully developed human being and not just the two-dimensional version that is set up to entertain. And to have lived long enough to see that happen on my terms is fabulous.
What about the rest of you? Are there roles that you’re like, “Not this again”?
ROCKWELL Yeah, I could take a break from racists. A long break. (Laughter.) And I played a lot of rednecks — “country” is probably a better way to put it. It’s funny, I’m a city kid, and they’re always trying to throw me on a horse or get a lasso or something. That’s not my thing.
GRANT I’m so happy that I don’t have to play women’s parts anymore. The school I went to was all boys, and I was a pretty boy and I just played girls for 11 years. And quite well, I have to say. I was a very good Brigitta Von Trapp in my white dress with a blue satin sash. But it’s nice to be playing men again. (Laughter.)
LUNA After Y Tu Mamá También, for 10 years I was offered roles of a young kid kissing his best friend. I remember directors saying to me, “I know this is not the role, but can you bring the lightness of that to this?” And you go, like, “Nooo,” because it’s very difficult. I loved that film, but suddenly the character became more than what I was capable of as an actor. It was more what the film made audiences feel. Suddenly you could relate to your childhood, and they wanted me to be them as kids having fun and doing the stuff they don’t do.
JAMES The first thing that popped into my head was period pieces. I’m staying away from those for a minute.
You were doing one after the next for a stretch there …
JAMES Yeah. And playing historical figures is great. I played Jesse Owens and John Lewis, and there’s a lot of pride that comes with playing those types of people, but at the same time you get this feeling that people in Hollywood think you only exist in the 1940s or ’50s and you can’t do anything contemporary.
Hugh, you’ve said that you permanently have an inferiority complex because you are “just the guy from romantic comedies.” Is that true?
GRANT Well, yes, but less now because I’ve gotten too old and ugly and fat to do them anymore, so now I’ve done other things and I’ve got marginally less self-hatred. (Laughter.)
That was the box you were in. Did it feel like a box at the time?
GRANT Yes, but not one you can complain about. I was being paid tons of money. I was very lucky. And most of those romantic comedies I can look squarely in the face — one or two are shockers, but on the whole I can look them in the face and people like them. And I am a big believer that our job is to entertain. It’s not to practice some weird, quasi-religious experience. I see us as craftsmen along with the guy who does the lights and the guy who edits and the guy who pushes the dolly. Because if it’s not that, I think it’s a bit masturbatory. Can I say “masturbatory”?
Billy, before Pose, you were being passed over for part after part in Hollywood. How close were you to throwing in the towel, and what made you keep going?
PORTER Being black and gay and out came with a lot of unemployment. It’s a double layer, the layer of being a person of color in this industry then the layer of being a queen. Nobody can see you as anything else. If “flamboyant” wasn’t in the description of the character, no one would see me, ever, for anything, which wouldn’t be so enraging if it went the other direction, but it doesn’t. Because straight men playing gay, everybody wants to give them an award: “Thank you for gracing us with your straight presence.” That gets tiresome. So here I sit, I can’t get the gay parts, I can’t get the straight parts. The theater was a bit kinder, but I’d go in and put myself on tape and, “Y’all said be flamboyant,” then not a callback, not a nothin’. “He’s too flamboyant.” I was going to kill somebody. And I had other stuff going on. I was directing Topdog/Underdog at the Huntington Theatre. So I’m writing, I’m directing, and I was finally like, “I don’t have to do this anymore.” The next day, ring! “Ryan Murphy wants to see you for a show called Pose.”
For the rest of you, what were the most challenging points in your careers and how did you overcome them?
MADDEN I did 11 months where I was broke and had nothing. I was turning down theater gigs — small theater gigs — because I wanted to try and do some camera acting. And the offers stop coming after you turn them down for a while and you go, “Right, I’ve now ruined that bit of my career.” And I’m not getting the camera stuff. I’d shot myself in the foot. Then I got Game of Thrones [Madden played Robb Stark for the first three seasons], and that helped change things a bit. (Laughter.)
GRANT The difference was when I was unemployed, I took everything. The worse it was, the quicker I took it. (Laughter.)
As in, you knew the projects were bad when you signed on?
GRANT Yes and, in fact, quite enjoyed it. You think, “Oh, well, this is nonsense, this film [1988’s Rowing With the Wind], it’s being made in Spain with English actors, with a director who doesn’t speak English and German money, it’s never going to see the light of day, so just go and have a nice time for three months, flirt with the actress playing Claire Claremont” [Grant’s former girlfriend Elizabeth Hurley]. Have you ever done those? I used to call them Euro Pudding.
ROCKWELL Yeah, yeah, yeah.
GRANT I remember the director, Gonzalo [Suárez], literally spoke no English. So they got a local guy to translate, an Englishman from the local university, and he’d never been on a film set before and he didn’t understand tact. He used to come up to the actors after a take and say, “Yes, Gonzalo says ‘be less wooden.’ ” It’s a very difficult note to take. (Laughter.)
MADDEN We’ve all heard that.
Stephan, one thing that you’ve said drew you to Homecoming was that it was a rare opportunity to play a colorless character. In what way did that differ from previous offers and why was that so refreshing?
JAMES Oftentimes when you get the breakdowns for these characters, it’s a tough pill to swallow when you see an African American is just explained in one sort of a way.
Which is what?
JAMES Historically, African Americans have been written very one-dimensional, perhaps they live one certain type of life, maybe they’re not educated, maybe they’re some sort of criminal.
PORTER Just say it: drugs and thugs.
JAMES All that. And it’s a responsibility that we have as artists to be responsible for the work that we’re putting out into the world. So for me, it meant a lot that I had this character in Homecoming who didn’t say “African American” on the breakdown. It could’ve very well said “Caucasian.” I’m acting opposite Julia Roberts, whom I’ve grown up watching. Anybody could’ve had this role and here it is, mine. It makes you feel invincible — that people are seeing you in a different sort of light. And while I don’t think it mattered so much that [the character] was black for the story, it matters in life that he is, you know? It matters for the kids watching it.
PORTER And for the adults watching it who didn’t have that. That was one of the things that was so powerful to me watching it, having come up in another era where if you didn’t play thugs or drug dealers, you didn’t work at a certain age.
Hoping you guys can speak to the emotional toll these projects have taken on you. Richard, at the end of shooting Bodyguard, I believe you questioned whether you even wanted to continue acting. Do I have that right?
MADDEN Yeah, at the end, I was like, “I need to stop doing this for a while.” Because it weighed very heavily on me. I was very isolated during it. You spend so much time in someone else’s clothes, saying someone else’s words, thinking someone else’s thoughts, that you lose a bit of yourself. And I’m not a method actor in any way, but you get a huge hangover. And at the end of that, I felt broken, much like the character was. Physically and mentally exhausted. I know we’re not curing cancer, but you’re giving everything you’ve got.
Diego, before you signed on for Narcos: Mexico, a location scout was killed. You’ve subsequently said that because of that devastation, it became that much more important for you to do the series. Why? And what were you hoping to illustrate with this show?
LUNA First, because I live in Mexico, and the struggle is happening. It’s violent times for my country. And it was interesting to revisit my childhood and the Mexico of the ’80s from this perspective because my father was trying to hide this Mexico from me. Now everything starts to make sense. The story has been told [before] in a way that is wrong — that’s very convenient for many criminals that are not in jail, who are actually running the country. The show starts in the first episode saying, “Since the ’80s, since this started, there’s been more than a half a million people killed in Mexico.” So the idea of making sure audiences around the world think about that when they’re going to have a line of cocaine made sense. And it was interesting to jump into a project that has this reach, that can actually tell people, “This is our issue.” And it’s quite complicated because, yes, we happen to have the longest border between the first world and the third world, we happen to be the neighbor of the biggest consumer of drugs, and it’s quite unfair, to be honest. And the story hasn’t been told that way — the drug dealers are always the bad guys and there are good guys chasing them, and it’s more in the gray areas what’s really happening. The involvement of government, police, military, on both sides of the border, it’s crucial for this gigantic business to exist. So it was a good chance to start the conversation from a different perspective.
I know how well the series has been received in the U.S., but what has the reception been like in Mexico?
LUNA At the beginning, people were very critical to us. People wanted to say, like, “Don’t keep telling the story of Los Narcos, stop it, there’s another Mexico.” And I agree, but we’re in war right now, and Mexico needs this conversation out. The violence has started to hit the cities and started to get really close and now everyone has a story, and that needs to stop. And I think TV is willing to take the risk, yes, to entertain but also to plant a seed that hopefully can bring change.
At any point, were you concerned for your own safety?
LUNA No more than before doing the show because I live there. I have kids and I still choose that city to be my city. So I’m going to fight to try to make it a safer place always because that’s where all my love stories are.
Hugh, initially you had some hesitation about doing TV. Why, and what was it about this project that made you change your tune?
GRANT Oh, well it wasn’t really a hesitation, it was just pure snobbery. But I’d done Florence Foster Jenkins with Stephen Frears and he sent me this thing [A Very English Scandal], it was three scripts. And I thought, “Television? I don’t do television.” And then I read them and they were brilliant. And I realize everyone does TV now — I just can’t help having a little hankering for the old days of glamour and cinemas with lots of people in them. Anyway, it’s all gone. (Laughter.) But I have to say, I didn’t know which part he wanted me to play. Frears is very good at seeing things in me that I certainly never saw. And he said, “Jeremy Thorpe” [a Liberal Member of Parliament who had to contend with a disgruntled former lover, played by Ben Whishaw, in 1970s England]. So I had to say yes, and then I spent a nice year panicking about it.
What drove the panic?
GRANT Fear of failure. Then the project got delayed, and so I spent a year researching this character. I met all the people who’d ever known him, and I read every book and I watched him on YouTube. Maybe that helped. Maybe it made me better. I don’t know.
Talk to us about watching the show, particularly an early gay sex scene, with your 89-year-old father …
GRANT Oh yes, ex-military father, who I have dinner with on Sunday nights. To my horror, I went around when the show was just coming out on the BBC and he said, “Now wait a minute, isn’t your [gay] film on TV tonight? Let’s watch it.” And I said, “No, no, it’s not up your alley, you wouldn’t like it, really.” And he said, “No, nonsense, I’ve got a television upstairs, if you show me how to work it, we’ll watch it together.” So I then had to sit there with my old dad and watch this [scene] where I bring Vaseline into the room and spread it on Ben Whishaw. And it was at that point that my father said, “Well, I think I might go to bed now.” (Laughter.)
Can anyone else relate to the awkwardness of that moment?
MADDEN A sex scene with Mum watching is never great fun. I usually [try to prepare her], but sometimes you forget. And then it’s tea spat out or “Cover your eyes!” And you’re like, “Well I’ve seen it, I was in it.” (Laughter.)
JAMES Oh yeah, totally had some of those. I don’t warn my mom because she suffers from anxiety, so it’s kind of one of those where I just let her go through what she goes through.
Sam, I’ve read that you consult your therapist about your roles. What did that entail for Fosse/Verdon?
ROCKWELL Bob Fosse was a complicated dude [he was married multiple times and engaged in extramarital affairs], and, as Hugh said, I took a deep bath in this and it can mess with your head a little bit. But there were a lot of elements to playing him. Like the dance parts. Early on, the choreographer brought me together with this young lady who was a dancer, and I fancied myself a hoofer and I was cocky about it, but I realized quite quickly that I was not a dancer and I had a lot of work to do. (Laughter.)
PORTER You did good, though, you did good.
ROCKWELL Thanks, man. It’s all me. No stunt double. (Laughter.)
Billy, when you were initially called in for Pose, it was not the role that you ultimately play.
Where did that confidence come from to be able to push back and say, “Wait a second, I think there’s another role here for me”?
PORTER I get the script and it’s for the dance teacher that’s outside of the world. And this is where the Tony and the Grammy give you confidence. And age! So I go in and do the audition, and then I said to [Pose casting director] Alexa Fogel, “OK, can we talk? Whatever y’all want me to do, I’ll be there for it, but what about one of the mothers of the houses?” Because there were male and female mothers. And she said, “Ryan wants to go transgender.” Which was the most brilliant idea ever. And I had just directed a play for the Public Theater’s writing program with four transgender actresses of color in it and so I said, “I’ve worked in that world, the talent is there, there’s been no opportunity to cut their teeth, though. So many of the actors and actresses are really green and you’re going to need somebody over there to be daddy, right? Well, daddy is right here.” (Laughter.) I got a call a couple of weeks later, “Ryan thinks you’re right. If you can come in and do an impersonation of the emcee from Paris Is Burning, he will develop something for you.” And I thought, “If I can …?” Three weeks later, the character was named Pray Tell and we were off to the races.
For the rest of you, is there a change that you fought for or a direction to take your character that perhaps wasn’t already
on the page, and how did it turn out?
GRANT Oh, I’m Barbra Streisand in trousers.
What does that mean?
GRANT I’m very interfering. And maybe I’m doing her a disservice. Maybe she’s very easy. I always [think of her as being] quite interfering and difficult. (Laughter.) I’ve gotten better as my power has dwindled, but when I had a bit of power, I got heavily involved with the script and the casting and the crew, down to what the poster was going to look like in Italy.
You had opinions on it all?
GRANT Very strong opinions. Mad, really, mad. And then I got a life. Had children.
Did people listen or did they fight you?
GRANT It’s the Hollywood system. They pretend to listen — they’re not, though.
MADDEN Have you any interest in producing then if you want to have such [control]?
GRANT I did a bit of that, and it’s actually horrible. I don’t know if you’ve done it, but it’s like driving a car from the back seat. You’re just tearing your hair out while someone else is driving, saying, “No, no, no, slower, go right.”
MADDEN I worry about doing things like interfering because I worry what my own motivations are for it, especially when it comes to things that are close to you or you’ve experienced that I don’t want to therapy myself through. I don’t want to let myself get in the way and affect it because I’m trying to understand something in me. I always fear that. And sometimes that trips me up because I end up not connecting with something out of fear of it being some sort of therapy for me, and I mustn’t allow myself to do that.
LUNA Directing brought me patience. I used to be a pain in the ass, but with directing, suddenly you are telling the story of others and trying to read a perspective and a point of view and to honor that point of view, and it’s exhausting. And sometimes you work with assholes and you didn’t know it before and you have to keep going and get to the end. After I directed my first film, I phoned a few directors [I’d worked with], saying, “I’m sorry.” (Laughter.) But it changes once you go through that process of actually having to answer every question and sound secure to convince everyone I knew what I wanted when you [really] don’t. It’s impossible.
Hugh, I want to touch on something you’ve said, which I’m hoping you can elaborate on: “Every actor in the world prefers playing darker characters. In Shakespeare’s time, I’m sure everyone wanted to play Tybalt, not Romeo.”
GRANT Well, really you should be asking Richard. (Laughter.) But no, it’s true. No one wants to be the good guy. It’s harder. Would everyone agree?
ROCKWELL Mercutio is more fun.
GRANT Exactly, any of those parts. But the interesting question is, why? I think it’s because we know deep down that people are evil and niceness is a very thin veneer. So when you’re dark, it strikes a chord.
ROCKWELL And it’s cathartic.
Are there things that you guys wish you knew about navigating fame and success that you know now?
GRANT Just about everything. Every decision I ever made was probably wrong. When I was where you are now (to James) and you are now (to Madden) after Four Weddings, and the world was my oyster, I should’ve made interesting decisions and done different stuff. Instead, I repeated myself almost identically about 17 times in a row.
MADDEN But that’s the problem, because if you do something well people go, “Well, will you do this again, please, because you did it well before.”
GRANT Yeah, I had to wait until all the romantic comedy had dried up before I was offered anything else. (Laughter.)
Stephan, you’ve had this remarkable run, going from If Beale Street Could Talk to Homecoming. How have the opportunities being presented and the decisions you make about them changed?
JAMES I think it gets tougher in a weird sense.
JAMES The more eyes that are on you, the more mindful you are of just how careful the choices have to be. All of a sudden I’m meeting these directors who I’ve loved my whole life, and now I get to go to coffee and lunch with them and they know me and that’s a cool thing. But I think the decisions get tougher. You’re constantly thinking about what’s going to challenge you next, what’s going to be different than what people are expecting, and then not wanting to oversaturate or do too much.
For the rest of you, any advice to offer about that navigation? Richard, if you google your name right now, you’ll see a whole lot of James Bond speculation.
MADDEN Yeah, never google your name. (Laughter.)
PORTER I’ve been around enough to never go online. Never google, never read the comments. Let the social media children do that.
MADDEN Yeah, nothing good comes from it. But I was never more confident than when I had no success because I had nothing to lose. And then something goes down well and it starts to get worse. And it’s all in your own head and it should all be confidence-boosting, but you feel you have more to live up to and more to lose.
MADDEN I need to try and relax a bit more on the journey of succeeding and failing because you learn a hell of a lot more when you’re failing.
This story first appeared in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.