Hugh Grant on Working With Meryl Streep in 'Florence Foster Jenkins': It Was "Terrifying" (Q&A)

Nick Wall/Pathé
'Florence Foster Jenkins'

"I had to raise my game," says the 'Notting Hill' star, nominated for best supporting actor at the Hollywood Film Awards, as he also discusses battling stage fright and why the role was "impossible to turn down."

For the past five years, Hugh Grant has been on hiatus, taking a break from film to focus on his work with Hacked Off, an organization fighting for stricter press laws in the U.K., after the scandal surrounding the News of the World and its hacking of citizens and stars (including him). During that same period, he also became a father — four times over. But a role opposite Meryl Streep in Stephen Frears' Florence Foster Jenkins was an offer too good to refuse. Now the Brit, 56, known for such films as Notting Hill and Bridget Jones's Diary, is receiving kudos for his return to the screen, including best supporting actor honors at the Hollywood Film Awards on Nov. 6 (hosted by James Corden). "It's a novel experience for me," says Grant. "Gratifying, and unusual."

What attracted you to Florence Foster Jenkins?

It really was impossible to turn down because it was Stephen Frears and it was Meryl Streep. And it was a really good part: complicated, nuanced. He was something of an enigma, and I thought I might recognize him.

Was working with Meryl what you expected?

I imagined working with her would be terrifying, and, indeed, it was really. She is so brilliant of course, a genius, which is frightening in itself, but also unbelievably focused and dedicated. I had to raise my game.

You've mentioned that you dealt with stage fright. Do you still struggle with that?

I do live in terror of an attack. I used to get three or four [on a film], but now I'm down to one, and I'm hoping for none on this next one. I've got it more or less under control with the right combination of herbal remedies and exercise. I went to see a shrink about it. It was a waste of money because all he said was to do a few press-ups, and he's not wrong. Just doing press-ups or squat jumps for five minutes brings your adrenaline down below the red line. So that's what I do in the middle of an important emotional or comedic scene: I'm leaping about doing those.

What kind of advice do you give to young actors who are just starting out?

I think if you really, really love it, nothing’s going to stop you anyway. But it’s always a difficult thing when young relations come to see me saying they’re desperate to go into acting because it’s no good just being good enough — you’ve also got to be so absurdly lucky, and I always worry that you can waste a life. It’s all very well if you’re trying it until you’re 25, but suddenly you’re trying it at 35 and it hasn’t worked out, and then you’re 45 and that’s undesirable I think when you could have done something else. So it’s a very difficult piece of advice to give to young relations. One of them came to see me the other day, she did an audition piece for me — which I wasn’t ready for — and she was a nice girl and it was really good. It was a piece about being raped. As she was doing it full out in the middle of my room and it was a very difficult situation. Anyway, I don’t know what the answer is. I think if you love it go for it, but set a time limit.

What do you feel like you’ve accomplished with Hacked Off?

We have made some big strides. Getting the Leveson inquiry to happen was a big stride, and getting the recommendations [of] that inquiry into law was a big moment. The problem is now that the government is, as ever, under massive pressure from the big media barons here — and terrified of them. So they’re trying to find a loophole to delay the big commencement of the new laws that we made, so that’s the little fight we’re in at the moment, is trying to make them do that.

Have there been repercussions from your work with Hacked Off?

There's a lot of talk in British papers about freedom of speech, but there's no freedom of speech for anyone who criticizes them — so if you do that, they tear you to pieces. Not only as a punishment to you but as a warning to others. It's like The Godfather.

Are you diving back into acting or is your focus still on Hacked Off?

As we speak, I'm in a taxi to a Hacked Off meeting at Westminster, but I spent the afternoon learning to tap dance for Paddington 2 — in the same dance studios where I learned the Lindy hop for Florence Foster Jenkins. I don't know what my children make of it. One moment I'm in a suit and the next I'm in a pair of tap shoes and a pink suit dancing around.

Was taking on Paddington 2 influenced by your kids?

I suppose it might be. But any time I try to interest my children in my films, they look embarrassed and run in the opposite direction. I'm not sure they'll ever like me as an actor, and I'm sympathetic to that.

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.