Why Hugh Grant Is Done With Leading-Man Roles

Hugh Grant_ONE TIME USE - Getty - H 2018
Mike Marsland/WireImage

The self-deprecating Brit talks about his two very different comic roles — in 'Paddington 2' and 'A Very English Scandal' — and the joy of getting "old and ugly."

Long typecast as a romantic lead, Hugh Grant earned a different moniker among critics and industry observers in 2018: comedian.

In January's Paddington 2, Grant, 58, satirized self-important actors as thespian Phoenix Buchanan. A few months later, as 1960s Parliament member Jeremy Thorpe, who attempted to arrange the murder of his former gay lover, Grant sought to straddle a fine line between tragic and humorous in Amazon's A Very English Scandal. The result surprised critics who synonymize Grant's name with meet-cutes and either mumbly charm or devilish caddishness: The Hollywood Reporter's Josh Spiegel called his work in Paddington "a part he seems born to play" while The New Yorker said his role in Scandal was "brilliant" in conveying the privileges of power.

The sense that "nothing quite measures up" to a role he has just finished is new for Grant, who is now fielding many non-leading man offers. "And thank Christ for that," he deadpans. Grant spoke to THR about his very funny year, actors who preach collaboration but are secretly "great white sharks" and which roles he's looking for next.

Paddington 2 is a comedy, and you've called A Very English Scandal a "black comedy." How did you end up doing those two comic roles in one year?

It was by accident. The better answer would be, "No, by design. I wanted to do two comic roles where I try to kill Ben Whishaw [who voices Paddington and plays Thorpe's former lover]." The truth is, Paddington 2 just arrived with a script with a very hurtful letter that said, "We're doing Paddington part two, there's a part in it for a washed-up, narcissistic actor and we thought of you." When I got over the hurt, I read it, and it was very funny, and a great chance to cannibalize some of the actors I'd known from my past in the theater. Then Stephen Frears, who I made Florence Foster Jenkins with, said one day, "I've got something for you" and these scripts [for A Very English Scandal] turned up. I thought at first, "Well, I really don't do television." But it was really brilliant. It had to be done.

What in your background prepared you for these two roles?

In terms of Paddington, I spent time getting my union card while I was in my 20s, and I had to do regional theater. Nottingham Playhouse was full of middle-aged, rotund old actors with beards and barrel chests and marvelous voices. I loved them. There's a bit of them in Paddington 2. But as for A Very English Scandal, I remember the scandal very well. I was at school and we were all loving it. It was high comedy to see these establishment figures like Jeremy Thorpe in his pin-striped suits in court accused of murder and his lover talking about having to bite the pillow, the jar of Vaseline. 

Did your perception of Jeremy Thorpe change as you started to research the role?

Yes, because I didn't know really much about him at all. But then I did do a very deep journey: I read everything there is to be read on him, I met lots and lots of people who knew him both professionally and personally, and I watched a lot of footage of him. I think in the end I did get quite a useful handle on him. Narcissism, oddly enough, was the key, rather like it was for [Paddington 2's] Phoenix Buchanan. I’ve done a lot of politics in the last six years in England — been very involved with a campaign called Hacked Off — and I’ve met an awful lot of politicians. The thing that always strikes me is how many of them are rabid narcissists, almost worse than the ones one meets in show business. And Jeremy Thorpe was certainly no exception.

How did you balance those comic parts while also conveying the serious aspects of Jeremy Thorpe?

That was quite a delicate tightrope to walk. But that was also the fun of it: Can you preserve comedy when it's very deep, dark, serious scenes about how to kill someone? And equally, if it's a very farcical scene, how do you stop it just becoming some other film? That was a continual battle.

Moving onto Paddington 2, a lot of critics interpreted your performance as a self-parody. Did you self-consciously satirize the public image of Hugh Grant in that performance?

Apart from the fact that my house [in the film] is full of pictures of me that we dug up from the internet and so on, I never thought it was me, no, I didn't. This is an old theater lover; my history is different.

Is there any truth to the archetype, which Paddington 2 draws on, of the narcissistic actor?

I think all actors are narcissists, absolutely. It's not fashionable to admit it: Everyone has to talk about the craft and it's about giving and it's not a competition, it's like teamwork. But believe me, it's a fucking competition. Not with everyone, [but] some of the actors and actresses that I've come across who preach loudest about it being teamwork — they're in fact the most terrifying great white sharks, set on success.

Have the roles you've been offered changed at all since you've starred in these two movies?

They've been changing a lot anyway since I got old and ugly. I don't often get offered leading men, and thank Christ for that. I have been getting quite interesting things, but Thorpe in A Very English Scandal was such a great part with such a lovely, delicate tone that it has been very difficult to find anything since that I've wanted to do as much.

What attracts you to a project — a script? A director?
Well, it has to be both. You have to tick a lot of boxes before you can say yes. You see, I think a lot of actors see parts as the most important thing. [Like,] “Oh, this is a wonderful part.” But to me that’s not enough. If it’s a wonderful part in a thing that I don’t think works as an entertainment, then what’s the point? But some people really, really love acting so much that they’ll do it even though it’s not going to work as an entertainment. But I like to see acting as just one craft contributing to an overall entertainment, along with the lighting, the set design, the editing, et cetera, and not as an end in itself.

If you're happy to be done with leading men, are you looking to become more of a character actor?

No. The key, really, is can I enjoy it? Which brings me right back to the beginning of any impulse I had to act: As a kid, I did silly voices and I did imitations of teachers, aunts and uncles, and it was just showing off. It was just, "Look at this character. Isn't it fun being him?" That's what I like to do now. I'm not interested in preaching to people or acting as a form of therapy. It's got to be an entertainment.

A version of this story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.