Hugh Grant Embraces Complexity in Acting
By Peter Marks
The Washington Post
NEW YORK -- Hugh Grant is having a Hugh Grant moment in a luxury hotel suite near the tip of Lower Manhattan. Greeting a guest with an offer of refreshment, he hovers over an espresso maker, holding a delicate little demitasse cup.
The mischievous machine, though, spews more liquid than the cup can contain, and soon Grant is left standing there, like one of those charmingly thwarted gentlemen in a Hugh Grant comedy, watching a minor mechanical catastrophe unfold. A few words of pained regret are muttered; a larger coffee cup is quickly secured, and with an apologetic look and minimal spillage, the calamity is averted.
It’s an endearing way to be welcomed into the company of Grant, who at 55 is still sleek and, with the exception of a few more creases in his classic leading-man features, boyishly handsome.
“It was not my ambition to be a professional actor,” the Oxford-educated Grant says, reminiscing about how he got from there to here for his latest venture, co-starring with Meryl Streep in a quirky new Stephen Frears film, “Florence Foster Jenkins,” about a tone-deaf would-be opera singer and the man who reinforces her illusions.
There are, it seems, little accidents in Grant’s daily life, and more consequential ones. He’d done some college acting while reading English at Oxford, he says, and even appeared in a student film that he forgot all about as soon as he left school, when he was contemplating an additional degree.
“After I graduated that summer,” he recalls, “someone called up and said, ‘We’re showing that film tonight in London, in Piccadilly. Come and have a look.’
“So I remember going along on my bicycle, and watching it, and then there were these agents afterward who said, ‘Uh, hey, do you want to be an actor?’ I said, ‘No thank you very much. I want to do this history of art degree.’ And then I thought, actually, you know, maybe I’ll do it for a year because I have no money. And then one year turned into 35.”
With the fact-based “Florence Foster Jenkins,” he’s gotten hold of one of the more enigmatic characters he’s ever tackled, a failed English actor named St. Clair Bayfield who lives with Jenkins, an American heiress and philanthropist played by Streep. With his dashing poker face, he leads New York society of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s in an odd charade about the pleasures of Florence’s dreadful voice. Although it’s a harmless delusion under which Florence labors, while St. Clair is harboring other, more hurtful secrets, the movie compels you to wonder at St. Clair’s motives: Was he using Florence or being her rock?
“I was rather attracted to the fact that I think it’s both,” Grant says. “It’s very true that you can be both selfless and selfish at the same time. What we tend towards, particularly in filmmaking, is this binary sort of, this is a good guy, this is a bad guy. And I quite like the fact that life is a bit more complex than that.”
Grant is an engaging converationalist, and so the discussion briskly moves from movies to Brexit to the media. Several years ago, he became deeply involved with a public cause in Britain, advocating for legislation that would curb press excesses of the sort that led to the phone hacking scandal that engulfed Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper News of the World. Grant donated the damage settlement he himself received from the now-defunct Sunday tabloid for hacking his phone to the Hacked Off reform campaign, in which he’s still active.
Grant has managed to evolve a maturer screen presence. That, it seems, is no accident at all.
“It turns out all those things I used to slightly sneer at, Stanislavsky or Lee Strasberg or Method, some of those (acting) techniques I think really do work,” he says.