Interview: Hugh Grant, actor

Picture by JANE BARLOW
Picture by JANE BARLOW
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ON AND OFF screen, life has got more interesting for Hugh Grant. He’s ditching romantic comedy – for now – to play a pirate and a murderous cannibal, while his part in the campaign against phone hacking, including a star turn at the Leveson Inquiry, has given him an unexpected sense of purpose

The last time I met Hugh Grant was five years ago, in New York. He was in town to promote Music and Lyrics, one of his less appealing romantic comedies, in which he co-starred with Drew Barrymore. My third encounter with the actor, it was a typical Grant performance. The previous time we’d met, he talked about his growing love-handles. This time, it was his moobs. “I remember saying to Drew, ‘Here come my tired old tits again.’ I’m almost at the stage where I need a little man bra now.”

Grant is the master of self-deprecation, the personal put-down. All part of the charm of the actor who has made his name playing bumbling Englishmen in films like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. But he did say one interesting thing that day. “I think it’s important to not be in show business for a bit. Just do anything that’s different. Keep away from show business people. Live some real life. Just occasionally something will inspire you.”

As anyone who witnessed Grant giving evidence in the Leveson enquiry, last November, could tell, he has found that inspiration. Ironically, it has everything to do with showbiz. But on the stand in Court 73 of the Royal Courts of Justice, there was very little of Grant’s screen persona on display. Rather, in this on-going enquiry into the practices and ethics of the British press, and specifically the phone-hacking scandal that has sullied tabloid newspaper reputations, Grant was the man with his hands on the lid of Pandora’s Box.

Back in April 2011, in an article titled ‘The Bugger, Bugged’ in the New Statesman, he published extracts from a conversation he secretly taped in a Dover pub run by Paul McMullen, a former features editor of the now-defunct News of the World. Grant had previously met him on a country road when his car had broken down. McMullen had given him a lift, boasting about the malpractice of phone hacking (with police even taking bribes from journalists) that Grant had suspected for years. As he told the Leveson enquiry, “All my conspiracy theories seemed to be vindicated.”

Given all this, perhaps it’s a surprise that, three months later, I find myself in a small, nondescript first-floor boardroom in Bristol with Grant. We’re at Aardman Studios, the company behind the hugely successful animation Wallace and Gromit. Grant is the lead voice for their new feature-length 3D puppet film, The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists, in which he plays a not-particularly-good pirate captain who, in a desperate bid to win Pirate of the Year, hijacks Charles Darwin and his vessel, The Beagle.

To his credit, Grant is here, in full view, doing interviews. Some celebrities would hide behind their publicists after such exposure. But then Grant has never been one for that. Just think back to 1995 and his most infamous moment, when he was caught in his BMW on Sunset Boulevard receiving oral sex from the prostitute Divine Brown. Though it coincided with the release of his pregnancy comedy Nine Months, Grant didn’t duck his PR duties but completed his chat-show engagements (which in some quarters got labelled ‘the Hugh Grant apology tour’, much to his annoyance). “If you don’t,” he says, “you let the side down.”

Now “the side” is not just the team behind The Pirates! but all those lobbying for press reform. Today, dressed in jeans and a navy shirt rolled up at the sleeves, there’s an air about him that suggests he means business. Of course, he still trots out the usual line about how he doesn’t like acting – “It’s such a boring thing to say because I have been saying that, literally, since the beginning.” But as the star attraction of the Hacked Off campaign – he spoke at all three political party conferences last autumn – he has found a new lease of life, new urgency in his voice. “I’m very deeply involved,” he nods. “I’m a rent-a-rant. But I’ve been ranting about that for years and no-one really believed me when I said, ‘It’s all a stitch-up with the press and the government and the police.’ People would think, ‘Hugh’s gone mad.’ Now that its been revealed that I’m not mad, I am quite enthusiastic to finish the job.”

Was it gratifying to be proved right? “Yeah, it was. It’s only gratifying if we can finish the job. Apart from anything else, otherwise I’m a dead man. It’s a terrifying enemy.”

This is true. It can’t be easy knowing that tabloid reporters must be waiting to skewer Grant in any way possible (all in the public interest, of course). But Grant makes it very clear that this is in no way some sort of revenge campaign for the humiliation he suffered after the Divine Brown incident. “[That] was on public record. It was bound to be reported,” he says. “It’s important to stress my main priority is now about the theft of privacy … it’s quite wrong to characterise what I’ve been banging on about as ‘Poor me, people shouldn’t be going on about Divine Brown.’”

So what hope does he hold? “We now have this public enquiry, and the judge would have to make the right recommendations at the end, which I hope he will. And then you have to get the government to put them into law, and that’s quite a big thing.

“It’s not really in the interest of a Conservative government in particular to upset the tabloid press, who are largely Conservative supporters. Only one paper has gone … There’s a hell of a lot to be done and there’s so much more to come out, particularly about the police and particularly about the government’s relationship with [Rupert] Murdoch, for instance.”

He doesn’t seem bothered by the fact Murdoch’s News Corporation also owns US film studio Twentieth Century Fox. “I’m barely in the film business any more anyway. But even if I were, it would definitely be worth it. It wouldn’t bother me for two seconds that Murdoch and Fox might hate me.” Neither is he particularly impressed that Murdoch’s son James recently resigned as News Corp’s executive chairman of its UK newspaper arm, believing it a way of deflecting attention from the situation. “He was already gone from the UK. He was back in America, and he was out of the picture.”

Considering how, by his own admission, lethargic Grant can be, it is remarkable to see him so enthusiastic about something. “I’m going after it, because I’m doing it with these campaign friends who I’ve come to like very much. They’re academics and politicians. And it’s a whole new world for me – getting in a taxi and saying, ‘House of Lords, please.’ I quite like it.”

He did play the prime minister once, in Love, Actually. But does this mean we’re likely to see him running for a parliamentary seat in the future? “No, you can relax,” he says. “That’s not going to happen.”

Given Grant’s feelings towards second-hand sources – he told the enquiry, “Untrue stories will be quoted back to you as fact by credulous journalists in far-flung corners of the globe for years to come” – I’m loathe to quote from an old article, particularly given it was an interview he gave to the Daily Mail in 1999. But it seems apt. He was talking about his mother, Fynvola, who died two years later of pancreatic cancer. “My mother’s a very moral person,” he said. “If someone was being bullied at school, she wanted you to be the one that took their side and I’m not sure I’ve really lived up to that.”

Maybe Grant is finally standing up for those who are bullied – not the celebrities like he, Steve Coogan, JK Rowling and Sienna Miller, who all gave evidence at the Leveson enquiry, but the ordinary men and women who have suffered. Then again, it seems coincidental that this should all arrive in the same year that Grant, at 51, has become a father for the first time, after what his publicist described as “a fleeting affair” with a Chinese actress, Tinglan Hong, some 20 years his junior.

Needless to say, the tabloids went into overdrive as they tried to find out everything possible about the mother of Grant’s baby daughter. Much was made of the fact that Grant was at the Labour Party Conference when the girl was born and that he visited mother and daughter for just 30 minutes before jetting off to Scotland to play golf. Then there were claims that he was openly canoodling with German burlesque singer Elisa Schmidt.

It seems a far cry from when he and his partner of 13 years Elizabeth Hurley stepped out at the Four Weddings première, he with his boyish floppy fringe, she in that safety-pin Versace dress, and became the overnight It couple. While that came to an end in 2000, it took him four years before he entered another relationship, with Jemima Khan, then fresh from her divorce from former Pakistan cricket team captain Imran Khan. Under increasing scrutiny from the tabloids, the relationship lasted three years before an ‘amicable’ split in 2007.

Grant has remained a bachelor. He still has his looks, but there are flecks of grey in the hair now. Is he bothered about getting older? “Well, no one claps their hands at every birthday and thinks, ‘Good, I’m 51 now.’ But it doesn’t keep me awake at night, I don’t think.” Some people like getting older, I tell him. “Yeah, maybe,” he nods. “You care less about everything. Or you care less about silly things.”

At another point, the conversation turns to his work, specifically the romantic comedies that became his lifeblood. “Well, I’m too old for romantic comedies, let’s face it. I never really chose romantic comedies. They chose me.” Perhaps this is true. With the exception of his soulful turn as the childless womaniser in About a Boy, Grant’s work became decidedly less interesting once Four Weddings made him a star. Early films for Roman Polanski (Bitter Moon) and Ken Russell (The Lair of the White Worm) were unhinged, with a bemused Grant going along for the ride.

At least he has got to a place now where he’s happy. “I’ve never been the world’s keenest actor,” he says. “I don’t miss it at all. I do occasional things that are odd.” Like being the lead in The Pirates! film. Grant’s only previous animation effort was voicing the US version of a BBC children’s show Robbie the Reindeer. He played Blitzen, taking over from Steve Coogan, who was used in the UK version. “The Americans wanted voices that were more known in America. And so I re-voiced that part. But he was much better,” he says.

Far removed from his comfort zone, Grant admits he was a little nervous at first. “I’ve been watching Aardman films for years, and loving them. On the first day of recording this, I was star-struck by them.” Partly, it took him back to his early years. “It reminded me a bit of going way back to when I used to do sketch comedy. I used to write, and act and produce. And that was all silly voices. As soon as I got over the nerves of, ‘It’s Aardman, they’re f***ing geniuses, I’m going to screw this up for them’, I was all right.”

Those early days must feel like a lifetime ago. Back then, after reading English at New College, Oxford, and rejecting the chance to further his education at the Courtauld, he decided to become an actor. After a year of playing bit parts and understudying roles at the Nottingham Playhouse, Grant – never the most tolerant of chaps – got bored and decided to become an alternative comedian. He was one quarter of an act called the Jockeys of Norfolk, who even made it on to prime-time – Russell Harty’s show – before sinking into obscurity.

He attributes all of his comic talents to his late mother, a teacher by trade who was a brilliant mimic and used to perform a huge repertoire of characters for him and his older brother Jamie (now a banker) when they were growing up in the comfortable west London suburb of Chiswick. His father, James, who sold carpets for many years, also dreamed of a life in the arts – as a watercolour painter. But in the end it was only Grant who made the break. After his attempt at comedy flopped, he did what he could: writing sketches for Smith and Jones and advertising copy for Brylcreem and Red Stripe.

Grant admits he was “very happy” in those days; and there’s something about him that suggests a restlessness, an inability to settle on any one task. He talks positively about directing a film one day. “I would love to do that. And after all, I’ve worked with lots of very good directors now, really good directors, and that really does interest me.” It wouldn’t be a rom-com, he says, but it would have some jokes in it “because that appeals to me”. And he wants to write it. “I would love to do that. But I’ve been saying it for years and I’ve never got around to it.”

While he reputedly turned down the role of replacing Charlie Sheen’s Lothario character on sitcom Two and a Half Men, there’s talk of a third Bridget Jones film, in which he will reprise his role as the caddish publisher Daniel Cleaver. “Well, they’re trying to get the script right,” he explains. “And if they get it right, maybe we’ll do it. It’s quite difficult to do a third one, especially when we’re all so old now. There’s no book, but Helen Fielding did write some columns about Bridget and her baby, so it’s based on that.”

More interestingly, however, he has just completed six cameo roles in Cloud Atlas, an adaptation of the ‘unfilmable’ David Mitchell novel, which interweaves a series of stories spanning from the Pacific Ocean in the 1850s to a post-apocalyptic Hawaii in the future. It’s being co-directed by German director Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings, who brought us The Matrix trilogy. So how was that experience? “Very weird, as you would expect. But cathartic for me. I did a lot of killing and raping. I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

Even Grant admits he was surprised the Wachowskis wanted to cast him. “I met them and I said, ‘Are you joking? Do you really want me to do this?’ And they said, [in a West Coast drawl], ‘Yeah, man, we think it’s cool. Like counter-casting. Everyone thinks you’re a nice guy. And you can be, like, f***ng killing people and eating them.’”

It’s unlikely to reignite his passion for acting. But you get a sense that it rather symbolises this new chapter in Grant’s life. Father, activist, whatever next? n

The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists is on general release from 28 March (