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Trash Talker?

Between his roles in mostly romantic comedies, the witty, urbane British actor Hugh Grant loves a testy game of golf.
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Hugh Grant, November/December 2009

(continued from page 1)

Or in person, for that matter. As he talks, Grant is casually elegant in an untucked dark-brown dress shirt, jeans and a tan pair of brushed suede loafers. He's sitting in New York's famous Brill Building, a former music-industry beehive that's now a Midtown film center honeycombed with production offices, screening rooms and editing facilities.

Grant has flown to New York to see Lawrence's assemblage of Did You Hear About the Morgans? for the first time and will hop on another plane to return to his London home the next day.

"I feel as though I spend my whole life on airplanes," he muses, adding with a straight face, "I cry a lot on planes. I cried at Finding Nemo on an airplane once."

The film, he says, "looks a lot better than the others did at this stage. Normally, when I see the first cut, I'm suicidal. I want to go to that clinic, Dignitas, in Switzerland and have myself put down. But this one is quite funny; it looks beautiful."

While he's played opposite a raft of high-profile actresses—Andie MacDowell, Julianne Moore, Sandra Bullock, Renee Zellweger, Rachel Weisz, Julia Roberts —he's never been confronted with a performer as demanding as in his newest film. No, not Sarah Jessica Parker, who plays his soon-to-be-ex-wife ("She was wonderful," Grant says).

Rather, the attention-hogging scene-stealer in question is a massive, trained Kodiak bear named Bart, with whom Grant and Parker share a scene in the new romantic comedy.

"Oh, he was very queenie," Grant says of Bart, feigning shock at another actor's bad behavior. "He had to have endless cans of iced tea before he'd go on. When he did something right, his trainer had to give him a frying pan full of whipped cream and the crew had to applaud. Then the keeper would come and wrestle him. I got quite jealous at that and so I'd make Marc do that with me after particularly tough scenes."

In Did You Hear About the Morgans?, Grant and Parker play a pair of almost-divorced New Yorkers who jointly witness a murder. The upscale city-dwellers are then whisked into the witness-protection program together and hidden by the government in Wyoming (actually, New Mexico, doubling for the Cowboy State). During one wilderness adventure, these fish out of water are menaced by a large wild animal played by Bart the bear.

Says co-star Parker, "Hugh got much closer to it than I would have in a million years. The bear could have touched him. I was a nice distance away."

"We were both joking that this might be the day that Bart loses it," Lawrence says. "Ultimately, it is still a bear. The only question anyone wanted to ask the trainer was, 'Well, what if he does decide to flip out?' And the answer they kept giving was, 'Oh, he won't.'"

Says Grant, "By the end of the day, I realized the bear was a total pussy. But I was very brave."

The Hugh Grant wit: It's dry, it's sharp-edged and it's often self-deprecating. Such as his riff on his discovery of American country-western music, which he fell in love with while on location in New Mexico.

"I have famously poor taste in music," he says. "My iPod plays strange things like British military bands, football songs and Mozart. Actors run screaming from the makeup room when my music is on."

Then there were the costumes: His character dresses like a Wyoming local, with lots of jeans, cowboy boots and flannel shirts.

"I like the way they dress," he says. "In real life, it's such a nightmare to know what to wear. But they've got their boots, their jeans, their plaid shirts—it's fantastic, and easy. There's an old-fashioned elegance to it. There are a couple of scenes where I dressed that way and I thought, I look quite sexy like this. But having seen the film now, I'm here to tell you that nothing could be farther from the truth. I'm quite shocked by the way I look in films. When I see myself on-screen, I see a withered old lesbian."

Kidding? Not quite. There's that old ambivalence at work. As Lawrence observes, "At the end of this film, he told me, 'I didn't enjoy a second of it—and now I really miss it.'"

So why not work in theater? That allows the actor to live in the moment—and to get immediate response from an audience.

"The stage is, in many ways, lovely," Grant allows. "It's lovely to get laughs. Laughs buoy you up and make you better. But I'm not suited to theater. I get bored after the first week. I also have a problem laughing on stage. I get these diabolical cases of the giggles."

Grant professes a fascination with the idea of working on a wholly improvisational movie. He mentions the films of Christopher Guest (Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman) and British director Mike Leigh (Happy Go Lucky, Secrets and Lies).

"What I hate is the old-fashioned way," he says. "You come in, you hit your mark, you shoot a master shot, then a two-shot, then close-ups. It's just not fluid enough."

Costar Sarah Jessica Parker, however, believes that Grant sells himself short. She thinks of Grant as the gold standard for leading men in contemporary romantic comedy.

"It's the ideal situation, doing a romantic comedy with Hugh Grant," Parker says. "If you're about my age and a fan of romantic comedy, it's a dream. He plays an archetype that we want to see on-screen. People think that doing romantic comedy is like playing in the school yard with your friends. But it's hard—and harder if you care as much as Hugh does. Part of it comes very naturally to him but he also gives a lot of thought to the work."

"He's too smart to be a performing monkey, aka an actor," Sandra Bullock writes in an e-mail response to questions about Grant. "But he has a God-given talent that keeps pulling him back in front of the camera. He makes things look effortless, but that ease comes only after hours and days of banging his head against a problem."

Grant has taken a stab at writing screenplays and is halfway through a novel that he's been writing for years: "I feel uneasy describing it because it doesn't sound good," he says. "It's quite twisted and disturbing—in a humorous way, I hope. Getting down to it is incredibly difficult but once I'm there, I enjoy the process of composing prose. But I enjoy style more than content; really, I've got nothing to say."

He's also toyed with the idea of directing a film, something to which others believe he'd be well-suited: "Hugh would make an amazing director," Bullock explains, "because his attention to detail and obsessive drive to make things perfectly natural are what actors strive to find in a director. He would never allow himself to think of himself as a director, but those of us who have worked with him know what an eye he has for cinema."

Grant says, "I would enjoy directing, but I only want to do something I've written." He has a story he'd like to do based on his grandfather's World War II experience involving an escape from a POW camp but his father has forbidden him, so far.

"My father is very much against it," Grant says. "To him, any film equals Hollywood equals a sort of sellout. It would debase what was for him a very sensitive episode involving a regiment of which his family is incredibly proud. There's a beauty to the old regimental system and that's why I want to make the film. It must be in my genes; I've got so many soldiers as forebears."

So for Grant, there's work, there's golf—and then there are women. A bachelor most famously involved at various points with model Elizabeth Hurley and British socialite Jemima Khan, Grant says, "I'm the first to admit that I'm not good at staying in relationships. Every man struggles with that; every woman, too. I'm not sure how natural relationships are."

He professes to want children but has no immediate prospects, in terms of a long-term connection or possible marriage. He allows that he sometimes succumbs to "the terror of being a sad, lonely old man with no children."

"I've spent an awful lot of my adult life in relationships," he says, "probably two-thirds. I think, after a year or two, that a relationship needs children. Otherwise, it can be quite perilous. That's always going to be a factor. If you choose not to be in a relationship, there's a certain freedom and exhilaration but also lonely moments."

When he's not working, Grant shuns the spotlight, though not always successfully. A 1995 foray with a Los Angeles prostitute named Divine Brown led to his arrest. He's also had run-ins with paparazzi and was arrested in London in 2007 in an incident for which charges were later dropped. It's part of the life that goes with having a famous face, he says.

"People on the whole are very circumspect and nice and leave you alone," he says. "After about 11 p.m., after people have had a few drinks, then the phone cameras come out and life becomes more difficult. I detect a greater sense today among people who feel they own the people they write about. Plus there's such a massive volume of TV, Web sites and magazines. It wasn't that way 14 years ago."

As his 50th birthday approaches (he'll hit the half-century mark next September), Grant brings the same ambivalence to his leisure time that he does to his work: "I feel guilty about all my pleasures," he says. "You don't feel that when you work hard. Because I do so little when I'm between films, I do feel guilty, about my drinking and my golf."

Grant obviously can't get enough golf and still has goals for his game. When he started playing, he longed for a handicap in single figures. He's brought it down to 8, but would like to get to 5 or lower.

"You know you're a sad case when you spend your spare time reading Dave Pelz's putting bible," he says. "I like to go on YouTube when I'm drunk and watch slow-motion golf swings. I'll get out of bed in the middle of the night and practice my swing in front of a mirror, if I think of something.


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