Between his roles in mostly romantic comedies, the witty, urbane British actor Hugh Grant loves a testy game of golf.
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"When you say to a girl, 'I play golf,' her eyes glaze over," Grant says with a shrug. "It makes them think of a man with no penis."
But when he starts talking about just how competitive he is when he plays, Grant digs in enthusiastically.
"I don't like a friendly game—I like a nasty atmosphere," Grant says with a devilish smile, reclining on a couch in an office in Midtown Manhattan. "Within the first half-hour, I want somebody to feel badly. I like to play with friends, particularly if they're gnashing their teeth at the end. I'm extremely competitive. It's just more fun if you want to win."
He positively glows when the idea of trash-talking your opponent is mentioned. "Trash-talk? Is that like sledging?" Grant says, perking up. "Sledging comes from cricket, when the batsman is standing there and the fielder who is closest to him is giving him grief. Oh, yes, I absolutely do! Although if you say something before someone swings, such as 'I do hope you'll be able to carry over that water,' the guilt sometimes outweighs the pleasure when their ball goes in. "I've read the Gamesmanship books by Stephen Potter and it's all about the act of mentally damaging your opponent without appearing to do anything. He's quite instructive about how to play 'the flurry' —where you're deliberately late and you must rush to the tee all in a panic."
He can dish it out, but can Grant take it?
"Oh, no. My game is fragile at the best of times," he says. "Everybody knows that and exploits it."
Still, to hear him tell it, no one is harder on Grant when he's got a golf club in his hands than Grant himself. As brutal as he claims to be on opponents, Grant is a font of embarrassing tales about his own game.
"I took golf up at 39, which means it's almost impossible to be good, particularly with my temperament," says Grant, a youthful 49. "There's a lot of club smashing. I once lost a 3-wood in a tantrum when I threw it into a bush. Four players and caddies couldn't find it.
"My worst golfing moment was at St Andrews. I lost a ball while putting, and on TV. I was putting uphill, and the ball rolled back down and into a stream. The TV fellows kindly didn't show it, but they recorded it."
It's hard to square the golf-course Grant with the movie-star version: the handsome British actor with the winning smile, an abundance of charm and a certain calm sangfroid, even in the most embarrassing of situations.
That's the Hugh Grant who burst into the public consciousness with 1994's Four Weddings and a Funeral, and cemented the impression with films as varied as Sense and Sensibility (1995), Notting Hill (1999), Bridget Jones' Diary (2001) and About a Boy (2002). He's got dazzling timing and a great way with comedy about characters who have heart—often in spite of themselves.
He's so good at it that critics often sell him short, assuming he's just playing himself on-screen. But the opposite is true.
Comedian Robert Klein, who costarred with Grant and Sandra Bullock in 2002's Two Weeks Notice, calls the actor "Cary Grant—suave. He's a classic leading-man movie star. He's not Wallace Beery, he's a British gentleman. There's a vulnerability he's selling. People want to hug him, he seems like such a nice fellow."
Writer-director Marc Lawrence has worked with Grant three times: on Two Weeks Notice,, 2007's Music and Lyrics and the recently completed Did You Hear About the Morgans?, which opens December 11. He says that Grant has a unique ability to make hard work look effortless on-screen.
"If you talk about romantic comedy and you line up the best who have ever done it, he'd be one of the 10 greatest we've ever had," Lawrence says. "Comedy really is difficult—either people laugh or not. What he does really is distinct, in the characters he plays and the mannerisms he uses. To come off as naturally as he does is the hardest thing to do.
"You know the saying, 'Dying is easy, comedy is hard'? The things people win Oscars for, crying and things like that, for most actors, that's easier to do than play comedy. The hardest thing is to appear like a real person, to be credible. He can do that—and be funny."
If Grant would rather spend time on the golf course than a movie set, it's because he has mixed feelings about acting. But then, acting was meant to be only a fleeting vocation: "I promised myself 25 years ago when I started that acting would be a temporary thing that I would do for a year," Grant says. "Then suddenly a funny script arrives and I think, well, I'll do one more."
Grant was reared in the West London area of Chiswick, where his father ran a carpeting firm and his mother taught French, Latin and music. Though his mother descended from nobility and his father came from a military background, Grant's upbringing was solidly middle class. His competitive spirit extended to rugby, cricket and soccer, all of which he played in high school, as well as competing on a scholastic quiz-show team.
A graduate of Oxford University (which he attended on scholarship), he participated in student theatrical productions ("I did 'Hamlet' in 'Star Trek' costumes at 21," he points out) while majoring in art history. When he graduated, he was offered a scholarship to do post-graduate work as an art historian.
Instead, he took a variety of jobs, including reviewing books, writing commercials and tutoring. He also was part of a sketch-comedy group, the Jockeys of Norfolk, which was popular enough to get a regular spot on a BBC2 variety show.
Grant appeared in his first movie, Privileged, while still at Oxford (as Hughie Grant). Though he refers to it as "a pretentious film I did as an amateur," when other film roles were offered, he found it hard to resist.
"I thought I would do it for a year and earn some money and then get my master's degree," he says. "But the next one was so bad, it was humiliating. I thought, I'll do one more movie job and be better. And that went on for 16 years. And then I finally did one I thought was quite good. But it was hard, after so many years of doing one job, to stop."
During that period, he made films that ranged from the sublime (the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of E.M. Forster's Maurice) to the ridiculous (Ken Russell's The Lair of the White Worm). He refers to those films as "Euro-puddings": "I was pretty damn bad in a lot of them—although the Champagne baron I played with a stick-on mustache was quite fun. But let's not beat about the bush: The Lair of the White Worm is quite a strange film.
"It's difficult to be good when you're saying lines that have been translated from Spanish to English by someone who speaks French. They make little sense. When you do things like that, you know hardly anyone will see them. I enjoyed the work, getting drunk at night, flirting with the actors. They were fun to do."
Then came Four Weddings and a Funeral—a triumph at the Sundance Film Festival that went on to receive an Oscar nomination for best picture and became one of 1994's most popular independent films. After nearly a dozen years in the movies, Grant was suddenly a hot commodity as a leading man.
"After Four Weddings, I got hundreds of offers and I turned them all down," he says. "The more I turned down, the higher the money went. It was so weird. I'd been an actor for 10 or 11 years and suddenly I went from being offered maybe $40,000 for a film to being offered millions. It was utterly terrifying when I did say yes.
"I have agents I like but I've never listened to a word they said. My career is 100 percent unmanaged except by myself. That's the only reason I'm sitting here now, 15 years after Four Weddings. I've never done a film because I thought it would earn a lot. If you do that, you're building a house on sand and it will collapse quickly."
Grant is notoriously picky about the quality of screenplay he responds to: "Really funny scripts are a rare thing," Grant says. "I don't get many." But any discussion of his work habits must factor in another element: his profound ambivalence about acting in films. The part of the movie-making process he enjoys the least is when he must actually appear in front of a camera.
"It's the acting side which I find quite stressful," he says. "I could work all the time, but I don't. I will not say I'm a reluctant actor anymore because it makes me look ridiculous. If I'm reluctant, why go on?"
Grant's own perfectionism contributes to his love/hate relationship with performing before a movie camera.
"The closer the camera gets, the worse I get. I don't bear close scrutiny," he says. "I find light comedy easy in rehearsal. Then I have a problem when it comes time for the camera, in terms of freezing up. It's like when you're a little boy and you do imitations or funny voices—and then your mother has friends around and says, 'Oh, do that funny voice.' It's agony."
Did You Hear About the Morgans? is only his second film as a male lead since he costarred with Bullock in Two Weeks Notice in 2002, the other being Music and Lyrics; during that period, he was also part of the ensemble of Love Actually (2003), Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004) and American Dreamz (2006).
Says Lawrence, "I like to think of myself as the most neurotic, insecure person on the set. But I lost my title to Hugh. I find myself calming him down. It was the only time I felt like the stable partner in a relationship. When I discovered the depth of his anxiety, I found it strangely comforting."
Grant's discomfort in front of the camera is palpable while he's working, Lawrence explains, but the audience only sees the seeming ease, not the anxiety. "The process he goes through is obviously agonizing," Lawrence says. "His experience of doing it colors how he views it. He doesn't enjoy the experience, but it doesn't come across that way on film."
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.