The subject is golf—a topic that obsesses actor Hugh Grant to the point that he occasionally drives even himself crazy talking and thinking about it.
"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.
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.
"I'm obsessed and it's destroying my life. I'm fascinated by golf addiction, but I can't quite identify what is the most addictive element. I've decided it's the physical sensation when, in a rare moment, you hit the ball flush in the middle of the club. The only thing that comes close— well, I was taught to play piano and it's the vibration when you hit a beautiful chord."
Besides golf, he devotes himself to watching sports on TV—primarily soccer and cricket—and to surfing the Internet: "The computer definitely challenges the TV for addiction," he says.
Meanwhile, there's that upcoming 50th birthday. It seems like an impossibly advanced age, Grant says, given how old he feels.
"It's deeply depressing," he says, with a twinkle. "That's how I feel about that. I've got so much I haven't done yet. I've been a master of the snooze button in my life."
Marshall Fine is an author and film critic whose work can be found at www.hollywoodandfine.com