Hugh Grant, probably best known as the caddish but charming fop in many roles, notably the “Bridget Jones” movies, has the best role of his career in his new film, “Florence Foster Jenkins,” starring Meryl Streep. Hugh plays St. Clair Bayfield, the loving but philandering husband of the real-life 1940’s New York society matron and aspirational opera singer who gave concerts blissfully unaware of how truly awful she sang.
Grant is a natural raconteur and, in person, funnier than some of his famous roles. He was the guest of honor at a BAFTA event Monday, which was a wide-ranging conversation about his career, and especially his role in the Stephen Frears’ film, a Paramount Pictures release, which opens Friday.
“You’ve been somewhat less of a constant presence in the last few years, but this is a major part opposite Meryl Streep. What made you decide to do this particular movie?” he was asked.
“Well, you’re right. I was doing other things. I was doing politics. And I seemed to have a child a week,” Grant deadpanned. (He is a father of four from two girlfriends.)
Grant added, “But then Stephen Frears kept saying, ‘Let’s do a film.’ And I thought he was just drunk and then to my great surprise he sent me a script that was genuinely funny and moving and I liked the sort of slight grotesque element of it. And it had this extraordinary, nuanced, complicated part for me, which is something that I’m not accustomed to,” and he paused, “and there’s a small matter of Meryl Streep.”
This is his first time working with Streep, and the actor was asked if they had anything to iron out or whether he was nervous.
“No,” Grant told the interviewer, “but it helped when I realized she couldn’t see me at all. She’s — I don’t think I’m revealing anything she wouldn’t reveal — she’s very short sighted. She’s not wearing glasses in this film. And she doesn’t like to wear lenses because the camera can pick them up, so actually, even if you were Meryl Streep and I was Hugh Grant,” the two were seated close, “I could be Denzel Washington and she wouldn’t recognize me.”
As for whether the actor – who has had hits but many misses – could sense when a movie would work from the screenplay, Grant replied of one of his most successful films, “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, “I certainly thought that when I read that script, that bizarrely brilliant script. I remember calling my agent and saying, ‘I think there’s been a mistake. You sent me a good script.’”
“That happened one more time in my career when they sent me ‘Jerry Maguire.’ And they said, ‘Sorry, it was a mistake. It was meant to go to Tom Cruise.”
In 2012, Grant had one of his most bizarre roles in “Cloud Atlas,” directed by the Wachowski siblings.
“During this phase of really not doing many films, occasionally oddities come up that are just too fascinating to turn down,” he said. “This one by the Wachowski brothers – now sisters – came up with this project … six characters in six different time zones and it was so fascinating.” Originally he was supposed to play five characters, but he told the Wachowskis he’d do it if they gave him six, which they did.
“I didn’t enjoy sitting in makeup for six hours every day,” Grant complained. “I thought in five of the roles I was pretty good, but in one of them I was shocking. I thought I was very bad as the cannibal. I remember standing on a mountain top, with no hair and tattoos, and I was supposed to lick my lips at the prospect of eating a human being. To get motivated, one of the Wachowskis kept saying, “C’mon man, you’re like a panther, you’re really, really hungry!”
Grant shows of his dance moves in a number of films, most notably in Richard Curtis’ “Love Actually” (2003), where he plays Prime Minister and gyrates around his palatial residence when he thinks no one is watching.
Asked by someone in the audience if he improvised the dance, he put on his glasses and looked out. “I can see you. I’m the opposite of Meryl.”
It turns out the dance was free style. “I pride myself on my choreography,” he cracked, adding, “I invented that dance that later became a sensation in the Far East,” referring to Korean dance craze Gangnam Style from several years back.
About that famous dance scene in “Love Actually,” he described it as “not a fun experience.”
“He (Curtis) wanted me to rehearse it. I was too frightened so I kept making excuses, and we never rehearsed it,” said Grant. “It’s not easy at 7 in the morning when you’re a cross middle-aged Englishman, wiggling your ass, stone cold sober. It was an appalling experience.”
At the end of the hour-long conversation, I asked Grant how he managed to keep his deadpan facial expressions while Meryl screeched out musical notes, and he admitted it was a struggle.
“There’s a scene in that film where I have to be very fierce to people who are laughing at her at the concert,” Grant said. “I have to give them hard stares and tell them off but in fact I am absolutely killing myself to keep from laughing.”