"I lack the interrupting-button"
The British actor Hugh Grant about pleasure and sorrow-full experiences with fame, his new film "About a boy" and the horror of puberty
SPIEGEL: Mr Grant, your new film "About a boy" basically deals of two children: a twelve-year old boy searching a father figure - and a person in his end-thirties that you play. Could it be, that you - very similar to Will - do not want to become a grown-up?
Grant: Oh yes, that’s quite the last thing that I want.
SPIEGEL: Where does this fear come from?
Grant: That’s not a question of fear but a question of taste. I do not like people who feel consolidated and harmonious. I like people who are silly and chaotic to a maximum.
SPIEGEL: Is that the reason that the Americans Chris and Paul Weitz got the job as directors for the screen adaptation of the tragicomical novel "About a boy" by Nick Hornby who previously in their Teenie-Trash comedy "American Pie" let someone masturbate into an apple pie?
Grant: I found "American Pie" sexy. However, I also had my doubts, if the Weitz brothers were the right ones for "About a boy". But when I became acquainted to them I noticed that they are the most intellectual directors whom I ever met. At the set they were reading Tolstoi. They are cultivated and at the same time have an infantile sense for humour. In this respect they resemble Nick Hornby very much.
SPIEGEL: You too?
Grant: Talking about the childish side, yes, in any case. When we are together, we behave so silly that seven year olds would feel embarrassed.
SPIEGEL: The screen adaptation of the Hornby best seller "High Fidelity" failed because the setting was moved from London to Chicago. Didn’t you worry, that About a boy could become alienated by the work of American directors?
Grant: The Weitz-brothers have a good feeling for the British culture; that was extremely important to me. Besides, an americanized version would have had problems too: The friendship between the twelve year old, slightly mentally disordered Marcus and the cool Will for example only develops, because Marcus mother turns depresssive. In the U.S. depressions don’t seem to exist at all: People simply swallow Prozac if they notice the tiniest depressive mood and that’s all to it.
SPIEGEL: Only few European actors manage to become as popular as your colleagues from Hollywood. What’s the reason behind?
Grant: Very honestly - I believe that as a rule American actors are better qualified than Europeans. In Great Britain this process happens to be rather pragmatically. They say: Learn your text and don’t stumble about the furniture! In America on the other hand the training for actors is a kind of therapy. The colleagues over there learn a lot about themselves. You can only perform spontaneously if you can merge a lot of yourself into the role.
SPIEGEL: At the moment you are blamed to just play yourself too often.
Grant: It is right that the roles contain many aspects of myself - and I consider this to be indispensable. If I examine a role, I have to consider how I would react in a comparable situation. In such a process Hugh Grant and the figure approach each other more and more.
SPIEGEL: Were there any tricks you could furnish your twelve year old partner in About a boy, Nicholas Hoult, with?
Grant: Oh no, in fact not. Only thinking that somebody would want to learn something of me frightens me deeply. I would advise everyone very urgently, not to copy my acting technique. I am a pain in the ass on the set for me and everyone else - neurotic and bad-tempered. The small Hoult acted very easily in front of the camera. In fact, I admired him.
SPIEGEL: What the hell creates so much torture for you?
Grant: What I do is not as simple as it might seem. I do not play the kind of comedy where a man slips on a banana peel and the whole comic is limited to that. With me the comic elements are often relying to a subtle change of my facial expression - and this has to be conveyed with maximal ease. By the way, to be funny in a film is much more difficult than on stage, where you are driven by the public. On the set you play in dead silence, everyone has heard the jokes a thousand times, it’s not funny for anybody, and the least for yourself.
SPIEGEL: Why don’t you play at theatres any more, occasionally?
Grant: For getting so little money on stage, I simply don’t like the actor’s profession much enough. It has to really pay off so that I voluntarily accept the horror of acting.
SPIEGEL: You only play because of the money?
Grant: More or less. Of course there is also another : I like to entertain the public, but in fact I don’t believe that this happens very often in theatres. For the actors it’s great fun, and it would probably even be fun for me. But I claim that in nine of ten performances the public feels dreadful. And I cannot justify a job which makes people so unhappy. Most spectators indeed say they had much pleasure going to the theatre, but the true is that they want to showcase being culturally interested.
SPIEGEL: A few years ago you set up a firm with your former long time companion Liz Hurley in order to produce your own films. Apparently, not much has been happening around that. Why not?
Grant: There is one thing I have learned about film making: You should keep your fingers off of projects which do not convince by a hundred percent - ninety percent are not enough. We produced two films which were good films in the end …
SPIEGEL: ... among them the hoddlum comedy "Mickey Blue Eyes" from 1999 ...
Grant: … but not splendid. Ultimately this is unsatisfactory.
SPIEGEL: There are rumours about you writing a comedy about teenagers. Will that become a filmthat corresponds to your claims?
Grant: I fear, not. I’ve lost the fun for it. My script was only good to 85 percent.
SPIEGEL: You are facing the entire film with little enthusiasm. Why then do you loyal to it?
Grant: I love the glamourous aspect of this profession, the attention I get. But it’s a fact: I didn’t want to become an actor at any point in my life.
SPIEGEL: Is there something that you really wanted to be?
Grant: As a small boy I dreamed about playing football professionally - for England. My idol was Geoffrey Hurst, who in the Worldcup final of 1966 in Wembley Stadium made the decisive goal for the 3:2 against Germany.
SPIEGEL: That wasn’t a goal!
Grant: That’s how you see it. As an Englishman I have a different perspective, of course. By the way, as a teenager I soon developed more grandiose aspirations. I wanted to become a famous novel writer. Then I had an art phase, and it should be painting.
SPIEGEL: Was it the sport, literature and art you were interested in - or was it rather a question of the snobbish pose?
Grant: The pose of course. I always wanted glamour, and I got that through acting. In this respect I am in fact happy with the job. Also in writing I had fear to fail. And now I’m probable too old for that anyway.
SPIEGEL: Of course, with 41 you are ancient.
Grant: Oh, of course, with regard to the fun of experimentation I feel quite old.
SPIEGEL: Where does your pleasure for glamour come from?
Grant: I didn’t have an especially glamourous childhood. I grew up in a rather bad quarter of London which is located on the way to Heathrow airport. Sometimes there were relatives spending the night at our house because they wanted to fly somewhere on the next day. I often accompanied them to the airport and longingly standing in front of the takeoff tables I thought: Fuck, that’s what I want! Just to be a part of this mobile and casual troop. This wish came true.
SPIEGEL: What did your parents say when you were going to become an actor?
Grant: They were appalled. But, when it went well, my mother was proud when she could hold my picture in the newspaper under the nose of our Polish neighbour.
SPIEGEL: "About a boy" shows how much children can be concerned about the health of theirparents. Was it similar with you, did you feel responsible for the luck of your parents?
Grant: At a specific point in life circumstances in fact reverse, and then children must be there for their parents. To me in the last years it happened like that: My mother died last year, my father lives on his own now, and I have to care for him.
SPIEGEL: Is he ill?
Grant: Oh, he has every illness that one can think of - and it’s is my role to cajole to so that makes it somehow.
SPIEGEL: How important is it for you to have your own family sometime?
Grant: It has never been among the things that I absolutely wanted. My brother was different. As kids it was soon obvous for us that he would have a family sometime - and he has one now. I on the other hand dreamed to have cocktails in the Paris Ritz Hotel very early.
SPIEGEL: What kind of relationship do you have with the two kids of your brother?
Grant: I always need a few days until I get a laughter from them. I believe sometimes it’s embarrassing for them that I am a known actor. Last summer we flew to France together in a private jet - I had the impression in this hour they liked me very much.
SPIEGEL: "About a boy" shows how important it is for a child of our days to wear the right rags and to share the right taste in music in order to be accepted by kids of the same age. Was it the same when you went to school?
Grant: I always was a late developer and rather unhip. When the other guys were already tall as men and hairy everywhere, I still was relatively small and completely beardless. But I was capable of imitating the teachers. So I had a kind of right to exist.
SPIEGEL: But you managed to get along without encyclopaedic knowledge about pop groups?
Grant: I never liked the noise, and it disgusted me that in concerts my friends behaved sheeps in a herd. Even today I am embarrassed when while zapping on TV I stumble on a pop concert where people hold up their lighters. I just cannot bear it. As a boy, however, I tried to be one of them, sitting in my room, listening to the scary music of Alice Cooper and convincing myself, that this is fabulous. It wasn’t fabulous of course, but simply intolerable crash.
SPIEGEL: After all, the longing for fame and glamour of the pop stars must have appealed to you. Do you feel disturbed by the side effects, that for example you can hardly go out onto the street without being recognized?
Grant: I don’t want to complain. I never had money, now I have, and women find me more attractive than in former times. The only thing that I miss is some kind of interrupting-button. Disabling the popularity, going out and behavingbadly.
SPIEGEL: What do you do in order not to be recognized? Wigs, hats, sunglasses?
Grant: It’s a hat, or better: a baseball cap. The downside of this idiotic garment is that in fact you have to dress yourself as an American teenager. But when you are an Englishman and you look like an Englishman and in addition you are above forty, you look like a donkey with that cap.
SPIEGEL: According to the gossip columns, you do not exactly know what to do with your money: You own four houses in London and leave them emptily in part.
Grant: It’s annoying, I should get rid of one or two of these houses, that would be reasonable. On the other hand I wouldn’t know at all, which one I should sell. The penthouse which I acquired recently is totally absurd. It belonged to an Internet millionaire who went bankrupt. Probably he was a little bit perverted. He built a cinema onto his bed. Everything in this flat is fully-automatic - if I consider it right, I like to buy houses.
SPIEGEL: It also seems to be more lucrative at the moment than to deal in shares.
Grant: I don’t have any shares. But, if you write that in your magazine, I will get a hundred of letters of banks and investment analysts. They send me invitations to play gulf with them and, because I love to play gulf I agree. On hole ten at latest they will say: Oh Hugh, you don’t have any serious capital investments at all, we help you there.
SPIEGEL: Perhaps you are hassled so much because you have such a friendly image. What would you think about a role change, a film in the jungle, where you could showcase the tough man?
Grant: That would be fun. The problem is: I appreciate comfort. Many years ago I was shooting "The Bengali night", a French film, in India and the whole French staff slept in huts without grumbling. Except the two British actors, John Hurt and I, insisted on being lodged in a tidy hotel. Every day we were driven back to the set from there. It took us one and a half hours each time.
SPIEGEL: Mr Grant, thank you for this interview.