Life without Liz
by HAROLD VON KURSK
HUGH Grant has long had doubts about the worthiness of the acting profession and his place in the movie mainstream. The huge commercial success of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill merely confirmed him as the first choice to play likeable, stuttering, foppish Englishmen. The part of the caddish Daniel Cleaver in Bridget Jones's Diary was a deliberate departure, an act of conscious career- broadening that continues with Grant's new role in About A Boy, the film version of Nick Hornby's acclaimed bestseller. Grant plays Will Freeman, an immature bachelor living off his grandfather's royalties who suddenly finds his rather irresponsible life intertwined with that of a boy wise beyond his years. It is the most accomplished performance of his career.
On the set of About A Boy, Grant looks much changed, his famously floppy locks sacrificed to a style he refers to as his "lesbian tennis player" look.
His ambitions have changed, too. "I have the impression that I'm going to be able to play different and more stimulating parts now," he says. "There are a lot of interesting issues in this role about identity and maturity and how one defines one's place in the world." Grant says he loved Hornby's book and bonded with Nicholas Hoult, who plays the titular boy Marcus, over cars during filming. He thinks both Will and Marcus grow up and "come together" during the course of the film. "It's really rather beautiful," he says.
There are some parallels here between the single Will Freeman and Hugh Grant, the actor who has made a career out of playing arrested personalities; who split up with Elizabeth Hurley, his girlfriend of 14 years, just before he turned 40, and saw her almost instantly get pregnant; the actor who doesn't believe, at heart, that acting is a "substantial profession". There have been rumours of a Hugh Grant novel. "That's still at the rumour stage," he confesses, "but I've been working on a screenplay recently." Evidence of a midlife career crisis? "I seem to have been having a permanent midlife crisis the past few years," he laughs.
UPON turning 40, one naturally begins to have doubts about the seriousness and substance of one's life. I don't think mine has been a total waste, but I don't feel I've led a particularly memorable or distinguished existence. I definitely feel a need to push myself more." Perhaps that sense of urgency isn't simply down to turning 40 but is linked to the new-found freedom he's experienced in recent years following his dramatic split with Liz Hurley, something-he puts down to "continental-drift".
"The funny thing is that our friendship is still as strong as it ever was," he insists. "We still speak to each other almost every day. But what's the point of having a relationship that had really become a friendship, without the passion and urgency that you should have if you're living together?
"After 14 years together, I miss having Elizabeth in my life. You begin wondering why you're not with your partner and soulmate after so much time together, and you wonder why you didn't do anything to prevent the slow slide into oblivion.
"I'm certainly glad that we haven't had any bitter words between us or any of the kind of horrible recriminations or devastating arguments that some couples must go through after they separate. She's my best friend.
Probably always will be." Now, a year on, he claims they are comfortable enough together to "make good-natured, catty remarks about our new partners as the occasion arises", adding cryptically: "I don't want some asshole to come along and ruin her life or make her unhappy. I keep an eye out for her from that perspective."
BUT did the split, played out as it was under the constant gaze of the public, leave him feeling depressed, even lonelier than he expected? "I may have had my down moments, but on the whole they've been more than compensated for by the sense of exhilaration that comes with the sense of freedom that you feel. Your life is suddenly open again and you're in a position where you're going to be meeting new people.
"Having said that, it's been slightly weird, actually ... being single at the age of 40. You know, what do I wear, am I the oldest swinger in town? Who should I be meeting? What age group am I aiming at now? All that is a little bit weird.
"You also worry about the effect your celebrity has on the women you meet.
Some of the enjoyment has gone out of it in that respect because the chase was always a big element of fun, of how sexy the experience of meeting someone new could be.
"I have to admit that there's a diminished amount of chase now, unfortunately. Some women like to chase and it's flattering, of course, but it does take a bit of the edge off.
"When I was younger, the great excitement in pursuing women was the sense of seduction and romance and chase. But when you're a celebrity, you discover that you're no longer the pursuer, but the one being pursued. That's one of the disappointments I've had since becoming a single man again. Although I suppose that my situation is not so terrible if you take a normal perspective, but you do notice that the challenge is gone."
More worryingly for Grant, it appears, is the fact that he's incredibly nervous about the whole dating scenario. Unlikely though it may seem, he appears altogether reluctant to immerse himself in the daunting singles scene.
"You have to think about what things do you reveal about yourself, how wary do you have to be that the women you meet aren't concerned more with your fame and celebrity status, how you would handle any press stories that would come out about your relationship with another woman. Those things do weigh on you." IT was not ever thus, of course.
After acting at school and at Oxford, after which he passed up a chance to study art at the Courtauld Institute, Grant had to earn his Equity card like everyone else, touring the provinces, playing a tree in Brecht and Third Peasant in Coriolanus. Finally, he and a friend worked up a satirical act that went down well in the regions, then London, then the Edinburgh Festival.
At this point, Grant, as he puts it, "fluked" a part in the 1987 Merchant-Ivory film Maurice. "I thought that acting in films was a lot easier," he says. "But of course I regretted having given up my comedy routine work because it was very fulfilling to be doing your own lines in front of big audiences and getting huge laughs."
Would he ever consider going back to it? "No, not for a moment." Grant sees very little theatre these days, and despite his art- history background finds galleries and museums " anathema, I equate it to middleclass people going to church". The Brit-Art phenomenon he likes, because "they're acknowledging that the whole art world is a load of bollocks". Age, as well as romantic confusion, has apparently given Grant a newly critical attitude to art in general. He says he didn't work as much as he might have done during the Nineties because "the material I was getting was very poor.
No one was writing light-comedy films, the stuff I do, except for Richard Curtis".
One role he jumped at was that of David Grant, the art expert and utter bounder who sweeps Tracy Ullman's nouveau riche housewife off her feet and cleans out her bank account, in Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks.
The part was pivotal, but so small it came below six "cookie store customers" in the film's credits. "Woody Allen is an idol of mine," Grant explains, adding that Small Time Crooks and Bridget Jones were his answer to patronising hacks who would ask why he hadn't done anything other than Four Weddings and Notting Hill. "The truth is that I have in fact done tons of other stuff but it's simply not had very wide commercial distribution, and most journalists have never bothered to look at those films."
Now, at 40, having gone beyond the foppish typecasting, he reserves the right to pick and choose. "I'm too old and too rich now to do crap or dodgy scripts," he drawls. "There are actors who just loooovvve acting. Nic Cage, is, I'm told, not happy unless he's in a trailer on the set every day - whereas I'm very happy if I'm not in a trailer all day." A typical Grant day now involves visiting the offices of Simian films, the company he runs with Elizabeth Hurley, "where I sit around and bully people and we develop scripts". He doesn't socialise with actors but with "bankers, models and criminals. They lead a much more interesting life." He still sees old school friends from Oxford, but many of them are now married with children. "That's one of the weird things about being 40."
We are in danger here of slipping back to the Grant stereotype: flippant, insouciant, sometimes flustered but never (except in the case of paparazzi) flushed to strong emotion.Does he regret the passing of youthful dreams and ambitions? "I envy people who have great dreams and passions," he says. "I've always been rather short of them. My great passion has always been writing - literature. I suppose if we're going to talk about frustrations, I'm frustrated that I've never gone down that path.
"My problem throughout my career has been my utter lack of conviction that acting is a substantial profession. It is something that comes rather easily to me and I've never felt that I've had to work hard at it.
"So there's this guilt complex that overwhelms me, that I've taken the easy way out instead of pursuing another career where I would have had to push myself and struggle to achieve something. I think that would have been the case had I chosen to become a writer and try my hand at literature."
The spectre of Grant's " rumoured" novel rises again as he expounds. "I suppose I could say, 'Cut, enough, I've got plenty of money', and go away and do that. But I think it's fear of something that prevents me. Very often I've noticed that people end up doing what they're second best at in life."
THERE was, he concedes, a period of introspection after the split with Hurley.
"I made all kinds of resolutions - that I would quit acting, that I would do some writing, definitely get married, have children, give up drinking. Of course, I haven't kept to a single one of those high- minded intentions."
But with Small Time Crooks, Bridget Jones and now About A Boy, he has shaken off the stereotype of floppy-fringed, awkward Charles from Four Weddings. "I feel that my life is evolving on a new path right now and I have complete freedom to create my own future," he concludes.
"It's something that I haven't felt in a very long time, and on a personal and on a creative level, I do sense that this is a new beginning for me.