MADE TO ORDER
Underneath Hugh Grant's self-deprecation and easy-going wit lurks someone who takes it all very seriously.
Hugh Grant's transformation from nice guy to irresistible leading man took years of work.
The first meeting promised nothing but mutual dislike. Richard Curtis, auditioning actors for Four Weddings and a Funeral, felt that Hugh Grant was unreasonably handsome. Grant was annoyed by the way
Curtis, the film's screenwriter, leaned impassively against a bookshelf and said nothing during his reading.
But the 11th-hour decision to cast Grant as the lead in Four Weddings, a low-budget romantic confection that became one of Britain's most successful films, was the start of an unusually felicitous, not to mention profitable, collaboration that has continued through Notting Hill, Bridget Jones's Diary and now Love Actually, the first to be directed by Curtis, which features Grant as a bachelor prime minister awkwardly in love.
Despite a striking difference in outlook (Curtis is a romantic and an optimist; Grant, under all that charm, is not), theirs is a marriage of comic minds. Curtis, 46 , the writer responsible for some of the best-known British film and television comedies in recent years, has found in Grant, 43, the perfect muse, an actor with the comic
instincts, sense of timing and particular sensibility to spin his finely calibrated words into gold.
"The central character in Richard's films is always Richard himself," says Tim Bevan, cochairman of Working Title, the London-based production company responsible for most of the Curtis-Grant
films. "In finding Hugh, Richard found the alter ego who could play him. There's no one better who can carry a Curtis gag with timing and polish than Hugh Grant, and they're very lucky they found each other."
The alter ego description comes up often in discussions of Grant and Curtis, but neither wants to admit to anything quite so straightforward. They are both extremely English, after all: Curtis bespectacled, affable and boyish, despite greying hair; and Grant sharp-eyed and effortlessly good-looking, despite suffering from what he says is a serious hangover.
Both men were at turning points when they met. Curtis, who had made his name with classic television comedies such as Not the Nine O'Clock News and Blackadder, had just one film under his belt - The Tall Guy - and was at a loss to find the right actor for the Four Weddings lead.
Then came Grant, whose recent work had included a pot-boiling miniseries and The Lair of the White Worm, a high-concept horror film.
Grant, sitting with Curtis in a plush hotel suite, recalls: "I remember stomping up the stairs there - wherever it was, in Carnaby Street or somewhere - and thinking, 'This is positively the last audition I ever go to. It's undignified.'
Curtis says: "You'd been running around the park teaching Juliette Binoche how to do an English accent."
Grant says:"That was a low point." (A long story ensues about how Grant, instructed by his agent to help Binoche, the French actress, prepare for a part in an English film, ended up chasing her around a park in London at her behest, shouting,"Would you like a cup of tea, madam?" Then, Grant recalls, he was handed an envelope containing
£200 "like the plumber".)
Meeting Grant, even at a low point, proved a revelation for Curtis.
"Suddenly in walked someone whose sense of humour was very similar to mine," Curtis says. "It was a huge relief to find someone who actually got what the joke was meant to be."
Grant had a similar moment of truth when he read the script. "I remember thinking, 'This is bizarre because it's good,' and literally everything else I'd read was bad."
Yet Grant said he did not fully understand Charles, the slightly bumbling, altogether sweet Englishman he played in Four Weddings, until he got a better sense of Curtis. "He was a strange combination of being cynical and being positive," he says of the role, "and I thought, 'I can't hear this character at all.' But as soon as I started rehearsing and Richard was there, I thought, 'I see - it's
"The joke was that I played Richard in the film, and then for years afterwards everyone said, 'You're such a nice person, Hugh.'"
The famously unattached Grant freely embraces his pessimism, however, even in the face of his collaborator's sunnier outlook. Curtis's longtime partner, Emma Freud, is about to have the couple's fourth child, and his films all celebrate the triumph of love over adversity. Love Actually is perhaps the most rosy of all.
"The key is generally not to be too cuddly," says Grant, who says he feels more affinity with Daniel Cleaver, the slightly wicked, slightly kinky editor he played in Bridget Jones's Diary (and which he is reprising in the sequel now being filmed) than with his characters in other Curtis films. "I found, in doing some of the more recent films like Bridget Jones or About a Boy, that I quite liked breaking out of that. I found that girls found me more attractive that way."
Grant and Curtis share not only similar backgrounds - both come from the same middle-class English milieu that Curtis writes about so effectively - but also the same rigorous approach to comedy. It is here that Grant's insouciance begins to seem like a clever dramatic performance. Underneath the self-deprecation and the easy-going wit and the louche charm lurks someone who takes it all very seriously.
"A curious thing has happened with Hugh," Curtis says. "He is the most disrespectful actor in the world about his acting. I remember on Four Weddings he said, 'I can only do three things: normal; sexy, which is down an octave; and serious, which is up an octave.'"
"That's pushing it," Grant says.
Curtis continues: "But as it turned out, Hugh now takes the job in some ways more seriously than any of the other actors. He reads the lines and actually knows what is the perfect delivery of them in the same way that when you write a line you think you know what the perfect delivery of it is. And I think you find it very frustrating," he turns to Grant, "when in the circumstances, with the rhythm and all that, you don't convey what's in your head."
Grant says: "It's one of the reasons I'm so violently anti-rehearsal. You sit there rehearsing a film, and - partly to impress the actors around you, and partly to encourage the author or impress the director or whatever - you give ityour best in rehearsal and you do something pretty funny, you get a good laugh. And from that moment on, you can never get it again."
The two occasionally clash. At one point during the filming of Love Actually, Grant was heard to mutter, "I am not a puppet!" at Curtis. By the same token, Curtis sometimes bristles when Grant messes with his lines, but often ends up conceding the point.
In the scene in Love Actually where the prime minister's sister (played by Emma Thompson) telephones him at the office, for instance, Curtis originally had him pick up the phone and say, "Hello, prime minister speaking."
"But then you insisted on doing your version, which was, 'Hello, I'm very busy and important - may I help you?' " Curtis says to Grant. "And that was funnier than my line."
Conversely, in a scene in which the prime minister stands up to the American president (Billy Bob Thornton) with a rousing speech listing Britain's greatest assets, the actor drew the line at including "Catherine Zeta-Jones's breasts".
"You couldn't say it," Curtis says to Grant. "You were like a horse running up to a fence and refusing to go over it."
"I shied," Grant says.
"You shied three times," Curtis says.
"I baulked," Grant agrees.
Grant frets endlessly on film sets, but enjoys his collaboration with his old friend. "The fun thing about Love Actually was being directed by Richard, rather than having to sneak off and get his notes on the sidelines," he says. "It's always nice to be able to say to the director who's just given you an important note, 'Oh, shut up!'"