Charming sex symbol? Handsome bumbler? Male chauvinist?
HUGH GRANT: "You're getting me slightly wrong."
Hugh Grant has in his head, and in countless drafts written in his 20s, a "sort of autobiographical" novel about a fellow with an empty existence who tries different personalities, hoping one will give him a purpose in life.
As an actor, of course, Grant, 38, has developed a persona that gives him a great purpose in Hollywood. Onscreen, he's the fumbling Englishman who charms women by being unaware of how handsome he is and how blue his eyes are. In his new movie, Notting Hill, he again portrays a droll, lovable underachiever who, this time, falls for a famous actress played fittingly by Julia Roberts. Grant has gone from struggling British art-house actor to the man tagged as "Cary Grant for the '90s," with one of the world's most beautiful women, Elizabeth Hurley, as his girlfriend. He's torn between commercial sensibilities and his love of little films, such as the Woody Allen movie he's about to shoot. He understands Hollywood's obsession with test screenings -- "Charlie Chaplin performed his films as plays before he shot them, so he'd know what worked" -- but vows never to "make a film like The Matrix, where I bounce across walls."
Grant describes his life with the same self-deprecating wit he displays in films. He tells of first meeting Roberts when she was set to star in Shakespeare in Love (long before Gwyneth Paltrow) and needed a Shakespeare. "I was a sad, unemployed actor. I was so nervous with Julia that when I sat down, I missed the chair. I sat on the arm. So I had that terrible choice: Either you pretend you always sit on the arm because you're wacky or you say, ‘Oh, my, I've missed the chair.' I'm ashamed to say I went for pretending." On the Notting Hill set, Grant was amusing in a "composed, polished"
way, says Roberts. "His silliness has a grace. He could say ‘I have foot fungus' and it would sound charming." It's the accent, the manner, the Oxford education. But Grant is bothered by media suggestions "that I've invented a personality which isn't really me ... invented my voice, tried to posh myself up. This is how I've spoken since I was a boy."
Raised in a middle-class London suburb by a carpet-firm manager dad and a teacher mom, both from military families, Grant tells a spell-binding story about his late grandfather, a member of the Seaforth Highlanders regiment. The Highlanders' tradition was to die in combat rather than surrender. During one World War II battle, Grant says, "They were being annihilated, and the officers got together and said, ‘We're Seaforth Highlanders. We'll fight to the death.' " Grant's grandfather then became the highest-ranking survivor. "He had this horrible decision. Should he end a tradition of 300 years and save lives? The old concept of honor was to win at all costs or die."
Grant's grandfather surrendered the regiment. Sent to a POW camp, he tunneled his way out by hand (later losing fingers) and made it to the Swiss border, but a farmer betrayed him to the Nazis. Thirty years later, on a ship going to South Africa, he met a man and told him his war tale. By incredible coincidence, the man was the farmer, who apologized and asked forgiveness.
At 38, Grant is called a "Cary Grant for the '90s." But the role he really wants to play is his own grandfather, a World War II hero.
THE FORBIDDEN MOVIE
THIS IS THE STORY Grant most wants to turn into a movie. He'd play his grandfather. He has pitched it in Hollywood, "and even scumbag executives stop dead and really listen." There is one great roadblock, however. "My father absolutely forbids it." His dad was a Seaforth Highlander after the war. Hugh and his older brother, now a banker, broke the family's military tradition. Why is his dad against this movie idea? "He thinks all films are vulgarizations of real life." Grant's parents placed the greatest value on education, nurturing him into a scholarship-winning Oxford student. Grant even thought of becoming an art historian.
He remains very much his parents' boy. When they visited Notting Hill's set, he told people that his mom always wants to brush his hair. His mother denied it, recalls Duncan Kenworthy, producer of Notting Hill. "But then she said, 'Well, maybe just a wisp or two.' The joke persona that Hugh presents is that his mother still treats him like a child." But Grant recognizes it's time to grow up. He used to swear he wouldn't have kids. They're too "messy." Now, "I've turned the corner. I must get down to it." Has he informed Hurley? "It's come up." Why the change? "Age -- and Christmases. It's too humiliating to have Christmas without children. All my friends and relations have them, and I'm this sad old spinster." Marriage, however, is not on the horizon, he says.
GRANT AND Hurley have overcome his infamous 1995 encounter with a hooker, but he knows that in people's minds, especially in America, "It's always going to be there." President Clinton's sex scandal reminds him of his own. "The French, in both cases, were completely astonished by the hullabaloo. Europeans think it's weird to be that obsessed with someone's sexual private life." It's "mostly difficult for people around me. I've always felt worse for them." He appreciates that his grandmother gave him a pass. She told friends: "He had a few drinks with the boys and got fresh with the girls." Enough said.
The incident hasn't left him afraid to talk about sex. He says he enjoys seeing half-naked women in ads. "Sex is back, he says, [Even] what used to be called a terrible exploitation of women is back. It's to be applauded." Let women be women, he says; let men be men. "It's healthier and sexier than pretending to all be a middle sex." He's quick to add that Hurley is "the only woman on the planet for me." Although business partners, they don't plan to act together. "It's tricky when people have been together a long time to believe them onscreen meeting and falling in love," says Hurley. "I find that weird when I've seen it."
Grant says if his film career falls apart, he'll return to writing his novel about a man in search of himself. Or he'll keep visiting his dad to pitch the war movie he feels destined to make. "It has great moments," he says. "Years after the war, my grandfather still woke up every night in a sweat, worrying about what he'd done by surrendering. ... That's your opening scene."