Comic Genius, 41, Seeks Steady Relationship, Or Failing That, Sex
With About A Boy about to bow, we hang with Hugh Grant in New York and catch him in remarkably candid and self-deprecating mood. Read on for retirement, condoms, golf, parenthood, therapy, torment, and one night in LA seven years ago…
Number 73: Tits, piss, wank - HG.
We're on the 35th floor of a tower block in New York's financial district. During a break between scenes on Marc Lawrence's as-yet-untitled directorial debut, supporting actress Alicia Witt is running Empire through the ideas pinned up behind today's lunch spread. There's a $1,500 reward for coming up with a name for the Hugh Grant-Sandra Bullock project, and even the film's leading man has pitched in with a thoughtful suggestion (Number 72: The New Girl - HG). He then apparently felt the urge to follow it up with a burst of Tourette's. "Yes - tits, piss, wank," intones Witt wryly. "That one is Hugh's. Pretty typical." Toilet humour from Hugh Grant? The stiff and stuffy English gent? Typical? Empire gets the feeling, not for the first time today, that both the Hugh Grant of Four Weddings fame and the Hugh Grant of tabloid infamy bear scant resemblance to the man currently toiling his way through a routine day at the office…
"I'm really sorry," Grant starts to a cameraman, as Empire takes a seat behind the director. "I don't know my lines." As Lawrence calls, "Action," Grant's face momentarily screws up, before he and Witt run through a one-minute sequence. Inevitably, perhaps, Grant does fluff his words, prompting another burst of Tourette's, to the amusement of everyone except the actor himself. He apologises again, using words like "hopeless" and "fucking idiot". When Lawrence calls a wrap, Grant looks like the weight of the world has been lifted from his shoulders.
That's Hugh Grant, remember - the actor who breezes suavely through movies by playing himself all the time. It's about 50 yards across the street from the set to Hugh Grant's trailer, but it feels like walking across a shooting gallery. Sure enough, just before we reach our target, a plump New Yorker pounces from nowhere and thrusts a bus ticket at her quarry's face. He signs, maintaining a pose somewhere between disdain and acknowledgement as she rabbits nonsensically at him. "Oh, my Gaaad," she squeals, "I'm one of those people, aren't I?"
"Yes," he replies matter-of-factly, handing her back the ticket. "Yes, you are." And, with an awkward hop up the steps of the trailer, Hugh Grant shuts the door on the outside world. "Many of the things I will say to you are lies," he begins, fetching a beer from the fridge, "but I'll tell you in all honesty, I've never had a burning ambition to get ahead in Hollywood. Here I was in this joke job of acting, thinking it'd be a laugh before I did something more serious, and just as I was about to get out, Four Weddings happened. Now, if someone opens the door to something as diverting as being a film star, it would be very odd not to walk through it. But hanging around on set waiting to say, 'Lucy has tennis eye' (the line that was giving Grant so much trouble not ten minutes ago) - it's pretty shallow, isn't it? All I've tried to do is make sure that even if it's going to be a brief phase - which I hope it is - then at least I come out of it with some dignity. I think ten years would be a good time to finish, and it's eight now, so I'd only have to make one or two more films."
What would he do if he stopped acting?
"I don't fucking know," he shrugs. "I might try and get less shallow. Have a relationship, have some children, write my book, make my own film, stop faffing around." Hugh Grant, whose mild-mannered, easygoing charm has made him Britain's most successful comic actor, commanding $6 million a movie, considers his job to be "faffing around", and quite frankly, he doesn't even like doing it very much.
Sadly, for Grant's grand ambition, he is easily distracted. "Part of my problem is golf," he sighs, explaining why he never finished the screenplay he's been mooting for years. "I despise golf, I hate golfers and what they wear, but someone took me to play golf and now I think about nothing else. (He is about to leave for a weekend of golf in Miami with Kyle MacLachlan.) I'm sure that must be something interesting psychologically." It is, actually - any obsession or addiction is, in psychological terms, a pain avoidance tactic.
"Yes, I believe that," Grant agrees. "I mean, at one level I would like to play golf at every single moment of every day, and on another level I'd like to give up golf and say goodbye to acting, because, to be honest, it's never made me happy. Or it's only made me happy for the briefest periods. And then there are huge interludes of misery and humiliation.
I mean, what's the point?"
All of which striking confession brings us neatly to About A Boy, Hugh Grant's latest movie. Those familiar with the Nick Hornby novel
will know that it tells the story of an ambition-less 38 year-old (Will), who, thanks to inherited wealth, has never had to work a day in his life. Materially rich, he is fiercely protective of his obsessively ordered life, believing himself a living contradiction to the rule that "no man is an island". Amoral, commitment-phobic and emotionally stunted, Will hits on the idea of dating only single parents, who, he figures, having already made a prime commitment to their children, will never require it of him. The book, and the film, charts his desperate struggle to keep emotional borders closed in the face of real life, which increasingly impinges via the manipulative attentions of a troubled 12 year-old boy. He is, in a word: shallow. It's probably the most challenging role Hugh Grant has taken to date, as it involves him being neither a 'bumbling Brit' nor the one-dimensional cad he portrayed so brilliantly (and which his friends have said is closer to the real Grant) in Bridget Jones's Diary. But he heavily identifies with the part, especially Will's protestations of shallowness.
"Absolutely," Grant agrees. "All my life I have shunned the depths - they scare me. I can't even have classical music playing because it brings out sides of me that I don't care to confront. I can get very melancholic and sad. But I'm increasingly prepared to accept that
I have a turbulent subconscious - and I always used to pour scorn on people who thought that was so. Funnily enough, I've had a bad back on this film, and one of the cameramen gave me this book (he fetches a copy of Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection, by John E. Sarno) which basically says that all physical illnesses, especially back pain, come from subconscious rage."
Has he been to see a therapist?
"No, I've never been shrunk. But being an egotistical actor I'm pretty interested in myself, so I should do it really. I just don't want to be sorted out - because people who are sorted out are fucking annoying. I have a lot of friends in Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous who I'm very fond of, and I admire them and everything, but when they start their psychobabble I want to smash them in the face."
"I don't know. There's something about the fact that they never get drunk and never let themselves down, which creates quite a barrier in one's friendship. They're never uncool, whereas I think it's incredibly important that people are uncool. I get annoyed by the implication that I'm meant to feel guilty about anything I do that isn't sitting down and confronting my feelings. The people I know that confront their feelings don't seem to be any more well-adjusted - in fact, they seem to me to be slightly bonkers."
Will's tactic in About A Boy is to shun anything which might upset his equilibrium. That seems close to the Hugh Grant survival method, and yet, by playing the part, it must have been difficult to avoid the fact that, ultimately, for Will this fails miserably. "Oh, God," he sighs. "Well, on the whole I would argue that these things never affect me, but maybe it has. Maybe it's just coincidence, but I do now find myself prepared to put greater value on the warmer things in life, whereas all my instincts are to go and hide in a luxurious penthouse with great television and gadgets. I increasingly see the truth that what you really need is friends and family and all these corny things." There's a pause. "I'm horrified to hear myself say this."
The production notes for About A Boy says Will's only preoccupations are to "be cool, avoid responsibility and date women". Empire asks Grant if he relates.
HG: Well, I've never been into music or a particularly hip dresser. But yes, of course, obsession with girls from dawn to dusk haunts us all.
Empire: That's quite a sweeping statement.
HG: Well, it's true, isn't it? Don't men think about sex every ten seconds
Empire: Is that true in your case?
HG: Yeah, I think up to a point it is true. But Will/Hornby is possibly
more interested in relationships than I am. I've always been slightly leery of relationships.
Empire: Yet you were in one for 14 years…
HG: Yes, I was - and happily so for most of it. But I know people who are serial boyfriends and I'm not like that. I cannot understand it. I want to say: "Why not have some fun for a few months?"
Empire: Is that what you're doing now?
HG: Yes, that's what I think I am doing, thank you. And that's great if you're your age - (giving Empire a winning smile) arsehole - but if you're 41 it's beginning to get to that point of pathetic old man hanging round discos with the wrong haircut. "Piss off, Grandad." That's my dread.
Empire: So what's the solution?
HG: There is no solution. Ultimately, you have to settle down. And I worry that I've made the wrong choice being unmarried and without a family. Although I take satisfaction from the hugely prevalent failures of my friends' marriages. Ninety-five per cent of them have fucked up now. That is a great comfort.
It's an identical catch-22 to the one Will faces in About A Boy. Playing the field isn't much fun anymore, but he still has an unconscious fear of intimacy at the most basic level. Grant certainly finds his own island status ("the Isle of Wight", as opposed to Will's Ibiza) infuriating.
"I catch myself at it all the time," he groans. "And why? Why? I'll be on set chatting to a grip and even though I like the guy very much, a lot of me is thinking: 'Gotta get away, gotta get away.' What is that?" Grant doesn't much like being alone, either. "I think I'm pretty happy right now - a seven or eight out of ten - but you have to differentiate between happiness when there's a lot of noise and you're working hard, and happiness when you spend a weekend by yourself, which happened to me recently by mistake. My brother, who lives in New York, was away and I spent two days on my own."
How did you do?
"Not terribly well. I went a bit bonkers."
What happens when Hugh Grant goes bonkers?
"Oh, just an absurd, overweening self-obsession and worry about, 'Can I do this part?' and, 'Where's my life going?' One of the triggers for me in About A Boy is the idea that Will has everything ordered right down to the half-hours of his life. I've done half-hours."
Compulsive fretters also tend to list everything with which they plan to fill their day, even down to things like 'wash cups'. "Oh, definitely. I even put 'make sub-lists'. I have main lists and sub-lists of worries for the day. So you could have 'wash cups' and then 'decide what to do with life'."
In About A Boy, Will's saving grace is that he is forced into the role of surrogate father. With Elizabeth Hurley about to become a single parent, and the fact that Grant and Hurley continue to enjoy an unusually close relationship despite breaking up over a year ago, the question has to be asked…
"Yes, and I have realised with growing horror that this is going to be the question most frequently asked about About A Boy. But I can't answer it - the child hasn't been born yet, so I really don't know. I mean, I will be friendly to it, but I don't want to be a surrogate father. I try to be supportive and muck in like all her friends, but when I read that I am volunteering myself as father and midwife, that's not the case at all."
The rumour was you were livid about the caddish way Hurley was abandoned.
"What, with Bing? No! I feel sorry for her, I think it's a mess and a horrible situation, but when I read that I'm flying to L.A. to fight a duel with him, it's presposterous. I've never even met Steve Bing."
When all the papers started calling him Bing Laden, a lot of people thought it had the Hugh Grant trademark. "It's actually not mine," he chuckles. "That was Elizabeth's hairdresser. Actually, I think it's very civilised what's happened to us - we're good friends, and when she says, 'I'm going out with X, Y or Z,' I take it on the chin and don't mind."
You'd rather be a real dad eventually?
"Yes, strangely enough, I think I would. But I don't think I want to go too far into all this. It's Elizabeth's business, nothing to do with me. Sorry. I might have to have a pee, now. You've made me nervous."
As well as his surprising conviviality and honesty, a meeting with Hugh Grant throws up a much greater appreciation of his acting abilities. The fact that he is so different from the likes of Four Wedding's Charles or Notting Hill's William Thacker indicates what a fine comic talent he must be to make everyone think he's really like that.
"It's a cliché for actors in light comedy to say it is underrated," he says on his return from the lavatory, "but it is torment. Hard, hard, hard. Some actors you make a film with, you think, 'Jesus, you don't have a comic bone in your body,' and yet, if the script's good and it's cut carefully then they give a perfect comic performance. They're given timing by the editor. I'm talking about big, successful performances where the actor has zip sense of humour. But knowing where the jokes are and how to play them never gets recognised - it's always the people with deep, dark, serious, mentally handicapped performances who win prizes. That kind of thing doesn't interest me - the only time I did it was Hamlet at university, and I played it for laughs. I honestly didn't know you weren't supposed to."
But why do you want to give up acting completely? Why not just stick to comedy?
"For me, it's physiological. The pressure's so great - especially if you've been good in rehearsal. Frequently I will rehearse a film pretty darn well, and then when the camera gets there you've got hair and make-up and the whole shenanigan builds and builds and your heart rate doubles and you panic. And then you've got to be as light and natural and funny as you were in rehearsal. It's torture. It's been like that for ten years, and it's getting worse. Notting Hill was a prime example. I never cracked the Horse & Hound scene the way I cracked it in rehearsal. It was truly funny, and to this day I feel a cancer inside about how embarrassing that day of filming was. Everyone knew I could do it, but there I was, sitting on set with Julia, and I couldn't get it. Torment!"
Ten seconds having passed, Hugh Grant is probably thinking about sex. He thinks about sex a lot. This is a man whose favourite novel is Lolita. A man who told Talk magazine, "Sex is heaven! But as soon as it's finished, I want to kill." This is a single man with "wonderfully Catholic tastes", who nevertheless prefers dark to blonde and small to tall. A man who, rather surprisingly, doesn't fancy posh girls or models. "The older I get, the more I like meat with my gravy," he declares at one point. "Here in America, by far the sexiest girls on television are on the Latin Channel. Fantastic!"
Of course, anybody else seeing the words 'Hugh Grant' and 'sex' in the same sentence perhaps think about one notorious episode in particular. An episode that cost $60, and took place in a white BMW on Sunset Boulevard in the early hours of June 27, 1995. An episode that will come up time and time again, unexpectedly, even if Grant takes pains to avoid it. To wit: Empire mentions that About A Boy is his finest moment yet. His appreciation of the compliment is heartfelt - as is his enthusiasm about appearing on the cover - but he infers correctly that Empire is about to use it as an entry into a more difficult topic. "I've already guessed the flip-side of this - you're going to get to Hugh Grant's un-finest moment, aren't you?" He laughs. Well, Empire demurs, what do you think was your 'un-finest' moment? "Well, I've had so many I wouldn't know where to begin. If I was doing the Sarno investigation of my childhood traumas, I would certainly start with having to sing If They Could See Me Now in the school play when I was 13, and coming in way, way, way off-key and having to stop. It was literally like a nightmare, with people laughing and pointing. But my life has been a catalogue of humiliation. I think that is why I go to such enormous lengths to avoid pain - I'm sure you're right in saying that's what golf's all about. "And yes," he continues unprompted, "it was bad being arrested in Hollywood, but probably not for the reason everyone thinks. I don't give a fuck about the morality or the perception of it. I felt very bad for my poor old parents - it was humiliating for them, and dreadful and painful for me. But I didn't care - I've always regarded it as the height of hypocrisy for anyone to try and bluster on moral grounds because I believe that everyone's a dirty beast. The other thing that's always really annoyed me is when people go on about 'Hugh Grant's apology tour'. Actually, what I was doing was promoting Nine Months - I was booked on all these TV shows way before I got arrested and I was simply fulfilling my obligations. I resent the implication that I was going round grovelling to the American public, because frankly, fuck 'em - it was none of their business. But people got the impression that I was this kind of Prince Edward-Aled Jones figure, and that was what made the story salacious. And I suppose I was slightly guilty of playing up to that in the wake of Four Weddings. I thought: 'I know, I'll throw in a few Charles-isms in this interview and they'll go on loving me.' So I may have perpetuated the idea that I was Charles in Four Weddings and everyone then thought: 'Ooh, goody-two-shoes Englishman gets arrested.' But of course, my friends knew quite differently - it was certainly no shock to them. That's not to say that I was forever hanging out with hookers - but they knew I wasn't the clean-cut person everyone thought I was."
So, for the record then, after seven years, an answer of sorts. Hugh Grant never was the archetypal mild-mannered gent - he's much more interesting than that. Obsessive, wicked, wickedly funny, fearful, gregarious and tormented. He has a turbulent subconscious which gives him lower back pain and a tendency towards melancholy and self-obsession (which he despises). He doesn't care much for acting, but can't stand it when his performance is anything less than flawless (which, in his own eyes, is nearly all the time). He is compulsive about making lists and playing golf, probably to avoid pain from the turbulent subconscious. Oh, and he's a "dirty beast" whose obsession with girls haunts him from dawn to dusk, perhaps for the same reason. All of which combines nicely to make a kerb-crawl down Sunset Boulevard a much more understandable diversion. But enough of the cod-psychoanalysis - why does he think he did it? "Christ! That's impossible to answer. You're a bloke - you know these things can happen. I will say that I was extremely drunk. And I had just seen the final version of Nine Months, which actually is two very good reasons for committing suicide."
And with that final revelation, Hugh Grant gets set for his weekend in Miami. Before he leaves, his assistant hands him a goody bag which has been sent by Sandra Bullock. Apparently the pair have struck up quite a rapport, and have been cracking up cast and crew with their devilish on-set banter ("It feels 100 per cent click on the money," enthuses Grant, "and I've never felt that before.").
Rummaging around in the bag, he is charmed to find a Curly-Wurly, a pack of chocolate Hob-Nobs and about four packs of brightly-coloured, studded condoms. "Ah, I think she got a bit carried away," he deadpans. "Totally unjust."
Cheekily, Empire reminds him that the afternoon before his arrest in 1995 was the last time he gave a major interview to this very magazine. Are we likely to wake up tomorrow morning to see his mugshot plastered all over the papers? Hugh Grant's face broadens into a wide, mischievous grin. "Yeah, well, you never know," he replies.