Hugh's `Blue'-Ribbon Summer
Actor Grant moves from `Notting Hill' to coveted mob role in `Mickey Blue Eyes'
Sunday, August 15, 1999
By Neva Chonin, San Fransisco Chronicles
Slouched on a couch in the Ambassador Room of the Ritz-Carlton, Hugh Grant is supposed to be answering questions. Instead, he poses one.
``If a man takes his clothes off in front of you and you're about to go to bed with him, would you prefer that he be wearing boxer shorts or tight panties?''
The correct answer, of course, is boxers. ``Yet there are a few girls who actually go for the panties,'' he says, shaking his head. ``It's a mystery.''
Boxer shorts follow Hugh Grant like puppies. He wore one pair on his head during an interview with US magazine and another under the sheets during a love scene with Julia Roberts in ``Notting Hill.'' In an especially enticing moment of his new movie, ``Mickey Blue Eyes,'' his character wiggles his blue-boxer-clad bottom at his bemused fiancee, played by Jeanne Tripplehorn. Tripplehorn isn't the only one watching Grant in amazement. Four years after he was caught in flagrante delicto with Divine Brown in the back seat of a BMW, the Englishman with the world's highest cuddle rating is back with a snub-nosed bullet.
He's already scored a walloping summer hit with the romantic ``Notting Hill.'' He'll be seen in the next Woody Allen project, and on Friday ``Mickey Blue Eyes'' -- the second release from Simian Films, the company he co-founded with longtime girlfriend, actress and producer Elizabeth Hurley -- opens in Bay Area theaters. A cultural comedy of errors, the film traces the foibles of a prim British gallery owner as he's sucked into the Mafia machinations of his girlfriend's family, headed by patriarch James Caan. ``I liked the idea of me and James Caan as a kind of odd couple,'' says Grant, pouring himself a glass of mineral water. ``And there's something really beautiful about the mob. As Yeats said, `Terrible beauty is born.' I happen to love the mob and always have. I find them deeply glamorous and fascinating. I was brought up watching those films and wanting to be in them.'' Whether wriggling out of improbable situa tions in ``Mickey Blue Eyes'' or kicking back in a baroque San Francisco hotel room, Grant can transform the most rumpled situation into the height of casual refinement. This morning, wearing old tennis shoes, Dockers and a faded blue pullover sweater -- the airline lost his luggage the day before -- Grant, 38, looks as composed as Cary Grant tracking spies in black tie. Credit the fine bone structure and that exquisite flop of hair, which he compulsively runs his hands through when thinking hard, as if pulling ideas from his head like taffy.
Of the success of ``Notting Hill,'' he says, ``I'm relieved more than thrilled because from the outset, rather annoyingly, people kept saying, `Hugh, this film is going to be massive.' So all we could do then was disappoint them. But in fact, thank God, we haven't. Which is lovely. But Julia could be doing a film with a wooden spoon or Mussolini and the thing would still be huge. So there's less credit accrued to me than I would have liked. ``It's just a love story about two supposedly likable people with a lot of jokes. My own suggestion for the title was `Star-F--,' but nobody wanted to use it.'' Even sleepless and running a gamut of interviews, Grant is quick with a quip. And though he eschews onscreen accents as ``wearying and alienating,'' offscreen he punctuates his conversation with vernaculars that range from Bronx and Southern Californian to Polish and Punjabi. He can even do a spot-on imitation of director Roman Polanski, with whom he made ``Bitter Moon'' in 1992. ``I'm quite jealous of his lifestyle, actually,'' Grant says, fiddling with a shoelace. ``Imagine it. Being made to live in Paris. He's one of the last of the real filmmakers. It's such a shame he doesn't get to work in a Hollywood environment because that's when all his best films happen, when someone gives him a very commercial American script and then he gives it his weird Polish twist.'' Grant appreciates weird twists. Though American audiences most readily identify him with his wide- eyed roles in films such as ``Four Weddings and a Funeral'' and ``Sense and Sensibility,'' the actor's resume includes a broad range of characters -- from a cranky, consumptive Chopin in ``Impromptu'' to a vitriolic theater director who casually discards boy toys but can't have the man he loves in ``An Awfully Big Adventure.'' Grant confesses he'd rather people explored his oeuvre before pigeonholing him as a sweet bumbler. ``Imagine how irritating it is for me to sit in endless interviews with people saying'' -- he adopts a nasal Midwestern accent -- `` `You're always the nice guy. Don't you ever want to play a villain?' Well, I have, you f-- bozo. Go to the video shop.'' So why doesn't he just chuck stardom, move to Prague and make a 35mm film based on his long-gestating novel, ``Slacker''? He sighs. ``The trouble is, there are two different worlds here. There's the world where someone spends $40 million on a film and you are under an obligation to make sure people go to see it. And I'm not at all ashamed of that. Nothing annoys me more than that precious arty-farty world where something's only good if it's obscure. Believe me, it's way, way more difficult and satisfying to make something that a lot of people can actually enjoy.
``But having said that, I have to be open to the idea of doing smaller and stranger films. Maybe Simian Films should have a subdivision called Cinema le Singe, or what the studios call a `boutique division.' Though in a way, it's just too easy. There are too many people in New York, for instance, who out of a knee-jerk response to what they call artiness are prepared to say `That's wonderful' even when it's complete bulls-- made by some loony Englishman.''
Born Hugh John Mungo Grant (``We all have our crosses to bear in life; Mungo was mine'') into a solidly middle-class London family, Grant had one older brother, little money and a pleasant childhood when he wasn't having accidents, stuffing apple peels up his nose or drinking bleach. After a brief jag as a teenage Communist, he attended Oxford on scholarship. All of which begs the question: His BMW escapade aside, what sorts of illegalities has the frighteningly well-adjusted Grant committed to prepare himself for ``Mickey Blue Eyes'' and a cinematic life of crime? ``Ah! Well, I'm a smuggler,'' he begins. ``Elizabeth and I were coming back from a holiday in Turkey a few years ago, and sure enough, as soon as we went through customs the guy said, `Excuse me, sir, have you been to Turkey?' I said, `Yes, I have, yes.' He said, `You didn't buy any carpets by any chance, did you?' I said, `No, no carpets, no.' So he undid the suitcases and boing! Out popped three or four carpets. So we were done for smuggling. We were taken away, arrested, charged. It was all very formal and polite. ``I'm also a shoplifter,'' he continues. ``I shoplifted a frozen beef curry from a shop in Nice, France, when I was 17 or 18 and quite poor. That was really ugly.'' ``Then there was criminal damage. When I was at Oxford I lost my temper pretty badly with some Space Invaders machines and smashed them all up, about 20 of them. And the next day the police traced it to me and my friend because we'd smashed so many we were bleeding and they traced the blood through the snow to our room. ``Other than that,'' he says brightly, ``I'm clean as a whistle.'' In between smashing video machines at Oxford, Grant excelled in drama. Roles in theater, miniseries and small films followed graduation before his breakthrough arrived in 1987 with Merchant-Ivory's ``Maurice.'' A year before that, in Spain auditioning for the movie ``Remando al Viento,'' he met Hurley. ``I got the part, and I couldn't decide whether I should do this pretty bad Spanish film or do this rather prestigious BBC job that I'd also been offered,'' he recalls with a faint smile. ``I really should have done the BBC job, but what swung me toward that Spanish film was that I'd met Elizabeth and realized I fancied spending three months in Spain with this girl. So I blame her for everything that's gone wrong with my career since.'' Except, perhaps, the most physically grueling experience of his thespian life. ``When I was in India making a film many years ago, I got a terrible pain in one of my testicles,'' he recalls, wincing and digging his fingers into his resilient hair. ``I saw the top testicle man in the whole of India. He said, `Yes, you have a twist in your testicles, and they will have to be untwisted.' I thought, `Right, I'll check this with my London doctor.' And he said, `On no account go anywhere near an operating table. If you had a twist, you'd be in the most diabolical pain of your life.' It turned out I had no more than a strain from playing golf -- a syndrome I now call `golf ball.' So if I'd let the doctor untwist them, he'd actually have been twisting them, you see.'' Grant sinks his face into his hands. ``I can't believe I'm saying all this. Where am I? Who are you?'' In the public eye. A shameless journalist. Welcome back, Mungo Blue Eyes.
``MICKEY BLUE EYES''
The movie opens Friday in Bay Area theaters