"What do you think about 40-year-old men in sports cars?"
Hugh Grant asks as he paces amid the over-stuffed chintz of his suite at New
York's Lowell Hotel, still bearing the remnants of a tan from a
recent three-week jaunt to Mustique. At the root of the question is
the latest Grant conundrum: How does the perfect English gentleman -
the very picture, sipping his afternoon-cup of Earl Grey, of
impeccable manners and breeding - keep his boyish charm intact at the
onset of dreaded middle age? "I've been against sports cars my whole
life," he goes on, plainly obsessing about his latest object of
desire. "Nothing seems more obvious than not to get one. And then I
went to look at the new Aston Martin. They're British and so, kind
of, cool. Do you think I can get away with that? Tell me the truth.
What's the first thing you'd say if you spotted me in a fast, hot
car?" "Midlife crisis?" I answer gingerly. That's what I thought
you'd say." he responds, going a little glum, before moving on to
another subject of pressing concern. "Now, what do you think a
fortysomething man should wear?" he asks, glancing down at his
youthful attire: jeans and a navy pullover. "I wish suits were
still the norm. Men should stay with the classics. I remember
going 'round to the wardrobe department on BJD for a fitting, and
they had some very hip people working there. I was wearing black
jeans, and they looked at me, shook their heads and said, "No,
darling. Not anymore.
It's tempting to assume that such amusingly self-deprecating remarks -
and Grant is a master of them - are designed as a sort of cover, a
way of deflecting civilian envy. But according to Toni Collette,
Grant's co-star in the upcoming AAB, the anxiety is real. "Hugh
worries about everything," she says. "I tried to get him to have
acupuncture to calm him down, but no go."
Which is not to say Grant doesn't have valid reason for concern.
While the actor is, at heart, still the same Mannish (to borrow an
applicable phrase from Muddy Waters) that he's always been, he turned
41 in September. There are some crinkly new lines around those
devilish eyes, and his famously foppish English schoolboy hair has
given way to a spikier look - the "properly disheveled" style he
adopted for AAB, from Nick Hornby's third best-selling novel.
Bottom line Grant isn't sure just how long the "boyish thing," as he
calls the image he's acquired, will last. "I know it's getting a bit
old," he says with a scowl. "Now I'm trying to work that into the
roles." To his credit, he tackles this issue head on in AAB, playing
Will Foreman, a 38-year old layabout blessed with charm, good looks
and a fat inheritance. (He'll play a similar character in his next
film, a romantic comedy costarring Sandra Bullock.) When his luck
with women begins to give out, the lothario discovers an untapped
source of fresh romantic targets - single moms - and invents an
imaginary kid so he can infiltrate a self-help group full of them.
Which is how he comes to meet a manic-depressive hippie-chick
(Collette) and her son. Much to his surprise, the isolated
youngster, played by impressive child actor Nicholas Hoult, begins a
tireless campaign to transform him into a father figure. It's a
comedy, but one with more emotional depth than moviegoers usually
associate with the unabashedly lightweight Grant. I've always had
the theory," he says, offering up some minibar cookies in lieu of
crumpets and tea cake, "that things are really funnier if there's
proper pain somewhere. You've got to mix it up, and I think this
"Hugh is truly funny," says Paul Weitz, who with his brother, Chris,
adapted and directed the film. “But at the same time, he perceives
flaws in himself and other people and then he cares about their
humanity nonetheless." Still, whatever humanity Grant harbors deep
inside, the Oxford-educated actor clearly wishes to preserve his
reputation for glib superficiality. "Mostly I've played the so-
called 'bumbling jerk' or the 'shallow cad,'" he says bluntly,
dismissing his entire career with an easy smile. "BJD was shallow,
and a lot of this part is shallow - which was such a f..king huge
relief after having to pretend to be deep and sensitive in all those
films of Richard Curtis (screenwriter of FWAF and Notting Hill). On
the whole, I'd rather play shallow."
“I've come to believe," he says, sounding quite sensible, "that the only thing I conceivably have to offer is a bit of light comedy. I don't think of myself as deep, dark or serious. As viewers of AAB will note, however, Grant and Crowe do have one major trait in common; a not-so-secret rock-star fantasy. Grant's garage-rock rendition of "Killing Me Softly" is a highlight of the film. Grant's musical tastes are as unhip as they come. Among his current favorites are Burt Bacharach, Shirley Bassey and the marching music of the Grenadier Guards. He maintains he's also a big fan of Jane Austen novels, a claim that Chris Weitz confirms. “Hugh's a big reader, but he wants you to think he's a smart-ass. He's so good at being a charming movie star that that almost hides his intellectual side."
These days, Grant's personal situation seems to be following the plot
line of AAB. His former flame, Elizabeth Hurley, with whom he's
maintained a close friendship, is pregnant, and her ex-boyfriend
Stephen Bing, the man she claims is the baby's father, is no longer
involved. (Bing has demanded a paternity test.) Which means that,
before long, Grant may well find himself in the surrogate-daddy role
thrust upon his character Will Freeman. And that, just maybe, he,
too, will be forced to grow up.
"My friends, like Will's, have tried to suggest that I move on," he
says with a sigh. "But unlike Will, who at the beginning of the film
has never connected with anyone, I personally have always thought it -
marriage - was imminent. Just around the corner. After all, I
haven't been single much. I was with Elizabeth for 14 years. I'm
not exactly your classic lost cause. When I was in that
relationship, people always asked me about babies." He pauses for a
sip of tea and flashes me a grin, "Now they just ask me when I'm
going to find another girlfriend."
Grant's newest hobby is art collecting. The brazen, sexy photography
of Ellen von Unwerth and the camped-up work of David LaChappelle
adorn the walls of his newest London flat. "I love all that lezzy
stuff." he says, referring to von Enwerth's leopard-clad vamps,
romping on shag carpets. "I love that its lezzy. Now, you wouldn't catch me posing topless like Tom Cruise on a magazine cover. There's something...not quite manly about that." (Which is not to say Grant hasn't appeared shirtless inside a magazine, the now defunct Talk.)
The photographs Grant explains are meant to be appreciated ironically. "I hope I'm doing it in questions marks," he says, "Otherwise, you look like an old perv." With respect to the guitar playing scene - "It was scary." he admits of the soon-to-be-classic scene. "Because I sing like a hyena, I know nothing about music and I can't play the guitar. But by the end of all of the lessons for that scene, I rather fancied myself a rock star. Of course, the people in the movie were PAID to cheer and clap. But I started to think, Hey. I'm pretty f....ing hot up there.”
The naughty grin on his face mmediately brings to mind the 1995 scandal that erupted after Grant was arrested for engaging in "lewd behavior" with prostitute Divine Brown - a transgression that seems in the end, only to have enhanced his bad-boy charm. The tabloids were anything but kind to Grant, but in the intervening years, he's become philsophical about the press. "It's an industry, isn't it, this little tittle-tattle" he muses. "And I have enjoyed it very much at times - reading it, not being read about. It's extraordinary how enraged you are about the incredible lies that are told about you and those you love, but as soon as you read anything about anyone else, you think, Well, that's probably true."