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No More Mr. Nice Guy: Hugh Grant Embraces The 'Blessed Relief' Of Darker Roles

<strong>Love ... Actually?</strong> Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant play a married couple whose relationship is not what seems in <em>The Undoing. </em>
<strong>Love ... Actually?</strong> Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant play a married couple whose relationship is not what seems in <em>The Undoing. </em>

After spending much of his career playing the male lead in romantic comedies, actor Hugh Grant is shifting into darker roles.

"It's alarming how many pretty unpleasant narcissists I've played or been offered in the last six or seven years," Grant says. "It's certainly been a blessed relief after having to be Mr. Nice Guy for so many years — which is a thankless task for any actor."

On the HBO series The Undoing, Grant stars opposite Nicole Kidman as a pediatric oncologist named Jonathan who seems, upon first glance, to be the perfect husband. But the couple's marriage begins to unravel when Jonathan is accused of murder — and Kidman's character learns things about him that lead her to believe he's not quite the person she thought he was.

Grant says he used some of his "rom-com charm" in the first episode of the series in order to win the audience over. But, he says, "I also tried always to just keep something vaguely unsettling about him, even in Episode 1. Is this guy too good to be true?"


Interview Highlights

On the research he did for his role as a charming, narcissistic pediatric oncologist in The Undoing

I'm pretty good on narcissists, because there's plenty in my business. I've also spent a good deal of the last decade surprisingly close to politicians, and they rival anyone I know in show business for narcissism. I'm a great believer in whoever said, "Politics is show business for the ugly." That is absolutely true, [there is] extraordinary egomania going on there. So I've seen a lot of that stuff up close. ...

The bit I didn't know a lot about was doctors and at what point their marvelous abilities to cure can curdle them into something a little creepier — where the ego starts to take over. It's more about, "I'm such a wonderful doctor and I'm not sure I really care if this person lives or dies as long as I can test my new theory and then win another prize or get another chair of some teaching hospital" or whatever. And so I researched that a bit. I talk to a lot of doctors in the U.K. and then in New York, and they were all much too nice. They were lovely people who I keep in touch with to this day. And then finally, I found one who wasn't an oncologist at all, he worked in another field. My brother, who lives in Manhattan and his wife had said, "You need to meet this guy because he's the one that all the ladies want to go to for their knee operation, even when there's nothing wrong with their knee." So I went to see him and he was very charming and well-dressed and likable and I thought he was very useful to me. ... I don't doubt he's an absolutely wonderful doctor, but you could see some narcissism there as well.

On ways the British tabloids invaded his privacy

They would put a little GPS tracker on the bottom of [my] car. There [were] guys disguised as British Telecom engineers putting a tap on a landline in your phone. And obviously they were hacking the messages on my mobile phone like crazy. They got hold of my medical records on many occasions. And they burgled my flat, let's not forget that. I came home one day and found the front door had been completely removed from its hinges and they'd been through my flat in some detail. By the way, the people who were doing this were under orders. These were the foot soldiers, not the chiefs. And what annoys me is that in this sort of fallout from all this scandal, it was a lot of the foot soldiers who got arrested, who went to prison or got suspended sentences. And the chiefs are still there in power.

On the roles he took early in his career and how he landed his breakout role in Four Weddings and a Funeral

I managed to sell out and just do highly paid, terrible miniseries and very odd European, what I called "Euro puddings," where they'd be written by a Spaniard directed by [a] German, [with] English actors. They were awful and they never got really released properly. But it sounded like fun. There were pretty actresses in it that I wanted to spend time with and did things for all the wrong motives. And it very nearly utterly killed my career before suddenly Four Weddings came along a few years later. ...

Things were in pretty bad state in terms of proper acting for me, and then the script came through and I remember calling my agent and saying, "I think there's been a mistake, because you sent me a good script." And they did have a track record of doing that. They'd done it once before. And I'd called and said, "Hang on, this is good. And you sure it was meant for me?" And they'd said, "No, sorry. This is meant for Tom Cruise." That was Jerry Maguire. ... Then the Four Weddings script came through and it was really funny and I went for the audition and Richard Curtis, who'd written it, hated me, and Duncan Kenworthy, who was producing it, hated me, but Mike Newell, who was directing it, thought I was promising, and I got the part and started a whole new thing in my career.

On playing a washed-up '80s heartthrob in Music and Lyrics, and feeling mortified about the dancing scene

They gave me a brilliant choreographer who [had worked with] Kylie Minogue and all those people, Britney Spears. And I think that was one of the low moments of my career, if not my life, was the first rehearsal with him. It was just him and a big boombox with some music in it in a vast rehearsal room somewhere in Manhattan. And he said, "OK, well, before we try and work out any moves at all," he said, "let me just see how you move naturally. So I'm going to put on some music and I just want you to freak out." He put on some music and I just stood still for 20 minutes. He was not getting that out of a 40-year-old Englishman at 11 o'clock in the morning. So it was very difficult. In the end, I did those scenes on a sneaky combination of whiskey and lorazepam tranquilizers brought to me by my loyal makeup girl in a 7UP bottle.

On feeling stuck at 34, the age he was when he became famous

I love the theory I've heard that people who suddenly get well-known stick emotionally in terms of their personality at the moment at which they get famous. They can't move on from it. I've heard stories that George Clooney, in his vast mansion, still sleeps in the closet, because he was sleeping in a very small apartment when he got famous. I have found that my tastes or the things I'm most comfortable with are things I was doing and the food I was eating when I was 34. It's quite odd. I'm talking to you now from the flat I had at that time and which I've never sold, because I like to run away here to work. I feel safe here. Around the corner, I've got five screaming children and a whole other life.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.