In this excerpt from From Hollywood with Love: The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of the Romantic Comedy, Scott Meslow goes deep on Hugh Grant’s enduring appeal.
Four Weddings and a Funeral director Mike Newell has a favorite anecdote that perfectly sums up Hugh Grant’s approach to acting. They were filming the movie’s climactic rain sequence, when Carrie shows up on Charles’s doorstep to proclaim her love for him, when Newell realized there was a big problem on the horizon: The fake rain was going to drown out all the dialogue.
In a normal film, that wouldn’t be a problem. Actors go into sound booths to rerecord muddy dialogue so it can be dubbed into movies all the time. But Charles’s unique way of speaking created a unique challenge for Grant. “Hugh had developed this character trait, which was a hesitation,” Newell says. “There was a little half-stutter at the back of a great deal of what he said, so Hugh’s delivery was full of little stops and starts.”
As Grant delivered his lines, drowned out by the pounding rain, Newell fretted over how he would later dub over his own performance, hitting every single one of Charles’s nervous stutters and tics. “I thought, This is going to take us weeks of unrelenting labor. And it won’t be any good when we’ve finished it, because nobody could reproduce what Hugh did,” says Newell. In the end, he worried for nothing. Grant arrived at the recording booth and redelivered the entire speech flawlessly. “He did it in two takes. He had rehearsed, and rehearsed, and rehearsed, and got every tiny, little hesitation and stutter worked out in advance. What he had to do was, simply, to reproduce it.”
There’s a paradox underlying many of the great rom-com performances, which must drive many actors mad: It takes an incredible, focused amount of talent and work to play a character who seems loose and relaxed and authentic. This work — though not terribly different from the Method approach popularized by actors like Robert De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis — is often underestimated by critics who shrug that a handsome, charming British man like Hugh Grant is essentially playing himself. Hugh Grant typically hides the amount of work he puts into his performances under a thick layer of irony. (“I spent all day yesterday on a rooftop in Brooklyn, kissing Sandra Bullock,” complained Grant, with tongue firmly in cheek, while filming Two Weeks Notice in 2002.) But occasionally — and with a heavy dose of self-deprecation that nods at how ridiculous he thinks the whole “acting” business is — he will reveal just how seriously he takes his job as an actor. “I do a ridiculous amount of homework and granular analysis of every moment in the film,” says Grant. “I build up these vast biographies of the character. Hiding behind the mask of someone else seems to loosen me up and make me better.”
In Four Weddings and a Funeral, he may have done his job too well. Shortly thereafter, Grant was immediately typecast as the character he’d played in the film: a floppy-haired, twinkly-eyed dreamer whose intimidatingly quick wit was softened by a stammering, guileless awkwardness. It mattered to no one that this character was worlds away from the actual Hugh Grant — a much cagier and more self-assured figure — and was clearly an avatar for writer Richard Curtis, who had lucked into an ideal leading man to serve as his on-screen surrogate. “He became Richard Curtis and Richard Curtis became him. Richard had invented this world called Curtisland, and they went to live there. He took Hugh with him,” says Mike Newell.
The result was a trio of movies — Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Love Actually — that solidified the “Hugh Grant” type in the minds of audiences around the world. “What Richard wrote was — whether intentional or not — a short franchise. Three movies in which Hugh’s character doesn’t really change,” says Newell. But after nearly a decade as the King of Curtisland, Grant had had his fill of being conflated with the man himself. “That always made me grind my teeth a bit,” says Grant. “Because that character in the Richard Curtis films was a bit repetitious. But it wasn’t me. It’s really kind of Richard.”
Still, Grant appreciates the extended shelf life enjoyed by the romantic comedies he made with Curtis, as well as similar rom-com hits like Two Weeks Notice, Bridget Jones’s Diary, About a Boy, and Music and Lyrics, which have largely defined his career. “I never thought, I want to do lots of romantic comedies. I never had any particular interest in that genre,” says Grant. “I’m amazed at how well they have stood the test of time in terms of people still wanting to see them. They’re scattered all over cable channels and streamers, so they must provide some service.” Still, Grant seems broadly relieved that — due to both age and the acting choices he’s consciously made over the past decade or so — his days as a rom-com leading man seem to be behind him. “I think it’s just that I got old and ugly and I’m not appropriate for romantic comedy films anymore, which has been a great blessing,” he says.
But anyone attempting to analyze the great performances of Hugh Grant’s career would be doing an incomplete job if they didn’t also examine the moment that nearly derailed his career in its infancy. Grant’s near-instant rise to superstardom had also been abetted by his very, very public relationship with then-girlfriend Elizabeth Hurley, who became such a fascination for the British tabloids that the Versace dress she wore to the Four Weddings and a Funeral premiere now has its own Wikipedia page. And then, in June 1995, while in Los Angeles promoting his big Hollywood debut, Nine Months, Hugh Grant was arrested after being caught by police in his car with a sex worker who called herself Divine Brown.
It was one thing for audiences to accept a Hollywood version of this story starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. It was another thing entirely to learn that the hot actor of the moment had cheated on his famous girlfriend by paying $60 for a blow job in his BMW. Hurley, who issued no statement immediately following Grant’s arrest, later revealed she “felt like she had been shot” when she heard the news.
It is not hard to imagine how — just a year after Four Weddings and a Funeral made Hugh Grant a superstar — his entire acting career could have drowned in a sea of embarrassing tabloid headlines. “America’s celluloid ghetto was positively glowing with schadenfreude,” wrote The Guardian in one typical postmortem shortly after Grant was arrested. And his awkward mug shot, which was widely disseminated — a half-unbuttoned striped brown shirt, hunched shoulders, a grim “Oh God, my life is ruined” look in his eyes — did not do wonders for his image as a popular sex symbol.
In the end, what saved Grant’s career was how well he embodied a stammering, contrite, lovably awkward Brit while delivering his apology on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno just a couple of weeks later. “Let me start with question number one: What the hell were you thinking?” asked Leno. And out of respect for the amount of work Hugh Grant puts into every performance, I will attempt to transcribe his subsequent apology on The Tonight Show with as much accuracy as possible:
“Yeah. Yeah. What it says, um. It’s not easy, um. You know, the thing is, um — people give me tons of, um, ideas on this one. I keep reading new, you know, psychological theories, and stuff like that. You know, that I was under pressure, or I was tired, or I was lonely, or I fell down the stairs when I was a child, or whatever. But I, um — you know, I think that would be . . . bollocks, really, to hide behind that, something like that. You know, I think you know in life, pretty much, what’s a good thing to do and what’s a bad thing. And, um, I did a bad thing, and there you have it.”
Grant finished and reached for his coffee mug. The audience roared. Leno followed up with a winky quip about how everyone in Hollywood was shocked to learn that there were prostitutes on the Sunset Strip. Everyone laughed. Grant eventually got off with a fine and probation. Nine Months made $138 million at the box office.
It was, in short, a master class in crisis management — what The Independent later described as “the greatest PR save of all time.” But personally, I can’t watch that Tonight Show clip without counting every stammer and “um,” or noting that “bollocks” is an awfully smart word choice for a man who would surely benefit from reminding audiences — even subconsciously — of the foul-mouthed British man they loved in a very British romantic comedy released just one year earlier. There are benefits to knowing where your strengths lie, and Hugh Grant has always been unusually savvy about knowing what side of himself to project to the world.
From FROM HOLLYWOOD WITH LOVE by Scott Meslow. © 2022 by Scott Meslow. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of William Morrow/HarperCollins Publishers.