The Hugh Grant I meet is very polite. Sometimes the actor, now 55, can seem distant with the press, even combative. He doesn’t like being told he’s a genius and he’s even tried to distance himself from the movie business. (He’s spent the last five years working with Hacked Off, an organization that spreads awareness of news outlets hacking into the phones of civilians to get stories.) But he’s in good spirits promoting “Florence Foster Jenkins,” a biopic about a 1940s society lady (played by Meryl Streep) who became one of history’s worst singers. Grant plays St. Clair Bayfield, her scheming husband who was partly there for the money, but had, over the years, developed genuine love for her.
I first heard Florence Foster Jenkins recording when I was young. What about you?
People used to pass around cassettes of her when I was a teenager. It was the equivalent of viral pre-viruses. It was just something that was hilarious. There was that, and there was some cricket commentary that went badly once. These were the thing people used to laugh at, them and Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketches.
There comes a point, though, where you start to feel bad for laughing at this woman who really thought she could sing — and, rather, couldn’t.
That’s the genius of the film, really — to take something that’s fundamentally hilarious and then go into the humanity of it. That’s something [director] Stephen Frears is quite good at: disorienting audiences over which genre you’re in or how you’re supposed to feel or what the tone is.
Was he basically hands-off about your performance, which is very meticulous?
He was very trusting. And as it happens, I was rather meticulous on this. But that was more out of fear than anything else. I had a year between signing up and starting it, and I didn’t know how to contend with these terrors I had. I’d wake in the middle of the night saying, “F—, I’ve got to do emotional scenes with Meryl Streep.” [Laughs]
How did you cope with that?
I found that researching the character kind of helped with soothing my nerves. I’ve never been so well-prepared. I went through the script with a tooth-comb about five times, asking, “Why do I say this? Why do I pick up that prop?” It was Stanislavski taken to extremes — and probably entirely futile.
In what sense?
In the sense that I’m not sure that actually makes any difference to one’s performance. But it soothes you. It makes you think, ‘I’ve built my house on rock, not sand.’