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.
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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.’
It sounds like Method acting.
Well, it’s strangely Method-y for an English actor. But what I’ve found over the years is that in the debate between English and American acting, when it comes to film, I think the Americans are right and we’re wrong. You know that old boring story of Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman? English actors like to tell each other that story. “We don’t need any of that nonsense!” Well, I think they’re wrong. I think Method-ing is quite right. And there’s no greater example than Meryl.
How Method would she go?
On days when it was a happy scenes, she would turn up happy. Days of sad scenes, she’d turn up sad. And if it was an angry scene she’ turn up angry. I was never sure on set if I was talking to Meryl or Florence. I used to call her “Floryl.”
What is it like acting with an angry Meryl Strep?
Very, very extremely frightening. She doesn’t come at you yelling, but you can tell there’s a simmering rage.
Did you ever get less terrified of working with her?
Well, you do get used to it. And it’s very focused. That’s a good thing. You can sometimes, given the long hours of filmmaking, get silly. The whole thing starts very intense, then it gets profoundly silly, until, if you’re me and Sandra Bullock, you’re just falling around, giggling and unable to complete a take. That’s not really the case with Meryl.
Do you think this kind of fear — the fear of working with Meryl Streep, say — can be a good thing? It can motivate you to try something else because, on the other hand, you can also fear being cowardly.
Half of you wants to run away, and half of you says you can’t. If you run away, you’ll never forgive yourself. So you take it on. Once you get through it, you do feel significantly smugger.
Going back to hands-off directors, you said Roman Polanski, who directed you in “Bitter Moon,” was one of those. I always imagined him being kind of a lunatic on set.
That was a semi-lie. He won’t talk at all about character or plot. I remember having lunch with him before the thing, and he said, [launches into Polanski impersonation] “Nah, nah, none of that bulls—. You do all the backstory, you make it up.” But on set he wants to do everyone’s job for them, even the prop guy. And poor Peter Coyote. He’d say, “Don’t say it like that, say it like this!”
Woody Allen, who you worked for on "Small Time Crooks," is hands-off, too, though some actors have said he’ll come in if he doesn’t like something and gently offer a succinct piece of direction.
I didn’t come across that. My understanding of his method is if he doesn’t like your work he just fires you. You’re just suddenly not required for work the next day. But he’s incredibly trusting. All he did say was, [doing Woody Allen] “You know, I’d like you to stand here, but if you don’t want to, that’s fine. You don’t have to say any of the lines, say something else.” Very liberal. That’s right for film acting. The thing is to keep things fluid and relaxed and inventive. Soon as things are set and pre-rehearsed, it kills it.
I should just ask you to tell more stories about and do more impersonations of directors.
Ken Russell was a good one. He was a genius and we revere him. But when I did a film with him [1988’s “Lair of the White Worm”], he was eccentric in the afternoons. He liked to lunch. I remember having to do a shot where I had to pick up an enormous sword and cut a woman in half — as one does. After a few takes I said, “Ken, it doesn’t feel quite right.” His directorial response was, [does a drunk Ken Russell] “F—k how it f—king feels! Do it how I f—king showed you, you c—t.” [Laughs]
He was an amazing madman.
And also very funny. His anecdotes were superb. He used to tell me about Oliver Reed. He said Oliver Reed never took his acting that seriously. He did several films with Ken Russell, and he’d say, [doing Oliver Reed] “Kenny, you want Sulky One, Sulky Two or Sulky Three? I’ve only got three faces.” [Laughs]
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge