Fortified by his home life, actor and father of five Hugh Grant is putting his heart into his work — and coming up with his best roles yet.

By Christopher Bagley
Oct 15, 2020 @ 9:30 am
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Credit: Boo George/Walter Schupfer Management

A few hours before my interview with Hugh Grant, while I’m preparing my questions and wondering how delicately I should phrase the one about the pros and cons of getting older, an unexpected bulletin pops up on my news feed. Grant is turning 60 this week. In his hometown of London, the Four Weddings and a Funeral heartthrob will now be entitled to some senior citizen perks, including free rides on city buses. And sure enough, when Grant appears via Zoom from his home — backlit, he jokes, to shave off a few years — the mere mention of his age unleashes a stream of his signature self-mocking quippery. These days, Grant says, “I have to pee every three seconds.” His body is failing him in several perplexing ways. On Twitter recently, someone told him that his face resembled a scrotum. “I couldn’t disagree,” he says.

But to Grant’s own surprise, it turns out that aging can have some significant upsides, beyond the free bus rides. One is a bona fide career renaissance: Grant has been delivering a range of riveting performances, the latest as a tormented doctor in the new HBO miniseries The Undoing. Meanwhile, after years as a childless middle-aged bachelor (or a “dried-up old golf addict,” as he puts it), he has transformed himself into a happily married father of five. As a result, he’s doing a lot of emoting, both on and off the job. At home, whenever he reads the children’s book Stick Man to his young kids, he can’t help crying at the end as the title character is rescued from fire and reunited with his family.

“I seem to have access to emotions that I didn’t used to have,” Grant says.

Credit: Boo George/Walter Schupfer Management

If you were around during Grant’s reign as the ultimate English rom-com star in the 1990s and 2000s, or if you’ve streamed films like Notting Hill and Love Actually more recently, you might have figured that the actor’s range was fairly limited. Though his movies have grossed almost $3 billion worldwide, people always assumed that Grant was playing some version of himself — an endearingly befuddled, floppy-haired Oxford grad who was probably related to the Earl of Shrewsbury or something. On the talk show circuit, Grant routinely claimed that in real life he was neither as likable nor as posh as his characters, yet he did it so charmingly that no one believed him. And he kept on playing more romantic leads (Bridget Jones’s Diary, Two Weeks Notice). Grant says he’s fond of his early films. “I’m grateful to them for making me rich,” he notes. “But I never thought, ‘This is what I’m good at.’” Nor was he ever offered the darker, denser roles he quietly craved. “Being lazy and a bit of a coward, I didn’t go searching for them. I mean, at one point the world was my oyster, and I could have made pretty much any film. And I didn’t.”

Over the years there were hints that Grant was souring on acting and on life in general. In 2009 he threw a backstage tantrum before appearing on The Daily Show to promote Did You Hear About the Morgans? Afterward, host Jon Stewart said Grant would never be invited back. “I was at my worst,” Grant recalls now. “I was drinking too much at that time, and I probably had a horrible hangover. And I knew no one really liked the film.” (He later apologized to Stewart’s crew.) Grant began to spend less time on movie sets and more time on golf courses. Then he started turning up in unlikely character parts — he was the scene-stealing villain in Paddington 2. But it took a BBC miniseries, Stephen Frears’s A Very English Scandal, to really showcase the complex layers that Grant had been concealing beneath the charisma. He got an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of disgraced Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe.

Credit: Boo George/Walter Schupfer Management

In The Undoing Grant digs even deeper, playing a prestigious Manhattan pediatric oncologist who may or may not be a psychopath. He and Nicole Kidman star as a wealthy couple whose lives implode after a mother at their son’s school is bashed to death with a mallet and their hidden connections to the victim are exposed. In addition to his first-ever prison fight (spoiler: he bites), Grant has a couple of heart-wrenching family scenes, like the one in which his distraught son visits him in jail. “In the first take, I was absolutely sobbing,” Grant recalls, adding that director Susanne Bier had to urge him to tone it down. “She said, ‘Oh, that’s wonderful, but maybe he should be a bit more … manly? You know, being strong for the sake of his son?’”

Technique-wise, Grant says, the emotional scenes required lots of “really hard work” — Method-y stuff like shutting himself in rooms and listening to music to dredge up the pain. “Luckily, I found that filming in New York, separated from my family, made me extremely homesick and rather fragile,” Grant says. “Frankly, it had been one of the motives for doing the job. I had thought, ‘Oh, how lovely to getaway from my screaming kids.’ But it was terrible. I really missed them.” Grant also relied on a time-honored acting trick: copying Meryl Streep. He had picked up a few things from his co-star in the 2016 film Florence Foster Jenkins. “OK, Meryl Streep is a genius — but she’s also unbelievably hard-working,” Grant says. “And she told me she once made a vow to herself that whenever there was an emotional scene, she would make sure she’d done everything in her power to summon that emotion before she started acting it.”

Credit: Boo George/Walter Schupfer Management

Part of Grant’s recent commitment to getting real onscreen is a deep aversion to makeup. For several years he’s been refusing to wear it, though he admits he had second thoughts after watching himself in The Undoing opposite Kidman, who at 53 has managed to maintain the complexion of a débutante. “She’s done it brilliantly, I have to say,” Grant says. “She looks incredible. I really do look scrotal.” For all Grant’s jokes about being far too elderly to be raising small children (his youngest is 2 years old), it seems that fatherhood is the main thing that has finally put the lifelong commitment-phobe in touch with his feelings. “It’s the old cliché: Suddenly you’re overwhelmed by this love, and it’s really nice,” he says. Grant had his first child, a daughter, at age 51 with Chinese-born Londoner Tinglan Hong; they have a son as well, and Grant has three more kids with Anna Eberstein, whom he married in 2018.

Eberstein, a TV producer from Sweden, is also the one who persuaded Grant to give up his golf addiction and switch to tennis, a sport he now plays just as obsessively. (Grant had also gotten into Pilates for a while, but he says he dropped it when it made him fat. “I used to think, ‘I feel so marvelous after Pilates — I’m so bendy and fit, and I feel like I’ve got a very strong vulva!’ What they don’t tell you is you’re really doing no exercise at all.”) Grant’s competitive side has also emerged in some political battles he’s been waging publicly. After his phone was hacked by British reporters a decade ago, he helped lead a crusade to expose the dark links between the U.K.’s tabloid press and its top politicians. Lately, Grant’s main targets have been Brexit and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but despite his knack for dashing off viral tweets (in one he called Johnson an “overpromoted rubber bath toy”), he’s been trying to limit his time on all online platforms. “There aren’t many cut-and-dried answers in life, but I think one of the few is, just throw your phone away,” he says. “Just get off the fucking Internet. Life was immeasurably better before social media — and before the Internet — in my opinion. And every day we get entangled further and further. I can’t organize rugby training for my 8-year-old son without getting on a bloody app.”

How long does Grant plan to keep acting? “I’m actually having that debate in my head at the moment,” he says. “I don’t know. If marvelous jobs came up, I’d probably do them.” But for the past four decades he’s been promising himself that he’ll go back to writing the kind of theater sketches and other pieces he churned out during his early 20s. He’s also got a half written novel lying around. “In the end it’s more satisfying to be the primary creative person than an interpreter,” he says. “So if I can force myself to do that, I will.” Before we sign off, Grant allows himself one more uncharacteristic revelation when he comes close to acknowledging that he’s (almost, sort of ) proud of his recent work. Asked if he agrees that his past few performances are the best of his career, he thinks for a moment. “I find that I’m able to watch them without cringing,” he says. “I think I’ve gotten a bit better. Yeah.”

Photographs by Boo George. Styling by Way Perry. Grooming: Petra Sellge for The Wall Group. Production: Truro Productions. Location: Locket’s London.

For more stories like this, pickup the November issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Oct. 23rd.