The Shady Side of Hugh Grant

He may have made his name as a romantic hero, but on his birthday, we take a moment to remember how good Hugh Grant is at being bad
The Shady Side of Hugh Grant

Hugh Grant, once Hollywood’s favourite floppy-haired romantic hero, has aged well. The actor and activist, who turns 62 this year, has gravitated towards “revolting roles” – his words, not ours — in recent years. This is a welcome development because if his recent performances are any indication, Grant may well be a better on-screen villain than a hero. 

The Notting Hill (1999) actor told the Daily Mail’s Weekend magazine that director Richard Curtis, who also wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), found it laughable that Grant was known to audiences as a nice guy. “That was a real bit of character acting, because that Mr Nice Guy’s never been me,” Grant said. 

Here are some roles that show a different side of Grant as an actor. 

Phoenix Buchanan from Paddington 2 (2017)

For the role of Phoenix Buchanan, the conceited thespian turned thief, Grant drew inspiration from the “middle-aged, rotund old actors with beards and barrel chests and marvellous voices” whom he worked with in his 20s at Nottingham Playhouse. 

When asked if he was deliberately satirizing his public image in the film, Grant said that aside from his home in the movie, which is filled with his pictures that they ferreted out from the internet, he didn't think of the character as himself. “This is an old theater lover; my history is different,” he added. Grant was also asked if there was truth to the stereotype of the self-absorbed actor, to which he said, “I think all actors are narcissists, absolutely. It’s not fashionable to admit it: Everyone has to talk about the craft and it’s about giving and it’s not a competition, it’s like teamwork. But believe me, it’s a fucking competition.” Spoken like a true anti-hero. 

Jeremy Thorpe from A Very English Scandal 

In 1979, British Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe was tried on charges of conspiracy and incitement to murder his former partner Norman Scott, a model. Thorpe was exonerated of all charges, but the scandal put an end to his political career. Grant plays Thorpe in the series A Very English Scandal and he prepared for the role by researching the politician extensively — only to find shades of his character from Paddington 2 in Thorpe. 

“Narcissism, oddly enough, was the key, rather like it was for Phoenix Buchanan,” said Grant in an interview. Curiously, in both Paddington 2 and A Very English Scandal, Grant plays a man who wants to kill Ben Whishaw's character, who played Scott in the series and has voiced Paddington.

Speaking about his portrayal of Thorpe, Grant said, “In many ways, he was a completely despicable human being but it was important to make people kind of like him too. I think you always have to do that and you can’t do it unless you sort of like them yourself. You have to love them like you might love a member of your family, even though you can see they have terrible faults.”

Jonathan Fraser from The Undoing

Based on You Should Have Known (2014) by Jean Hanff Korelitz, the series The Undoing follows Jonathan Fraser (Grant), a pediatric oncologist, husband and father, who is on trial for the murder of his mistress, Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis). Grant revealed that the reason he took up the role was that “it's an infinitely juicier prospect for an actor to be a narcissistic sociopath than just the good doctor husband who shagged the wrong woman and spends six episodes apologizing.” 

The actor’s script was full of notes explaining Jonathan’s thought process, motivations, and the many lies Grant had to keep up with. “It was a strange part in that really, I only got to play the true Jonathan for one scene, which is when I go around and have sex with Elena and then kill her. That's the real unmasked Jonathan. The rest of the time it's all about masks and how many masks he's wearing,” he said.

Fletcher from The Gentlemen (2019)

The Gentlemen follows an American (played by Matthew McConaughey) who wishes to sell his marijuana business in London, which triggers a series of schemes to seize the cartel from him. Grant plays Fletcher, a private investigator who tries to extort money from McConaughey. Written and directed by Guy Ritchie, the film was packed with bad guys with good hearts, but Grant’s Fletcher is one of the more rotten apples. 

When asked which scene was his favourite to film, Grant said, “I don’t remember enjoying anything.” He described being on a film set as tedious and intimidating. “It’s long periods of boredom, dispersed with tiny moments of terror.” Some days, he might go home knowing he performed well, but nevertheless, he thinks, “I’m a miserable human being on a film set. And I spread the misery.”

Predator, traitor, cannibal and more in Cloud Atlas (2012)

While the novel Cloud Atlas is a thing of wonder and brilliance, the film is less of a triumph despite being directed by Lana Wachowski, Tom Twyker and Lilly Wachowski. However, it’s got some memorable moments and characters. Grant has six roles in this film: Reverend Giles Horrox, Hotel Heavy, Lloyd Hooks, Denholme Cavendish, Seer Rhee, and Kona Chief. As Lloyd Hooks, he orders the death of one character. As Denholme Cavendish, he betrays his brother. As Seer Rhee, he’s a predator, and the Kona Chief he plays is a cannibal. Grant’s personal pick of the six is Seer Rhee, who enslaves Korean girls. “To play six small parts, all of them appalling killers and rapists, and some of them 85-year-old men and others Korean slave drivers. I thought maybe they were having a joke at my expense when they asked me to do it,” said Grant, recalling how he’d felt when he was offered the roles by the Wachowskis. 

This story was originally published on September 9th, 2022.

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