Hugh Grant (‘Paddington 2,’ ‘A Very English Scandal’): ‘I have more to offer’ as a character actor [Complete Interview Transcript]

Hugh Grant is having a banner year between his scene-stealing role as the villainous Phoenix Buchanan in “Paddington 2” and the infamous Jeremy Thorpe in “A Very English Scandal.” Both are eligible at several 2018 awards ceremonies. Just two years ago, he was nominated at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards for “Florence Foster Jenkins.”.

Grant recently spoke with Gold Derby managing editor Chris Beachum for a video chat about his roles in “Paddington 2” and “A Very English Scandal,” why he likes doing character work, and his first award show memory. Watch the full video convo above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: Hugh, you’ve got two projects that are gonna be eligible at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards this year, one on the TV side, one on the movie side. Let’s talk about “Paddington 2″ first. When you took that role, a very comic villain kind of a role, you then got in at BAFTA this past year. Tell us about getting that news that it was a BAFTA-nominated role.

Hugh Grant: That was a huge surprise and a treat, not just for me but for everyone involved with “Paddington,” really, because “Paddington 2” is not a classic awards-type film. It’s a kids film, it’s a sequel, it’s semi-animated. It’s not the sort of normal Oscar bait or BAFTA bait type of films. It was really nice of BAFTAs to come up with a nomination like that.

GD: Well the reason it’s eligible here is it came out in England in December of last year, falling into that cycle and it came out in January in America, so that’s why you’re eligible now on the cycles over here. Tell us about just why you want to accept that role. You get to play an actor who was very famous and now does commercials. Were there any particular actors in mind that you were impersonating a little bit?

HG: When I got the script it came with a covering letter from the producers and director saying, “We’re doing a sequel to ‘Paddington’ and there’s a part in it for a washed-up narcissistic actor and we thought of you.” (Laughs.) So it was hurtful. It was very funny and very clever and rather moving. That’s the strange thing about “Paddington.” It’s moving. I’d go so far, I may sound ridiculous, is to say it’s kind of important, because the whole philosophy of “Paddington,” of the original books, is that he’s an outsider, he’s an alien from Peru who comes to London and some people like Mr. Brown want to keep him at arm’s length, but in fact he’s welcomed. So there’s something in “Paddington” to be said about welcoming strangers, refugees, aliens, which is sort of pertinent in these political times. And also Paddington, he’s been taught by Aunt Lucy to always see the positive in everyone, see the good in everyone. That sounds like it could be sugary and repulsive but is strangely un-repulsive. It’s rather lovely in the film. Anyway, I’m the baddie and I see the bad in everyone, of course. I’m nevertheless touched by the positive ethos of it.

GD: Just the full-scale production of that with your costumes, the production design, so much involved in that particular movie. What did you think when you saw it all put together?

HG: What I had not realized when I signed on is quite how successful the first one had been, so there was a load of money on the second film.

GD: This is one of the most beloved franchises now in England, right?

HG: Absolutely, and in fact, I think internationally. There was a lot of money floating around for the second one, which you need. The bear himself created in a computer I believe cost something like $20 million, just to do that, but it is brilliant. It’s so realistic and my 90-year-old father at the premiere did turn to me halfway through the film and said, “Is that a real bear?” (Laughs.) It was a big production. What’s extraordinary about Paul King, who directed it, he’s a proper cinephile. He’s seen everything. It’s a bit like if you’ve seen interviews with Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese, they’re always quoting other films, film references everywhere. There’s lots of references and homages in their work, and Paul King’s like this. Even though he’s making a sequel to a kids film, it’s very cinematic. Every shot is very carefully designed, very creative, very inventive. I say to this day, I think “Paddington 2″ is a bit of a masterpiece. It is, as you probably know, best reviewed film in terms of Rotten Tomatoes.

GD: Was there a Hugh Grant movie that he referenced at any given point? “Remember this when you did this in this movie?”

HG: (Laughs.) No, not really. In the end, the character is unlike me because he’s from the theater and he’s a big theatrical luvvie as we call it in London. I created him out of scraps of old actors that I’ve worked with in my ‘20s in the provincial theater in England. He wasn’t really me.

GD: And speaking of the end you get the big musical number. Musicals are making a little bit of a comeback in the film world. Has anybody approached you about starring in some big movie musical?

HG: Shockingly, they haven’t (laughs).

GD: That’s a fun scene, though. Was that fun or difficult in terms of your part of it?

HG: It was horrendously difficult because it was actually my first scene in the film, the first one I shot, even though it comes right at the end of the film. For a 56-year-old guy to suddenly have to be prancing around in pink spandex up and down stairs with umbrellas twirling and doing tap dancing, it was a challenge, particularly amongst professional dancers. But I have a strange part of me that likes it. I danced in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” I’ve danced in other films. The older I get, the more that I’m slightly drawn to it. And it’s also touching how we go to all these lengths and tear our hair out to move people with drama or make them laugh with comedy. To sing and dance well, beautifully choreographed, and you’re giving people pleasure that’s as deep if not deeper than either drama or comedy. So I think it’s ripe for a comeback.

GD: That scene, it’s been out a while, so I’m gonna say spoiler alert, but it’s set in the prison and to tie this all together, you have a couple of jail scenes in the other project we wanna talk about, which is “A Very English Scandal.” I didn’t know much about this story and I’m not sure if Americans did, the story of Jeremy Thorpe, who you play, starting in the ‘60s. What level of knowledge is this scandal in England? Is it very, very familiar?

HG: Well, to anyone over the age of 50, you definitely remember it, ‘cause it was huge in the late ‘70s. I was in my late teens, at the time I was in school, and it was just everything in the news. It was pure pleasure. It was a Monty Python type farce, establishment figure in his beautiful suits, gone to the right schools, he knew everyone from the queen to the archbishop of Canterbury, and yet, he turned out to have secret gay lovers, to have organized an incredibly amateurish hit on his ex-lover, and then we got the gory details of everything they’d gotten up to from the ex-lover, and so it was all voyeuristic joy for the British nation, and a source of great merriment and many jokes.

GD: As I watched it, somebody asked me to quantify it in terms of what is it. I don’t know. It’s a drama, it’s got some comedy in it, it’s farcical at times, it’s a murder mystery. The music really makes you feel like it’s a murder mystery from the ‘60s. How would you categorize it?

HG: I agree. Part of the pleasure of it, part of the reason I wanted to to do it is because it walks this very fine line between genre and comedy, really. I would describe it as a black comedy. The writer, Russell Davies, who did the screen adaptation, he’s famous for that. He’s the guy with the new “Doctor Who” and everything. He’s our best TV writer. He can just see the kind of fun side of any scene, even if it’s about murder, and sort of rejoices in the grotesque shapes that human beings twist themselves into, with our prejudices. You’re right, it’s hard to describe and I’m doing rather a bad job.

GD: Well for people that don’t know, it’s basically a three-hour limited series for Amazon and you’ve very rarely done television other than a little bit early in your career. Was Stephen Frears one of the biggest attractions for doing it?

HG: Yeah, I had done “Florence Foster Jenkins” with Stephen Frears and then we were having dinner one night and he said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m gonna do this thing,” and he said, “Oh no, don’t do that. I’ve got something else for you,” and then sent me these scripts. And I thought, “Scripts instead of script? Is this television? I don’t do television.” I was very snobby. And then they were perfect. They just were perfect. They were funny, they were sad, it was a brilliant character, it was a part of history that I had remembered relishing and wanted to relish again, fantastic screenwriter, Ben Whishaw, Stephen Frears. It was a very easy thing to say yes to.

GD: Ben, oddly enough, I watched “Paddington 2” this past week and then watched “A Very English Scandal” and all I could hear when Ben was onscreen was Paddington, even though he was playing a very different character. You’ve worked with him now, I guess you didn’t work with him necessarily when he did the voiceover on “Paddington” but obviously you worked with him on “English Scandal.” Just talk about him a little bit and working with him.

HG: It’s weird, I have effectively spent the last two or three years trying to rape or kill Ben Whishaw in one form or another. And prior to that he played my wife in “Cloud Atlas,” in one of those little vignettes. What could I tell you? He is a brilliant actor. I think he’s the best British actor of his generation, really, and he could sort of do anything. He lifts your game.

GD: What was the reaction in England when this aired, the three-hour limited series?

HG: It was fantastic. Having not had anything on television since the early ‘90s, it was a new experience for me, especially because of social media. It came out on a Sunday night, it was BBC in England, it was made by BBC, and came out at 9 o’clock and you go on Twitter and put in “A Very English Scandal” and in live time comes up the nation’s reaction to this thing, and it was really phenomenal, I have to say. It was a lovely thing, one of the nicest things in my life. It just went absolutely stratospheric. The reviews were lovely. It’s just nice to know one can go to one’s grave really proud of something.

GD: Did the public feel like you got it right in terms of the story?

HG: Yes, I think they did, but more than that, they were entertained. I’m big on that. I sometimes think there’s a danger of especially acting becoming a sort of therapy or masturbatory in some way. I think it has to be part of entertaining people. That’s where it began and that’s where I think it belongs.

GD: Back to “Paddington” for a second, I meant to ask you on that section, we were talking about this earlier, your role feels like something, because your character in disguise several times, it felt like to me that 40, 50 years ago this could’ve been something, I hope this is a huge compliment, that Alec Guinness or Peter Sellers might’ve played. You felt like to me somebody as an actor that was following their footsteps.

HG: There could be no higher praise. That’s very nice of you.

GD: Movies where they played multiple characters, I guess.

HG: The multiple characters thing, yes. But also just character acting. It’s funny. It’s taken me all these years to get back to it ‘cause it’s really where I started. I used to have a comedy show in London in the theater where we just did characters, silly characters, imitations, things like that. And then for one reason or another, I got drawn into being leading man, which is all very well and I’m grateful and I made some successful films like that, but I feel like I have more to offer when it’s creating more of a character, something further away from myself.

GD: When I talked to you two years ago, I already asked you about your Golden Globe year where you won for “Four Weddings,” which I think is still one of the greatest speeches ever at the Golden Globes, funny and touching and everything else. Because we’re an awards website, I won’t follow that particular line, but what was your first big award show? What was the first award show that you went to?

HG: That one.

GD: That was the first big one?

HG: Yes, yes, yes.

GD: That’s a TV and movie night, and it’s a big party, too. It’s not like a typical award show where you’re in a stuffy seat all night. Were there any particular memories of people you met that night, heroes or people that you ran across their path?

HG: Everything was new to me in those days, the whole of Hollywood, America was new to me. It was just after “Four Weddings” had come out so suddenly I’m in L.A. at the Golden Globes. Golden Globes was a slightly different beast in 1994 or 5 whenever that was, because it was still on TNT and it just wasn’t so gigantic. It hadn’t become almost as big as the Oscars like it is now in terms of TV coverage. But I remember being surprised by how seriously everyone took it. People say, “The Golden Globes is really fun.” Maybe, but I tell you, the studios, they take it really, really seriously, as you doubtless know. I remember sitting down after I’d won and the guy from PolyGram saying, “That’s a lock. That’s a lock on the Oscars.” And I didn’t even know what a lock was. It was an American parlance. He was wrong, as it happens (laughs). It was fierce competition in that room, I remember that. And the embarrassment one feels, because the other nominees were brilliant, people like John Travolta from “Pulp Fiction.” There’s no part of me that thought I’d given a better performance than John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, but it was very nice nevertheless, of the Hollywood Foreign Press to have given me that award.

GD: Well you’ve got two more chances. We think you might be there for both this time. It’s rare for somebody to have two on the same night, but you might well do it this time.

HG: You’re very nice.

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