By Sara Vilkomerson
Updated August 11, 2016 at 12:09 PM EDT
Credit: MARCO GROB for EW

Hugh Grant returns triumphantly to the big screen with Florence Foster Jenkins, which arrives in theaters this Friday. With the exception of smaller parts in films such as 2012’s Cloud Atlas and last year’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Grant had been relishing time away from the spotlight, caring for the four children he’s had since 2011, and becoming the face of the Hacked Off campaign in Britain, launched in the wake of 2011’s ­massive phone-hacking scandal. “I was enjoying having a break and doing something else,” he tells EW. “Life is long. I think to do the same job for 50 years is slightly odd. I have other priorities, other interests. After all these years it’s quite nice to have something that has nothing to do with make-believe.”

His reluctance to act surely comes in part from the anxiety that arises when he’s in front of the camera. “I have this absurd syndrome where I get these out-of-the-blue pathetic panic attacks,” Grant says. “It’ll be in a very easy, simple scene when everything is going swimmingly, and then suddenly, bang, I’m shvitzing and can’t remember my lines.”

These episodes began during 1999’s Notting Hill, and nothing he’s tried — therapy, herbal pills, running in the morning — has stopped them. “At one stage I was asking directors not to say ‘Action’ because I found that the word sent me into paroxysms of terror,” Grant says. “Frankly, I think I’m marvelous in rehearsal! Then you turn the ­camera on, and it gets stiff and tight. And then you trudge back to your trailer feeling sad. That’s been my experience of film acting.”

Those who know him are quick to point out that Grant is his own harshest critic. “He is very hard on himself,” his Florence Foster Jenkins costar, Meryl Streep, says via email. “Deft as he is, he wants it to be perfect.” Another co-star, Simon Helberg, says: “He cares so tremendously about the film and he worries about it a lot. Because he’s a perfectionist. He is always so incredibly prepared.”

Chris Weitz, who directed 2002’s About a Boy with his brother Paul, describes Grant as one of the most intelligent actors he’s ever worked with. “I remember seeing his script once, and it was filled with notes about what he intended to do — there were all the things that you’d expect from the most technically prepared, proficient dramatic actor,” Weitz says. “These elements of timing and nuance that seem so hard to put your finger on when you’re talking about a comedy are actually part of a highly developed set of skills.”

For more on Hugh Grant and Florence Foster Jenkins, pick up Entertainment Weekly’s Fall Movie Preview, on newsstands Friday — and subscribe now for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

Florence Foster Jenkins

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 110 minutes
  • Stephen Frears