Love Actually is all around: An oral history of the rom-com classic
"'Love Actually,' that’s the way it is," says Liam Neeson. "That’s the tapestry of life."
In 1995, Four Weddings and a Funeral lost the Best Original Screenplay Oscar to Pulp Fiction. But that setback only fueled Four Weddings’ writer, British maestro Richard Curtis, to pursue his dream movie. “I was such a great fan of Pulp Fiction, Robert Altman’s films, Woody Allen’s films,” he tells EW. “Those movies with multiple storylines that crisscross each other.” That template hadn’t really been applied to the romantic-comedy genre — until Love Actually.
The movie, with eight intertwined stories, was not a populist slam dunk. In fact, mixed reviews and ho-hum box office in the U.S. meant it took a couple of years (thanks to DVD sales and holiday TV airings) before the film acquired modern rom-com classic status. “I don’t think any of us expected it to become a phenomenon,” says Keira Knightley, one of several actors, along with Bill Nighy, Andrew Lincoln, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who became stars in the film’s wake. “But it took on this wonderful following and now it’s almost bigger in America than anywhere else.”
EW caught up with Curtis and many in his cast for a lovely, lively look back at a movie that its fans know by heart. (For much more on the film’s Red Nose Day reunion, click here. You can see the mini-sequel Red Nose Day Actually on May 25 on NBC.)
At First Sight
RICHARD CURTIS [writer-director]: Two of the stories, the Hugh Grant story and the Colin Firth story, I had started to work on as whole films. But I said, “Wouldn’t it be great to have only the best scenes, instead of having to trudge through the other stuff?” So this was a chance to do the 30 best scenes from ten movies instead of one movie with three good scenes.
LAURA LINNEY [Sarah]: Before filming began, there was a huge table read. Huge. It was like one of those Merrie Melodies cartoons featuring all the famous characters. I was beside-myself happy. “Oh, hello, Hugh Grant. Hi, Emma Thompson. Hi, Liam Neeson. Hi, Alan Rickman. Is that Colin Firth?”
KEIRA KNIGHTLEY [Juliet]: I remember doing the read-through, with everyone sitting around the table. I just wanted to curl up in a ball and die. It was traumatic. I went out in the street and called my mum and said, “This is unbelievable.”
MARTINE McCUTCHEON [Natalie]: I was so nervous at the first read-through. And the wonderful Alan Rickman said to me, “We all are, darling. We’re just acting like we’re not.”
LÚCIA MONIZ [Aurélia]: There was a feeling of you have to see this to believe this. I already knew after reading the script who the cast was. But the day I was sitting there and watching all these people walk into the room, all my heroes and idols and reference points for me in my life, that’s when I realized it was real. I was in awe.
CURTIS: The movie was meant to be a mixture of the not famous and the famous. And now it doesn’t work so well. Keira is so famous. Martin Freeman is on Sherlock. Rodrigo Santoro is on Westworld. Andrew Lincoln is on The Walking Dead. Bill Nighy is everywhere. Chiwetel, of course, my God, did you see him in 12 Years a Slave? Liam Neeson has become the greatest action hero in the world.
LIAM NEESON [Daniel]: I was originally asked to do the Alan Rickman part. Now, of course, I can’t imagine anyone else other than Alan. Ah, he’s so f—ing great in it. But I read it and thought I’d be more suited for the scenes with the kid. I think they’d cast my old friend James Nesbitt in the part but he had a conflict of dates. So since I’d shown interest they ended up letting me play Daniel. I’ve done several films with children and I just love acting with them. I learn so much from them.
CURTIS: It was my first directing go. For [screenwriting projects] Bridget Jones’s Diary and Notting Hill, I’d been on set and I thought I’d be killed by the next director because I was so annoying. I had so many opinions about absolutely everything, so I decided at a certain age it would just be safer for me to direct it myself.
LINNEY: They were originally looking for a full British cast and Richard kept telling his partner Emma [Freud], “To play Sarah, I’m looking for someone like Laura Linney.” And Emma finally said, “Why don’t you just f—ing ask her?”
LINCOLN: I’ve joked that it was really lazy casting by Richard Curtis, because [he and Love Actually‘s producers] all came to see Bill Nighy, Chiwetel, and myself onstage in an incredible play by Joe Penhall called Blue/Orange. It was a huge moment in my career, doing the play with those guys. And so Richard just came to National Theatre to watch the play and then cast all three of us.
COLIN FIRTH [Jamie]: I seem to remember Richard Curtis wondering whether mine and Hugh’s roles should be switched.
CURTIS: Hugh and I had many arguments about him being prime ministerial. He always thought I was making him too sweet, with the dancing and all. I just wanted him not to be a bore.
McCUTCHEON: Hugh has a really naughty sense of humor. Billy Bob Thornton [who played the U.S. president] hates antiques, and Hugh was constantly pointing at pieces that were 500 years old. And Billy Bob was going [in his Southern accent], “Oh my Gahd, Hugh, I dun’t laake this.”
CURTIS: I quite enjoyed knowing that the U.S. president had Angelina Jolie’s name carved on his arm. The most fun thing was that one of Billy Bob’s oddest phobias was towards [British prime minister] Benjamin Disraeli’s facial hair. Obviously, this is the only movie in history where he’d have to walk past a picture of Benjamin Disraili. So I told him, “Bad news, Billy Bob.”
BILL NIGHY [Billy Mack]: When I was young I used to be in a band and I got terribly self-conscious because I thought I had to throw shapes that might suggest I was good in bed or something. Which counted me out. But then I got older and I loved shaking a leg and being a rock idiot because it was so ironic. People are so affectionate about old rockers — and me doing lively gyrations in front of beautiful women was so ironic and so stupid that it was enjoyable.
CURTIS: For the Billy Mack role I had two people in mind, one a famous comedian and the other a famous rock star. I’d seen Bill Nighy a few times onstage and found him not really to my taste. He used to play acidic, left-wing characters and there was something vinegary about him that wouldn’t be right for the film. But then we did a read-though and he got a laugh from every single line. Every single line. And he’s got a huge, big heart. I’ve cast him in everything I’ve directed since.
NIGHY: It turned out that all those years of reading New Musical Express, Rolling Stone, and Melody Maker counted for something. You’re supposed to stop reading NME when you’re 42. I carried on until I was in my late 50s. I used to be able to tell you the bass player in every band on earth. And the second drummer. Billy Mack was familiar to me.
NEESON: Richard did a lot of research by watching his favorite movies. He said to me, “I was just looking at some Woody Allen films and I forgot you were in Husbands and Wives.” I was telling him stories about that.
NIGHY: For one of the music videos, I was naked with nothing except for a guitar and cowboy boots. And while pretending to play the guitar, I would lift it up, exposing a part of me that was not destined for the movie, if you see what I’m saying. The producer Duncan Kenworthy kept yelling, “Down with the guitar!”
NEESON: We were doing our little scene, walking and talking, on the Millennium Bridge. And there was this very pregnant, beautiful woman pushing a pram. She was just a pedestrian on the bridge, she wasn’t an extra. As she passed me she said, “Liam, don’t you remember me?” And I’m thinking, “Was this some night of passion that I’ve forgotten all about?” Anyway, it was Katrine Boorman, who was in my first film Excalibur. I hadn’t seen her since the ’80s but she just happened to be passing. It was so delightful to see her.
McCUTCHEON: I was in love with Hugh Grant ever since I was a teenager when I saw him in Four Weddings. The first scene we ever filmed was actually the airport scene at the end. I said to Hugh, “Please bend your knees and brace yourself when I jump on you. I don’t want to kill you on my first day.”
FIRTH: It was a bit tricky filming in the pond because I think it was only about three feet deep. I’m not sure how Lúcia dived in. To make it seem deep I had to try and sit on the bottom. But my bum kept floating up. The water was pretty foul and I emerged with a mysterious and immense swelling on my elbow. I was driven to the nearest doctor but no one ever figured out what it was. No sensible person would have gone in that water.
For more revelations from the past four decades of entertainment, visit ew.com/untoldstories.
Both Sides Now
Several of the film’s scenes have since become pop culture touchstones, none more so than when Mark (Andrew Lincoln) declares his unrequited love to his best friend’s wife (Keira Knightley) by silently holding up handwritten cards that proclaim his true feelings to her.
ANDREW LINCOLN [Mark]: My big scene with the cards in the doorway felt so easy. I just had to hold cards and be in love with Keira Knightley. It’s why cinema is so pure. It’s like a silent film. That was why I totally got it, even on the script level. But I kept saying to Richard, “Are you sure I’m not going to come off as a creepy stalker?”
CURTIS: Retrospectively, I’m aware that Andrew’s role was on the edge. But I think because Andrew was so openhearted and guileless, we knew we’d get away with it.
LINCOLN: I was screen-tested a lot, and I think it was decided that I looked quite innocent. I didn’t have facial hair or wrinkles back then — and I wasn’t starring on a zombie TV show. I didn’t look as, well, creepy as I do now. Richard’s girlfriend [script editor Emma Freud] came up to me and said, “You realize who you’re playing? You’re Richard.”
CURTIS: Me? You mean, obsessively in love and unable to express it so well? I don’t know about that. [Laughs]
LINCOLN: In one of the most romantic movies of all time, I got to play the only guy who doesn’t get the girl. But it’s set up like a prism looking at all the different qualities of love. Mine was unrequited.
KNIGHTLEY: Oh, Saturday Night Live did a parody of that? I wasn’t aware. I really need to take a look.
In the film’s most heartbreaking scene, Karen (Emma Thompson) discovers on Christmas Eve that a necklace bought by her husband (Alan Rickman) has been given to another woman. She receives a Joni Mitchell CD instead.
CURTIS: See, this is the reason why you hire a brilliant, serious actress for a lighter-tone movie. We shot the scene with Emma weeping in the bedroom nine times, three times at each size: three close-ups, three middle shots, three wide. And she did it perfectly all nine times. We definitely played Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” as we were filming the scene. I was so terrifically moved by that song, especially by the fact that it was written by a 23-year-old yet is so suitable for a woman who’s had the whole of life’s experience. And look at how Emma touches her palms to her face and how she taps the bed. That is all, all, all Emma.
NEESON: Someone recently said to me that Emma and I should have gotten together at the end of the film. And I said, “But she’s my sister! What are you implying?” Then I realized, “Oh, no, she was Hugh Grant’s sister.” It’s been so many years. But yeah, I don’t know, maybe we should have.
LINNEY: Rodrigo [Santoro] and I were both heartbroken at the time we made the film. We’d both recently been through terrible relationships and were bemoaning that moment in our lives. But we both got to make each other feel better all day long. I think you can see it in the scene after I do my Snoopy dance in the doorway: two injured people finding each other.
Time After Time
CURTIS: Love Actually was a relative joy to make but an unbelievably difficult edit. I’ve always described it as three-dimensional chess. In a normal movie, someone comes into the bank, robs it, and then they go away. But in this movie, anything could come after anything. Looking back at Robert Altman’s work, I did watch the first five minutes of Short Cuts and realized how he introduced everybody at the beginning.
NIGHY: After the film’s release, I didn’t have to audition anymore. Any actor will tell you, that was like all my Christmases rolled into one. I’d go to interviews and I couldn’t work out the vibe because suddenly they were persuading me to be things, rather than me pretending not to beg. The audience for Love Actually was big enough for me to play other principal roles in big movies. And some audiences have almost been able to pronounce my name. [The “y” in Nighy is silent.]
McCUTCHEON: I remember Emma Thompson invited me into her trailer to have lunch and she said, “You do know that not all films are like this?” So I kept pinching myself.
NEESON: Thomas [Brodie-Sangster] and I felt like we were the stars of the film. But then Richard left us and made another whole movie with Hugh, with Emma, with Bill Nighy. We realized we were all sharing it.
CURTIS: It was a bit nerve-wracking for me as a first-time director because no actor could get used to me. Just at the point where they might be convinced that I knew what I was doing, then a week later I was gone.
FIRTH: We were on location in the South of France and it was like doing an entirely separate film. It might all have gone downhill from there, for all I know. I recall the whole area where we filmed was a fire risk and we were surrounded by firefighters throughout. I think the house burned down shortly afterwards.
McCUTCHEON: Before Love Actually, my fans felt like I was their friend. I had an accessible kind of fame. But afterwards, I noticed people felt more trepidation about approaching me. That was the effect that the film had. It was so powerful.
MONIZ: It happened to me in London and Toronto. I’d be having lunch with my mother and daughter and someone comes up to us to say hello. They are extremely excited to meet me and ask questions. All because of Love Actually.
LINNEY: But I’ve loved the relationships I made thanks to Love Actually. I just loved it. I had worked with Liam before. Alan Rickman and I became really good friends and he was as much of a mentor in my career as anyone. Colin and I did a movie last year.
NEESON: In the first minute of the film, you see real people in the airport, these lovely anonymous faces, all happy to see each other. And you hear Hugh Grant’s voice saying that on Sept. 11, “all the messages were messages of love.” You’re grabbed immediately by that. Wow. Whenever I’m flicking the channels, I have to watch. I defy anyone to switch off. It has a beautiful arc running through it.
KNIGHTLEY: It’s so beautiful, the idea of loved ones waiting to reconnect. My experience of an airport is normally putting my head down and running out of it as fast as I can.
CURTIS: I had quite a lot of pushback on the 9/11 mention. The usual sensitivity and delicacy, which I obviously didn’t agree with. My favorite stuff in the whole film, actually, is the airport stuff. And it’s not even mine. I gave all the random footage to Emma [Freud, Curtis’ partner] and asked, “Will you just knock that into some kind of shape?” We never changed her editing.
LINCOLN: The one great sadness is obviously Alan not being around. He was one of the great guys in our industry and just a wonderful man. A class act.
NEESON: It’s 14 years ago now and we’ve all lived lives. Some of us have died. Oh, my dear old friend Alan Rickman, God rest him. Some have gotten divorced. I’ve lost my wife. [Natasha Richardson died after a skiing accident in 2009.] And, oh, sure, plenty of times I’ve thought about this film and my own life. Love Actually, that’s the way it is. That’s the tapestry of life.