Hugh Grant is done being the charming leading man: 'I'm quite happy to have that behind me'
The Emmy-nominated actor stars as a wealthy New York doctor with dark secrets in HBO's upcoming thriller The Undoing.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What interested you about The Undoing?
HUGH GRANT: Well, it was very classy. It was a fantastic screenwriter. It was Nicole and it was Susanne Bier. The reason I tortured her for a year was because I genuinely loved her Danish films. I think they’re masterpieces. It was brilliant on paper — there was absolutely no reason why I wouldn’t have signed up within three seconds of reading it. But I’m not like that; I have to try and talk my way out of every job. So I did a bit of that, tortured Susanne a bit more. And then yes, did it, and I’m very glad I did. I’m very proud of it, I’ve seen it now.
How is it possible that you’ve never worked with Nicole Kidman before?
GRANT: It’s true, though you may feel that we worked together on [the] Paddington [movies].
You two have really natural chemistry as Grace and Jonathan.
GRANT: I’m glad you think that. I remember saying to Susanne Bier when I was torturing her, I said, “Here’s a question: Why me?” And she said, “Well, a number of reasons, but you and Nicole — it’s just right.” And I think she’s got good instincts like that. I’m glad that came off. I did know Nicole a bit. I had a dinner with her in the mid-’90s — her and her then-husband [Tom Cruise] and her sister, and me and Elizabeth Hurley and a bunch of other people at the Ivy in London. And what I remember most was that she was very nice, charming, but when she spoke to her sister, she spoke in a secret language. And I said, “Excuse me, are you speaking in a secret language?” And they both said, “Yes.” And it’s weird, it sort of goes “eggy-peggy this, eggy-peggy that,” and they still do it. And then I met her at events over the next, God, 25 years? [laughs] I’ve always liked her, she’s a silly Aussie girl.
Was it easy to develop the chemistry with her?
GRANT: It did feel sort of right. When we were in the room together, I just felt like, we could be married, this is convincing. And it’s very important that in episode one that you think that this isn’t a dead marriage even though they’ve been married for [something like] 15 years… There’s still a bit of spark there, they quite like each other, they like each other’s jokes. They still have sex. That’s all quite hard to do in one episode without getting nauseating. There was a lot of debate about that, but I remember thinking, “This kind of works with Nicole.”
What was the first question you asked Susanne about Jonathan?
GRANT: For me, the thing is, I was extremely interested in the character from the end of episode 2 through to the end. But I was a little anxious about him in episode 1 because I thought, “This is just a charming, too-good-to-be-true child cancer doctor.” And I feel like that part of my career, where I’m the charming leading man, I’m quite happy to have that behind me, and I’ve been doing these much more character-y roles recently, and enjoying them, and they seem to work quite well. And I didn’t want to go back to sort of just doing a version of Hugh Grant. So I was trying to find a character, really. I needed to find a very specific guy to be, not just “dreamboat.”
That was my big source of debate and in fact argument with Susanne. I came up with a whole backstory involving an uncle who’d been a sort of black sheep of the family who I revered and who lived in Paris, and I’d had quite a pretentious past at the Sorbonne University and I like French philosophy and I wanted to dress like that and I wanted to have long hair. And [Susanne] very cunningly nodded along and said, “Yes, that’s all marvelous, that’s marvelous, that’s marvelous.” And then about two days before we actually started shooting, she threw it all out the window. All these costumes with scarves and things. So I had to play it much more lightly characterized, but with lots of inner stuff.
Actors are notorious for showing up on day one of a rehearsal going, “I think he smokes a pipe. I think he has crutches. I think he has a beard.” And very often by the time you get to opening night, they’ve lost the crutches and the beard or whatever it is, and the pipe, and that’s sort of what happened here.
Jonathan is a beloved guy whose mistakes play out in the public arena. It’s hard not to notice some parallels to your own life.
GRANT: I’m not sure I thought too much about that, my own parallels. I was more interested in him as a person. The fact is, I’m very drawn to characters where two or three or five or six people live in one human being. I’ve always thought that was much truer than trying to find the one essence of this person, because we change according to circumstance and environment, who we’re talking too, mood. My wife has 20 personalities, and they’re quite extremely different, and I think that’s very interesting. And I think that’s the case with Jonathan.
Donald Sutherland is amazing as Grace’s dad, Franklin. Is he as intimidating in person as he comes across on screen?
GRANT: [Laughs] I was intimidated also, he’s an icon. I was a little frightened. But I have to say, he’s profoundly silly in real life. And [he has] an absolutely schoolboy sense of humor, and we emailed each other disgusting schoolboy jokes the whole time. He’s not frightening in real life, but on a set, when you’re acting, yeah, he’s incredibly talented, but you can also see the 1960s, 1970s film star coming on. He’s quite old-school like that. It’s hard to describe. He certainly knows how to command the scene, and is quite determined to do so.
There are some very emotional scenes between you and Noah Jupe, who plays Henry. In retrospect, do you think it would be harder to play those scenes effectively if you weren’t a father yourself?
GRANT: It was extremely useful to me, having children — and the fact that I was filming all this in New York while all my family were in London. Although every time I left London to go do another stint of filming in New York, I felt joy that I was being released from toys under my feet and nappies and screaming, I was intensely sad by the time I reached New York, and lonely and homesick. That was really useful for the parts of this film where I’m separated from my son. I kept weeping in scenes — I’m not sure they even kept all the weeping, there’s probably too much.
You've said working with Susanne Bier was “surprisingly scary.” What surprised you most about the way she works?
GRANT: She takes no prisoners at all. Talk about bedside manner — she has some in preproduction and postproduction, but not a lot on set. [laughs] I know, because I’m married to a Scandinavian, that part of that his just Scandinavian bluntness: “Yes. No. Do this. Do that.” But I’m accustomed to a more English way of directing, where you say, “Wonderful, my darling. It was just superb, I think we’ve got it unless you want to try anything different.” She is much more curt and direct in her instructions, not just to actors, but to crew and everything like that.
To me, she’s a proper filmmaker and that’s what I perhaps like most about this series: It’s a piece of American television written by maybe the most distinguished American TV writer, given a very European spin. It’s a bit like when Polanski did Rosemary’s Baby — it’s a very American script, very Polish, twisted vision. She’s taken this very American story and made it into a piece of cinema, a sort of wonderful Scandi-noir. And I love that, I love the music she’s put on it, I’ve put the rhythm of it, I love the photography.
Do you enjoy shooting in New York?
I do. My brother lives there, which is cozy. He’s around the corner from where I always stay. For some reason I’ve ended up making literally seven films in New York, I think. I’m very fond of the city, I’m very fond of the hotel where I’ve stayed since 1994, and where the room service people hug me when they bring me my spaghetti bolognese. I love all that. It is one of the great cities of the world. If I didn’t live in London, I’d live in New York.
Limited series on HBO, especially ones with Nicole Kidman, sometimes have a season 2. Would you be up for that?
GRANT: It’s never been a thought of mine. I prefer a one-off thing. Not that I don’t love this, but it would feel a bit like getting back into wet swimming trunks.
The Undoing premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO. You can see more with Grant and his costars as part of the PaleyFest NY 2020 panel.