This story originally appeared in the Movies & Limited Series issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
In a recent sketch, James Corden impersonated Hugh Grant in moments from three separate classic romantic comedies. Corden threw on a messy brown wig and did identical impressions of a sheepish, stammering leading man in riffs on “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”
But in 2019, that Hugh Grant is gone, replaced by a sly but still smirking gentleman. Grant’s performance in “A Very English Scandal” may momentarily remind you of the innate likability we’ve seen in Grant’s rom-coms. But what’s new is the imposing physicality and sinister, even villainous side he unlocks. And Grant is enjoying playing the bad guy for a change.
“I don’t get offered romantic comedies anymore,” Grant said. “And thank God. I’m too old. And it’s lovely to be doing some different stuff. I never particularly wanted or thought I was good at being a ‘leading man.'”
In “A Very English Scandal,” Grant plays Jeremy Thorpe, the real-life former leader of Britain’s liberal party, who was steps away from becoming prime minister when he became embroiled in a plot to assassinate his former lover, Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw). Director Stephen Frears delicately handles the material with an equal amount of political satire and genre thrills. Grant said the miniseries captures the saga he remembers from his youth in the late 1970s, when newspapers and particularly the tabloid Private Eye covered Thorpe’s very public trial as a big joke.
“Join the Liberal Party and widen your circle,” Grant recalled from his teenage years. “It was all schoolboy stuff, and we were schoolboys, so we thoroughly enjoyed it.”
“A Very English Scandal” leans on Grant’s two-faced charisma, comic timing and wickedness to strike that perfect tone. In an interview, Grant darkened his accent and arched his back to illustrate the “sallow, jowly” side of a middle-aged Thorpe, flicking his tongue against the inside of his cheek with evidently cruel intentions.
“You would see his tongue, his lips, enjoying every single syllable,” Grant said. “He had been raised as mommy’s special boy with a great sense of entitlement, and if anything went against it, like this ridiculous homosexual trying to ruin his life, then he was capable of becoming incredibly vicious, like a spoiled child.”
While Grant is best known for his rom-coms, the role flashes back to some of his earlier work. Shortly after filming “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” Grant played what he called a “decayed, poisonous theater director” in “An Awfully Big Adventure.” But when “Four Weddings” became an international hit, his path as the nice guy leading man was set.
Then around 2006-07, Grant said he grew “bored” of the rom-com roles and stopped returning his agent’s calls. “When I did get persuaded to come back, I made a romantic comedy that was a gigantic turkey,” he said, referencing the 2009 Sarah Jessica Parker movie “Did You Hear About The Morgans?,” “at which point it wasn’t just me turning my back on Hollywood, Hollywood didn’t want me anymore. And I couldn’t have blamed them.”
By 2014, Grant said he was happily “drifting off into obscurity,” and he credits Frears for inspiring him again. The two worked together on the 2016 biopic “Florence Foster Jenkins,” for which he earned a Golden Globe nomination, and he was just as amazed to get the call for “A Very English Scandal.”
“I used to think he must despise me because he makes all these important prize-winning arthouse films and I make these highly commercial romantic comedies,” Grant said of Frears, whose movies include “High Fidelity,” “The Queen” and “Philomena.” “But he was always very generous and nice and said, ‘I think you’re very good. Let’s make a film.’ I always thought it was bulls—. Then it turned out it wasn’t.”
“Scandal” is not the only project featuring a very different Grant. He played an equally preposterous and narcissistic villain in “Paddington 2,” and he’s currently shooting another TV miniseries called “The Undoing” alongside Nicole Kidman for HBO. After that he’s starring opposite another recent Renaissance man, Matthew McConaughey, in Guy Ritchie’s “The Gentlemen.”
So after turning his back on rom-coms, is Grant ready to win Hollywood back?
“No, Christ no,” he said through his trademark smile. “I’m just happy I’m in some interesting stuff. I sometimes say to myself, ‘What’s going on here?’ I seem to be better than I was. And I don’t know if it’s just the parts or if I’ve gotten better or if something else has happened.”
Read more from the Movies & Limited Series issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.