British actor Hugh Grant is best known for a bevy of romantic comedies from the 1990s and 2000s, including Notting Hill and Love Actually. More recently, he’s ventured into drama with roles in Florence Foster Jenkins and A Very English Scandal. He takes on his most serious part yet in The Undoing, the popular HBO limited series that earned him his second career Emmy nomination.
We had the chance to dive deep with Grant about his portrayal of Dr. Jonathan Fraser (beware major spoilers for The Undoing) and revisit his past roles. He also revealed who his most surprising fan is, and it’s no one you would expect.
Abe Friedtanzer: Congratulations on your Emmy nomination!
Hugh Grant: Yeah, that’s really nice of you. Thank you.
AF: What did you know about The Undoing before joining it, and had you read the book?
HG: I had not read the book. I knew nothing, and then suddenly this thing appeared and seemed unrejectable. Even before I read it, it had such a good pedigree with Nicole and Susanne Bier and David Kelley. And I realized I was going to have to do it, because I like to turn down jobs if I possibly can. But then I read it and it was fascinating and gripping. Although I think I was only sent two episodes of the six, so I did just need to know what happened next, in particular, was I in fact a psychopath or not. I was very determined that I should be, and I was promised that I was.
AF: So what was it about the role that really appealed to you?
HG: Look, any actor likes being evil and highly complex and duplicitous. It fits acting, really. Acting is duplicity, isn’t it? I think audiences are for some reason naturally drawn, hypnotized by evil. There’s a part of every actor that wants eyes on them. So yes, it was an absolute dream of a role, really. Though not without its problems. To make the whodunit element of all five and a half episodes work, I needed to be convincingly innocent while still being true to my character, who was in fact guilty. So actors have to be true to that character. And really that’s a hard thing to do when you’re lying the whole time. But I think that Jonathan was such an adept liar. He was one of those psychopaths who’s just such a damn good performer. Where they believe their own lies, they believe their own fantasies. And so that’s the way I tried to do it. He’s a genius at this. When he’s talking about his young sister who ran out into the road and got killed and how much it hurt him. At that moment of telling Nicole, Grace, that, I think he really does find it upsetting. But, of course, it’s all a lie. And I think we’ve met these psychopaths in life, the ones who believe their own lies, and they’re particularly terrifying.
AF: This role actually reminded me a lot of your last big TV role in A Very English Scandal. Obviously, it’s a different tone and different kind of attitude, but the same idea of somebody who is very masterfully in control of the situation but puts on a different facade. Do you see a link between those two parts?
HG: Yes, and that’s not the only link. I think also the narcissism is a link. Jeremy Thorpe in A Very English Scandal came from a privileged, entitled background and really felt that the world owed him success, glamor, attention. I think that Jonathan is a similar beast. I always thought he came from a background, a childhood and adolescence where he was just the wunderkind. He was never going to give up the idea that he was the golden boy, even after murdering someone. It was simply not possible for Jonathan Fraser to murder someone because he was too golden. So they share that level of deluded entitlement.
AF: This is not the kind of part a lot of people know you from. You’ve played the romantic comedy lead in a lot of things, and you also recently starred in Florence Foster Jenkins and as a different kind of villain in Paddington 2. Do you yearn to return to some of your romantic comedy roots? Or do you like taking on these much more dramatic parts?
HG: Well, I’m proud of those romantic comedies. Occasionally, one flashes up on the TV screen late at night when I’ve had a few drinks. I’ve watched some of them and actually quite like them, I have to say, I’m proud of them. And people do like them. But no, it’s a blessed relief now to have them in my past and to be doing other stuff. I did so many romantic comedies, I sort of lost faith that I could do other stuff. I wasn’t entirely sure when I started this new chapter of my career whether it would be a success or failure, but it’s gone all right so far.
AF: From all those romantic comedies, do you have a favorite that sticks out in your mind?
HG: Let’s see now. Well, I do. I’m very fond of Music and Lyrics, actually, in which I play the washed-up eighties pop star. What was I called? I can’t remember. I think that film has a lot of charm.
AF: I agree. And you’ll be happy to know, I actually saw that on a date in college.
HG: Is that right?
AF: It didn’t work out, but a perfectly pleasant time. So that’s funny that you say that one.
HG: Do you know who really loves those Mark Lawrence romantic comedies that I did? The most surprising person in the world. It’s Quentin Tarantino. I met him as a party in London and he just was effusive. He said, man, I love those films and he could rattle off all the titles and tell me which one he liked best and which one he liked least. I think it was Music and Lyrics that he said he’d been watching on a plane from New York to LA and then they landed when the film was half through, so he went straight to the DVD store to buy the DVD. It was hard to believe, but anyway, he said it.
AF: That was not who I expected you were going to say. I think anybody else in the world.
HG: I agree.
AF: Getting back to The Undoing, can you talk about working with some of your castmates, particularly Noah and Matilda?
HG: Noah is a flat-out genius. He’s going to be one of the great actors of the world very shortly. He’s incapable of delivering a false note and a brilliant chameleon. This is a guy from Manchester, England who played this New York kid completely convincingly. He’s a genius. And, Matilda, I felt sorry for her. She’s a big Italian star. Almost in the 1960s tradition of Italian stars. She’s pure on-screen sex combined with a tremendous acting ability. A very clever piece of casting, I think, by Susanne. But I did feel sorry for her. Her first day on an American film set. I think it was her first day in America. She had to be first of all kissed and then murdered by a fat, English fifty-eight-year-old. She smoked a lot of cigarettes that day, and I don’t blame her.
AF: And what about Nicole Kidman? What was it like to act opposite her in this role?
HG: It was terrifying as a prospect. It was like the build-up to Florence Foster Jenkins, when I knew I was going to have to go up against Meryl Streep. But in both cases, one of the nice things about acting with someone that brilliant is that they make you better. It’s exactly like playing tennis with someone much better than yourself, your game comes up. So I really owe anything that was halfway decent with my performance in The Undoing to Nicole.
AF: I read that this show had a huge launch in the UK, attracting even more viewers than Game of Thrones. What does that feel like, and is it nice to be celebrated at home like that?
HG: Very nice. Very nice. Also a huge relief. What one dreads most in life is humiliation, isn’t it? But no, that was brilliant that they loved it. And then paranoia set in because I’m not really accustomed to TV that much and with films, you don’t get the chance to watch what people are thinking as it’s being shown, but on TV, you can. You can go on Twitter and there’s everyone giving their opinions, which is an extremely frightening process. But irresistible.
AF: Were there any surprising opinions you got, either from random people on Twitter or from family or friends about what you did with this role?
HG: I don’t know about surprising. There’s quite a lot of nice stuff. But I skip through those and go straight to the haters. I don’t know why.
AF: What about fan theories, were there any that stood out to you?
HG: Well, I always enjoyed the theories about who had committed the crime. My favorite theory was that it was my mother, who you may remember, she appears for about five minutes on a FaceTime call with Nicole. So that was a brilliant theory. I know that.
AF: My in-laws thought it was your son. That was their running theory up until like the end.
HG: Okay. Well good, good.
AF: So, what’s next for you?
HG: Well, this year, I’ve made two films. I’ve made one in Turkey, another Guy Ritchie film, you know, The Gentlemen was the last one I did, and before that, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. This one doesn’t have a title, because he likes to change the title every day. Hopefully, it’ll be fun. It’s a spy film. And then I’m just finishing up now Dungeons & Dragons, which we’re making in Northern Ireland, which is a great big special effects bonanza, but also very funny. The reason I’m doing it really is because the script made me laugh so much. It was like Monty Python. And I think it might be quite entertaining.
AF: I’m sure it will be. I really appreciate you speaking with me today. It’s been very nice to meet you and I wish you luck at the Emmys and the future of your career.
HG: Thanks so much. Nice to meet you.
Hugh Grant is Emmy-nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited or Anthology Series of Movie for The Undoing.
Photo: Niko Tavernise/HBO