No More Mr. Nice Guy: Hugh Grant Embraces The 'Blessed Relief' Of Darker Roles
On the HBO series The Undoing, Hugh Grant stars opposite Nicole Kidman as a pediatric oncologist named Jonathan who seems, upon first glance, to be the perfect husband. Grant talks about going from playing rom-coms to darker roles.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Hugh Grant, is famous as an actor. But he's also known in England for his role in exposing how tabloids hacked the phones of celebrities and other people in the news. He also worked on the campaign to prevent England from leaving the European Union. He became famous for his romantic comedies, starting with his breakthrough role in the 1994 film "Four Weddings And A Funeral," for which he won a Golden Globe.
He also starred in "Bridget Jones's Diary," "About A Boy," "Love Actually," "Music And Lyrics" and "Florence Foster Jenkins." In the miniseries "A Very English Scandal," he played Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the British Labour Party who lost his power after a scandal involving his affair with a young man that led to blackmail and charges of conspiracy to murder. In "Paddington 2," which starred an animated bear, Grant played the villain.
Even some of his darker characters get on by charm and wit. The charm and wit erode pretty quickly in the HBO miniseries "The Undoing," which just concluded. That's not a spoiler, but the next few minutes will have spoilers. So if that's a problem for you, tune back in about nine minutes. We'll talk about many other things after that. When the first episode of "The Undoing" begins, Grant's character, Jonathan, and his wife, played by Nicole Kidman, are a privileged, attractive, wealthy couple. He's a pediatric oncologist. She's a psychotherapist who does couples counseling. They're sending their son to an expensive private school.
After Elena, the mother of one of Jonathan's young patients, is murdered, Jonathan is charged with the crime. He was having an affair with her. We learn that he has a surprisingly dark side. But that doesn't necessarily mean he's a murderer. The case becomes a big media story, which is working against Jonathan. His lawyer suggests that he goes on TV to get people to see him as a flawed person, but not a killer. Here he is being interviewed on TV by Connie Chung while his wife and son watch at home. Chung asked Jonathan what he wants people to see about him. Here's his response.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE UNDOING")
HUGH GRANT: (As Jonathan) I suppose the answer to your question is the truth, which is to say that I'm flawed. I do not pass myself off as honorable because I'm not. I was unfaithful to a wife who I love. I hurt her. I hurt my son. Both those things are unforgivable.
CONNIE CHUNG: (As self) You do admit that you're a cheater. But are you a killer? Did you kill Elena.
GRANT: (As Jonathan) That I'm not guilty of.
CHUNG: (As self) Well, let's take your version of events. You say you suddenly came upon her. You discovered her dead. But why did you run?
GRANT: (As Jonathan) Because I was in shock. And I mean that in the medical sense, so that's a cognitive shutdown. It's like a very extreme form of panic.
CHUNG: (As self) Innocent people do not flee.
GRANT: (As Jonathan) Well, I didn't feel at all like an innocent man. I was guilty of infidelity. And I felt pretty certain that I was the cause of her death, which is not to say that she died at my hand. But I felt it was possible, probably, even that someone else, in a fit of jealousy or rage - let's not forget that - sorry.
CHUNG: (As self) Go ahead. Go ahead. Let's not forget what?
GRANT: (As Jonathan, crying) That in all of this, I lost someone I love.
GROSS: Hugh Grant, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for coming.
GRANT: Yeah, well, thanks for having me.
GROSS: So you're so charming in the beginning of this series. Even when you're being condescending, like, you're charming. And you're an oncologist who saves children's lives. We have no reason to distrust you until you become the prime suspect in this murder. We're so used to you as an actor channeling, like, your charming side. You've been playing darker roles lately, including this one. Do you feel it's bringing out something different in you as an actor and that you have to draw on something different as an actor?
GRANT: Yes. It's (laughter) maybe my true self. I mean, (laughter) it's alarming how many pretty unpleasant narcissists I've played (laughter) or been offered in the last six or seven years. I'm not sure what that says about me. But it's certainly been a blessed relief after having to be Mr. Nice Guy for so many years, which is a thankless task for any actor. And any actor will tell you that.
GROSS: You know, we don't know until the final episode whether your character is really a sociopathic killer or not. And with each episode, you start to doubt him more. You start doubting his version of the truth more, but you don't really know. And, I mean, the truth is, usually, in stories like this, the person who you think is guilty isn't. And then there's a surprise. Somebody else did it, somebody you didn't suspect (laughter). And there's a couple of opportunities where you think, oh, that's going to be the case. It's going to be this person who I didn't suspect. But your character really is the killer in this. So actors often like to do research. It's not like you were going to hang around with sociopathic murderers to see what's it like to be one (laughter). So what were you able to draw on to figure out the psychology of the character and the behavior?
GRANT: Well, I've - I'm pretty good on narcissists because there's plenty in my business.
GRANT: I've also spent a good deal of the last decade surprisingly close to politicians. They rival anyone I know in showbusiness for narcissism. So I've seen a lot of that stuff up close. And then, the bit I didn't know a lot about was doctors and at what point their marvelous abilities to cure can curdle them into something a little creepier, where the ego starts to take over. It's more about I'm such a wonderful doctor, and I don't - you know, I'm not sure I really care if this person lives or dies as long as I can test my new theory and then, you know, win another prize or get another chair of some teaching hospital or whatever. And so I researched that a bit.
I talked to a lot of doctors in the U.K. and then in New York. And they were all much too nice (laughter). They are lovely people who I keep in touch with to this day. And then, finally, I found one who wasn't an oncologist at all. He worked in another field. And my brother, who lives in Manhattan, and his wife had said, you need to meet this guy because he's so - he's the one that all the ladies want to go to for their knee operation even when there's nothing wrong with their knee. So I went to see him. And he was very charming and well-dressed and likeable. And I thought he was very useful to me. You could see some narcissism there as well.
GROSS: So you had to convince yourself that a doctor, who is a pediatrician and cares for children with cancer - he's an oncologist - and seems to be very good at what he does, you had to convince yourself that such a doctor could also be that dark and be capable of killing somebody.
GRANT: Yes. Yes. Exactly. Well, I had to convince myself that there are cases of doctors where it's not about the patient, it's about them. And with - in the case of Jonathan, I think that everything, everything, was about him. Curing children was about him - and look how wonderful I am. His love for his wife and his child was about him - look how much they adore me and so on. And that's what's terrifying about him, really. But it was - also enabled me to - the trick was - you know, actors have to - your sort of No. 1 duty is to be true to who the character is. And, you know, I go to enormous length to try and do that diligently. I write enormously long backstories of my character. I work out, in the tiniest detail, motivations for every single thing they do or say in the film, in the story.
GROSS: What was the backstory that you wrote for this character?
GRANT: It's detailed, and it's complex. And it was to do with being a sort of wonder kid growing up brilliant at school, brilliant at games, loved by the girls, full of ego, full of himself - and just never managed to shake off that kind of self-adoration, as some people do as they mature. In fact, it sort of deepened and got worse. And I invented this whole (laughter) thing where he goes to Paris. And he has an uncle that he really admires who's a doctor who is quite Machiavellian in sense of it's about science; it's not about the patients - and teaches him to read Nietzsche. I mean, you know, stuff like this that you never will pick up in the show but somehow helps one to know one's character.
There was a whole Parisian element to my look that I wanted to bring to the show. But in the end, Susanne Bier, who directed it, I think she thought it would look fishy. And it was all toned down.
GROSS: All right. I think we should take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Hugh Grant, and he stars in the HBO miniseries "The Undoing." And the final episode was just shown. You can catch the whole thing on demand. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF EVGUENI GALPERINE AND SACHA GALPERINE'S "BASIC PREMISE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Hugh Grant. He's the star of the HBO series "The Undoing," which just concluded on Sunday. You can catch the whole thing on demand. He starred on the British miniseries as Jeremy Thorpe in "A Very English Scandal." He starred in "Paddington 2," "Florence Foster Jenkins," the rom-com "Music And Lyrics," "Bridget Jones's Diary," "Four Weddings And A Funeral," "Love Actually," "About A Boy." That's just some of his films.
Is there anything you had to unlearn from your rom-com roles as you started doing darker roles? Or, on the other hand, it seems to me you were able to use some of your rom-com in "The Undoing," which is a very dark role, because you could use some of that to cover up, you know, to have a kind of agreeable surface - charming surface while other things were going on beneath the surface.
GRANT: In Episode 1 of "The Undoing," I need the audience to think this man's lovely. And so I - yes, I did use a bit of rom-com charm, I suppose, but in a very delicate way, I hope. And I also tried always to just keep something vaguely unsettling about him, even in Episode 1. Like, is this guy too good to be true? So, yeah, there's a bit of that.
And as for changing my way of acting, that has just evolved. I've just learnt - I've learnt mistakes, and I've learnt - for me, it's all been about preparation, really. And everything's about thoughts. It's not about how do I - very often, what I did before is I thought, I know how to say this line, particularly a funny line. I know how to get the laugh. And then I'd go there in front of the camera, and I'd just try and replicate what I'd been doing in front of the mirror. That's disastrous. I now am much better at not having any preconceived plan, and I just go in with the right thoughts and then just let it happen because the camera loves anything freshly minted, that moment. That's always the take that gets used. And it's also why I improvise quite a lot because it's fresh, and what the camera hates is anything repeated or performed.
GROSS: You also said you've hung out with a lot of politicians and that's how you know a lot of them are narcissists. How did you get to hang out with a lot of politicians? I mean, you've played Jeremy Thorpe, the former leader of the Liberal Party. You've campaigned against Brexit. Are those ways that you've gotten to know politicians?
GRANT: Yeah, although both of those are more recent. But way back - I think it was 2011 - I don't know if you were aware of or watched any of the sort of phone hacking scandal blowing up in Britain. There were a number of us who'd been enraged for years about the extraordinary power of a few newspaper titles here, the power to really live above the law and to effectively run the country. They would choose our prime ministers. And prime ministers don't legislate without checking first with a few wealthy newspaper barons. And we'd been ranting and raving about that for some years. But we realized the public was never going to get particularly fascinated in this subject unless there was some - something that scandalized them.
And then there was in 2011. One of the papers, it was revealed, had been hacking the phone of a teenage girl who'd been abducted and was subsequently murdered. And it's a complicated story, but the hacking of her phone gave the parents false hope because when they were calling her phone, it looked like maybe she'd answered. And in fact, she'd already been murdered. And the public was revolted in a very big way.
And on the back of that, we managed to get a big public inquiry - a judge-led inquiry. A huge thing happened in Britain with, you know, every - everyone from newspapers, everyone from the police, everyone from politics brought in, lasted a year. And recommendations were made to sort out the power of the press without curtailing their freedom. And so then the campaign became about getting all that put into law. And it was very difficult because the conservative government at that time was under massive pressure from these very powerful newspapers who were basically saying, if you put this into law, that's the end of you as prime minister, because they have that power. And in the end, it was made law, but they found a tiny loophole. And so it hasn't really come into effect yet. And that's how the campaign sits at this moment.
GROSS: And you were active in that because you were hacked. Your phone was hacked. And...
GRANT: Yeah. So I was active because I'd always been furious about this abuse of power and personally because, yes, I had my phone hacked. I had my apartment burgled by these newspapers. I mean, they really did live above the law. If you - something happened to you or one of your family and you called the police, the police didn't turn up. A journalist turned up because that was the first call the police made - was to the Sun or the News of the World because they were paid off by these papers. So it was like living under the Stasi.
And, you know, having said that, it was never - the whole thing was never really about celebrities. I don't have masses of sympathy for celebrities. But there were lots of people who had nothing to do with show business, who, for instance, had their brothers killed serving in the British forces in Afghanistan or they'd had their father killed in a terrorist explosion or their son had been killed in a road accident. And they had their privacy grotesquely invaded with phone hacking or medical records being stolen or journalists pretending to be something else coming to the funeral or - you know, it was all disgusting stuff. And that's what - that was part of what had me so angry for so many years.
Yeah. And then I had this extraordinary moment where I was in my car. My car broke down in the middle of the countryside in the south of England, and I didn't know what to do. I didn't know how to get to this golf game I was supposed to be at. And this car pulled up opposite, and I thought, great. This is some nice local person who's going to help me. And this guy got out with a long lens on his camera and started taking pictures of me. And by sheer ill luck, it happened to be an ex-features editor from the News of the World, which was, at that time, the, you know, dirtiest of the dirty British papers who had recently retired and was now running a pub in that little corner of England.
And he - you know, he said, well, I'll give you a lift. I said, well, I'd never get in your car. I was very rude to him. And then I realized I had no other way to go, so I got in the car with this monster. And all the way to the golf club, he was boasting about how everyone had been hacking my phone and then all this amazing stuff about the special relationship between the prime minister, David Cameron, and the woman, Rebekah Wade, who was running the big newspapers and how the police were all paid off. And I thought, God, I wish I could record this. And...
GROSS: And you did. I mean, you actually - you went to his pub, you brought a tape recorder, and you secretly recorded him. Is that legal?
GRANT: Probably not. But anyway, I did it. And I published the transcript in a British magazine, and it created quite a stir. No one seemed to sue me for it, so I guess it was considered in the public interest.
GROSS: What are some of the things you learned about how the tabloids invaded your privacy and the techniques that they used?
GRANT: They would put a little GPS tracker on the bottom of your car. There was, you know, guys disguised as British Telecom engineers putting a tap on your landline and your phone. Obviously, they were hacking my - the messages on my mobile phone like crazy. They got hold of my medical records on many occasions. And as I keep saying, the worst is - and they burgled my flat. Let's not forget that. I came home one day and found the front door had just been completely removed from its hinges, and they'd been through my flat in some detail.
By the way, the people who were doing this were under orders. These were the foot soldiers, not the chiefs. And what annoys me is in the sort of fallout from all this scandal, it was a lot of the foot soldiers who got arrested, who went to prison or got suspended sentences, and the chiefs are still there in power.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Hugh Grant, and he stars in the HBO miniseries "The Undoing," which just concluded. Among his other starring roles is in "Paddington 2," a partially animated film. He does a couple of songs in the film. Here's one of them. This is "Rain On The Roof," which is originally from Stephen Sondheim's musical "Follies." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PADDINGTON 2")
GRANT: (As Phoenix Buchanan, singing) Listen to the rain on the roof go...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Pit-pitty-pat (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) Pit-pitty-pat (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, singing) Pitty (ph).
GRANT: (As Phoenix Buchanan, singing) Sit, kitty cat. We won't get home for hours. Relax and listen to the rain on the roof go...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, singing) Plunk-planka-plink (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character, singing) Plunk-planka-plink (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character, singing) Planka (ph).
GRANT: (As Phoenix Buchanan, singing) Let's have a drink and shelter from the showers. Rain, rain, don't go away. Fill up the sky. Rain through the night. We'll stay cozy and dry.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, singing) Listen to the rain on the roof go pit-pitty-pat (ph), plunka-plink-plank (ph). Pity that it's not a hurricane. Listen - plink - to the lovely rain.
GRANT: (As Phoenix Buchanan) Thank you. Thank you.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you're just joining us, my guest is Hugh Grant. He stars in the HBO miniseries "The Undoing." The final episode just concluded, but it's all on demand. He starred in the British miniseries, as Jeremy Thorpe, in "A Very English Scandal." He starred in "Paddington 2," co-starred with Meryl Streep in "Florence Foster Jenkins," starred with Drew Barrymore in "Music And Lyrics." The film that gave him his start as a real star was "Four Weddings And A Funeral." So for people who haven't seen the final episode yet of "The Undoing," I should say in "The Undoing," you play somebody who may or may not be a villain, who may or may not be a killer. In "Paddington 2," you play a comedic villain. The only animated character in the film is Paddington the Bear. And so you play Phoenix Buchanan, a washed-up actor looking to revive your career and make some money. And I want to play a scene in which you're performing at a fair. Paddington is in the audience, and when you're looking for a volunteer from the audience, you call him on stage. It's the first time you meet him. So let's hear this scene. And this is Hugh Grant as the washed-up actor and bad guy. And Paddington the Bear is voiced by Ben Whishaw.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PADDINGTON 2")
GRANT: (As Phoenix Buchanan) I suppose you know who I am.
BEN WHISHAW: (As Paddington) Oh, yes. You're a very famous actor.
GRANT: (As Phoenix Buchanan) Oh, pooh.
WHISHAW: (As Paddington) Or used to be. Now you do dog food commercials.
GRANT: (As Phoenix Buchanan) Well, a man has to eat.
WHISHAW: (As Paddington) What? Dog food?
GRANT: (As Phoenix Buchanan) Very, very funny. Anyway, they do say that at Madame Kozlova's, all your dreams come true. So if you had one wish tonight, what would it be?
WHISHAW: (As Paddington) Oh, that's easy. I'd like to get my Aunt Lucy a birthday present.
WHISHAW: (As Paddington) I've got my eye on an old pop-up book of London, made by Madame Kozlova, as it happens. The only problem is it's rather expensive. So I need to get my paws on an awful lot of money.
GRANT: (As Phoenix Buchanan) Well, I'm not sure that we can offer you that, but we can, of course, offer you oodles of fun.
GROSS: So, Hugh Grant, at the end, that oodles of fun (laughter) thing, you do have a similar sound in "The Undoing" in the final episode.
GRANT: I do. That's true. You're absolutely right.
GROSS: Is that a thing for you? Is that something you learned to do as a kid?
GRANT: Well, sure. If we're in the nonspoiler bit of this, it's hard to talk about the last episode too much. But the last episode does - the song in there was a song from my childhood. And I improvised that while we were shooting that scene. So, yes, that's from my childhood. And in "Paddington," I don't know. I'm just being silly.
GROSS: Was it fun to play a comedic villain?
GRANT: Well, I mean, I'm probably more comfortable, generally speaking, when there's some comedy around. That's where I began, you know, in the early '80s. I was doing silly voices as a living for radio commercials and sketches on television. I had my own little comedy group. So returning to that - more of that sort of stuff nowadays feels like, you know, it's familiar and comfortable.
GROSS: I didn't know you'd voiced commercials. And probably, they're commercials we didn't see in the U.S. So what kind of commercials were they? And what kind of voices did you have to do?
GRANT: They were radio commercials. And they were written by me and my two friends. And they were produced by us and very often acted by us. And there all sorts of silly things. I don't know. (Imitating clipped English accent) We used to do ones which sounded rather like British films from the 1940s, you know, when everyone spoke in very clipped way. (Imitating West Country accent) And we do others where we were doing West Country accent. And my dog's - he's a working dog. That's why he drinks Red Stripe Lager. It was all surreal and extraordinary, but that's - yeah, we were just doing silly stuff for a living.
GROSS: Did that become your early resume, portfolio?
GRANT: Well, I didn't have a portfolio. We were just - I mean, we're just messing around, really. And they went on to do more of that. And then one day, I had an agent, but I was not particularly interested in normal acting. And he said, no, no, no. There's this film where they want to see you called "Maurice." And I said, I don't think so, thanks. I'm preferring doing what I'm doing. And he said, no, go. And my brother, who happened to be at home that day - he's a banker - said, no, go. You need some money. I was living with him, and I wasn't contributing. And I went, and I got that film, and I did it. And it had a little bit of success. And that sort of, I suppose, swerved my career away from doing silly voices to more, you know, mainstream acting.
GROSS: It was a Merchant Ivory film, wasn't it?
GRANT: Yeah, it was that film they did after "Room With A View," and it was based on another E.M. Forster novel. It was the one between "Room With A View" and "Howards End." It was about E.M. Forster's secret, which was that he was a - you know, he was gay. And this was back in the beginning of the 20th century. And so it was a manuscript he kept under his bed all his life and was only published posthumously.
GROSS: Were you surprised to have a film career?
GRANT: Extremely. (Laughter) I'm flabbergasted. I mean, and I very nearly managed to throw it away, as well, after - that film did quite well, and we did well at the Venice Film Festival. And my two co-stars then had a very successful two or three years. And I managed to sell out and just do highly paid, terrible miniseries (laughter) and very odd European - what I called Europuddings, where they'd be written by a Spaniard, directed by a German, English actors. They were awful. And they never got really released properly. But, you know, it sounded like fun. There were pretty actresses in it that I wanted to spend time with and did things for all the wrong motives and very much or very nearly utterly killed my career before, suddenly, "Four Weddings" came along a few years later.
GROSS: Well, how'd you get the role?
GRANT: Well, "Four Weddings" was odd because things were in pretty bad state in terms of proper acting for me. And then the script came through. And I remember calling my agent and saying, I think there's been a mistake 'cause you sent me a good script. And they did have a track record of doing that. They'd done it once before. And I'd called and said, hang on, this is good. And you sure it was meant for me? And they'd said, no, sorry. It was meant for Tom Cruise. That was "Jerry Maguire."
GROSS: Oh, literally, that happened?
GRANT: That happened, yeah.
GROSS: That's a terrible mistake to make.
GRANT: Yes, terrible. Anyway, then the "Four Weddings" script came through, and it was really funny. And I went to the audition. And Richard Curtis, who'd written it, hated me. And Duncan Kenworthy, who was producing it, hated me. But Mike Newell, who was directing it, thought I was promising. And I got the part. And that started a whole new thing in my career.
GROSS: Did they hate you as a human being or did they just hate your performance?
GRANT: (Laughter) They may have hated me as a human being. What they hated was - I don't think they even hated my performance, to be honest. I think what they hated was the guy, as written, was meant to be like Richard Curtis himself, who wears glasses and is not necessarily the guy who would get the girl. Let's just say that. I mean, he's very - extremely charming and funny, but he doesn't look like a Casanova. And they thought I maybe was too sort of pretty boy and too posh as well. So that's why we then went to enormous trouble to dress me in the worst imaginable clothes. And they tried to give me the worst haircut they could...
GRANT: ...Which was ironic because that haircut then became quite a thing people wanted after that film. But it was meant to be the world's worst haircut.
GROSS: So how old were you when that film was released?
GRANT: I was - I - well, 34, I think. Yeah.
GROSS: Oh, so you weren't - you weren't in your 20s anymore. 'Cause, like, you got really super famous after that.
GRANT: Yes. That's right. I was in my early 30s. And I love the theory I've heard that people who suddenly get well-known stick emotionally and in terms of their personality at the moment at which they get famous. They can't move on from it. I've heard stories that George Clooney, in his vast mansion, still sleeps in the closet because he was sleeping in a very small apartment when he got famous. And I have found that my tastes or the things I'm most comfortable with are the things I was doing and the food I was eating when I was 34. It's quite odd. I'm talking to you now from the flat I had at that time and which I've never sold because I like to run away here to work. And I just feel - (laughter) I feel safe here. Well, you know, around the corner, I've got five screaming children and a whole other life.
GROSS: I think we should take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Hugh Grant. And he stars in the HBO miniseries "The Undoing." And the final episode was just shown. You can catch the whole thing On Demand. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AWREEOH SONG, "CAN'T BRING ME DOWN")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Hugh Grant. He's the star of the HBO series "The Undoing," which just concluded on Sunday. You can catch the whole thing On Demand. He starred in the British miniseries as Jeremy Thorpe in "A Very English Scandal." He starred in "Paddington 2," "Florence Foster Jenkins," the rom-com "Music And Lyrics," "Bridget Jones's Diary," "Four Weddings And A Funeral," "Love Actually," "About A Boy." That's just some of his films.
One of my favorite rom-coms of the recent past is "Music And Lyrics," in which you play a washed-up lead singer and songwriter from an '80s hair band. And you're kind of reduced to just playing your old songs and playing at fairs. You're not really a star anymore. And I just thought it captured - it's just a really fun film. And the music in it was so great and so funny because it was kind of, like, parodies of '80s songs, but they could have been real songs 'cause they were actually pretty catchy. So I thought maybe we could play a song from "Music And Lyrics." And this is the song that's basically a rock video that opens the movie. It's the opening credits sequence. And the song is "PoP! Goes My Heart." So you had to sing for it. Had you sung in public before?
GRANT: (Laughter) No, no. And it's cheating. You know, I had no idea how cheated music is these days. I'm OK. I'm not good. I sound a bit like Julie Andrews, which is not great for rock or pop.
GRANT: But - much too enunciated. But Drew, who has to sing in the film as well - I don't think she'd mind me telling you - is a - she's a horrendous singer. But what they do with computers now is so brilliant in terms of putting you in tune that you just wouldn't - you just wouldn't know. And in fact, she's got a lot of soul in her singing voice. She's not Julie Andrews at all. And she sounds brilliant. And it's not just the - it's not just putting you in tune. You know, they take tiny samples. They take a syllable of a word from one track and splice it with a syllable from another take. And they sit up for - all night for weeks and weeks and weeks till they've created this perfect thing.
GROSS: In addition to having, like, an auto-tuning kind of thing, did you take voice lessons? Did you have a voice coach?
GRANT: Yes, I did. He was very nice. But (laughter) much harder for me was strutting around onstage kind of dancing and, you know, performing with a mic in my hand. They gave me a brilliant choreographer who did all kind of - Kylie Minogue and all those people - Britney Spears. And I think that was one of the low moments of my career, if not my life, was the first rehearsal with him. It was just him and a big boombox with some music in it in a vast rehearsal room somewhere in Manhattan. And he said, OK, well, before we try and work out any moves at all, he said, let me just see how you move naturally. So I'm going to put on some music, and I just want you to freak out. (Laughter) He put on some music and, you know, I just stood still for 20 minutes. He wasn't getting that...
GRANT: He was not getting that out of a 40-year-old Englishman at 11:00 in the morning. So it was very difficult. In the end, I did those scenes on a sneaky combination of whiskey and lorazepam tranquilizers brought to me by my loyal makeup girl in a 7UP bottle.
GROSS: Did you self-medicate for "Love Actually," where you do a whole dance sequence solo?
GRANT: (Laughter) No, I did - I did that completely sober. I don't know how the hell that happened. But these are terrible things to have to do if you're an uptight Englishman.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK. So let's hear - let's hear "PoP! Goes My Heart." And this is my guest, Hugh Grant, singing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POP! GOES MY HEART")
GRANT: (Singing) I never thought that I could be so satisfied. Every time that I look in your angel eyes, a shock inside me that words just can't describe and there's no explaining. There's something in the way you move I can't deny. Every word from your lips is a lullaby. A twist of fate makes life worthwhile. You are gold and silver. I said I wasn't going to lose my head, but then pop goes my heart. Pop goes my heart. I wasn't going to fall in love again, but then pop goes my heart. Pop goes my heart. And I just can't let you go. I can't lose this feeling. These precious moments...
GROSS: How do you feel listening back to that?
GRANT: (Laughter) Well, I'm very proud of it. I wish my children liked it more. I sometimes say, now listen to Daddy sing. And they say, oh, turn it off. Turn it off.
GRANT: But those words, which I love so much, you know, they're utter nonsense and, actually, were only meant to be temporary lyrics. And then they were going to write something better. And then we realized they were so bad, they were great.
GROSS: Yes. Oh, you know, and for the chorus, pop goes my heart, like, he's in a hospital room with...
GROSS: ...Like, doctors or surgeons and he's having heart problems, because some rock videos were just, like, so surreal and so literal at the same time, like, and alternating between the two. This is a perfect illustration of that.
GRANT: And the acting was very often appalling. And so that was fun to do - really shocking acting that.
GROSS: Let me introduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Hugh Grant. And he stars in the HBO series "The Undoing," which just concluded on Sunday, but you can find it on demand. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF OSCAR PETERSON'S "O CHRISTMAS TREE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Hugh Grant, who stars in the HBO miniseries "The Undoing." He starred in "Paddington 2," "Florence Foster Jenkins," "Music And Lyrics," "Love Actually," "Four Weddings And A Funeral," "About A Boy" - I could go on.
So you campaigned against Brexit. And Boris Johnson was one of the leading supporters of Brexit. What stage is Brexit at right now?
GRANT: Well, it's imminent. We've been in this thing called the transition period all year, which is like a phony war where things go on as normal. But on January the 1, it actually happens and the last-minute attempts to make some kind of free trade deal with the EU. But even if we get one, it'll be a very thin one. So either that or a no-deal Brexit. There are going to be, according to all customs experts, you know (laughter), 50-mile lines of trucks backed up at the port.
There's going to be shortages of food in the shops. There's going to be shortages of medicine. There may be a breakdown in social order. And all this in the middle of a pandemic. So it's a proper catastrophe we're staring at here. It's the most extraordinary self-inflicted disaster and, I think, will go down as the greatest in British history, possibly in the history of the world. It's one thing to be invaded. But to actually do this to yourself is - it's mind-boggling.
GROSS: You tweeted to Boris Johnson, you will not destroy the freedoms my grandfather fought two world wars to defend. Did your grandfather tell you stories about World War I?
GRANT: (Laughter) Well, he never spoke about World War I, no. He did talk about the second war. World War I, he was underage to join up. And he was rejected. And then tried again and gave a false age and was sent out to the trenches. And we don't really know what happened. But we know he ended up in a hospital in London in a very bad way. And he never spoke about it. He never spoke - he would never go to London for the rest of his life. So something terrible happened. And I think it involved shell shock. Yeah.
GROSS: So how did he fight in World War II after that experience?
GRANT: So when the second war came along, he was, you know - I can't - in his 30s. And he went out when the British Expeditionary Force went out at the beginning of the war, horrendously under equipped in relation to the extraordinarily well-equipped and advanced Nazi army that drove the British back to the coast and where they had to be rescued at Dunkirk, as you've seen in the films and read in the history books, except for one division, which Churchill wanted to leave in France to bolster the morale of the French and keep the French army fighting a bit longer. And that division was my grandfather's, the Highland Division - Scottish soldiers.
And they ended up retreating to another northern French harbor town called Saint Valery, where they were surrounded by these incredibly advanced troops led by Rommel - Rommel's first job in the war - and pulverized. And being from these ancient Scottish regiments with a very noble tradition, they wouldn't surrender. And they just kept fighting and fighting and fighting. And in the end, it was every man for himself. And they all tried to scatter and break through the lines. And my grandfather was finally captured and spent the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp attempting to escape. He was one of the great escapologists and made several brilliant attempts - and the best one, where he buried himself alive on an exercise island outside the prison. And he and a mate got right across Germany to the border of Switzerland where the local farmer found them and turned them in to the Germans with great apologies, saying, I'm sorry, but if I don't and they find out, they'll kill me; they'll kill my children. And the extraordinary coda to that story was that my grandfather, in the '50s, was on a ship to South Africa, leaning over the rail, staring at the sunset, talking to the guy next to him who happened to be a Swiss German. And it was that farmer...
GROSS: You're kidding me.
GRANT: ...Who'd turned him in. No. It's good, isn't it?
GROSS: What was that conversation like?
GRANT: I think it was all right. I think it was cordial.
GROSS: It's amazing he survived. What was it like to grow up with these stories? These are very frightening stories.
GRANT: Oh, no, we loved them. You know, I mean, little boys love that stuff. Upstairs, I have my grandfather's escape kit that was disguised as his artist's kit. So it's a - it's like a wooden box made from bed boards from a bunk in the prisoner of war camp. And you open it, and it's got paint and things. And then you take out the secret lair, and underneath it's got maps of Germany printed on lavatory paper, written in jam and stuff like that. It's absolutely fascinating - files for cutting through bars and things. We loved all that.
GROSS: Did this make you want to go to war yourself, like, to be a soldier?
GRANT: Well, I don't know. The army, it did have a certain appeal. He used to - when we were children, my brother and I would go up there to Scotland where my grandfather lived, and he taught us to shoot, not animals, but Germans (laughter). He (laughter) - extremely politically incorrect. He - there was a kind of quarry nearby, and he'd set up these faces of basically Germans. And he'd tape little pill capsules of fake blood on their noses. And then we'd, you know, be 200 yards away, and we'd have to try and hit their faces, hit their noses. It's not how children (laughter) are entertained these days, but we loved it.
GROSS: Did you see Germans as your enemy growing up, even though the war had ended years ago?
GRANT: Well, the British have always had a strange relationship with the Germans. But no, not at all. I admire the Germans now. But my grandfather - and like them. I have some excellent German friends. But I - my grandfather felt very strongly about Germans. But then he bore grudges. He wouldn't talk to anyone called Campbell (ph) since the Campbells massacred the McDonalds (ph) in 1690-something.
GROSS: That's pretty funny.
Well, Hugh Grant, thank you so much for talking with us. It's been great to talk with you.
GRANT: Well, it's been an honor to be on your show. Thanks very much.
GROSS: Hugh Grant stars in the HBO miniseries "The Undoing." The series just concluded, but you can watch all of it on demand.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll have some great music from the 1920s and '30s. My guests will be singer and songwriter Loudon Wainwright and tuba, bass and bass saxophone player Vince Giordano, leader of the small big band The Nighthawks. They've teamed up on the new album "I'd Rather Lead A Band." They'll bring their instruments and perform a couple of songs for us and we'll hear music from the album. I hope you'll join us. We'll close with music from their album.
(SOUNDBITE OF LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III WITH VINCE GIORDANO AND THE NIGHTHAWKS'S "HOW I LOVE YOU (I'M TELLING THE BIRDS, I'M TELLING THE BEES)")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW I LOVE YOU (I'M TELLING THE BIRDS, I'M TELLING THE BEES)")
LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III WITH VINCE GIORDANO AND THE NIGHTHAWKS: (Singing) Through fields of golden flowers, where we spent sunny hours, I'm strolling along thinking of you. I told the four-leaf clover my lonesome days are over. I talk about you all the day through. I'm telling the birds, telling the bees, telling the flowers, telling the trees how I love you. I'm telling the moon, telling the sun, telling the stars and telling each one how I love you. I feel so happy, and I show it. I want the whole wide world to know it. The shady old nook, the shadows that fall, the little old brook, I'm telling them all how I love you.
Here's where we used to wander. I sit alone and ponder, daydreaming of you all of the time. If you don't think I love you, just ask the stars above you...
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