How Hugh Grant Became Less Self-Conscious on Camera: ‘You Have to Mean It’

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Photo Source: Jason Bell

“In the Envelope: The Actor’s Podcast” features in-depth conversations with today’s most noteworthy actors and creators. Join host and Awards Editor Jack Smart for this guide on how to live the creative life from those who are doing it every day.

“Actors know their first duty is to be true to their character,” says Hugh Grant. “They get lost if they’re not. It doesn’t work if they’re not.”

With over 30 years of on-camera experience, Grant is something of an expert on staying true to character—and, as he’s quick to admit, getting lost. “I really suffered, the first few things I did,” he says of early work in British TV and film. “I was so bad and so self-conscious, and I had no idea what was happening.” There are few guarantees when it comes to acting, but Grant knows which techniques have worked for him and might also work for “In the Envelope” listeners. 

A London native and student of English at Oxford University, Grant dabbled in writing and performing sketch comedy before giving acting a go onstage. After an award-winning turn in “Maurice,” he auditioned for and booked “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” written by Richard Curtis and directed by Mike Newell, which became the highest-grossing British movie in history and earned Grant a Golden Globe and BAFTA Award. His leading man streak continued, breaking into Hollywood in the 1990s and into the 2000s with “Nine Months,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “Notting Hill,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” “About a Boy,” “Two Weeks Notice,” “Love Actually,” “Music & Lyrics,” and more. 

Much has been said about Grant’s legacy as an era-defining romantic comedy lead, but as his recent work suggests, that pigeonholing limited his and audiences’ imaginations. “When I got segued after ‘Maurice’ into leading man stuff, I was never entirely comfortable, to be really honest,” he says. “I’ve done quite a lot of things that are not like that in the last six years.” Heartfelt opposite Meryl Streep in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” zanily deranged in “Paddington 2,” slimy in his Emmy-nominated work as Jeremy Thorpe on “A Very English Scandal,” and unrecognizable this year in Guy Ritchie’s film “The Gentlemen,” the actor is showcasing the darker, more ambiguous facets of himself on screen.

Grant has also spoken frankly about his hiatus from the industry—partially self-imposed, partially thanks to Hollywood’s fickle tastes—following the reception of 2009’s “Did You Hear About the Morgans?” After having children and becoming active in British politics (Grant is an outspoken advocate for accountability in media, targeting news corporations’ invasions of privacy), he began playing the “character actor” roles he’s always preferred. “It’s been nice to slowly build it up again in a completely different way.

“I’d much rather have a silly voice, a funny haircut and a funny walk because A) I’m better at it, and B) it’s a mask. You’re someone else. So I find I don’t get self-conscious. When the part’s nearer to oneself and the camera’s looming in on a dolly towards you, you can get self-conscious.”

How can actors avoid that self-consciousness onscreen and make each take feel fresh? “It’s a combination of technique and inspiration,” Grant explains. “I probably sound very contradictory because I talk about intense preparation, but I also talk about not being pre-rehearsed. I do believe that.... A ballet dancer, they are rehearsed to death, but they would say when they’re out there, they’re just listening to the music and trying to be as free as possible.”

His process has always involved writing extensive character backstories, and “thought scripts” dictating reactions and epiphanies alongside dialogue. “You might change it on the day,” he says, but “because you’ve got it in your head, you’re never going to be self-consciously blank.”

That character-building technique was put to the test filming HBO’s “The Undoing.” Created by David E. Kelley, directed by Susanne Bier, and produced by and starring Nicole Kidman, the limited series features Grant as the prime suspect in a grisly murder on NYC’s Upper East Side. Acting on a mystery series meant needing to know from the beginning whether he was guilty or innocent: “It seems to me impossible to do something where you don’t know where your character is going.”

Whether you’re playing a murderous psychopath or a romantic, “bumbling Englishman,” Grant’s ultimate advice is that you must act with conviction. “On film, you have to mean it,” he says. “Trust yourself to find it fresh. Listen to the other actor. Think a thought. Let the line play off that thought.” 

To hear more, listen to Grant’s “In the Envelope” interview in full below. And check out casting insider Christine McKenna-Tirella’s highlights from the week, which include HBO projects listed on Backstage: buzzy series “The Gilded Age” and Season 3 of “Succession” are now casting, and StrawHat Theatrical Services is looking to foster non-Equity artists.

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