Interviewing Hugh Grant — the poster boy for a campaign against press intrusion and a notoriously prickly subject when the mood takes him — can be an intimidating experience.
When the actor sits down at a hotel in Beverly Hills to promote his latest movie, “Florence Foster Jenkins,” he looks ill at ease but determined to be on form, politely offering coffee and forcing a smile.
“I’m lovely in some interviews, I’m a little ratty in others. For some reason I’m ratty with those showbiz shows — ‘Extra’ or ‘ET’ — they’re too in my face,” he explains.
“The big celebrity ones,” he says, affecting a southern California “Valley Girl” accent. “I grind my teeth in them.”
Grant, 55, is the most high-profile face of the Hacked Off campaign against criminality and corruption in the British tabloids for the last five years.
But he is something of a paradox — on one hand campaigning to protect ordinary people from the worst excesses of Fleet Street and on the other taking a torch to his own privacy whenever a microphone is shoved before him.
In the week leading to his interview with AFP, Grant was all over the world’s print and online media and volunteered several revealing anecdotes on America’s late night chatshow circuit.
On James Corden’s “Late Late Show,” he gleefully told of an emotional breakdown during which he “couldn’t stop crying for three weeks” — a story he rounded off with an amusing vignette about a disastrous visit to a hypnotist.
“Maybe I didn’t think that one through. Really I was just trying to get to the hypnotist anecdote which I thought was quite a funny one,” he tells AFP.
‘Full of fear’
“With all of these things, you’re on these shows, you’ve got to think of something funny to say and you make catastrophic mistakes all the time.”
Grant, whose breakthrough role came in the Richard Curtis-scripted “Four Weddings a Funeral” in 1994, has gone on to become one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood.
His 25 films have earned well in excess of $2 billion, not to mention a Golden Globe, yet he doesn’t exactly brim with pride when asked about his back catalogue.
“I’m glad that some of them were successful and pleased people,” he offers.
“I take the Richard Curtis line, because he’s a great advocate of commercial films and how difficult they are to do well, as opposed to arty-farty films which tend to get more prizes.
“He argues it’s a little easier to please a small audience in Hampstead or the Village in New York than it is to please a mass audience across the world, and there’s a sort of snobbishness about that.”
Grant says he was “full of fear” after being cast by director Stephen Frears to star alongside Meryl Streep in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” the moving and hilarious biopic of a tone-deaf wannabe soprano which hits US theaters on Friday.
More than 30 years after his film debut, Grant still suffers from sudden, crippling attacks of stage fright, which he tries to keep at bay with morning runs and doses of the stress reliever Rescue Remedy.
He had a scene with Streep which had to be re-shot twice after he was hit by what he describes as a panic attack.
“You’re doing an easy-peasy moment and you’ve rehearsed it well and suddenly they say ‘Right, let’s shoot it close up now, Hugh’ and bang!” he says.
“Sweat, tension — it’s so ridiculous.”
‘Never quite as good’
Grant thinks he would be fine “poncing about” on the stage, as his attacks are a unique affliction of film acting, brought on by “having my head in the little box in close-up.”
Having started out in regional theater before touring London’s club circuit with his own comedy revue, Grant claims to have enjoyed treading the boards.
“Not so much in the cinema, to be absolutely honest. I was talking to Kevin Bacon last night at a screening and we agreed you always go home a little sad,” he says.
“You’re marvelous in rehearsal and in the wide shot, which you never really use in the edit, and when it finally gets to your close-up, you always clench up a bit. You’re never quite as good.”
Grant’s self-deprecation often seems calculated to deflect questions that require deeper self-analysis, though he admits to being a tough person to work with at times.
Jon Stewart famously banned him from “The Daily Show” in 2012 after the actor had a backstage tantrum over the cutting of a joke from a clip for his latest film.
The host described his interviewee as the worst guest ever, adding: “And we’ve had dictators on the show.”
Grant also admits to riling colleagues by getting involved in parts of the filmmaking process that ought not to concern him, and says the habit of a lifetime resurfaced on the set of “Florence Foster Jenkins.”
“I interfere in stuff that’s none of my business, like where the camera should be,” he says.
“But to be fair to Stephen Frears, he was very welcoming of that kind of stuff.”