Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Photos: Niko Tavernise/HBO

Hugh Grant on The Undoing, Paddington 2, and why a children’s book about a stick makes him cry

Photos: Niko Tavernise/HBO
Graphic: Karl Gustafson

For years, the world thought that Hugh Grant was actually the charming, stammering Brit that we’d seen light up screens in what felt like dozens of remarkably successful and endearing romantic comedies. That’s not him, though—and that’s why Grant chose to step away from those types of roles and from much of acting in general about 10 years ago. He chose instead to involve himself in the U.K.’s campaign for a more ethical press, and ended up having five kids, including three with Anna Elisabet Eberstein, who he married in 2018.

Over the past few years, though, Grant’s career has gone through a bit of a renaissance, marked by his memorable turns in Florence Foster Jenkins, A Very English Scandal, and Paddington 2, which is much better than a movie sequel about an adorable bear has any right to be. His latest subversion of expectations came in the form of HBO’s The Undoing, which just wrapped up its limited run earlier this week. As Jonathan Fraser, Grant was the show’s most mysterious figure, simultaneously cloaked in charm and also quite possibly a brutal murderer.

Whether or not he was actually the show’s big baddie will be discussed below (consider yourself warned), but Grant was certainly one of The Undoing’s brightest points, all subtlety and suspicion. The A.V. Club sat down with him to talk about his work on that show, our current crisis of media literacy, and whether someone can be too charming for their own good. We also talked about some of his favorite children’s books to both read to his kids and to cry over. You can read the full interview below, or if you’re more into hearing the dulcet tones of Grant’s lovely voice, you can hear the below conversation in its entirety on this week’s episode of our podcast Push The Envelope.

The A.V. Club: For so much of your career, you’ve been playing characters who have been described as “charming.” But in The Undoing, Jonathan’s charm is, in some sense, a mask for what could be psychopathy. Does that feel cathartic in any way to you? 

Hugh Grant: I don’t think I ever thought, “This is a way to reverse the way I was viewed in a lot of films in the 1990s, early 2000s.” I just thought, “This is a fascinating psychological specimen, and a fascinating character.”

I’ve always been interested in evil and where it lives and how it conducts itself. I think that’s absolutely fascinating because I’ve got this horrible nagging feeling that it’s our natural state and civilization and decency are just this thin veneer laid over the top.

AVC: It certainly feels that way right now, especially when you look at some world leaders.

HG: In terms of people who are actually out there at the moment, I do think that Jonathan’s extraordinary level of narcissism and narcissistic delusion has some parallels in, for instance, Trump’s attitude to the election you’ve just had. I think he knows intellectually he lost that election in the same way that Jonathan knows intellectually that he killed Elena, but in just the same way that he decides it’s not possible for the great Jonathan to have been a murderer and screwed up his whole life, Trump feels it’s just not possible that he could have lost an election. And so then when he says it was it was all a fraud, he actually believes it. Those are the scariest people, the delusional narcissists. They want to really believe this stuff.

AVC: And like Donald Trump, Jonathan will do anything to not be a loser.

HG: We’re about to find out how far that will go. The whole world is watching nervously as, you know, Iran starts to wobble.

AVC: It’s also how far we’ll let it go. That’s part of what we saw in The Undoing with Jonathan and his family. How much were they willing to play along? How much did they want to believe that what he said was true? 

HG: One of the things that Nicole [Kidman] did so brilliantly was show that. Counter to all evidence, there’s a part of her that wants him to be innocent and probably does still love him and misses the companionship and all that.

I imagine the same for the Trump supporters. They desperately want it to be true that this was a faked election.

AVC: You knew going into The Undoing that Jonathan was guilty. Were there ways that you would play a more straightforward scene where, if we went back and watched for a second time, knowing what we know, we’d say “Oh, look at his face there. He totally knew”? Or would we never have been able to tell?  

HG: I had to be aware of the danger that people might watch this twice and if they did watch it twice, I needed them to believe that they were able to see the killer in him throughout and never to think, “Well, that’s just impossible. This guy could never have done that deed.”

It was a very, very delicate balance, because if I leaned even a fraction too heavily on playing a killer earlier in the series, I’d have given the whole game away. There are so many arrows pointing at Jonathan anyway, circumstantially in terms of his guilt. If I had been in any way fisheyed or overdone a moment of anger where you thought, “Oh, yeah, he’s got a vicious temper…” These were temptations, because it’s your duty as an actor to be true to your character. I could have given the game away very badly. So I had to be very careful not to do that. But at the same time, as I said, make it believable on a second view where you think, “Yeah, I see. Now I see.” That’s all acting. It’s all a front. It’s all a charade.

AVC: If you’d looked a little hot under the collar in the first episode when Grace was talking about Elena’s supposedly aggressive nudity, we would have known straight away. 

HG: Yeah, I know. I always have these very scrupulous notes all over. My script is a spider’s web of notes, of thoughts, what the character is thinking. And in the moment when I was sitting in the back of the car and she’s telling me about my girlfriend who’s had a kid with me and is now stalking me and my wife, and my wife’s just telling me a sort of semi-amusing story about this woman appearing naked in a gym… Of course, the truthful emotion for Jonathan right then is that he’s shitting himself. It’s terrifying news and he’s sweating, but I could not let any of that show. The only way to play that is to assume, I think correctly, that Jonathan was just a brilliant sociopath. I mean, brilliant at covering as they very often are so that it’s entirely plausible.

And occasionally I would say to [director Susanna Bier] “Okay, we’ve got three takes like that. Should we do one where there’s just a shadow that passes across his face, maybe for the people watching it the second time?” And she always said, “No. Too dangerous.”

AVC: You mentioned all the notes on your script. I’ve read that’s something you’ve always done, in order to really get to know a character and hide behind their mask. What do you know more about now than you ever thought you would? I’ve read you know quite a lot about ’70s British politics, for instance, having done A Very English Scandal.

HG: I do. I do. When I played Jeremy Thorpe, I did.

A lot of this is down to nerves. In the Stanislavsky tradition of acting, you do do gigantic amounts of research and you build up huge backstories for your character and all that. I don’t know if it works. Maybe it does. A lot of the reason I do it is not for Stanislavsky reasons. It’s because I’m so nervous. I think the more prepared I am and the deeper everything is embedded in my cells, the less likely I am to suddenly feel exposed and have a panic attack. I learn my lines about six years in advance, and I need all to be vetted in.

It’s like if you’re learning a piece on the piano, just as a pure function of time, suddenly you can do it without thinking. I like to get to that point with the character so there’s no panic on the day. Anxiety is the enemy.

AVC: How fast does what you’ve learned go away? When you’ve done the scene, are the words just gone from your brain?

HG: No, they can linger. It depends on the words. I played Hamlet in a very strange production in 1980. We were all dressed in Star Trek costumes. It was at the Edinburgh Festival and I can remember huge chunks of Hamlet even now. Isn’t that weird? It was 40 years ago.

AVC: It could also be a testament to the melodic nature of Shakespeare’s words, I suppose. They could be in there like a song.

HG: Yes, there is that. And the fact that I have been performing them to myself in the bath for 40 years.

AVC: A lot of people had theories about who the murderer was before the Undoing finale. Some people thought it was Sylvia, Grace’s friend, played by Lily Rabe. They thought that when you said you’d had one affair before, that it was her, and her daughter was also yours. 

HG: They’re onto something there, because there was a draft of the script in which, when she tells Grace about me having been fired from the hospital and how I came to her to try and represent me against the hospital for inappropriate touching of patients’ parents, she says, “And let me tell you something else. He made a pass at me at that time.” So they’re onto something, but equally they’re not onto something because, of course, it’s Sylvia who colludes with the prosecution to give you the information about me not having had any remorse or regret.

AVC: Some people thought it was Henry, and even your character seemed to suggest it was Henry at some point, though we know now that was just bullshit.

HG: Yeah, what it was a brilliant cliffhanger put in by David E. Kelley at the end of episode five. Just brilliant.

But as soon as Henry said, “Well, I found it in the outside fireplace at the beach house…” I always used to ask Nicole, “What’s the moment that Grace knows it’s me?” And I think that’s where she said it happened. She also said there’s no going back for Jonathan once he even suggests that it’s Henry who could be the killer. That’s when she knows that he’s fucked in the head completely.

AVC: Some people thought it was Donald Sutherland’s character, Grace’s father. They thought he had somehow manipulated all of this.

HG: I don’t know how much of that was deliberate on the part of David Kelley and how much it was enhanced by Donald himself. He’s quite mischievous. I think he liked the idea that people might think he was responsible.

AVC: Last question about the show: Why does Jonathan know so much about Albany? He has a seemingly intimate knowledge of a random bridge?

HG: Well, I did have answers for all these things scribbled in the margins. [Thinks.]

Well, it’s Road Trip 2, isn’t it? I’d taken Henry on the road trip before and I promised him another one from the years previous and I never got around to it. I think I wanted to show him a road trip where I had been taken as a boy by an uncle who lived in America. I think it was up there and I think we had the fried clams. I think that was my back story.

You have to remember that every time there’s a fish reference in this [show], it’s because David Kelley is obsessed with fish. He lives in Northern California and he goes fishing virtually every day and just loves them, catches them, eats them, strokes them, watches TV with them. He’s a fishaholic.

AVC: You have awards buzz for this role. Does that acclaim affect you at all? Do you strive to be recognized?

HG: I think any actor who tells you they don’t is lying. Of course, you love it, but it’s in your DNA.

I remember doing the theater in the early ’80s and we were doing a curtain call at the end and one of the old actors said, “Well, darling, the tip I always say at the curtain call is that your face should be surprised, but delighted.” So you’re supposed to look like, “Oh, I can’t believe it. You’re clapping! But I thank you so much.” And that’s the pose that we have to effect at these moments, you know.

AVC: Speaking of theater and acting, people really love Paddington 2, in which you play a sort of washed-up actor. Does the affection for that movie surprise you at all? Have you ever felt genuine affection for such a non-real character?

HG: Well, yes. I mean, I have to watch a lot of cartoons and read a lot of children’s stories now and I find them incredibly moving. There are several children’s stories I can’t read because they make me cry.

I watched Finding Nemo the other day on a plane and ended up in floods of tears. My only comfort was when I looked around the first class cabin on British Airways all these other bankers were also in floods of tears watching the same film. It’s very sad and moving and it’s wonderful that they find each other. So, yes, I’m very susceptible to that.

With Paddington, the fact that people are catching on to that film is massively boosting because Paul King is a great, great filmmaker. I think it’s a really brilliant film and it’s brilliant that people are watching it.

AVC: What books do you love reading with your kids?

HG: I’ll tell you the books that make me cry, which they love to death.

Do you read Mog over there? There is a cat that gets up to mischief, and then there’s one that’s very controversial when Mog finally dies. I think the author has been writing the stories for years and years. And I think children need to understand about the death of animals. So there’s one where Mog just dies at the beginning and it’s unbearable. But the children love it.

And then there’s Stick Man. He’s just a stick, and, well, he lives with his stick family, his wife, and he’s got three stick children. He goes out one day and he gets in terrible danger because dogs pick him up thinking he’s a steak and he ends up on a fire and he’s nearly burned. And anyway, in the end, he gets back just in time for Christmas and they’re very pleased to see him. It makes me cry.

Superdad’s Day Off, that one makes me cry. And there’s one other killer. Oh, yes, Mr. Just So [Icky Little Duckling]. He’s a rabbit and he lives in a burrow, which is absolutely perfect. He lives by himself. He’s sort of a bachelor rabbit of a certain age. And then one day he goes out and he finds four ducklings who’ve lost their mummy. And so he takes them back into his burrow, he feeds them, and then realizes he’s stuck with them and he has to change their nappies and bathe them and all that stuff. And then his lovely, perfect burrow is turned into chaos. And then mummy turns up, takes them away, and he’s very sad because he misses them. I think then they become friends anyway. That always makes me cry. It’s really the story of my 50s.

AVC: Speaking of parenting: You’ve done a fair amount of work related to the press in the U.K., and you’re familiar with the state of the media today. What do you think about media literacy, knowing what’s a reliable source, what’s entertainment versus what’s news? Have you thought about how to educate your children and other adults about that kind of information? 

HG: I think all these discussions end up with the meeting place between two basic but conflicting human rights. Your right to privacy and your right to be well informed comes up against the right of free expression.

So, for instance, in our fight against certain British newspapers and their methods and their tactics, they’ll say, “How dare you suggest that government can in any way control what we write! This is freedom of the press, it’s freedom of expression, and it’s sacrosanct.” But if those papers are writing deliberate lies and have no regard for the truth and are causing individual suffering to human beings through the intrusion of people in grief, for instance, to get a juicy story, or if they’re causing a disastrous referendum result like Brexit based on lies that they print, should they be allowed to ask the question?

It’s very delicate. You know, what you hope is that journalists will really care about the truth. That’s the answer to all this. And then you don’t have to bring the law into it anywhere.

I’ve always thought that in terms of print journalism, America is very lucky because I think on the whole, your print journalists outside, you know, National Enquirer, etc., go to so much trouble over getting things right. “Can I just check my facts, please?” And, you know, apologies all over The New York Times when they get something wrong. They do corrections. These things are unheard of in most British newspapers. And so just culturally, that’s much healthier than what we have.

It is difficult to say, “Well, actually, you’re so irresponsible and it’s so dangerous what you’re saying and what you do.” That government’s going to have to step in and create a regulator that says you just can’t print lies. It is a dicey area.

AVC: Like Q Anon. I read recently that something like half of Trump supporters believe Q Anon’s baseless assertion that the top Democrats are secret pedophiles and sex traffickers. It’s one of things where you go, “Shouldn’t this story cause your bullshit detector to go off at some point? Shouldn’t someone reading it go, ‘there’s no way this is real.’” 

HG: Yeah, but I suspect it all starts with people being dissatisfied or disenfranchised or underprivileged. Someone thinks their life is shit, and they want to have one thing to blame or to identify, to say it’s all the fault of whoever. So, here, it was Brexit. People think it’s all the fault of the European Union. If it wasn’t for the European Union, we’d have greater affluence, we’d have more money, we’d have more jobs, et cetera, et cetera. And I get that. I understand you want to cling to one scapegoat, but I wonder if that’s what lies behind the ability of some people in the United States to say, well, everything is the fault of these pedophile Democrats. It is terrifying.

AVC: While we’re spouting off about politics, you’re very outspoken, but you’ve also said that, to some extent, you think actors should stay quiet. Or, rather, that you recognize that people don’t necessarily want to hear about politics from you.

HG: Yes, there’s nothing more revolting or annoying, and so I should shut up. But you asked me the question and I gave you an answer.

I mean, I do, after eight, nine years of campaigning on [fair reporting] in Britain, I am quite expert in it. I do at least have that. I have some expertise. So I’m a little bit qualified to talk on that subject. But if I drive through places in the north of England, I just think what they must think to have some privileged Londoner spouting on about anything. Just shut up. My life’s fine.

Marah Eakin is the Executive Producer of all A.V. Club Video And Podcasts. She is also a Cleveland native and heiress to the country's largest collection of antique and unique bedpans and urinals.