In new biopic Florence Foster Jenkins, Hugh Grant is a caddish manager but in real life, this father of four just loves acting silly
If Meryl Streep makes the perfect Florence Foster, then British actor Hugh Grant makes the perfect St Clair Bayfield.
In the 1940s-era biographical comedy drama, Florence Foster Jenkins, which is currently showing here, Streep stars as the notorious real-life off-key wannabe opera singer.
Grant is her on-screen match as Foster's slightly caddish husband-manager, who devotedly kept her fantasies of being an artist alive while having a secret other life with his mistress.
The very picky Grant, who is hardly seen on screen nowadays, said yes to the role within just three days.
Many British actors have that excellent, wry sense of humour and Grant would be near the top of my list of fun interviewees when we meet at the Conrad New York hotel.
The handsome 56-year-old former heart-throb and rom-com king has matured well, and he still retains that endearing self-deprecation that has always been a key part of his charm.
Was there any research for the part and were you nervous about returning to acting?
I did a surprising uncharacteristic amount of research on this film mainly out of terror, because I signed up for it a year before we shot it and that's a long time to be frightened. I was frightened of Meryl, (director) Stephen Frears and some parts of the script where I thought I was really going to have to act. (Laughs)
I came to New York and studied St Clair Bayfield's diaries at Lincoln Center. I don't know if any of that does any good at all, but it makes you feel I'm a method actor. And then on day one, which was a read-through, I don't remember ever feeling as frightened as that. Oddly enough, it was in the same room where we had the read-through of (my 1999 film) Notting Hill. So in that same room, I have sweated more from my armpits than any other room in London.
And you had to dance in the film too.
That was a nightmare. I'm reading the script and I'm thinking, this is great, yeah, I can do that. And then it says, "Bayfield dances and he's brilliant". That takes the screenwriter about three seconds to type. It takes me a bloody three months in a studio with very nice ladies in leotards teaching me how to do swing dancing. But I have to say I quite enjoyed it in the end. I now enjoy expressing myself through movement, and I like to dance for my children. They hate it but I like it.
What else do you do with them? Are you a good dad?
I think I'm all right. Obviously I've made mistakes. I, for instance, like to wear my underpants on my head. I think that's very funny, but now all my kids are doing it at their nursery schools and all the other kids in the school are now doing it. I like to show my children my ass sometimes and again, they're doing that to the other children at school. So I probably shouldn't have done that either.
You became a father of four late in life, from 2011 onwards, with two different ex-girlfriends. Has that changed your perspective on life?
Well, I was a very nice person anyway, but I'd say it's made me even nicer. No, I mean it's good. All those cliches turn out to be true. You're not No. 1 any more, you're No. 2. And then suddenly No. 3 and then four. I'm now No. 5. It is very nice. Actually, I don't think I could have done this part (in Florence Foster Jenkins) really without having those children. I realise that now.
In what way?
Well, it was just much easier to access the love bit when you're confronted with unconditional love all day long.
Do you have other passions?
Usually very unsuitable ones. Recently I had a crazy passion for motor racing. I suppose it's part of a midlife crisis. And that's all I thought about. I couldn't go to sleep without motor racing on the television. I like the sound, the engines would lull me to sleep.
Insane really, because I really wasn't very good. I looked nice in my uniform, I thought. I liked my outfit but I was pretty bad.
I actually did a few races in Sweden and my little boy was watching me. He kept saying to his mother, "Look there's daddy." She's saying, "No, no, no, no. That's not daddy, that's daddy (at the end)." (Laughs.)