TV

‘The Undoing’ Star And ‘Paddington’ Villain Hugh Grant Tells Us His Theory On Why Actors Love To Be Bad

Hugh Grant, as everyone is well aware, has proven himself to be well-versed in playing charming characters (both of the straight-up endearing variety and, sometimes, as a mischievous scamp) throughout his lengthy career. More recently, he’s leaned into more nefarious territory with not only his Paddington 2 villain but also An English Scandal and The Gentleman. While those roles were interesting ones (and it was clear that Hugh had a ball playing them), The Undoing finally gives Hugh Grant a chance to play a guy that you’re not quite sure whether you like or hate. It’s an unusual reaction to have when it comes to Hugh because let’s face it: you still liked Phoenix Buchanan even though he helped condemn a marmalade-loving bear to prison, right? Don’t lie.

For different reasons, it’s far too enjoyable to watch Hugh as accused murderer Jonathan Fraser in HBO’s The Undoing. I’m still convinced that this was inspired casting, mostly because I’ve long suspected that Hugh has been keen to stop being so likeable onscreen. One can’t deliver the most effective celebrity apology of all time (for that 1995 “scandal”) without truly understanding the human condition, so this series feels like a guilt-inducing treat in that way. Hugh plays up his character’s roguish and enchanting layers in a manner that keeps viewers wondering what the hell he’s capable of doing. This upcoming Sunday, viewers will finally find out who-really-dunnit in the series finale.

Since I’ve been a Hugh follower for decades — enjoying not only his romantic heroes, but the occasional romantic anti-hero (“charming, witty, notable fuckwit,” Daniel Cleaver from Bridget Jones’s Diary) and even his dancing prime minister in the otherwise awful Love Actually — I did not have to be asked twice to hop onto a Zoom call with him to discuss The Undoing. I mean, come on: the series reteams Nicole Kidman and writer-producer David E. Kelley after their Big Little Lies success, but more importantly, it unites two Paddington villains in Kidman and Grant. I was in. Let the droll British charm roll.

How are things, Hugh? You look like you’re in a hotel.

Oh, I’m miserable. I’m in London. In the West End. The completely empty West End. In an empty hotel. It’s like something out of The Shining.

2020 is a Stephen King movie. Well, we are coming up on the 20th anniversary of the Bridget Jones’s Diary, in which you had an amusing fight scene. Your The Undoing fight scene is far more brutal. How did you gear up for it?

For this one? Well, I was anxious about it because there I am, an unfit doctor in his late middle age, suddenly being attacked by a young, extremely fit villain. And I don’t want there to be any danger of me looking as though I could actually take him on. He has to look like he’s pretty much won. The only thing that I can do is, well, I did become alarmingly vicious and unsportsman-like and pretty much bite his finger off.

Jonathan’s attorney sure wasn’t happy about seeing that.

Yes! [Laughs]

Should we read into Jonathan’s past after seeing that biting maneuver?

It’s certainly there to keep you wondering. Everything’s there to keep the audience there to keep thinking, “Could it be him? Surely not.” It’s very clever stuff from David Kelley.

I will say that the ensemble cast brings it. Who was most wonderful to work with?

Oh, there was no weak link. You always dread that someone’s going to be uncomfortable and not enjoying themselves. That’s very infectious, and that makes you worse, but everyone just absolutely cracked their role, and it becomes really easy, and you can sort-of riff and go off script and all those luxuries.

Did you do much improv in this series?

Yes, more in some parts than others. I did quite a bit in episode 1.

We’re not sure about Jonathan being good or bad, but there are definitely shades inside him. I’m recalling what Sons of Anarchy‘s Emilio Rivera told us about his 100+ bad guys: he remembers them all because “I put a part of myself into the bad guys.” Did you draw upon any inner darkness?

I think, yeah. This is my theory, after 60 years of existence. We are all basically evil and vile and anything that seems nice or charming is a very thin veneer that we sort-of smear over life to stop people from hating us, really. And I think that explains why audiences are automatically drawn to the villains, rather than to the good guy, and why actors are more thrilled at playing bad guys than the good guys because there’s something more viscerally true about them.

Does it surprise you that, even though you’ve stepped away from romcoms (and played a Paddington villain, Jeremy Thorpe, and a sleazy dude for Guy Ritchie) that people are surprised to see you in a role like The Undoing?

It’s a bit dispiriting because, as you’ve said, I’ve done quite a lot of things in the past five years, so [laughs] if people say, this is the rom-com guy, my shoulders slump a little bit.

Those movies are so embedded in our culture, though. Less than an hour ago, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez quoted Notting Hill on Twitter.

Oh really, what was the context?

She was mocking Republicans for suggesting that she’s all-powerful: “Alas, I’m just a first-term Congresswoman, standing in front of a government, asking it to love working people.”

She’s terrifying! Brilliant, but terrifying.

Jonathan is not-so-terrifying. No one can truly grasp if he’s a murderer, but they do know that he’s “a dick.” How did you balance those qualities?

It’s really about coming at it from two different directions. You know, you’re supposed to, as an actor, build from within. I knew exactly who this guy was. I knew why he did everything and said everything that he does in six episodes. That’s one priority, but then there’s a whole different variety, which is to tell the story and, above all, the whodunnit mystery element. And those two priorities, those two agendas, don’t always match. What might be absolutely true about the character might foil your whodunnit or tip things the wrong way. So, it’s certainly a balancing act, so to a certain extent, a little fight between the actor and director, quote often on what to show or not show at any given moment. Does that make sense?

Yes, but Jonathan could have been savvier in presenting himself, in that he does things (like fleeing) that make him look not-innocent. As someone in the public eye, did that strike you as true to his character?

I think he looks like a murderer because, circumstantially, all the evidence is stacked against him. He couldn’t look worse, and that’s why he looks like a murderer. But I think, actually, I don’t think I agree with you. He does a decent job of presenting himself on a Connie Chung-type show and all that. He’s probably relatively successful at making a certain number of people think, “Ahhhh, you know, he’s an asshole, and he betrayed his wife, but I don’t think this guy could be a killer.” So I’m not sure I agree with you!

You do make a good point about the TV show. He does look at the camera and says he has an idea of who the killer really is. Is he telling the truth?

[Smirks] I can’t tell you!

See, I’ve seen everything but the finale, and I can’t guess who did it, but I will say that I’m afraid of Donald Sutherland’s character.

Oh, but this is marvelous. When we shot the courtroom scene, every day on the stand with a new person being filmed, at the end of the day the assistant director used to say to all the assembled extras, “Okay guys, who do you think today did this crime?” Every day, they had a different answer, so it’s a great credit to David Kelley’s balancing act there. A cunning strategy.

On a public-relations note, you are very good at Twitter. You talk back to the trolls and have no problem doing so. Do they hit you as hard as it seems like they do?

In ways, yes. Especially when I was sort-of making an effort to prevent Boris Johnson from joining the government last year. The level of trolling was quite alarming. Whether those are people or bots or sock puppets, I don’t know, but it’s quite shocking. It was particularly shocking for my entirely innocent wife. That’s beyond the pale, when they go for your family.

Are they bringing up the past, too? You know, the… incident.

Oh, that’s their main weapon. That’s why I tweeted my mugshot, like, “Let me help you out here, boys, this will save you some time from having to look it up. Here it is, now you can spend more time with your mummies.”

We are out of time, so here’s one final question: did you and Nicole Kidman ever discuss who made the better Paddington villain?

Welllll…we never discussed that, but I think Paddington was very much with us on this. In some ways, I like to picture this whole series as the kind-of prequel to Paddington. This is how the two Paddington villains became who they were.

HBO’s ‘The Undoing’ finale airs on Sunday, Nov. 29 at 9:00pm EST.

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