Hugh Grant joins Awards Daily‘s Shadan Larki to discuss his Emmy-nominated role in the HBO miniseries, The Undoing—including how he managed to capture his character’s “heart of darkness.”
Hugh Grant has made no secret of his quest to leave his romantic comedy days behind him. But, in fact, the same charm that made Grant a star is the key to his Emmy-nominated turn in The Undoing.
To play the dashing Dr. Jonathan Fraser, the prime suspect in Susanne Bier’s murder mystery miniseries, Grant had to rely on his charm to build trust with the audience and convince them he was a loving husband and a devoted father a hero doctor incapable of committing a gruesome crime. Never mind that the victim was Fraser’s mistress, and he was at the scene of the crime— the facts of the case play second fiddle to Grant’s ability to make you cheer for him. Even as he begins to unravel, his narcissism on full display, you find yourself fooled by Grant’s feigned sincerity, Until the reveal that Jonathan Fraser has, in fact, been our culprit all along.
The duplicitous Fraser required Grant to deliver a masterfully calibrated “performance within a performance,” fooling his wife (Nicole Kidman), his son (Noah Jupe), and even himself into believing in his innocence. A winking devil hiding in plain sight and the finest work of Grant’s career.
Awards Daily: I am so interested in how you calibrated this performance. You have said it was important for you to know upfront that Jonathan was guilty. How did you plant those seeds throughout the show?
Hugh Grant: Well, of course, the main thing was not to plant those seeds. My main practical duty was to try and convince audiences and Nicole’s character, Grace, that I was innocent. But, as an actor, I wanted to do it in such a way that if anyone ever did go back and watch the series for a second time, they might think, ‘Yeah, I see, I see, it’s so obvious he is guilty.’ That was a very difficult balancing act. I really couldn’t allow any moment where I looked in any way fishy in my performance because the circumstances were so fishy— he disappears, he has an affair, he was the only one there at the scene of the crime. He couldn’t, circumstantially, be more guilty, so I couldn’t perform guilty as well.
AD: There are so many different aspects to Jonathan’s personality; there is the charm, the anger, the narcissism. What was the most difficult to tap into, or perhaps, the most important in your mind?
HG: Well, the black heart is the important, probably the most interesting bit for me. This is a guy who was incapable of feeling anything and so profoundly narcissistic that he could perform a murder as barbaric as the murder he performs with no conscience whatsoever, no bad feeling. That is the core of the character. And then on the outside, he has this incredibly polished and charming exterior that he built up over the years; that was also important, but, from my point of view, that was easier to act than getting to the real heart of darkness.
AD: In terms of needing to convince everyone that this man is innocent, how did you manage to capture that in your performance?
HG: You have to believe your innocence, and I think his narcissism was so profound that he actually believes his own lies. So, I think when he is saying to Grace, ‘I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it.’ Or telling his son he didn’t do it, in that moment, he actually believes it. That is really helpful to an actor because it is very important to believe what you are saying.
AD: I found the scenes with his son to be the most interesting. You’ve mentioned narcissism, but do you think any of the emotions were real? Was all a façade? How did you approach playing a man who exudes some form of paternal love while also being capable of monstrous things?
HG: Yeah, that wasn’t easy. I think he certainly loved being loved, which is not quite the same as loving. He was determined to keep that which explains a little bit of the urgency behind his pleadings with his son to believe him and forgive him.
I think, like with his lies, which he believed, his paternal feelings, he actually believes them when he is performing them. But he is basically performing them. Like a good actor, you feel them as you do them. He is sort of acting with his son when he is expressing love. But in his performance, he believes it in that moment. But really deep down, is he really capable of feeling anything for another human? I don’t think so. But [director] Susanne Bier disagrees with me. She thinks he is capable of loving his wife and son.
AD: So, essentially, The Undoing required you to give a performance within a performance.
HG: Yes, it’s all very meta. Experience has taught me that if you are in any way fake on camera, the camera doesn’t really like it that much, it likes to think you are real. I brought real familial love to the part. It’s just that Jonathan’s so twisted; you are performing it rather than feeling it. [Laughs]. Of course, I brought real love of my sons to the scenes with the boy, and my real love for my daughters to the bit where I am talking about neglecting my sister while I was making a cheese sandwich and she ran out and got squashed. Where, of course, Jonathan feels nothing for her at all, as we later learn.
AD: Did you develop any ticks or anything to separate your physicality from Jonathan’s physicality?
HG: I wanted to do much more in pre-production, but Susanne wanted a bit of me, especially in episode one—me from the romantic comedy films I used to do. There were physical things, when you get glimpses towards the end of the real Jonathan, like when he realizes that Grace has betrayed him on the witness stand, or when he is talking to his son in the car. I had a trick of defocusing my eyes, I always had a squint in my right eye, but a very light one. I don’t know why I did that, but that seemed to help me go to a different place, to his heart of darkness.
AD: As an actor, when you finish a project, do you find yourself completely leaving that character behind, or do you carry a piece with you?
HG: I think you do always carry pieces with you, yes. I often worry, ‘Is there any of Jonathan in me?’ [Laughs]. I certainly had to explain to my wife before we watched it. I said, ‘Look, you may spot some similarities here.’ Partly because our circumstances are so similar, this is a guy with a kid that goes to school in a posh area of New York. I am a guy with kids going to posh schools in London. He’s outwardly charming, etc. I said, ‘Don’t get spooked. This isn’t the real me that you see in the series.’ There are moments in the middle of the night when I think, ‘Is it the real me?’ [Laughs].
AD: [Laughs]. You have been open about wanting to leave the charming Englishman behind. The Undoing is a massive departure for you. Where do you go from here?
HG: To be honest, I had already left that romantic comedy character behind some years ago. With the sort of parts I did in A Very English Scandal or Paddington 2, Florence Foster Jenkins, Cloud Atlas— It’s been a long, long time. I think you’d have to go back ten years to find anything where I’ve been a really nice guy. I am not sure that I agree that this is a departure for me, but Jonathan is undoubtedly the darkest of those characters, the new breed of characters I’ve been doing. Of course he is.
AD: Well, I was going to ask you which character was more fun to play, Paddington villain or Jonathan Fraser?
HG: Yes, well. That is not as simple answer as you might think. [Laughs]. You assume Paddington was more fun, but comedy, everyone will tell you, is miserably difficult and anxiety-ridden. It is so black and white. What you are doing is either funny or it’s not. If it’s not, you’ve got a lot of egg on your face. I always thought there was more wiggle room in drama. There’s a bigger gray area in the middle.
AD: Lastly, as you prepare to move on from The Undoing, what do you want the cultural legacy of this performance and this series to be?
HG: Well, I’ll tell you one of the things that I love about it most is how cinematic it is. I hope that is fully appreciated. It is something that I love about it. Susanne Bier’s very Danish twist on an American thriller, whodunit; her use of music, sounds, and incredible photography. So much of it has been done with filmmaking, and not just words and performances. I am proud of that, and I love that about the series.
Hugh Grant is Emmy-nominated in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie category for his work in The Undoing The series is available to stream via HBO.