NEW YORK — Hugh Grant is having a Hugh Grant moment in a luxury hotel suite near the tip of Lower Manhattan. Greeting a guest with an offer of refreshment, he hovers over an espresso maker, holding a delicate little demitasse cup.
The mischievous machine, though, spews more liquid than the cup can contain, and soon Grant is left standing there, like one of those charmingly thwarted gentlemen in a Hugh Grant comedy, watching a minor mechanical catastrophe unfold. A few words of pained regret are muttered; a larger coffee cup is quickly secured, and with an apologetic look and minimal spillage, the calamity is averted.
It’s an endearing way to be welcomed into the company of Grant, who at 55 is still sleek and, with the exception of a few more creases in his classic leading-man features, boyishly handsome. “It was not my ambition to be a professional actor,” the Oxford-educated Grant says, reminiscing about how he got from there to here for his latest venture, co-starring with Meryl Streep in a quirky new Stephen Frears film, “Florence Foster Jenkins,” about a tone-deaf would-be opera singer and the man who reinforces her illusions.
There are, it seems, little accidents in Grant’s daily life, and more consequential ones. He’d done some college acting while reading English at Oxford, he says, and even appeared in a student film that he forgot all about as soon as he left school, when he was contemplating an additional degree. “After I graduated that summer,” he recalls, “someone called up and said, ‘We’re showing that film tonight in London, in Piccadilly. Come and have a look.’
“So I remember going along on my bicycle, and watching it, and then there were these agents afterward who said, ‘Uh, hey, do you want to be an actor?’ I said, ‘No thank you very much. I want to do this history of art degree.’ And then I thought, actually, you know, maybe I’ll do it for a year because I have no money. And then one year turned into 35.”
Those years — which also have seen Grant through an embarrassingly well-documented personal misstep or two, such as a 1995 arrest by a Los Angeles vice squad — marked a sustained career in film that essentially began with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory’s 1987’s “Maurice.” His breakthrough came in 1994 with the hit offbeat comedy “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” and he stayed hot through rom-coms such as “Notting Hill,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “About a Boy.”
Tonally, his performances have been remarkably wide-ranging, a characteristic for which he rarely gets credit, and encompassing serious period dramas such as “Sense and Sensibility” and “The Remains of the Day,” and some lesser pop fare such as “Music and Lyrics,” with Drew Barrymore, and the broad “American Idol” satire “American Dreamz.”
Now, with the fact-based “Florence Foster Jenkins,” he’s gotten hold of one of the more enigmatic characters he’s ever tackled, a failed English actor named St. Clair Bayfield who lives with Jenkins, an American heiress and philanthropist played by Streep. With his dashing poker face, he leads New York society of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s in an odd charade about the pleasures of Florence’s dreadful voice. Although it’s a harmless delusion under which Florence labors — while St. Clair is harboring other, more hurtful secrets — the movie compels you to wonder at St. Clair’s motives: Was he using Florence or being her rock?
“I was rather attracted to the fact that I think it’s both,” Grant says. “It’s very true that you can be both selfless and selfish at the same time. What we tend towards, particularly in filmmaking, is this binary sort of, this is a good guy, this is a bad guy. And I quite like the fact that life is a bit more complex than that.”
Complexity is a condition that doesn’t seem to intimidate Grant, whose film work has grown more sparse in the past several years, at the same time that his family responsibilities have become more complicated. “I seem to have a child every second Thursday,” the actor says jokingly, in describing how he’s been “busy with other stuff.” From 2011 to 2015, he had four children, alternatingly back and forth with two women.
“Sometimes, I think that’s why Stephen Frears chose me,” Grant says of his casting in “Florence Foster Jenkins” as a man capable of remaining happy with a woman who, having contracted a sexually transmitted disease at a tender age, couldn’t consummate their relationship. “Because I think Stephen saw a man with a rather unusually shaped domestic arrangement, he thought: ‘Ah! Hugh!’ ”
“I’m a great believer in eccentrically shaped modern families,” he remarks at another point. “Because I’ve seen them work so well. And as long as everyone loves each other, it can work very well.”
Grant is an engaging converationalist, and so the discussion briskly moves from movies to Brexit to the media. Several years ago, he became deeply involved with a public cause in Britain, advocating for legislation that would curb press excesses of the sort that led to the phone hacking scandal that engulfed Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper News of the World. Grant donated the damage settlement he himself received from the now-defunct Sunday tabloid for hacking his phone to the Hacked Off reform campaign, in which he’s still active.
In tandem with the other responsibilities in his life, Grant, has managed to evolve a maturer screen presence. That, it seems, is no accident at all.
“It turns out all those things I used to slightly sneer at, Stanislavsky or Lee Strasberg or Method, some of those [acting] techniques I think really do work.,” he says.
It’s surprising to learn, given his natural glibness, that when he’s on a movie set, he makes an almost academic study of his role. Into a computer, “I write the whole history of the character. The next day, you write more, and it expands and expands and expands,” he says.
Such a level of dedication to the craft makes one wonder whether he’s willing to vary his diet further by, say, attempting something on a stage.
“People do occasionally approach me about that,” he says. “I’m a little bit tempted. If every play was three weeks, I’d do lots of plays. It’s just the idea of six months, I think that might drive me a bit nuts.”
His roles onstage at Oxford were in Shakespeare, culminating in his playing the title role in “Hamlet.” “But in a very unusual production,” he notes. “We did it in ‘Star Trek’ costumes.”
There were a couple of other early theatrical forays, after he made the commitment to the actor’s life. Back about 1990, he was a cast in a comedy, whose author and title he doesn’t recall. He does remember that the director was fired: “He was just too irritating.” Oh — and that while he had an ear for comedy, he didn’t have the composure for it.
“Because I found after a bit that if the audience laughed, I laughed, too. I laughed with glee.”