x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Hugh Grant takes up the pirate life in his first major animated role

We talk to Hugh Grant about stretching his acting ability as the hirsute Pirate Captain, being the public face of the UK's hacking scandal and throwing off his bumbling Englishman screen persona.

The actor Hugh Grant.
The actor Hugh Grant.

Hugh Grant arrives for our interview dressed in casual Notting Hill chic: jeans and a light navy shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. His hair is still styled in that neat, modish look that he introduced to the world when he appeared in About a Boy (a far cry from the floppy fringe he sported when 1994's Four Weddings and a Funeral launched his career). There's a touch of grey there now; but at 51, he still has his boyish looks.

We're sitting in a white-walled first-floor boardroom in the Bristol headquarters of Aardman Studios, the animation company famed for Nick Park's Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit characters. Grant is the lead voice for Aardman's new feature-length puppet movie, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, a rollicking 3D high-seas comedy, in which an unruly mob of buccaneers encounter Charles Darwin, an extinct Dodo and a pirate-hating Queen Victoria.

Grant admits he was "alarmed" when he was offered the chance to voice the hirsute Pirate Captain.

"He's so different, physically, to me. I thought: 'They should get some other actor. Someone bigger and bearded!' And then they specifically didn't want a pirate voice - the classic 'Ooh, ah!' So I had to come up with a whole bigger voice. And that's what it is. In fact, my young cousins, who've seen the trailer, they all think it's not me!"

The actor's only previous animation effort was the US version of a BBC kids show Robbie the Reindeer, when he voiced Blitzen, but working for a British institution like Aardman was a different matter. "I've been watching Aardman films for years, and loving them. On the first day of recording this, I was starstruck. One of the paranoias I had was that because they had already done a rough version of the film with a temporary voice, they would love their temporary voice more."

Fortunately, the Aardman co-founder and The Pirates! director Peter Lord saw it differently. "We listened to a whole bunch of English actors, and Hugh Grant was the funniest," he explains. "When he does a dialogue scene, he just has great comic timing." Grant, of course, is far too modest (and English) to agree, but he does say that it took him back to his early days, after graduating with an English degree from Oxford, when he was writing sketch comedy and producing radio commercials.

In some respects, it's surprising to see Grant act at all. His last film, 2009's lame rom-com Did You Hear About the Morgans? with Sarah Jessica Parker flopped. And there's a sense that he is rather tired of it all. "Nothing makes me keen as an actor," he says. "I don't know. It just doesn't particularly appeal anymore, if it ever did. I'm interested in final results, rather than acting for its own sake. I'm not one of those actors who loves acting for its own sake, or who finds it in some way therapeutic, life-changing or a religious experience."

If anything, Grant has found his calling elsewhere of late. Last November, he was a star witness in the Leveson enquiry, set up in the wake of the widespread phone-hacking scandal that led to the closure of British tabloid The News of the World. As he told the enquiry, for years he suspected he was the victim of such privacy invasion, but was only able to prove it after a chance encounter with Paul McMullen, a former features editor of The News of the World, led to Grant secretly taping his admissions.

"I've been ranting about that for years," he says, "and no one really believed me when I said: 'It's all a stitch up with the press and the government and the police.' People would think 'Hugh's gone mad.' Now that it's been revealed that I'm not mad, I am quite enthusiastic to finish the job." Was it gratifying to be proved right? "Yeah, it was. It's only gratifying if we can finish the job. Apart from anything else, otherwise I'm a dead man! It's a terrifying enemy."

Grant has been a tabloid obsession ever since he and his former girlfriend of 13 years, Elizabeth Hurley, stepped out at the 1994 Four Weddings premiere, she wearing that infamous Versace safety-pin dress. Most notoriously, he was humiliated a year later when police caught him with prostitute Divine Brown in his BMW on Sunset Boulevard. Even now, Grant has been fending off press attention after becoming a father for the first time, following "a fleeting affair" with a Chinese actress, Tinglan Hong.

But as the celebrity face for anti-hacking campaign Hacked Off, Grant has found a new lease on life. "It's a whole new world for me," he beams, "getting in a taxi and saying 'House of Lords, please!' I quite like it." If that makes it sound like a jolly good lark, Grant is quite serious, and determined to see this through. "There's a lot to be done and there's so much more to come out, particularly about the police and particularly about the government's relationship with [media baron Rupert] Murdoch."

While he once played prime minister in Love Actually, does this mean Grant the political animal will soon be running for parliament? "No, you can relax. That's not going to happen."

Still, he does seem to be approaching life with renewed vigour. He says he wants to write and direct a film "with some jokes in it", though he has no wish to fall back on the genre in which he made his name. "I never really chose romantic comedies," he adds. "They chose me."

Claiming he's now "too old" for rom-coms (even if a third Bridget Jones film is in the works), he's even managing to throw off his bumbling Englishman screen persona. He's just completed six cameo roles in Cloud Atlas, an adaptation of the best-selling novel by David Mitchell, co-directed by the Wachowski siblings, who brought us The Matrix.

"[It was] very weird, as you would expect. But cathartic for me. I did a lot of killing and raping. I thoroughly enjoyed it!"

The Pirates! Band of Misfits (3D) opens today.

artslife@thenational.ae

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