Entertainment

Hugh Grant Wants the Finale of HBO's 'The Undoing' to Be a Surprise

The actor talks about his shady character in the HBO series, but in as vague a way as possible ahead of the finale.

the undoing, hugh grant
HBO

Hugh Grant does not want to spoil his television show The Undoing for you, which makes interviewing him about it especially difficult, a fact he acknowledged when I spoke to him via Zoom. On the HBO series, he plays Jonathan Fraser, a pediatric oncologist, who at first seems charming in a very traditionally Hugh Grant way—self-effacing, adorable—but is soon revealed to have been keeping untold secrets. He had an affair with the mother of one of his patients (Matilda De Angelis), who, in the pilot, is found bludgeoned to death in her art studio. Five episodes in, with one left to go, Jonathan is on trial for murder, but his wife Grace (Nicole Kidman) had just discovered that there may very well be another culprit in her own family. 

Jonathan is the latest in Grant's great run of men who are not what they initially seem—from the dastardly Phoenix Buchanan in Paddington 2, a legitimate masterpiece, to politician Jeremy Thorpe in the miniseries A Very English Scandal, a role that earned him an Emmy nomination. For as much as Grant was cagey about revealing too much about Jonathan, for fear of saying too much before what's revealed in the finale, he did chat about his relationship with Kidman and his invented backstory for the character.

Thrillist: When you took the role in A Very English Scandal, you were skeptical about doing TV. What convinced you to take on another TV project? 
Hugh Grant:
You're right. I have been snobbish about TV in the past, but I'm getting better about it. This is absolute deluxe television. It's Rolls Royce. 

Jonathan Fraser is an incredibly tricky character. There's something politician-like about him. He's very gregarious on one hand, and nefarious on the other. What was your approach to his two-faced nature? 
Well, it's very hard to know exactly what to tell you. His very attractive exterior—in terms of, he heals children, makes them well from cancer, and he's got a sense of humor and he loves his wife, loves his kid—for him it's all real, despite whatever else he might be. All that's real. He's a man who, I think, is dazzled by himself. 

In the fifth episode, Grace suspects that he might be a sociopath. Did you think about potential sociopathy? 
People are still not quite sure what the truth is yet. So if I give you an answer about sociopathy, it may give something away. It's just impossible. I realized it was going to be a very difficult press junket and it is. So, I'm sorry but I have to err on the side of caution here. 

I understand. How do you see class functioning in this story? 
I think it's always been delicious to audiences to watch people's lives unravel and nothing is more delicious than the lives of the privileged unraveling. That applies back in Shakespeare's day. They wanted to watch kings' and queens' lives unraveling rather than the peasants' lives unraveling. I think it's a pretty basic function of entertainment. That's why we're in this world, really. 

This is your first time working with Nicole Kidman on screen, despite the fact that you both, in separate films, terrorized young Paddington. Had you met before?
We had met. We had a dinner way back in the 1990s, and since then have often bumped into each other. We've always got on quite well. We have a sort of tease-y relationship. Brits are like that with Aussies and Aussies are like that with Brits. So I've always liked her. I didn't know what she'd be like to act with because she's so good and that's always slightly intimidating. But she was like Meryl Streep. It was just very easy. When people are really good, it's actually easier, oddly enough. The nightmare is when someone's very nervous, you become infected with nerves. But if they are very relaxed and brilliant at their jobs, somehow you pick it up. It's like playing tennis with Roger Federer. You play better tennis. 

the undoing
HBO

You've been playing these men who present one face to the public and have another in private. When you first got these scripts, what did you pinpoint about Jonathan? 
I always think it's interesting the idea of someone who is perhaps a little too good to be true. And the metaphor I always gave to myself about him was, he is a lovely expensive cotton shirt you've worn many times, it's been well washed, it's very comfortable. And then you start to get the slight sensation, hang on, is there a little bit of viscous in this? Is it a bit too easy to iron? And you sometimes get it with eminent doctors you meet. Your bedside manner is so utterly seamless and perfect and you're so wonderful, you save lives, and you're fractionally creepy somewhere. That was the interesting bit for me. 

That's interesting what you say about doctors. There is this sense that these are people who are dealing with death all the time, but they are able to compartmentalize that. Is that what you mean? 
There are people who think that way. They hate doctors for that. That, although they might seem extremely caring, really people are fodder for their science, particularly some top doctors. And particularly some top doctors who might think, "Ah, it's a bit dangerous this new drug but let's try it, let's see what happens, and I can write a paper about it and rise higher up in the echelons of doctor-hood." And there's just always that feeling of, "How sincere is your hippocratic oath? How much could you possibly be a total narcissist?" 

You mentioned that charming exterior. A lot of people think of you earlier in your career as playing this kind of "dream man," like in Four Weddings and a Funeral. You've discussed how that shaped your career. Is playing this person, who is not what he seems, but does present this perfect exterior, a reaction to that at all? 
Well, yes, I suppose that's true, up to a point. But really what I've been doing recently, films like Paddington and The Gentlemen is going back to something way back at the beginning of my career, when really what I did for a living was silly voices and character acting. I never remotely thought I would be a leading man. That wasn't what interested me. It was playing someone quite different to myself, whatever it might be. That's what I've been doing more recently. With this one, I sort of wanted to do that. [Director] Susanne Bier put the brakes on that, possibly correctly. She felt that some of the things I wanted to do to characterize the role might have showed too much viscous too soon. 

What were some of those things? 
It was the way he looked. I had a whole backstory about he had done his training as a doctor in Paris and he had become very intellectual, rather left wing, part of their sort of champagne socialist Parisian world. I wanted him to have much longer hair and a much more sort of Parisian look. And I think Susanne felt that might be fishy. 

The television interview is such a great piece of acting. How did you want to play with the audience's perception in the scene? 
Well, again, it's a complicated question to answer, because I can't tell you whether Jonathan is being sincere in everything he does in the interview or whether he's acting. Even if I could tell you, I'm not sure Jonathan entirely knows. So it's a very very complicated question, but I will say it was an eye-opener to someone from Britain to know that in an American criminal trial, people can just do interviews, can use the media to sway the outcome, because I'm pretty sure that would be illegal here. That would be prejudicial. 

That is a quintessentially American thing, the media fracas around trials. 
I think David E. Kelley is making a point about that, that this becomes a reality TV show in this day and age. 

What was it like acting alongside Noah Jupe? How did you want to develop that father-son relationship? 
It's just very lovely to have to act alongside someone who is just so naturally talented. Everything just flows. Whatever direction one of you might go in, the other can follow. In Episode 6, there's quite an extended scene that had quite a lot of improvisation in it. And he was wonderful to do that with. He's brilliant. And, you know, the boy's from Manchester, for god's sake. He's got a Manchester accent. He plays an absolutely perfect American throughout this. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.