Hugh Grant on playing the scandalous former British MP Jeremy Thorpe in first TV role since the 90s

Cape Town - Hugh Grant was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Actor In A Limited Series this year for his role in A Very English Scandal as former British MP Jeremy Thorpe, the first British politician to stand trial for conspiracy and incitement to murder. It was Grant’s first British TV role since the early 1990s.

With the three-part mini-series now streaming on Showmax, we caught up with the Golden Globe and BAFTA-winning star of films like Four Weddings And a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually to find out what drew him back to the small screen for A Very English Scandal, which earned Ben Whishaw the Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe and was also nominated as Best Limited Series.

What attracted you to 'A Very English Scandal'?

It was an easy thing to say yes to. I had already loved the John Preston book. It was Stephen Frears, with whom I made Florence Foster Jenkins. It was Russell Davies, who I greatly admire as a screenwriter. And it’s a bloody good character: A fascinating character. A man of charm, wit and political talent but at the same time with a very dark side.

Tell us about your character?

Jeremy Thorpe was the leader of the Liberal Party for a time in the 60s and 70s in Britain. He was a very successful politician, a great showman, a wonderful electioneerer, an old Etonian, quite flamboyant, a bit of a dandy. And he harboured a secret, which was that he was gay and specifically that he had one particular affair in his 30s. It was an affair that started hot and turned very cold and very nasty. Ultimately Jeremy Thorpe was plagued by this man over a period of 10, 20 years. As Thorpe’s career blossomed, he was still being plagued by this chap. And in the end, he appears to have ordered his friends to try and have this ex-lover, Norman Scott, murdered.

What do you remember of the Thorpe scandal?

We go in the film from the year I was born - 1960 - through to the year I went to university - 1979. I was about 19 when Thorpe was on trial at The Old Bailey. Everything around me on the set, from cigarette packets to beer bottles to loo paper, it all was my childhood. It was quite weird.

So, I do remember. I have vague recollections of it and of the endless jokes that went around. It was all considered hilariously funny, largely because no one actually died.

So, is the TV series funny?

The book, which I think is marvellous, is a very clever combining of the dark side of this with the black comedy of it. I think our aim with this is to do exactly that - that’s the tone we’re aiming for.

Going from dark and serious moments to light moments is the trick of the whole thing. I’ve always loved films where tragedy and comedy coexist at the same time, because it’s really more like life.

Ben Whishaw and Hugh Grant in 'a Very English Scan

(Ben Whishaw and Hugh Grant in A Very English Scandal. Photo supplied: Showmax)

What research did you do?

A lot. Partly because I signed up for A Very English Scandal almost a year before and had nothing else to do while revving up for the shoot. So, there’s very little I don’t know about the whole affair. I took a very deep Jeremy Thorpe bath.

As part of my research, I met a lot of people who knew him very well and worked with him. Half of them said, 'Of course, the thing about Jeremy is that it’s inconceivable that he ever did anything wrong or would have ordered harm to another human being. He was a saint.' And then there was the other half, who said, 'Well no; I think he did have a dark side.'

You look different in this role. What’s changed?

It’s a work of genius by Daniel Phillips, who did Florence Foster Jenkins and is this wonderful, multi-award-winning make-up artist. I kind of said, in a gentle way, that I didn’t want to do the job unless he did it. I have brown contact lenses. The very distinctive Jeremy Thorpe hair. They’ve given me much more five o’clock shadow - he was very hirsute and dark. And he was gaunt, so I bought a bicycle and went haring around Richmond Park for three months and lost about six kilos, and then Daniel brought out the hollow cheeks with shadow.

How challenging was it playing a historical figure?

It’s a long time since I played a real person who actually lived. I did Frederic Chopin years ago in the 80s but I can’t think of another one since then. It does present its own set of problems because there’s the temptation to do an imitation, especially when you’ve got archive footage, as we have of Jeremy Thorpe. And then you worry that if you do that, it may be a bit too one-dimensional and that you need to reinvent him in your own way. So it’s finding a balance. It’s rather like what they did with my make-up and hair. It’s a good nod towards the real Jeremy Thorpe but it’s not an entire facsimile of him.

What’s it like working with Oscar nominee Stephen Frears ('The Queen') as a director?

Frears is of course a genius but he’s not without his eccentricities. Before I did Florence Foster Jenkins with him, I assumed he would be a micromanager of actors and devoted to deep analysis of character and plot. On the contrary, he’s very trusting. He hates character discussion; he hates plot discussions. 'I don’t know; I don’t know. Whatever you think. I trust you. It’s all down to you.' That’s the way he directs.

And Ben Whishaw as your ex-lover Norman Scott?

It was lovely to work with him again; Ben’s one of the great actors of his generation. He was of course the voice of Paddington in Paddington 2, when I was the baddie. He also played my wife in Cloud Atlas; we all played lots of different characters in that very strange film. In one scene, I’m 82 years old and he is lying next to me; he’s my wife. So it was a pleasure working with him again. 

What makes this story relevant to a global audience, and South Africa in particular? 

I always think that the more specific and indigenous a film or television film is, the better it travels. Whenever people think, 'Oh, we’d better make this less specifically English or less specifically French and make it for a worldwide audience,' you actually do yourself harm and fewer people are really interested. People love a very precise glimpse into a precise world and time and that’s certainly what they get with this film.


Binge A Very English Scandal on Showmax now