Hugh Grant is back with Florence Foster Jenkins, coming out of semi-retirement to act opposite Meryl Streep in another surprising true tale from director Stephen Frears (Philomena, The Program). In the case of Florence, the facts are particularly startling and difficult to believe—starring Streep as the title character, the film tells the true story of a New York heiress who follows her musical dreams with a flourish, in spite of the fact that she cannot, and perhaps should not, sing. Below, Grant touches on his research process for the film, working with Streep, and his long-held aspirations to direct.
How did you come to be involved with Florence Foster Jenkins?
I knew Stephen a little bit—through politics, actually. For years, and he would often say at political events, “Yeah, we should do a film together.” I never really thought he meant it. Then, to my great surprise, one day he said, “I’m sending you a script.” To my even greater surprise, it was really good, with a brilliant part for me. Plus, Meryl Streep. It was not a difficult job to say yes to.
Were you familiar with Florence’s story prior to getting the script?
I was aware that there had been a famously awful singer, because I remember my cousins passing around cassette tapes of her back in the ‘70s, but I didn’t know the details of her life. I do now—my god. I researched this part to the finest detail. Partly out of nerves. I’m a world authority now on Florence Foster Jenkins, and St. Clair Bayfield.
Was there anything you discovered during that research process that you found particularly surprising?
The whole thing’s surprising, really. It’s all so weird, that she could continue to delude herself, and be deluded by her husband and the people around her for so long. It’s weird, and sort of startling. It’s full of semi-grotesque elements, like the fact that she had syphilis at that time. This guy, my character, really loves her with a great purity—unconditional love, like blood, family bond love. Yet, at the same time, he has no problem with loving another woman who lives around the corner. I enjoyed all these things, because they kind of messed with your expectations. They disorientate audiences, I think politely, I think in terms of genre and the way they’re supposed to be reacting. I think the best bits of art, if one’s going to use that word, are celebrations. I think this is a great celebration of eccentricity and love, within a very, very eccentric shape.
Your films often seem marked by a charming lack of cynicism, which seems to be true in this case. What is it about that kind of material that speaks to you?
I’m not sure that I entirely agree with you. I mean, if you think about About a Boy, he’s pretty cynical character. Although, I suppose he has a sort of epiphany. I certainly don’t look for non-cynicism, being an extraordinary cynical person myself. But I suppose I never equated quality with the dark, gloomy sadness. I think that has become slightly a default position with a lot of people when it comes to cinema or theater, and we overlook things like charm. I’ve just been doing Paddington Part 2, and I have to do a song and dance routine. In preparation for that, I was watching things like Gene Kelly and Singing in the Rain. That, to me, seems just as great a piece of art, if not greater, than the deepest, darkest serious things about death, disease and warfare. Yet we all applaud the latter more than the former.
In the film, Florence speaks about dark moments in history, and the necessity of art in those moments. Is that something that resonates with you at this particular moment?
I think it’s not just in dark times, but I believe in all times, it is very important to be able have a little distance, and observe and experience life through the prism of, I hate to use the word art, but I suppose that’s what it is, really. It’s always struck me, if you’re reading a good book—particularly a novel—life becomes more manageable, because you know you’re not alone, and you view things through the prism of fiction. Life in the raw, without culture, is pretty relentless and depressing.
Did you enjoy getting to spend a few months living in a world of the arts—of opera and theater?
There was something particularly endearing, I think, about people who are not very good at what their passion is about. I think it’s extremely human. Florence obviously is very passionate about singing, and she’s terrible. My character was crazy about acting, and yet he was no good, as we show at the beginning of the film. I think that’s very human, and I enjoyed the fact that the film kind of celebrates that. Glorious failure. The British are very into that.
Did you, in any way, identify with the artists presented in the film?
The key for me to the whole character was something I discovered when reading the real St. Clair Bayfield’s diaries and letters, which had been preserved in the archives. It was clear that before he met her, and after she died, he was just a stage struck man desperate to act, even though he didn’t have great talent. The character we see in the film, who’s this rather smooth, debonair master of ceremonies is the swan on the surface, but the little feet underneath are desperate. He’s a desperate man, an out of work actor who wants a job. Any actor knows that feeling. Certainly from my early years, I remember that, the sort of tragedy of writing letters to directors of theaters and things saying, “If you have a vacancy, for Coriolanus, or whatever it is,” and I get that.
Did you feel a certain responsibility in portraying a real life character?
Yeah. I’m not aware that St. Clair Bayfield has many living relatives. In a way, I was lucky because I couldn’t get sued, I couldn’t get nasty letters saying, “This is a terrible betrayal of my grandfather,” or whatever. I was extremely fond of him from the beginning—I think that’s key. I don’t think you can really play the part successfully if you don’t like the person. From the word go, I was very fond of Bayfield.
How would you describe the process of working with Stephen and Meryl? I imagine they recorded all the music beforehand.
Actually, they did do some pre-records, because the normal way, as you know, of doing a film with music is that you pre-record it and then you mime along to it. Playback. They decided not to do that, and in fact, they just pre-recorded some things for safety, but then in fact, they sang live, and Simon played the piano live. Full credit to them, because that’s not easy. That’s how they did that. Stephen Frears, what can I tell you? He’s incredibly trusting. I’ve come across this before in a few very highly regarded directors. Woody Allen was like that; Roman Polanski was like that. They don’t want chitchat about character, motivation, plot. They just trust you—that’s mainly a very nice thing. It gives you a lot of competence. But you can occasionally, especially as in the lead up to the film, think, “Well, I’ve no idea what he wants, and I could be way off on day one.” That’s frightening.
Were there specific conversations about finding and honing moments of humor that come out in the film?
I think Stephen is very comfortable with the dramatic part of the film, and world renowned for being great at that. He pretends that he’s not so comfortable with comedy aspects of things, but I think he’s just posing, really. I think he knows exactly what he’s doing. He was always saying, “Come on Hugh. Help me out with this scene. We’ve got the bath full of potato salad. How do I shoot that, how do I shoot that to make that funny?” I think that’s just one of his cunning ways to make me feel sort of confident and relaxed.
And Meryl? How was she to work with?
I can only really give you the answer you’d expect, which is that it’s genuinely a treat, because you’re only as good as what’s coming back, and seeing as what was coming back was probably the best film acting we’ve ever known, it does help. Also, I consider myself quite a devoted and conscientious actor, because I’ve signed up to do a job. But her devotion was something else entirely, especially her determination—it’s like a kind of oath, to be actually in the emotion of the scene. She never acts emotion, she actually has that emotion within her. If it’s a sad scene, sad Meryl comes on the set. If it’s a happy scene, happy Meryl comes on the set. If it’s an angry scene, watch out.
Did you go through extensive dance choreography for the film?
Well, obviously that was a nightmare. I saw this stage direction, “Bayfield dances, and he’s brilliant,” and thought, “Right.” There then ensued 2 months in a dance studio in London, trying to learn the Lindy Hop, at the age of 54.
On a career level, a number of the films you’re most well known for are love stories, in some form. Florence is no exception.
It’s more just a function of age, I think. I always do the best script that’s coming across my desk, and these days, people don’t want me to play the young, leading man in romantic comedies, and I don’t blame them. I tend to get more unusual things like this. That’s great. I embrace that.
Is it true, as reported, that you came out of semi-retirement to do the film?
Yes. I was still doing bits and bobs here and there, like The Man from U.N.C.L.E, or Cloud Atlas—things like that, little amusements. I was very involved in this whole political thing in London, and quite happy doing it. It was quite an excursion to come back into a full scale, red-blooded film with Meryl Streep, I’ll tell you.
What does your political activity entail?
Well, it all started in the summer of 2011, when it was revealed that the News of the World, the big Sunday tabloid in Britain, had been hacking the phone of a 13-year-old girl who had been abducted and was subsequently murdered. The British public was so revolted by it that the News of the World went out of business. At that time, because I had been known as someone who had been vocal about the tabloid press being quasi-criminal and also running the country. They have this extraordinary power and creepy relationship with government and the police, that I gave a couple of interviews and I thought, “Well that settled the end of that.”
In fact, it then became a really big thing. We campaigned. We got a public inquiry; it lasted a year. We got the recommendations of the inquiry put into law, which was a big deal in itself. Now, the new government’s just trying to wriggle out of that because they’re so scared, still, of these big newspaper owners, so the campaign still goes on with us holding the government’s feet to the fire. I don’t like to lose, so on we go. The public’s on our side. It’s a difficult situation—every British Prime Minister, going back to Margaret Thatcher, has been in hock to 2 or 3 big newspaper owners in Britain.
Looking ahead beyond Paddington, are you interested in pursuing further acting roles?
We’ll see what happens. If something interesting comes up, I might well do it. I do have a whole other life now, and I won’t throw myself out of a window if I don’t do another film in the spring.
Are there specific career aspirations within entertainment that you’d still like to pursue, if the right opportunity came along?
I can’t forgive myself for not having written and directed a film myself. It’s a sort of shame that flares up from time to time. Clock’s ticking—I’m 56 now. I still promise myself I may get down to it, at any moment.