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Hugh Grant plays the smiling, villainous, and narcissistic actor Phoenix Buchanan in 'Paddington 2.' [Warner Bros. Pictures.]

Hugh Grant gets enjoyable snarky over his role in ‘Paddington 2’

It’s safe to say that when we conjure a picture of Hugh Grant in our minds, we see someone on the order of Mr. Nice Guy. We think of the pleasant, appealing roles he’s played in “Four Weddings and a Funeral, ”Notting Hill,” and “It’s a Boy.” Sure, he’s done some less-than-nice characters in, for instance “Cloud Atlas,” but in general, we know what we’re going to get from a Grant performance. So, it’s a bit odd to find him playing what, in British slang, you’d call a “rotter” in “Paddington 2.” He’s Phoenix Buchanan, a former big-name actor who’s still got his looks and his good name. But success is evading him these days, and having been reduced to dressing up in a dog suit to do TV ads, or occasionally being hired to open a county fair, his once likeable qualities are now overshadowed by narcissism and dreams of returning to his glory days. He also shows a villainous side. Grant has a ball playing the part, and though he means it when he says he’s proud of the film, it was equally odd when he sat down in Los Angeles last week to talk about it and put on a kind of snarky persona. A couple of his responses to questions were thoughtful, others were funny, and quite a few were just plain weird.

Q: We don’t often get to see you go so far over the top in comedy as you do in this film.

A: (Interrupting) “Nine Months” wasn’t?

Q: Not like this one. So, was this more fun or more of a challenge to do than a usual role?

A: I didn’t realize I was going over the top, actually. (pauses a beat) Yes, it was fun. I have almost bottomless reservoirs of what Phoenix has: Self-regard, paranoia, loathing. All those things. And it was lovely to just wade around in them like that. If I ever actually tried to be a little subtle, or tried to find a psychological motivation for something I said or did, (director) Paul King soon pooh-poohed that. He wasn’t interested in those things. Just cheap laughs.

Q: You play many characters in different disguises in this movie, and you’ve played so many different kinds of roles over the years. Do you have a favorite one?

A: It’s very nice of you to say I’ve played lots of roles, when we all know that I’ve really only played one. (laughs). But no, I’ve not enjoyed any of them. I hate my job.

Q: But is there a character you’ve always wanted to play?

A: No. I’m always hoping that the phone will not ring.

Q: Phoenix is definitely a bad guy, and he helps frame Paddington for a crime he didn’t commit. Since the film opened a couple of months ago in England, have you had any in-person reactions from kids?

A: Yes, I have had trouble with children since the film came out. Most nights, my house is staked out by children carrying flares. But I’m quite well armed and have dealt with the situation. (pauses for effect) No, on the whole, children quite like it. Actually, the only child I’ve met who hasn’t loved the film, and me, frankly, is my son. I took him to see a preview of the film with about a hundred of his friends, and they all adored it. But he sat there, stony-faced, throughout the whole thing, saying, “Why are you in it so much?” So that was very sad for me.

Q: Did you base Phoenix on any actors you know?

A: Well, as I said earlier, there’s a bit of me. But my earliest jobs were in provincial theater in England, and there were wonderful old boys who were like that, wearing greasepaint makeup, doing voice exercises before the show, taking an enormous interest in the younger actors in their underwear.

Q: Ummm, OK, let’s change subjects. Have you ever done a dog food commercial?

A: I haven’t done a dog food commercial, yet. But I feel that after this film, it can only be a matter of time.

— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

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