For decades, Hugh Grant has stolen hearts as the glib British hunk in countless rom-coms. Now, he’s finally flipping the script—and while his English charm remains intact, this time, he’s playing gay.
The mini-series, entitled A Very English Scandal, is based on the real-life, absolutely bananas story about Jeremy Thorpe (Grant), a political leader of the Liberal Party who was charged with conspiring to murder his lover, Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw). In 1979, at the time of the scandal, homosexuality was not yet decriminalized in England, and with Thorpe gunning to become Prime Minister, his furtive relationship was actually quite controversial.
In a Q&A about the series, which is out today on Amazon Prime, Grant said that he was an 18-year old schoolboy at the time of the tabloid story that swept the nation, and he laments that the story, and thus Thorpe, were treated as the butt of numerous schoolyard jokes.
“It was like Monty Python,” the actor recalls, referencing a quote from Thorpe’s testimony about the first time he had anal sex. “Here’s a member of the establishment, ex-Oxford, ex-Eton, very well-connected, on trial with his lover saying, ‘Well then I had to bite the pillow…’”
“There were thousands of jokes,” Grant added. “‘Join the Liberal Party and widen your circle!’” The Daily Beast reports that the greying actor cringed upon recounting such malicious jokes. “So that’s how he was really regarded, I’m afraid. Maybe that sad face [in the final scene] is knowing you’re really a figure of ridicule for the rest of your life.”
Actually, this isn’t the first time Grant has played gay, as queer cinephiles may recall his role as a gay man in queer classic Maurice (1987), or as the partner of a gay man who is dying of AIDS in 1991’s TV movie Our Sons.
30-odd years later, the British performer has delved into a more complex gay character. Grant spoke on the challenging dichotomy of Thorpe’s real life; he was constantly traversing between seeking the out, queer lifestyle, and doing whatever it takes to cover it up. “On the one hand, he never wanted to be openly exposed as being gay. He’d [sooner] shoot himself,” he said. “On the other hand, he was actually at it all the time. He was constantly at clubs, or pubs as they were in those days, picking up men left, right, and center. But he just felt the law would never touch [him].”
The politician ended up hiring a hitman to take out his lover, so as not to expose himself as gay—which is wild. Grant revealed that his mission in documenting Thorpe’s life was to find sympathy in his personhood. For him, that empathetic note took form in the utter sadness of Thorpe’s circumstances, and the results that being closeted and hiding one’s true self has on the human psyche.
“The other thing was the tragedy of being unable to express your own sexual nature,” he explains. “Especially not being able to love someone in that context. We hint at that, especially at the end of the series, that he probably was in love with Norman Scott back at the beginning. And because of the law and social mores, was unable to let that develop with him or anyone else in the rest of his lifetime.”
A Very English Scandal shows us passionate sex scenes too, according to Grant. He caustically describes a hot and heavy moment with his co-star Whishaw—the duo wasn’t given much direction for the steamy scene. So, like any great actor would, he improvised. “I was a bit lost. I remember once I pushed him on the bed and I thought, ‘I could go on kissing him, but they haven’t shouted ‘cut’ yet. I better do something else. I’ll lick his nipples’” (which he does).
The actor has become increasingly more interested in politics in the last few years, as outrageous political elections continue to shock and endanger nations like the U.S. and England. Grant has recently become an outspoken critic of the Murdoch family and the News International phone hacking scandal. “Having been someone who was not at all interested in politics before, in the last six years I’ve become very interested,” he said.
A Very English Scandal is now streaming on Amazon Prime.