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Hugh Grant, Chris Elliot & Marc Lawrence Work Out The Rewrite

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

Hugh Grant at the New York Press Day for "The Rewrite."  Photo copyright 2015 Brad Balfour.

Hugh Grant at the New York Press Day for “The Rewrite.” Photo copyright 2015 Brad Balfour.

Hugh Grant, Chris Elliot & Marc Lawrence

Work Out The Rewrite

by Brad Balfour

Whether as a heartthrob or villain, the 54-year-old Hugh Grant plays most of his characters with a wry approach, imbuing his alter-egos with a genial humanity. Though never taking the job of actor too seriously, this British actor nonetheless has been taken all too seriously having had the media spotlight fall on him – whether by infamously being caught with a hooker years ago, or fighting against reporters hacking into his calls and emails. Weary from such conflicts, Grant shifted from high-profile roles in such hits as Bridget Jones Diary, About a Boy and Love, Actually to the more low-key, amiable comedies of director Marc Lawrence, such as Two Weeks Notice and Music and Lyrics.

That makes playing Keith Michaels in Lawrence’s latest film, The Rewrite, all the more appropriate. He plays a down-on-his-luck film professional, the formerly award-winning Hollywood screenwriter Michaels. The veteran actor turned in a convincing portrait of a man at wits’ end from the effects of divorce, a string of unsuccessful films, bad debts and blank pages.

Thanks to his agent, he lands in upstate New York at Binghamton University as a guest screenwriting professor. Initially he gives minimal effort to teaching (being more interested in a fling with a young co-ed) so he can focus on his next script. Soon Michaels unexpectedly becomes invested in his students, especially single mom Holly (Marisa Tomei), who is looking for her own revival through being in school.

Among an all-star cast that features J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), Allison Janney (Mom) and Bella Heathcote (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), is also comic Chris Elliott (Groundhog Day), who plays a colleague that combines his comic skills with a sensitive performance.

Grant, Elliott and director Lawrence joined a small cadre of journalists in a discussion of the film’s merits and each personality’s career developments in Manhattan’s London Hotel a couple of day’s before its theatrical release.

Both of you have been thought of as comic personalities but both of you have done a lot of other things. How do you guys decide when to be serious and when not to be?  

Chris Elliott: I’ll speak for Hugh here. (laughs) I honestly feel like I’ve spent the last ten years of my career trying to get smaller and smaller with what I do, comedically. I think that’s been noticed a little bit. I’ve been able to move from doing the crazy and goofy stuff I was known for doing in the ’80s and early ’90s into maybe doing something where I’m a little more believable. I never thought I was a believable actor; I always thought I was a bit of this goofy guy.

There are comedians that I do believe on camera. I believe Robin Williams, Steve Martin and Bill Murray. I never believed myself when I was actually trying to act, so it’s taken me a while to find that balance. I think I did it in this movie, and that’s because of working with Hugh – and with Marc, who pulled in the reins pretty tight.

Hugh Grant: Well, I can only vaguely perform in a kind of live comedy tone. I try other tones and it’s a disaster. So I’m more stuck here; having said that, I have attempted to render some emotions in this film. At least I tried.

Marc Lawrence: We cut all of that.

Hugh Grant: Richard Curtis (director of Love Actually and writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral) used to cut those as well.

Hugh, did you go to a college to research a screenwriting class or ever learn from a master class?

Hugh Grant: No, I’ve never been to one of those. I did get persuaded by a pretty girl to give classes at some college in acting, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I liked the power trip and I liked exploiting the students.

Hugh, you once brought to life one of Jane Austen’s classic serious characters, Edward C. Ferrars. How do you feel about your connection with Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility?

Marc Lawrence: I’ll speak on that. I don’t think we thought much about [Hugh’s] connection in regard to that movie. It just worked for Allison [Janney]’s character to be a Jane Austen [devotee] because of the various connotations. I actually do like Jane Austen a lot. I think we didn’t do enough with the Sense and Sensibility connection.

Hugh Grant: No. I know it is one of Marc’s favorites – you watch it most nights.

Marc Lawrence: Sense and Sensibility? Yes, way after everyone goes to sleep. Because I like to be alone when I get dressed a certain way. (smiles)

Dressed in a certain way?

Marc Lawrence: Absolutely. I like to be in period dress when watching any kind of period film. But the favorite thing about Sense and Sensibility is at that golf store.

Hugh Grant: Oh, yeah.

Marc Lawrence: Hugh, you and I were doing a movie, Two Weeks Notice, and for some reason you, Sandy [Bullock] and I went out for lunch. You wanted to go to a golf store to buy something. We went up, and the golf guys who ran the store were there. They recognized Sandy and recognized you, and they were the least likely people to [do so]. Really, the film of yours that they loved was Sense and Sensibility. It was the most unlikely place to get that reaction.

Hugh, a lot of your movies are more targeted to a romantic audience, but a lot of guys like the Two Weeks Notice sort of films, even if they don’t admit it. Do they confess that to you?

Hugh Grant: Never. No. You are actually the first.

What was it like working with this younger generation of Hollywood and technology obsessed individuals?

Marc Lawrence: For me, it’s actually about watching my kids. Clyde is a 21-year-old senior in college who also wrote the score for the film. My daughter Gracie is a high school senior. I also have an 11 year old. Watching them was the best education for me.

Even some of the things like when Bella [Heathcote] – who plays the student that Hugh’s character has a relationship with – she says  stuff [that] I found Clyde and his friend would say in terms of slang like: “I’m totally down with that.” “Down with that” is a term that’s made a resurgence. Or like, “I’ll see you later.” And then the other person would go, “Word.” There’s a lot of that.

Honestly, it was through observing them and how they talk that kept me writing. I’d go visit [Clyde] at his school a lot and see him and his friends [interacting]. I was seeing my daughter in high school with her friends. I was around it enough to peek in, watch and listen when I could. That kept me writing what folks sound like now as opposed to when I was their age.

Hugh Grant: But I sometimes wonder if you can’t make a romantic comedy any more because I don’t think people under 25 or 30 maybe talk much. I mean how would you do it?

Chris Elliott: You mean [with everyone] texting?

Hugh Grant: Yeah, every shot would be a close-up of their phone. There was a movie where I think most of the communication on-screen was of people who were texting.

That was Jason Reitman’s Men, Women and Children.

Chris Elliott: I didn’t get to see the film, but I understand what you’re asking. I don’t know. They do still talk, actually, they just talk while they’re doing that.

Hugh Grant: When I meet young people, they frequently say: “Can I get a picture? Can I get a selfie?” Sometimes I’m not in the mood and I say “Well, I don’t really want to do a selfie, but I’ll have a chat with you.” – “But what about a selfie?” “No, we could just meet, where are you from?” “But what about a selfie?” There’s sort of a desperate look in their eyes. It’s a strange set of…

She was going ask you for your photo. Never mind. [Everyone laughs.]

This is a comedy, but there’s a more serious subtext about creative freedom vs. creative control in Hollywood for meaningful art. Did you relate to that personally in your own career?

Hugh Grant: I’ve never had any standards in particular. I’ve always asked myself: did this thing make me laugh? Do I get bored reading the script? If I didn’t get bored and I did laugh, it came into that narrow little area where I might be able to perform it.

I’ll tell you what I am quite proud of, actually. Since Four Weddings and a Funeral, I’ve never done a job just for money. I now have to like the job. I had always done jobs just for the money before.

You talked about not confusing celebrity and work in the past, so I thought that was a theme in this, too. Is that something that appealed to you?

Hugh Grant: Well, I suppose it did. I like the way my character learns that there are other metrics by which to judge yourself from other than money, how much you are wanted and how much you’re wanted in one particular trait. My character realizes that he’s wanted by his students. He’s valued by them and by the university. I think that’s rather touching.

As for my children, it’s been a huge surprise that they value me despite the fact I don’t make many films anymore. They still like me anyway – and that’s rather like what happened to Keith in the movie.

You and Marisa had really nice chemistry in this; how was it working with her?

Hugh Grant: Well, actually, I was frightened of her. I still am, because she’s so good at what she does and is much the opposite of me in terms of how she comes at me in a role. She’s a proper New York method actress, so she knew exactly why she said every line she said.

I had never thought of it. But she’s really into all that stuff. One does sometimes roll their eyes when it’s four in the morning and you’re very cold and she’s wondering, “Why do I say this line?” And I’d say: “Oh, because then we can all go home.” But it does pay off for her; she’s brilliant.

Was this entirely shot in Binghamton, New York?

Marc Lawrence: No, we only shot there for four days. I would have loved to shoot it all there. But in the bizarre world of movie economics, it was actually prohibited to go up there with a 150 people for two months because it’s not a film hub. So we would have had to bring everything with us. It would have been very expensive.

Strangely, it would have been very expensive to shoot in a place [like that] where, for the average meal in Manhattan, you can buy most houses in Binghamton. Yet we shot there for only four days because we couldn’t bring everyone.

What was the university like? What challenges did you face and how did they welcome you?

Marc Lawrence: Chris wasn’t there, but Hugh and I were there for the Binghamton premiere. It’s a bizarre experience watching your movie where every recognition and mention of Binghamton in the theatre would get a standing ovation from over 1,200 people. I’ve never screened a movie in a theatre so huge. I don’t know what they thought of the film, but they were very, very energized about the fact it was shot at Binghamton. When you live in a place like that, you’re so starved for any version of attention that you can’t believe that’s your own town on screen.

I loved it up there. When I went to school up there, I met my wife and most of my best friends there. It was fun being there.

One of the funniest parts of the movie was Marisa Tomei showing up in different places with various odd jobs and commitments. Was there any time in your careers where you had to do crazy jobs to survive?

Chris Elliott: Present, yes. Unlike Hugh, I still do work for the money. I’ve actually been so lucky to go from one thing to another. I worked for David Letterman for eight years before I had my own TV show and then a movie. I have always seemed to be able to secure some job to survive on during the year and make money. I have done some horrible movies for a quick buck, but my crazy jobs weren’t even “that” crazy.

I was a tour guide at Rockefeller Center and a PA and a runner on couple TV shows. The times have changed in this business and the numbers have gone down, especially for people like me in the business. I still certainly try to be choosy. The idea of working with these two guys was too much to turn down – I really did it for below what I usually get paid. (laughs)

Hugh Grant: I’ve cleaned a lot of lavatories. I was rather good at it, but I did hate it. I remember I was cleaning lavatories at IBM in London. I was on my way to work one day and I thought, I really can’t stand this another day. I wish the place would just burn down. As I turned the corner, it was burning down! I didn’t know I had that power, and I tried not to use it too much since.

Where did you go from there?

Hugh Grant: I delivered new cars, in those days. We had to run them in slowly, so we were told to drive them at 20 mph. And we drove them at 120 mph. I crashed one and was fired from that job. I was a very good waiter in a gay restaurant on Kings Road, and I got a lot of tips because I was very flirty and I wiggled my bottom.

It was a gay restaurant? Were straight people are not allowed there?

Hugh Grant: No, it just happened to have a very large gay clientele.

You collaborate with a lot of the same people like Hugh and Sandra Bullock. What is it about that narrative that makes you want to work with them again?

Marc Lawrence: I don’t like meeting new people. (laughs) I almost never leave the apartment. (laughs again) I live a kind of hermit-like existence. I’m a creature of habit in every aspect of my life. Actually, I do get comfortable around certain people like Chris [whom] I had done something with a time back, and have always wanted to work again. In this situation, the people you’re doing stuff with are the absolutely best at what they do, so it all worked out.

Hugh Grant: Marc has had the same lunch every day for what is it, 30 years?

Marc Lawrence: Yeah, Sandy [Bullock] always used to say, “Everything you eat is white.” But I do like working with the same people. For the kind of stuff I write – which has way too many words – there’s not that many people who really do it all that well, so when you find them you cling [to them].

What do you think of the idea of rewriting your life so that you can do this if you just commit to it and believe in yourself?

Marc Lawrence: We’ve had more questions on that than whether or not we believe what the movie says about it. I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. What I like about the aspects of the movie is that it raises that question, and I don’t think it can ever definitively answer them. If you don’t have an ear for music, I don’t think any amount of time, focus or practice is ever going to compensate for that. If you do have an ear for music, then I absolutely think you can get better, and that focus and hard work will do something.

Back when I started, which was on a TV show called Family Ties, people would send in scripts for us to read because they wanted to write for the show. Obviously, if they were from writers you knew, you’d read the script. But when you got scripts from people you didn’t know, within two pages you knew whether or not they were writing on the level that we at least perceived or hoped that we were at. I think that’s still true and I get caught up in that debate. You need to have certain wattage on the light bulb in order to shine.

Then I think that Marisa’s argument in the movie that’s it’s about focus, hard work and whatever… You know, those geniuses like Edison, didn’t he say that it was 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. I think there’s something to that.

Chris Elliott: I think to a degree as a performer, I’m trying to recreate, restart and change that parameter. I’ve always wanted to paint and draw and do that kind of stuff. But I couldn’t start right now and be a painter. I could do it for the fun of it, but I don’t think I could go in and commit a lifetime of focus towards it – at least not at my age. I think age does have a little something to do with it.

Hugh Grant: I don’t know the answer to that. We did have a crazy art teacher at my school who thought that art died in 1900 and swore that he could teach anyone in the world to draw perfectly. And he used all of the academic techniques. He used all of the old academic techniques: you had to draw a bowl with the right shading and a cone, and a pyramid and all these things.

There’s actually something to that, because the flip-side of his argument is that maybe we all rely too much on inspiration and the artist and his [inner talent]. Actually he felt that if you [applied] an unbelievable [amount of] hard work and learned a trade, the equivalent to it is a sort of whipping the feet of the student which does produce beauty in the end. That idea is very unfashionable.

Chris Elliott: And the whipping is fun, too.

Hugh Grant: Very fashionable, actually.

Copyright ©2015 All rights reserved. Posted: February 13, 2015.

Photos 1-3 ©2015 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.

Photos 4-11 ©2015. Courtesy of Castle Rock Entertainment. All rights reserved.

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