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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.