For Hugh Grant, a Smaller Screen Brings a More Complex Role

LONDON — A handsome, charismatic politician whose star is rising. A younger man, fragile and unstable. A same-sex affair that could destroy careers and bring down a political party. A bungling assassin. A dead dog. Conspiracies and cover-ups. A trial that riveted Britain.

And it all really happened. In “A Very English Scandal,” which debuts on Amazon Prime Video this Friday, June 29, Hugh Grant steps away from romantic hero types to play Jeremy Thorpe, the brilliant, charming, manipulative and ruthless Eton- and Oxford-educated member of Parliament who became the leader of the Liberal Party, and who in 1979 was tried on charges of conspiring to murder his former lover, Norman Scott.

For Mr. Grant, Thorpe is a departure from his two signature personas: Mr. Nice Guy, seen in movies like “Four Weddings and a Funeral” (which made him famous) and “Notting Hill” (which made him even more so), and Mr. Charming Cad, from the Bridget Jones films and “About a Boy.”

“Every actor in the world prefers playing darker characters,” Mr. Grant said in an interview in a members club in west London. “In Shakespeare’s time, I’m sure everyone wanted to play Tybalt, not Romeo. I’m not complaining about my romantic comedies. I’m proud of them, almost all, but it’s actually a tougher gig to play the likable hero than the rogue. You’re struggling against being boring and nauseating.”

Based on the 2016 book of the same name, by John Preston, “A Very English Scandal” was written by Russell T. Davies (“Queer as Folk,” “Doctor Who”) and directed by Stephen Frears. A febrile Ben Whishaw co-stars as Norman Scott.

The three-part series begins in 1965, when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain — encounters were fraught with the risk of imprisonment and opprobrium, and references were veiled. “Are you telling me that you were … a little bit musical?” Thorpe asks his fellow parliamentarian Peter Bessell (a suavely opaque Alex Jennings) over lunch in the House of Commons dining room. (The Sexual Offenses Act in 1967 decriminalized homosexual acts in private for men over 21, in England and Wales. Scotland waited until 1981, Northern Ireland until 1982.)

The series, and Mr. Grant in particular, won rave reviews when it debuted here in May, on BBC One.

“An immaculately scripted hour that entwines two decades of salient political history with a finely worked portrait of the English establishment,” Lucy Mangan wrote in The Observer. Mr. Grant, “clearly having the time of his actorly life,” she added, “is revelatory.”

As Thorpe, his face lupine and jowly, his cheeks hollowed, Mr. Grant undergoes a remarkable transformation, incarnating a man addicted to danger and entirely certain that others will help him evade the consequences. “Tell him not to talk. And not to write to my mother describing acts of anal sex under any circumstances whatsoever,” Thorpe instructs Bessell, who spends much of the next decade trying to keep Scott from exposing his friend to disgrace and political ruin.

“My last encounter with British TV was when I was rejected for an adaptation of Jilly Cooper’s ‘Riders,’ so things have improved,” he said. “When these scripts turned up, my first thought was: ‘Television? I don’t think so, darling.’”

Slightly graying with trademark blue eyes, Mr. Grant, 57, is relaxed and witty in conversation. Of course, he clarified, he was aware that brilliant work was being done in long-form television.

“But I have an old-fashioned attraction to the big screen, which has almost gone anyway, so it’s ludicrous,” he said.

He was sent the scripts by Mr. Frears, who he worked with on “Florence Foster Jenkins.” “I knew he was perfect for the role,” Mr. Frears said in a telephone interview. “He is just as much of a method actor as Marlon Brando.”

Mr. Frears, 76, said he had remembered the story very well. “It is fascinating, as is John Preston’s book, as is the wonderful script from Russell Davies, and I’ll go wherever good writing is,” he said. “The tone was totally clear; it was tragic and dramatic and comic.” Television, he added, felt like exactly the right medium.

“People have tried to make films about this, and you couldn’t do it as well,” he said. “There is a lot to explain.”

Mr. Davies, 55, said that the reports of the trial made a huge impression on him when the case came to court in 1979.

“I was 16 and in the closet, although it wasn’t even called the closet then,” he said, with characteristic ebullience, in a telephone interview. “It was the first gay story I ever heard, and I was always fascinated by it.”

He added that he had inquired about the rights to the story 10 years ago, but as Thorpe was still alive, “everyone demurred.” (Thorpe died in 2014; Mr. Scott, who has offered mixed responses to the show, lives in Devon.) When Blueprint Television, which produced the series for the BBC and Amazon, approached him, Mr. Davies said, “I leapt on it, although of course I first feigned indifference and said I was busy.”

In writing the series, he said, “we were very much aware that these were real people and as well as Norman, there were children alive.”

Both Mr. Whishaw and Mr. Grant said that they felt aware of the pitfalls of playing a real person. “It’s so treacherous and difficult to tell the story of someone who is still alive,” Mr. Whishaw said. “But at the same time you have the strange situation where to an extent what you are working on is a fiction. I met Norman and it was helpful, but I worked quite instinctively.”

Mr. Grant said that he had watched a lot of footage of Thorpe and found he could do a good imitation. “A big clue to him was his enormous enjoyment of oratory, how he used his lips and tongue.” He slipped into a deep-toned, plummy Thorpe voice: “I could feel my jaw getting longer, heavy lips, heavy tongue; a lot of tongue work when he is lying or aroused.”

He reverted to being Hugh Grant. “Then I thought, argh, I can’t just do an imitation!” he said. “So I mined for information, had lunches and dinners with lots of his friends, made hundreds of pages of notes. My script is covered in hieroglyphics. You look at every line of dialogue, and ask yourself, why would you say that? And if you really can’t understand why he says the line that is written, you call the writer.” (It didn’t happen much here, he said.)

He added that this intense preparation was typical for him. “Even playing that absurd actor in ‘Paddington 2,’ I go to enormous lengths to create a full biography, year by year since my character was born,” he said. “And then I go back to their parents and grandparents. But I generally don’t share all that unless the other actor wants to know.”

Asked whether his intensive preparation had relieved his anxiety about playing a historical figure, he frowned. “No, I live with anxiety and was working with brilliant actors,” he said. “I permanently have an inferiority complex: Maybe I’m just the guy from romantic comedies, and they are doing brilliant character work?”

In scenes with Mr. Whishaw, he said, their interactions were very much “on the hoof.” Although they had once appeared in a scene together in the 2012 film “Cloud Atlas,” Mr. Grant said they didn’t know each other well. “And there you are on a cold Tuesday morning, licking his nipples,” he added, deadpan.

The series offers a barely veiled commentary on immigration and Brexit — Thorpe was passionately pro-Europe and pro-migrant — as well as a lesson in social history for a younger generation.

“Young gay men and women barely know that our existence was illegal,” Mr. Davies said. “I felt I had a duty to explain the political side of it. Now there are a million Normans, but at the time he was exotic and dangerous and remarkable in his honesty.”

The story doesn’t “hit you round the head with a message,” Mr. Whishaw said. “For me the joy of it is the strangeness of the way life can tip into farce and horror at the same moment. These are characters in conflict with themselves and the world.”

Will the role of Thorpe tip Mr. Grant toward similarly complex parts in the future?

“I don’t know what I’ll do next,” he said. “I’m flirting with a few scripts.” Do the characters belong to the dark side? He thought for a moment.

“None of them are very nice,” he said, and then thought further. “And two of the scripts are for telly.”

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