With his latest criminal caper, The Gentlemen, Guy Ritchie returns with a double-barrelled blast of gangster glam. Hold on tight, it's a riotous, rollercoaster ride through life's drug-fuelled underbelly, writes Des Sampson.
If you were tasked to profile a nasty, narcissistic, gutter-class scallywag, chances are you wouldn't piture Hugh Grant in a line-up of the usual suspects. After all, he's better known for playing bumbling, British twits or posh, public school posers rather than evil, capricious, working-class zeros.
It does make you wonder what Guy Ritchie was thinking when he cast Grant in The Gentlemen, in a pivotal role, as a seedy, sleazy private investigator trying to expose the shady dealings of a psychopathic drug baron, played sinisterly well by Matthew McConaughey.
"Well, I do know Guy from doing The Man from U.N.C.L.E. with him, so there was that," suggests Grant, smiling benignly. "Also, I have a whole career pre-Four Weddings and a Funeral, where I really was a character actor, doing silly voices and silly parts. I'm much better at that than being a nice, leading man.
"But the main reason, I guess, is there's a bit of an in-joke in him wanting me to play this part," he adds, conspiratorially. "I'd personally spent seven years campaigning about private investigators working for tabloid newspapers – ones who used to hack my phone, steal my medical records or, in one case, break into my flat to dig up dirt on me. So, I got the joke – the irony – of him wanting me."
Not only did Grant get Ritchie's whimsy for casting him, he ensured his tormentors did too - by basing his character on them. Even more bizarrely, he actively hunted them down to befriend them.
"I didn't base my character on anyone in particular, but I was influenced by their mannerisms, the way they dressed, the shady sunglasses," he acknowledges, smirking. "Also, when I agreed to do the part, I went and had lunch with some of them – the ones who'd spied on me and who I campaigned against – to get some insight. It's a little perverse, I know, but I've subsequently becomes friends with some of them and now they work for my campaign, going after the big chiefs, rather than the Indians."
It's a huge personal turnaround for Grant who, for a long time, refused to even communicate with journalists. Equally, it's a profound professional turnaround, playing a vile scoundrel in The Gentleman. It's completely against type but Grant's all the better for it, stealing every scene he graces – which is most, as he narrates much of the plot. He even nails the twangy, slangy South East London Mockney drawl he employs, to hilarious effect. The results are remarkable and ridiculous, one of his best performances ever.
"I did my best," he retorts, good-naturedly. "I do like playing these slightly twisted, egotistic parts and I just tried to make him have a sneery, vague estuary-London accent. Guy kept saying; 'Don't forget he's a bit poofy...' so I threw that in too."
Grant's not alone in playing against type or performing beyond expectations in The Gentlemen, with Michelle Dockery – best known as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey – portraying the Cockney gangster wife of McConaughey's megalomaniac kingpin and Charlie Hunnam chillingly playing his sociopathic sidekick.
It makes The Gentlemen another slice of Ritchie's twisted genius, with pithy one-liners, violent interludes, convoluted plots and sub-plots, comedic slapstick, drug war chicanery, farcical shootouts, pills, thrills and bellyache laughs.
"It was a lot of fun to do," admits Grant, nodding animatedly. "But it was also a little scary. There were moments of great doubt, where I thought; 'I could fall flat on my face here!' But I started to convince myself, after day one, that it might be alright and it was."
He reveals that it might not have turned out so well though, with his first day of shooting making him question if he'd been too hasty, accepting the role.
"I have very long speeches and, being 59 now, I can't remember my lines very well – especially as I tend to drink too much in the evening, as I have five young children to contend with," he jests. "It means I have to learn my lines well in advance, so I started three or four weeks beforehand to make sure they were deeply embedded.
"So, I arrived [on set] very smug and professional and told Guy 'I'm ready to go...' He turned around and said; 'Oh, we've changed all that, here's two new pages of dialogue.' When I heard that, I had a little tantrum and, rather theatrically, shouted; 'I can't possibly learn these in five minutes!' Guy replied; 'It doesn't matter, we've got a teleprompter - an autocue - at which point I huffed; 'Darling, I'm an actor - not a news reader,' and there was a little stand-off! Luckily, in the end, he releneted and we did the original stuff."
And good stuff it is too...