Hugh Grant is quite the raconteur.
Here's his recollection of the rather humbling evening he spent in Manhattan, at the storied Four Seasons hotel, while in town promoting his film The Pirates! Band of Misfits.
"I had a very awkward incident, night one. I had been out with some old friends and got back very late. I'd had a drink or two and thought, 'Well, I have to do some press tomorrow, so I'll drink an entire large bottle of mineral water.' It was a real whopper," says Grant, 51.
"I got into bed with the full intention of drinking the entire thing, fell fast asleep into a coma, and woke up an hour later with the entire bed soaked. You have to explain to housekeeping that it's water. And I was so tired, so I found one dry strip at the foot of the bed and I slept sideways, curled up, in a one-foot space. I was a tragic figure."
Pathetic he's not. Droll, clever, curious and acutely sharp, without question. Even when his personality is semi-restrained thanks to a cold — "I went through the hotel's entire supply of Kleenex last night. Disgusting," quips Grant — he's still briskly engaging.
"His wit is genuinely sophisticated. He is someone who, with extreme poise, can have everybody lose their composure around the table. You have to be on your toes a little bit," says Grant's friend Colin Firth. "He's consistently and brilliantly funny."
He's at his silliest in Friday's animated romp Pirates as the titular, hirsute and deeply incompetent Pirate Captain, a misguided seafarer with one goal: to be named the buccaneer of the year. "He'd like to be pugnacious but he's crap, with a wonderful beard," Grant says.
The actor, who rarely does films anymore, says he came on board as both a fan of children's book scribe Gideon Defoe, who wrote the screenplay, and the film's production company, Aardman, the folks behind Wallace & Gromit.
"I think this particular script is a work of genius," Grant says. "And to a certain extent, Aardman lied to me. I asked how long it would take. They said not long, just a few recording sessions. Three years later, I'm still recording. But it's worth it. It's a bit of a throwback to my 20s. That's how I made a living, by doing silly voices for radio. I was terrified I was going to screw it up for Aardman."
That self-deprecation is typical Grant, says Pirates director Peter Lord. "He has this very British style. He deflects compliments. He makes a joke of everything. He's a great comic and can be very playful. We worked together to find a voice, to find a style."
And, Lord says, his rakishly charming persona aside, Grant has a decency to him that he doesn't readily display.
"We had a screening in Bristol for the crew and their close family and friends, and he came and talked to everybody. We had to screen it on 11 different screens," Lord says. "He came in and introduced every screening. There was nothing in it for him. He did it out of courtesy.
"He sees through insincerity instantly. The things that make him angriest are trivialities, and people who ask idiotic questions. Yet he stays polite and courteous."
Shielding his daughter
And Grant understands, if not exactly appreciates, the interest in his personal life. He made headlines last year when he announced, via a short statement, that he had fathered a child with former girlfriend Tinglan Hong.
Since then, his daughter, Tabitha, 7 months, has been shielded from England's pervasive tabloid culture, and no photos of her have appeared in any publications. That's by design, not accident.
Grant laments, after his daughter was born, "the appalling treatment the mother got from the papers in terms of being harassed and chased. They wrote terrible things about her. They knew nothing about her. They paid off ex-boyfriends. Salacious stuff."
So Grant, famous for striking out at the papers with, for example, a container of baked beans, took a more studied approach: He obtained an injunction against all photographers.
"My lawyer did incredibly well. They have to be so far away they can't get a picture. That really worked," he says. "Highly expensive. But without that, (Hong would have) gone back to China by now with my daughter. That would be the end of my daughter living in the same country as me."
Grant, who hasn't had a major release since the comedy Did You Hear About the Morgans? in 2009, has emerged in England as an outspoken voice in the ongoing, escalating phone and e-mail hacking scandal involving British papers and, most recently, Sky News. He testified about his own experience and has been slammed in some particularly personal and vitriolic stories. Grant, who mostly avoids interviews, feels vindicated after years of doing battle with the tabs.
"People used to think I was crazy. I used to rant and rave. Hopefully people are starting to see the method to my madness," he says, referring to his anti-tabloid stance.
He can't envision parlaying his visibility into running for office. "My whole excursion into politics has been very interesting and refreshing. To be out of creating this synthetic life and actually doing real stuff has been absolutely invigorating.
"But my problem with even the concept of going into politics is that outside of this issue, I am a horrible relativist. I can believe one thing one day and the opposite the next on major issues. Such political beliefs that I have don't fit into one party. They're a mixture of left and right."
Nor does he plan to file a lawsuit against any media company. "I have not sued. I don't want people to misinterpret my motives," he says.
Grant is particular in everything he does. His friend Sarah Jessica Parker, who played Grant's spouse in Morgans, says the actor is wonderfully challenging.
Keeping Parker on her toes
"He makes you think and try to be smart. You can't be lazy with him. He's fast and he's smart and he enjoys conversation about the most tawdry, scandalous things," she says. "He's incredibly educated and he knows a lot. Any time I e-mail him, I think, 'Is it clever enough, smart enough, funny enough?' "
There's a refreshing candor to Grant, who doesn't pretend that he's immune to bad press. And yes, he feels a little paranoid that he's in the cross hairs of the U.K. scandal.
"I read online today that the Daily Mail said at the (Pirates) premiere yesterday in New York, I was there looking terrible, with dyed hair. I've never dyed my hair in my life. But it's a clever little barb. If I had dyed my hair, I'd be suing the dye people. Look at me. I'm gray as a goat."
Actually, it's those gray hairs that also bother Grant a bit. Having discovered the joys of parenthood later in life, Grant smiles when asked about his daughter. "Fatherhood is very nice, actually. It was a great surprise. It turns out to be fantastic. I wish I had done it 25 years ago. I already feel a guilt that Tabitha, at age 11, will want to be climbing trees with me."
Or he can just buy pretty clothes and cool toys for her. "That, I am excellent at. That would be my other favorite pastime, shopping for girls," Grant says. "I brought her what I thought was an enchanting stuffed shark back from Australia. She's in therapy now trying to get over the stuffed shark."
In truth, Firth says, Grant "is besotted with his little girl. It's brought out a soft side to him. He'll kill me for saying this, but he's very kind. His generosity happens very quietly. You always hear stories about people he has helped out and supported. He's not as narcissistic as he'd want you to believe."
Indeed, ask Grant what's ahead for him, and he responds that once the Leveson Inquiry, which is looking into the role of the media and police in the hacking scandal, wraps up, he will go back to his two passions: golf and race cars. He may finish his long-dormant novel. He may star in the stalled third installment of the Bridget Jones series, playing Daniel Cleaver, the character he says is closest in personality to Grant.
And he's looking forward to the fall release of the Wachowski brothers' Cloud Atlas. "My parts are tiny, there are six of them, and I wear an extraordinary amount of prosthetic makeup," he says.
Otherwise, Grant says, nothing is beckoning to him: "I've not been desperate to play a lead part. There's a slight feeling of been there, done that, to a lot of things."