Bar The Leveson Inquiry, Hugh Grant's been quiet of late but he's back on the big screen, or at least his voice is, in the new Aardman extravaganza The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists, which is released on Wednesday, March 28. The actor made famous for bumbling reveals how he found his booming banter, why he can be sulky on set and how he explores a feral side in forthcoming film Cloud Atlas.
By Susan Griffin.
Hugh Grant's looking particularly rosy of cheek following a morning of interviews in a stuffy hotel suite to promote the release of the 3D animation The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists.
It was difficult to judge the mood he'd be in given he's something of a figurehead for the Hacked Off campaign against press intrusion and put in a storming recent performance alongside Steve Coogan at the Leveson Inquiry into press standards.
But Grant appears chipper, if a little tired, and genuinely excited about being part of an Aardman production, the same team who brought us Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run.
"I think they're proper geniuses. I've never seen an Aardman film I didn't admire, and the script above all was just incredibly funny and fresh," he says.
"The film's incredibly British. It's sort of right in the dead centre of Monty Python: surreal, predominantly silly, dotty humour."
Fastidious, slightly neurotic and critical of his performances, Grant says he was terrified of watching the final cut.
"It arrived on a DVD and I didn't dare watch it for a few weeks. I finally put it on when I was in a good mood and had a few drinks, and loved it," he admits.
In his first animated role, Grant voices the luxuriantly bearded Pirate Captain, the enthusiastic but less than successful head of a hapless crew of pirates, who has one dream - to beat his bitter rivals to the coveted Pirate Of The Year Award.
It's a quest that takes the crew from the shores of the exotic Blood Island to the foggy streets of Victorian London, and along the way they do battle with the pirate-hating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) and a young and insecure Charles Darwin (David Tennant).
"It was very bad casting, a huge mistake," jokes Grant of his role. "Physically, I'm so ill-suited to the part. He's a big, portly, bearded fellow and that just isn't me."
At 51, Grant, who's dressed in dark jeans and a light blue shirt, is still a handsome man. His sloping blue eyes hint at mischief, while his famous floppy hair has long been replaced with a textured, cropped cut.
As with all Aardman animations, the filming process was laborious and Grant dipped in and out of the project over a lengthy period.
"Between sessions you forget the character because it can be months and months and then you're hauled back in to do some more voicing," he explains.
So to help him capture the Pirate Captain's 'essence', he liked to stroke an imaginary beard.
"I found that very helpful. That or I'd stroke Peter's," he says, referring to Peter Lord, the film's director. He's only half joking.
Equally as important was looking into the eyes of his pirate alter ego, he adds.
"The whole Aardman spirit is captured in the bulging eyes. Every character, including a lobster, has bulgy eyes in this film. It's a sort of wide-eyed innocence."
Despite the odd misdemeanour (the incident with prostitute Divine Brown, the hurling of baked beans at paparazzi to name a couple), to many people Grant is still the archetypal British gentleman. "That's a false reading though," he says now.
But it is still difficult to imagine him alone in a sound booth, flailing his arms about and stroking a beard, real or otherwise, as Pirate Captain.
"The truth is I used to make a living in my twenties doing silly voices. That's what I did, tape commercials and so on, so it's not that odd for me," he says.
Born in London, Grant's father was a captain in the army and his late mother a schoolteacher, but despite an impressive military and aristocratic ancestry, the actor's family wasn't overtly affluent.
He attended London's Latymer Upper School and Oxford University on scholarships. It was while at Oxford, where he was studying English Literature, that he decided to give acting a go and made his film debut in 1982's Privileged.
In the late Eighties and early Nineties, he was cast in a range of TV mini series and film projects including The Dawning with Anthony Hopkins, The Big Man opposite Liam Neeson, and then, in 1992, he appeared in Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon.
But despite the big-name productions, Grant was going largely unnoticed.
It was at the age of 32, and on the cusp of giving acting up, that he got the call for Richard Curtis's Four Weddings And A Funeral, the international success that made him a household name and the go-to guy for "diffident Englishman" parts.
"I drifted into acting by mistake and always though it was a temporary job and still do 30 years on," he has remarked.
"To suddenly have a gigantic success was a surprising fluke at a point in my career when I was genuinely about to pack it in."
He says he can only blame himself for being pigeonholed as a bumbling fop following his choice of roles in 1995's An Awfully Big Adventure and 1999's Notting Hill.
The typecasting tide only began to turn with the release of Bridget Jones' Diary in 2000 and About A Boy the following year, which allowed him to play his caddish card.
These days he enjoys being selective with his film roles and while there are rumblings of a third Bridget Jones movie, he's exploring his feral side with the release of Cloud Atlas.
An ensemble film based on the novel by David Mitchell, it involves six stories set in different times and places, which become intricately related to each other.
"I have six cameo parts in this strange, ambitious film. I do a lot of killing and raping," he says.
"In one of the parts I am a cannibal, about 2000 years in the future, and I thought, 'I can do that, it's easy'.
"And then I am suddenly standing in a cannibal skirt on a mountain-top in Germany and they're saying, 'We want hungry! We must have flesh-eating like a leopard who is so hungry...' and I am thinking, 'I can't do that! Just give me a witty line!'"
Beyond that, his thoughts are turning to directing. He has an idea for his directorial debut but there are things he needs to "clear out first", he says.
These include the campaigning, and perhaps he needs time to settle into his role as 'dad' after the birth of his daughter in September with Chinese actress Tinglan Hong.
"Then I'll go and sit somewhere where it's not noisy and my phone's not going and write a script," he says.
"I do feel the only thing that ever truly makes you happy is creativity."
Extra time - Pirate facts :: A crew of 525 people worked on the film including 33 animators and 41 shooting units in four studios.
:: The pirate ship was handcrafted and made up of 44,569 parts. It weighed 770 pounds and stood 15ft high.
:: Look out for the sticker on the back of the ship that says: 'Honk if you're seasick'.
:: If you look closely during the scene in Queen Victoria's treasure room, you may spot a gold Shaun the Sheep, Wallace and Gromit.
:: The director Peter Lord has a brief cameo in the film as the policeman who lifts his hat to reveal a sandwich and says: "Mind how you go ladies."
:: The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists is released in cinemas on Wednesday, March 28