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Hugh Grant villains
Photograph: Time Out

How Hugh Grant became Hollywood’s ultimate on-screen villain

From foppish heartthrob lead to dream Bond villain in 10 easy steps

Phil de Semlyen
Dan Jolin
Written by
Phil de Semlyen
Contributor
Dan Jolin
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While the debate rumbles on over who should play the next 007, here’s an idea for the next Bond villain: Hugh Grant. Okay, sure, sounds ludicrous but consider that one of his newest roles, Guy Ritchie’s Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre, has him playing a kind of modern-day version of Brad Whitaker in The Living Daylights – only much, much more fun – and his CV reads like one long audition for the pinnacle of big-screen villainy.

And if the James Bond dream doesn’t come to pass – and lord knows, Grant would help puncture the aura of melancholy that settled over the franchise during the late Craig era – there’s still pleasure to be had in taking stock of his career arc to date. Those foppish early days as a romcom stalwart, all floppy curtains and golly-gosh self-effacement, have given way to a run of arch antiheroes, straight-up bad guys, and at least one cannibal. Few actors are making being bad look like so much fun as mid-career Grant. 

Hugh Grant’s best villains

1. Daniel Cleaver – ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’ and ‘Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason’

A sexual harassment case on two legs, Bridget Jones’s nightmarish dream man Daniel Cleaver cuts Grant’s foppish charm with a tang of early noughties toxicity. He’s the slick publishing executive who two-times Bridge and who uses words like ‘shagathon’ without a hint of embarrassment. Following the run of smash-hit rom-coms that made him a star, the character was an early hint that Grant’s next act would see him subvert his winningly self-mocking persona and turn to the dark side. Perhaps deservedly, Cleaver is killed off before he can sin again in Bridget Jones’s Baby.

2. Will Freeman – ‘About a Boy’

This Nick Hornby adaptation sets Grant’s self-centred manchild, Will Freeman, on a redemption arc he really doesn’t deserve. There’s a major clue in the character name: freedom is everything for a man who only rouses himself from spending the royalties from his dad’s Christmas song to worm his way into a support group to pick up single mothers. This, in itself, is worse than at least 50 percent of Bond villain schemes, including the one with nerve gas. But then he doubles down on it by passing off troubled teenager Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) as his son in order to impress Rachel Weisz’s single mum. He gets a nice bit on stage with Will at the end but it’s too little, too late. This guy is a monster. 

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3. Kona Chief – ‘Cloud Atlas’

Looking for a showcase for Hugh Grant’s versatility? Revisit his brutal, bloodthirsty turn as a tribal leader in the future-set coda to Cloud Atlas. In it, Grant’s cannibal-hunter assaults Tom Hanks’ tribal settlement, before the tables are eventually turned in violent style. Wild ambition abounds in Lana and Lilly Wachowski and Tom Tykwer’s movie, but for sheer cinematic chutzpah, no single element beats the sight of these two charming ’90s romcom mainstays trying to sever each other’s heads with blades. Somehow Grant pulls off a role that requires him to wear human jawbones as shoulder pads – and you’d have got long odds on that circa Two Weeks Notice.

4. Lloyd Hooks – ‘Cloud Atlas’

The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer’s Matryoshka doll of a fantasy/period drama/thriller/sci-fi/you-name-it epic plunges its lead actors through the centuries in a dizzying array of roles. The ’70s thriller chapter, revolving around a conspiracy to blow up a nuclear power station, has Grant playing slippery oil executive Lloyd Hooks, a walking reminder never to trust a man who wears sunglasses indoors. The Brit is suitably sinister, as Hooks and his henchman, Bill Smoke (Hugo Weaving), try to bury Halle Berry’s investigative journalist and her evidence. 

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5. Phoenix Buchanan – ‘Paddington 2’

A master of disguise, capable of disappearing into character at the merest whiff of an audience, thespian and all-round villain Phoenix Buchanan is the Hugh Grant career highpoint none of us saw coming. The indignities of appearing in dog food commercials aside, Buchanan oozes spectacular self-regard as a man doomed to live in a world entirely unworthy of his talents. Grant plays it all as a fabulous high camp register, throwing himself into every beat, from cosplaying as a nun to going full Busby Berkeley in the frankly magnificent end-credits prison musical number: ‘It seems I didn’t need the West End, after all, just… a captive audience.’

6. Fletcher – ‘The Gentleman’

It must have given the Londoner a rich sense of schadenfreude to play the kind of eavesdropping, phone-tapping, tabloid-commissioned scuzzball he’s been plagued by down the years – in an enjoyably knowing piece of casting by Guy Ritchie. He certainly seems to be having a blast beneath the questionable goatee, shades and leather jacket as the private investigator who acts as the narrative engine for Ritchie’s mile-a-minute crime thriller. The sweary Fletcher spells out his elaborate blackmail in the form of a movie script, which – guess what! – turns out to be the very movie we’re watching. Grant’s performance is every bit as sleazily arch as the premise demands.

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7. Jonathan Fraser – ‘The Undoing’

One of the best small-screen villains of recent years comes courtesy of Grant’s charming but viperous Dr Jonathan Fraser. He’s the question mark that hangs over HBO’s gripping Manhattan murder-mystery, a pediatric oncologist who stands trial for the murder of his mistress (Matilda De Angelis) and who also ties his long-suffering wife (Nicole Kidman) in knots with his manipulation and gaslighting. Grant delivers a storming performance, one that subverts his suavely likeable on-screen persona in all kinds of dark and delicious ways. It’s hard to think of another actor who could have made such a persuasive rotter.

8. Forge Fitzwilliam – ‘Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves’

A rogue, a self-serving charlatan and the most duplicitous of politicians, the thief-turned-Lord of Neverwinter could be seen as a swords-and-sorcery version of Boris Johnson… If Hugh Grant hadn’t made him so entertainingly watchable. Whether delivering his scripted lines with relish (‘I don’t want to see you die… so I’m going to leave the room’), or throwing in some cheeky improvisation (a hug with Michelle Rodriguez’s berserker barbarian that goes on just that little too long), Grant is having a ball playing this ignoble noble. A rarity among fantasy antagonists in that he’s not interested in plunging the world into darkness, he just wants to get rich quick. Even if that means plunging the world into darkness. 

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9. Greg Simmonds – ‘Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre’

The Brit plays an oily weapons dealer in Guy Ritchie’s effervescent spy caper in another role that, like Paddington 2, mines comedy gold from the absurdities of actorly vanity. In this case, Josh Hartnett plays the A-lister who serves as a kind of Hollywood honey trap to Grant’s sexually (and everything-) fluid megafan on behalf of British intelligence. As with The Gentleman, Grant makes a winningly sleazy kind of Ritchie villain – very ’70s Bond – as he takes the movie star under his wing. His line readings – ‘Shadow me. Do whatever I do. Whatever I do do’ – are so good as to be unteachable.

10. Hugh Grant – ‘2023 Oscars red carpet’

A masterclass in haughty disdain that they’ll one day study at the Actors Studio, Grant’s appearance at the 2023 Academy Awards carpet could be his strongest Bond villain audition yet. After all, it’s only a short leap from being slightly sneery about Hollywood’s celebrity content machine to plotting global domination. America certainly seems ready to believe him as a full-blown villain, judging by the social media fury that greeted his refusal to answer a few innocuous questions about his Oscars night wardrobe choices. We say, give this man the keys to SPECTRE HQ. ‘What am I wearing? I’m wearing my biosuit, Mr Bond,’ etc.

From Michael Caine to Olivia Colman: 50 Great British actors.

Read our review of Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre.

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