Hugh Grant has built a career on playing romantic leads — from Four Weddings and a Funeral to Notting Hill to Love Actually. At 54, he still oozes charm, which is perhaps why his frequent collaborator Marc Lawrence (Two Weeks Notice, Music and Lyrics) was able to talk him into taking on a romantic role once again. In the new film The Rewrite, which will be released on video on demand this Friday, Grant stars opposite Marisa Tomei (The Wrestler, My Cousin Vinny) as a screenwriter who begrudgingly takes a job as a teacher when his ink well runs dry.
But even though the film will be released on video on demand this Valentine’s Day weekend, Grant thinks watching it on the holiday may be a mistake. TIME sat down with the Brit to talk how he’s contributed to people’s unrealistic expectations about romance, why studios don’t make rom-coms anymore, and how politics makes him feel manly.
TIME: You’ve worked with writer and director Marc Lawrence four times now. What draws you to his work?
Hugh Grant: I love his writing. He’s always made me laugh, and I think he’s strangely positive about people. He really loves people in a way that I don’t. But he’s also an extremely anxious as an individual—anxious about everything. And so am I. On that level, we have a very enjoyable relationship on the set. We sit there and worry about the film, obviously, but also worry about the Ukraine and ISIS and death and all these other things while we’re trying to make comedy.
For someone who gets on set and worries about ISIS, you’ve done a lot of comedies. Do you think anxious people make better comedians?
They may be two sides of the same coin. Comedy is probably a way of dealing with anxiety. Sometimes it’s a way of dealing with pain. I think these comedies have to arise from the pain of being in love, and the best romantic comedy scripts I’ve read come from authors who have really suffered in the throes of love.
In the film, you are a screenwriter forced to take a position as a teacher. Have you ever had a job you hated or just didn’t care about?
I’ve certainly had a bad attitude to my job on many occasions. Not since Four Weddings and a Funeral. I’ve been rather a good boy and really given it everything when I’ve accepted a part since then, because I’ve been given much better parts in films. But prior to Four Weddings, when I was a struggling actor, I used to accept the most awful projects and frequently treated them with thinly disguised disdain as I was doing them.
But since you’ve mostly done movies that you actually respect.
Or movies that were more likely to be seen. There was a phase in my career in my late 20s and 30s when I was doing strange, arty farty Euro films that were, you could tell, never had much chance of any release anywhere in the world. It was quite tempting just to have fun and get drunk every night with the lead actresses. I actually enjoyed my life very much at that time. But since Four Weddings I’ve felt I’ve had to be very committed and serious.
Does that feel like an obligation to you or something you want to do?
It’s both. You don’t want to look a fool. So that’s a huge imperative in life. And if you’re not taking it seriously or giving your best, there’s a high chance you’re going to look like an idiot.
In this movie, opposites attract. Do you believe that actually works in real life?
Yes. In fact, maybe that’s preferable. I avoid people from the same background and same job. I don’t think I’ve got any actor friends particularly, and I like completely strange people.
In fact, the experience of the last three years for me where I’ve found myself working full time in politics in Britain has been so refreshing because I have no prior experience of this world of politics and lawyers and academics. And they have no knowledge or experience of my world of show business.
What’s been the biggest adjustment moving from the movie world to the world of politics?
I think the part of my acting career where I’ve been more successful, I’ve been incredibly cushioned. People are much too nice to you. You go into politics and people are absolutely brutal. You’ve got proper enemies, and they’re vicious. It’s very invigorating. But I feel quite manly at the end of the day in a way that I don’t if I’ve been mollycoddled and had someone come and touch up my makeup.
You’ve built your career on playing romantic leads. But romantic comedies seem to have gone out of favor with studios lately—at least big budget romantic comedies. Why do you think that is?
I’ve been so out of touch with show business for the last three years, but I have heard rumors that they don’t make films where people talk to each other anymore. It has to be people blowing up. And that is regrettable.
I think it’s to do with just pure economics. It all goes back to the death of DVD — because that’s where studios actually made most of their money. When that particular window went, their margins disappeared, so they had to be much safer with the films they made. So you have studios only making sequels, which is really quite a sad state of affairs.
A lot of writers and actors are moving elsewhere.
We’re all supposed to say the upside is all the quality writing has drifted to television and online movies and all that. I suppose that is great, but I personally have a great affection for celluloid — for films projected as light through celluloid in big cinemas with lots of people there. For me there’s something cramped and dingy about sitting in front of your computer watching a small screen.
So do you ever watch things on your computer?
No, I don’t. In fact, I don’t even know how to do on demand films on my TV at home. I’ve never cracked it. Someone did plug Apple TV into my TV, but I can’t work it.
This film comes out on VOD just in time for Valentine’s Day. I have often found that when men watch your movies, they complain that they can’t measure up to your character. So would you recommend that couples watch this movie — or any romantic comedy — on Valentine’s Day?
I agree — it can be very uncomfortable. It sets up this perfect paradigm of love. And my experience with my relationships at least is they’re never remotely like that — I’m not remotely like that. So I think it’s a dangerous thing to do.
I suppose I’m not selling the movie very well. [laughs] People should see the film, but I don’t necessarily think it’s a Valentine’s Day treat.
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