Time, Nov 3, 2003, by Josh Tyrangiel

Pouring on the Charm
It can't be true that all British actors are more charming and witty than American ones, but it often seems that way, especially in movies by Richard Curtis, the writer of Four Weddings and a  Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones's Diary. Having given them so many great lines, Curtis was able to assemble quite a constellation of stars for his directorial debut, Love Actually, which opens next week. In a web of interconnected love stories, Hugh Grant plays the Prime Minister, Emma Thompson his sister, Liam Neeson a widower with a stepson, and Colin Firth a writer who moves to France after his girlfriend cheats on him. Curtis and four of his stars sat down with TIME's Josh Tyrangiel in London to discuss love, Governor Schwarzenegger and Grant's inimitable dance moves. 

EMMA THOMPSON: I think Hugh is quite hung over.

[Grant, with a box of Advil, groans.]

RICHARD CURTIS: So this is one of those things where you'll put our initials, like E.T., and then it's all boiled down ...

EMMA: ... into the stupidest thing you ever said ever, which you then wear round your neck.

RICHARD: Talk about stupid things around your neck, what is that?  [Thompson is wearing a fur collar.]

EMMA: [Laughing] F___ off, all of you. You should be appreciative I've made an effort for your bloody film.

RICHARD: You look absolutely gorgeous. Now I don't want that bit  in — the "your bloody film" bit.

COLIN FIRTH: Do we have to cut it anytime anyone says "your bloody film," or just Emma?

RICHARD: Cut that bit too.

LIAM NEESON: So why was my computer scene cut out of the film?

RICHARD: You see, we've got to give them something for the DVD now.

LIAM: But was it hilariously unfunny?

RICHARD: It's absolutely lovely. The truth of the matter is that the bonding between you and your stepson, which that scene was meant to achieve, was there from the start.

EMMA: What about the scene with my son in the corridor, about the farts? It's gone.

RICHARD: Oh, shut up, the whole lot of you.

TIME: The story lines that actually made it into the movie are about love between a husband and wife, husband's best friend and wife, brother and sister, mentally impaired brother and sister, language-impaired boss and employee, boy and girl, and a widowed stepfather and son. It all takes place at Christmas, with loving families and adorable children. Did you ever think, O.K., enough is enough?

HUGH GRANT: I thought it was very brave. As you say, it runs the risk of being unfashionable to be that positive and warm about life and people. And Richard doesn't seem to care at all. He goes full out for it. His saving grace all his life has been that he takes you to the edge, where you're about to say enough already, and then there's a good joke that undercuts the whole thing. It's a great feat of trapeze.

COLIN: You cannot afford to miss, picking up on that metaphor. You miss by an inch, and you've got something that's catastrophic. There's a thin line between being deeply moved and the desire to vomit.

RICHARD: Can the vomit bit not be in?

EMMA: No, I think we need vomit.

TIME: Liam, people tend to overlook your comedic work in Schindler's List. Is that why you wanted to be in this movie?

LIAM: That and knowing it was Richard and all these extraordinary actors. I thought, My God, I could only wish.

RICHARD: I had just rewatched Husbands and Wives, and there's a fantastic scene where Liam's come back from a date and he's trying to work out whether to kiss Judy Davis. He's so calm, and that magical calm that Liam can do was crucial. I like to feel that in this film people are allowed to do things that are very natural to them.

TIME: Like Hugh Grant being Prime Minister?

RICHARD: I met the Prime Minister after Notting Hill, and he said he enjoyed it, but why were all the characters in my movies such losers? So I thought, I'll pay him back.

TIME: Hugh, did you enjoy playing out the fantasy of global power?

HUGH: Well, I do quite like to be the focus of attention, so as far as the Prime Minister gets out of his car and waves, I liked that. But if the question is, Did I enjoy doing the part?, the answer is of course no. Acting is unmitigated torture for me from beginning to end.

LIAM: Is it, Hugh? I remember reading something about this. Why?

HUGH: Because I don't like the pressure. I don't mind rehearsing. You do something in rehearsal and someone says, "Hey, that's pretty good. Quite funny." And then from that moment on you're just dreading trying to repeat it.

LIAM: You repeat it very, very well.

RICHARD: Yeah, in film after film after film. [Much laughter.] I've got a terrible thing to admit. Whenever I look at the end of the movie, when Hugh's in front of that audience and they're all clapping and he does that little wave and disappears, I keep thinking, I hope that when he dies, that's the bit they show at the end of the news.

HUGH: It'd be either that or the mug shot.

EMMA: Let's kill him and see.

TIME: Let's talk politics for a minute. Did you hesitate to include Hugh's vaguely anti-American speech in a movie that will play in American multiplexes?

RICHARD: It was meant to be a comic moment, that a Prime Minister would change policy because he thought he saw the President of the U.S. kissing the girl he fancies. It certainly wasn't intended as a large comment on American foreign policy.

EMMA: Shall we discuss Ah-nuld?

TIME: You starred with the Governor-elect of California in Junior.

EMMA: And was I invited to the f______ inauguration?

LIAM: Did he touch you up, Emma? I bet he tried to, right?

EMMA: No, he didn't! I promise you. He was incredibly courteous and European, actually.

RICHARD: Did you ever catch him humming Nazi marching songs while he wasn't thinking?

EMMA: Please stop.

TIME: Moving on — nearly every character in this movie has a moment of either comic or tragic embarrassment ...

LIAM: Used to. There was this computer scene ... [Laughter.]

RICHARD: It's funny you say that. I'm now going to have to think through the film and discover what those moments are.

TIME: Well, there's Hugh's dance sequence ...

HUGH: That's not meant to be embarrassing! That's meant to be celebratory! You've said something rather hurtful.

RICHARD: I think you're talking about what I plaintively hope is drama.

EMMA: But we're particularly good at being embarrassed, British people. Aren't we terminally embarrassed about almost everything?  I think it's true. We use it as a dramatic device quite a lot.

LIAM: It's also interesting to act. It's quite a hurdle, that one.

EMMA: It's much more difficult than anger or pain or any of the biggies.

HUGH: I beg to differ. It's the only one I can do.

TIME: Is love difficult to play?

RICHARD: You know, I don't think anyone actually says I love you in the film.

EMMA: I always get irritable when there are I-love-yous, especially when children announce to their parents that they love them endlessly.

LIAM: I tell my kids I love them simply because I used to find it really embarrassing to say it. I will call them back if I forget to say it, and I love to hear them say it back. It's really crucial to me now to hear those words, cliched as they are.

RICHARD: I don't know about you guys, but I love Josh. I love him.

TIME: Dude.

HUGH: I've actually taken quite a dislike to him myself.

TIME: Maybe if you got to know me or weren't so hung over.

RICHARD: Should we talk about the love thing, in terms of ...  [Grant pretends to snore.] I'm only just thinking of the argument of the film. When you're in your 20s and 30s, love is about being romantic and finding the right person. When you become a family man, you realize that it's not very democratic, the way we portray love. The idea was to say that all of these loves are equally interesting.

TIME: Romantic comedies generally hinge on a simple device — will they or won't they? So how do you make them different?

HUGH: Ah, you mean since we know what's going to happen, how do you make them good.

RICHARD: I didn't know when I was writing Four Weddings and a Funeral that I was writing a romantic comedy. In some ways, the answer is to fight the genre. My favorite romantic film is An Officer and a Gentleman.

EMMA: Not Some Like It Hot? I find that so romantic.

RICHARD: Tony Curtis is in love with Jack Lemmon. What's romantic?

HUGH: It finishes in the speedboat.

EMMA: Yes, with "Nobody's perfect," the best line in any film ever. Tony Curtis is probably the sexiest actor who ever lived, present company excepted.

LIAM: You know Tony Curtis is on the road playing that part.

EMMA: Last time I saw him, he was standing in front of a woman whose breasts were actually here, around his ears.

RICHARD: Terribly good way to keep your ears warm.

TIME: Were there any people you approached for the movie who turned you down?

RICHARD: We offered the part of the President [played by Billy Bob Thornton] to John Travolta. I bumped into Travolta at a party, and he said, "I will be in any film, any part — just you ring, and I'll be there." So we got in touch, and I think his agent rang back, rather cross, and said, "You must be joking. John wouldn't even consider it."

TIME: What are the differences you have encountered between British and American actors?

COLIN: I do find a lot of American actors, quite creatively, use the text just as a starting point. We're much more fixed to the discipline of what's on the page.

HUGH: Woody Allen's much more free and easy with his text than you, Richard.

LIAM: But if there was a joke, he'd say, "Keep the joke. That joke works." I didn't have any jokes, of course.

HUGH: I admire Barry Levinson and films like Diner, where everyone's interrupting all the time. The BBC school of filmmaking is "No, love, you can't interrupt. You've got to wait until they finish speaking."

TIME: What was Richard like as a first-time director? If you read his screenplays, you would presume he was the kindest person on Earth.

EMMA: I want you to guess. Just look at that man in his little  Marks & Spencer [sweater], and try and work out which part of that body could contain a mote of viciousness.

HUGH: Oddly enough ...

COLIN: Oh good!

HUGH: I agree, there's no nastiness, but there's some steel there in protecting his own material, rather like you on Sense and Sensibility [which Thompson wrote and Grant acted in].

EMMA: I was a Nazi, let's face it.

HUGH: You were determined to get what you wanted, and I think good directors do that. Cameron Crowe was telling me when he was directing Jerry Maguire that there was a line Renee [Zellweger] says, and he had Jim Brooks, who was producing, in the trailer watching a monitor, talking to him on a walkie-talkie between takes saying "It's such an important line — don't compromise!" And they went to Take 450 on this line just because it was so important. You had that steel.

COLIN: [to Curtis] You were also relentless when I was being crap as well. And that's helpful.

RICHARD: It was quite frightening, working with the people here.  It was like going to bed with a girl, and the last four people she slept with were Brad Pitt, Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson and Colin Firth. I don't have any experience really. Talking to Liam, I would think, I wonder what Steven Spielberg does in this  situation? I remember once saying to an actress at the end of the first take of a scene, "That was so brilliant. I didn't realize the scene was so serious. You brought a real profundity." And then she was a Belsen victim. She pulled in her cheeks and dropped her brow on every other take.

COLIN: There's the expression about actors playing their reviews. They get great reviews, and then the next night they act out the description of themselves. Feedback is very dodgy. And the presence of a monitor? I've watched inexperienced actors go up and watch themselves, and you can see tragic levels of despair cross their faces.

RICHARD: Like when Hugh watched his dancing scene and realized he would never dance in public again.

HUGH: All sorts of things came back to me. Like the night when I was at my very best dancing in a Latin club, and a girl came up to me and whispered, "Are you joking?"

RICHARD: There's more computer-graphic imagery in Hugh's dancing than there is in the whole of Jurassic Park.

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