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Friday, Sept. 17, 1999

The discreet charm of Hugh Grant

In "Notting Hill," Hugh Grant plays an unpretentious, sincere and endearing bookseller from West London. In real life, Hugh Grant is an unpretentious, sincere and endearing actor from West London. Or he certainly knew how to come off as one at the press conference given recently to promote "Notting Hill," a love story with Julia Roberts that outsold "Ghost" and "Pretty Woman" on its opening week in the United States.

Grant showed up on schedule, punctual to the minute (a rare thing at these functions), in a simple black shirt sans the slightest hint of movie-star airs. First he opened the conference with a salutory remark about how after two days in Japan, he found the country so wonderful that he was ready to become Japanese. Everyone laughed politely.

Five minutes later he had the entire room starry-eyed and giggling with delight as if we had all been blasted with a mega-spray of Prozac. Sweeping (and I don't mean the kind with a broom) is obviously what Grant does best. Read on for samplings of his technique.

In the movie your childhood nickname was "Flopsy." What was it in real life?

"Well, uh . . . I was called 'Piggy.' There you are, 'Piggy' was my name because I was such a messy eater. I'd get the food up to my mouth and half of it would spill on the floor."

What was it like to work with Julia Roberts?

"I was intimidated at the beginning of the film because she's such a big star. I did meet her before, 10 years ago when she was in London to make a film and I was just an unknown, out-of-work, very sad actor. Anyway I was there at her hotel for the audition. I walked in, shook hands with Julia and the director and I sat down, but I missed the chair and wound up sitting on the arm of it.

"Now I had two choices, either I could say 'Oh my god, I missed the chair' and stand up, or I could pretend to be this wacko who habitually sat on the arms of chairs. I chose the latter. It was a bad move."

What do you think of the recent boom in British films?

"Naturally I'm happy that finally it's beginning to blossom. I've spent so many years faffing around in the British film industry where there's relatively no money whatsoever. And now there's so much money. It's bizaare. And frightening, actually."

Tell us the difference between working on American and British film sets.

"Working in the U.S. was always as I had imagined it -- lots of money, everyone very professional, lots of efficiency. The downside is that it feels like one is in a production line, making refrigerators or Sony Walkmans. In England, everyone is so happy to have gotten the money together to make a film at all that the whole thing seems like a party. People get drunk, the crew all have affairs with each other -- it's much more fun."

You always seem to play such nice parts. Any plans to play the villain?

"When I first started acting I played villains all the time and at press conferences they'd ask me, 'Don't you want to play someone who's nice for a change.' Now the boot is so much on the other foot that yes, I would like to play villains again."

Did you identify at all with your character in "Notting Hill?"

"I definitely identified with his being an underachieving Englishman from West London. I was an underachieving actor in West London for such a long time. Plus the way he keeps asking his friends for advice all the time -- that's me.

"But something he has and I don't is his generosity of spirit. That's more the writer, Richard Curtis. Richard is like that and he always tends to write himself into his scripts. And it always amuses him that people think me as this nice, gentle person that he writes about when in truth he knows that I'm . . . evil."

"Notting Hill" is playing at the Marunouchi Picadilly and other theaters.

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