Actor Hugh Grant Charms US Moviegoers on Three Screens

GET ready, the actor says as he lapses into his best mock-French accent, for ``un hommage a Hugh Grant.'' A self-advertisement for a man on a roll.

``I want people to write about my extraordinary range and versatility,'' the Londoner deadpans, sinking deep into a sofa at Blakes Hotel, an island of Hollywood chic near his Chelsea flat. More sheepishly - and seriously - he adds, ``Obviously I'm hoping people will sort of notice me a bit.''

The dapper Oxford graduate celebrated in recent years for his cheekbones now gets to show he's got charm and talent, as well.

Not long ago, Grant seemed fated to play aristocratic, white-flanneled swells in period pictures - as he did in ``Maurice'' and ``The Remains of the Day,'' both from the producing-directing team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory.

But there's a funnier, more audacious Hugh Grant who this month opened in three films across the United States:

* In ``Sirens,'' the actor brings a droll bemusement to director John Duigan's odd tale of eroticism unleashed in rural Australia.

* In ``Bitter Moon,'' he's the seafaring spouse absorbed by Peter Coyote's tales of sadomasochism. Roman Polanski's film, shot two and a half years ago and also starring Emmanuelle Seigner and Kristin Scott-Thomas, is just now getting an American release.

* Lastly, and preeminently, comes ``Four Weddings and a Funeral,'' which opened in major theaters last week. Mike Newell's romantic comedy casts Grant in what should be his breakthrough performance: as the sweetly bumbling bachelor, Charles, who's none too likely to make it to the church on time.

``It's pure coincidence,'' Grant says of the convergence of openings. ``But there can be quite long periods as well when there's nothing, so I know how that works.''

An attentive flurry followed his screen debut as Clive, opposite James Wilby, in the 1987 ``Maurice,'' adapted from the E.M. Forster novel. (It was the kind of posh Oxbridge role he had played in a 1982 student film, ``Privileged,'' which had a limited art-house release.)

Grant, who turned to acting after considering a career as an art historian, continued to find work, but many of the films were hardly worth it: Ken Russell's ``Lair of the White Worm,'' and James Lapine's ``Impromptu,'' in which he played Chopin to Julian Sands' Liszt, are now the stuff of trivia buffs. ``Films are so thin on the ground here that you have to accept things you probably shouldn't be doing,'' Grant says.

``I did that for a long time, and it was a big mistake. You have to be tough as nails and wait for parts that really inspire you.''

Grant credits director Polanski and ``Bitter Moon'' for getting him back on track. ``That film did such a lot of good for me in England,'' he says. ``Although the critics were literally divided -

some saw it as a joke bad, some saw it as a joke brilliant - people tended to like me, and thought I was quite funny.''

The fact is Grant truly is funny. His initially stiff-backed and elegant screen persona gave no hint of the apt mimicry (he's particularly good on ``frightening American agents'' and north of England TV producers) and the wry self-mockery that make him so engaging to meet. In ``Sirens,'' he says, he tried to be ``groovy'' as well as funny so that the clash between free-spiritedness and conventional morality in 1930s Australia would not seem a cliche.

``I was worried the clash was a little 1960s, a little obvious,'' Grant says of the film, in which he plays English vicar Anthony Campion, who travels to New South Wales to investigate the erotic content of the art of real-life painter Norman Lindsay, who died in 1969. ``I felt there had to be more going on, hence making my character think he was quite avant-garde.... I was quite happy to champion Anthony's cause against such a tired old Bohemianism.''

Grant has three other films set to roll. First up is ``An Awfully Big Adventure,'' adapted from Beryl Bainbridge's novel, in which he will play a gay theater director working in 1947 Liverpool. Mike Newell, who made ``Four Weddings,'' directs.

In ``Restoration,'' based on a novel by Rose Tremaine, Grant joins Meg Ryan and Robert Downey Jr. in a tale of 17th-century London. The film teams Grant with ``Privileged'' director, Michael Hoffman. Then there's ``An Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain,'' about two mapmakers in Wales in 1910.

Further ahead, he will play Edward Ferrers in Emma Thompson's screenplay of ``Sense and Sensibility,'' the 1811 Jane Austen novel. Grant appeared with Thompson as the journalist who learns the facts of life from Anthony Hopkins' butler in ``The Remains of the Day.''

Grant won't act in mainstream Hollywood projects. ``Do they really think I want to be in the new Schwarzenegger film?'' he asks. ``I've seen it go wrong so often: You're shoved into the nearest Hollywood film, and you're awful in it, and it's awful, and that's the end of it.

``When I said I'm sorry, I don't like any of the 12 scripts you've sent me, I thought [the agents] would respect for me for it. ``I've now heard on the grapevine they rather hate me.''

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