Hugh Knew?

In his new movie, About a Boy, Hugh Grant plays a reluctant father figure to 12-year-old Nicholas Hoult. Offscreen, says Hoult, Grant seemed more like the best sort of big brother—one who’s a bit of a bad influence (“He did swear a lot; after a while he didn’t say sorry anymore”) but listens to reason about the important issues. Like buying an Aston Martin. “He said he wanted a car, so I thought, ‘Okay, might as well get a decent one,'” says auto buff Hoult, who pointed out the 460-horsepower Vanquish sports car (base price: $228,000) in a magazine. Grant is awaiting delivery. “He is a bit scared he might look like a big poseur,” says Hoult. “I reckon he’d say I forced him to do it.”

At 41, Grant may be just beginning to be wary of the kind of car that screams Midlife Crisis! But two years after the end of his 14-year romance with Elizabeth Hurley, he isn’t in any hurry to settle down either. After all, he has a new flick (About a Boy opens May 17) and a new passion (the love that dare not speak its name: golf). Not to mention a new spikey haircut that friends say better reflects his wicked wit. (“It came through once he got rid of the forelock,” says Boy co-director Chris Weitz.) “There was a time when all my friends were getting married and I did think, ‘What’s wrong with me?'” says Grant, sipping beer in the Manhattan hotel room he has called home for three months while shooting the romantic comedy Two Weeks Notice. “But now that they’re getting divorced, I think, ‘Well, I’m glad I didn’t have to go through that.'”

As for fatherhood, “I don’t feel a particular pressure,” he says, “except at Christmas when I always feel a bit pathetic that I have no kids and everyone else has.” Besides, the Oxford-educated actor still enjoys his own boyish escapades. Sometimes a little too much. On a recent weekend he partied until dawn at a Manhattan nightclub, then grabbed an hour’s sleep before joining his older brother Jamie, a banker at J.P. Morgan in New York City, and Jamie’s colleagues on the links. “I had to push them aside when I got there so I could go throw up in the bathroom,” says Grant. The embarrassing part of the tale? Admitting he plays golf. “I’m ashamed,” he adds. “Saying I’m into golf is like saying I’m middle-aged.” Yet he spends hours in his hotel room tapping balls into a gadget that says “Nice putt” when his aim is true. “I want it to say other things, like ‘Good actor!'” he says. “Or ‘Nice butt!'”

He also spends off-hours with non-golfing friends, including Hurley, 36, whose London townhouse is around the corner from his. “He was unbelievably lovely to me when I was so unhappy during my pregnancy,” says Hurley, who gave birth to Damian on April 4 and is still in dispute with her ex-boyfriend, L.A. film producer Stephen Bing, over the child’s paternity. “He’s still my best friend in the world. No matter how demented he drives me on a day-to-day basis, in a crisis he is always there 100 percent.” In January Grant joined Hurley, her sister and several of her female pals on a vacation to the Caribbean island of Mustique. “I couldn’t have enjoyed it more,” he says. “I like to be spoiled, particularly by women.”

What he doesn’t like is being mistaken for the foppish, bumbling characters he played in a string of movies including 1994’s Four Weddings and a Funeral and 1999’s Notting Hill. In fact, the caddish casanova he played in last year’s Bridget Jones’s Diary comes closest to the real Hugh, says Grant’s longtime producer and close friend Eric Fellner. Why? “Because he’s just an absolute devil,” says Fellner. “There are no anecdotes that can go into print.” His character in About a Boy—a cynical bachelor who befriends the son of a single mother—is also a departure for Grant. “I’ve never seen him bumbling once,” Chris Weitz, who directed the movie with his brother Paul, says of Grant. “The spontaneity he projects, it’s the result of deep concentration.”

Which, in turn, is a reaction to stage fright. As effortless as it looks, acting doesn’t come easily to Grant. To calm his nerves, he has tried remedies from oxygen masks (“completely useless”) to acupuncture recommended by Chinese-medicine experts brought to the set by his Two Weeks Notice costar Sandra Bullock. “Sometimes if I’m not as good as I was in rehearsal, I start to panic,” he explains. “I’ve had meltdowns.”

Growing up in London, the son of carpet salesman James and French teacher Fynvola seemed more likely to enter academia—despite his dead-on impressions of teachers at the city’s Latymer Upper School. A rugby and cricket player, “Hughie” won a scholarship to study literature at Oxford. “He was a clever boy among clever boys,” recalls assistant headmaster Chris Hammond.

After college Grant labored in small theatrical and film roles until his breakout performance in Four Weddings. He met Hurley on a movie set in 1986. Though the two were rarely together in London—Grant has said they got along best when living in hotels—the relationship weathered his darkest hour: his 1995 arrest for dallying with prostitute Divine Brown in his BMW in L.A. Hurley stood by her man—until they mutually decided to part two years ago. Since then Grant has taken on no other serious romances, though he dates from time to time. “I think he would prefer it if it was more difficult for him,” says Paul Weitz, noting the mobs of admirers Grant attracts. Grant’s take on dating: “It’s how it always was—except I’m older and richer, I suppose.”

Wiser too, perhaps. Last July Grant suffered a difficult setback during the About a Boy shoot when his mother died of cancer. “She was very good at not taking life too seriously,” says Grant. “I’m sure I’m not as moral and upstanding as she and Dad were brought up to be, but somewhere deep down there is a basic, decency. That would be the thing I would thank them most for.”

After Notice wraps this month, Grant will keep busy “concentrating on not looking ostentatious in his Aston Martin and improving his handicap,” says his pal Fellner with a laugh. No doubt there will be some of that. But he also hopes to finish a screenplay he has worked on for two years and to perhaps even direct. Or not. Indecision, after all, is one of the perks of being a wealthy bachelor. “Once every three months there will be a list of things to do, and that day is ‘Decide on career’ or ‘Change direction in life,'” says Grant with a shrug, “but it never gets done.”

Samantha Miller

Elizabeth McNeil in New York City and Liz Corcoran and Eileen Finan in London

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