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It took several hours each day to turn British actor Jason Isaacs into Cary Grant, one of Hollywood’s most recognisable stars.
A prosthetic chin supplied Grant’s famous dimple, and his hair, with its immaculate side parting, came in a wig box. Isaacs wore suits made by a Savile Row tailor and a pair of the thick-rimmed glasses Grant sported in later life, partly to hide his crow’s feet. The finishing touch: contact lenses that turned Isaacs’ piercing blue eyes into the lambent brown peepers that seduced several generations of cinema audiences.
“A woman was employed to put the contact lenses in and take them out at the end of the day,” says Isaacs, wincing at the memory. “I just couldn’t do it.”
The result of all this labour is impressive. Isaacs, 60, who is probably best known as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies, is utterly convincing as Cary Grant in the four-part drama Archie. In the first episode we find him at home at his mansion in Los Angeles’ Benedict Canyon. The year is 1961 and the star of screwball comedies such as 1938’s Bringing Up Baby and darker fare such as the 1959 Hitchcock classic North by Northwest, is placing a call to Sophia Loren, the latest screen siren to catch his roving eye.
This, one assumes, is a man who has won life’s lottery several times over.
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Appearances can be deceptive, of course. And in Archie, written by BAFTA award-winning British screenwriter Jeff Pope (Philomena, Stan & Ollie), there is a chasm between the man and his carefully cultivated public persona.
The title is a reference to Grant’s real name, Archibald “Archie” Leach. Born in 1904 in Bristol, England, he escaped a hardscrabble childhood by joining a touring vaudeville company as a stilt walker and comedian. After making his way to America he got a part in a Broadway musical starring Fay Wray, changed his name to Cary Grant and reinvented himself as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. “For more than half my 58 years I have cautiously peered from behind the facade of a man known as Cary Grant,” he once wrote. “The protection of that facade proved both an advantage and a disadvantage. If I couldn’t clearly see out, how could anyone see in?”
The challenge of “seeing” the man behind the debonair film star is what convinced Isaacs to get involved. Sitting on a hotel sofa in London’s Soho dressed in black jeans, Blundstone boots and a black linen shirt, he says he was won over by Pope’s screenplay because, in a sense, it didn’t require him to play the screen icon.
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“Why would anyone try to put Cary Grant on the screen? You’d have to be a moron to take that job,” he says. “But when I read Jeff’s script I realised he wasn’t telling the story of Cary Grant because Cary Grant didn’t exist. He [Grant] was someone invented by Archie Leach because he was so tortured. Archie needed the love of as many people as he could get to fill the hole inside him, but it never did.
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“The first time he [Grant] really felt he belonged anywhere was when he had a daughter. I recognised that feeling in myself [Isaacs has two daughters] and I thought, ‘I can’t play Cary Grant, but I can have a crack at playing Archie Leach’.”
He’s being disingenuous, of course: his portrayal of Grant is extraordinary. But it’s also true that the Grant portrayed in Archie is very different to the debonair charmers that became his cinematic stock-in-trade. Away from the cameras, Grant was wracked with shame and self-doubt, the legacy of a childhood blighted by poverty, the death from tuberculosis of his older brother John, and his parents’ disintegrating marriage.
Things took an even darker turn when Leach was nine. His father, Elias, told him his mother, Elsie, had gone on holiday and he wouldn’t see her again. In fact, she had been sectioned by her husband and would spend 30 years in a Bristol mental institution. Elias, who had started a relationship with another woman, then told Grant his mother had died, a lie the actor believed for several decades. When he finally learned the truth – his father confessed shortly before his death – he was devastated.
Grant was reunited with Elsie (Harriet Walter) and helped her leave the institution. But the damage was done. The actor’s long-held belief that his mother had abandoned him had a corrosive effect on his relationships – five marriages and myriad affairs. He desperately sought the company of beautiful women, but when he had them they quickly realised he could oscillate between suave, charming Cary Grant and insecure, controlling Archie Leach.
In the first episodes of Archie we see Grant trying to woo Dyan Cannon, the 25-year-old actor who became his fourth wife. Cannon (played by Laura Aikman) is hesitant. Her career is taking off and the idea of dating a thrice-divorced movie star 33 years her senior rings alarm bells. But Grant is relentless. They married in 1965 and had a daughter, Jennifer, before Cannon filed for divorce in 1967.
Watching Isaacs’ Grant trying to engineer a lunch date with Cannon is fascinating. She is formidable and stands her ground. Grant, the silver screen’s great ladykiller, struggles to disguise his petulance and deep neediness.
To tell its story, Archie switches frequently between time periods and locations. The scenes in sun-drenched Hollywood were shot in Malaga, Spain, while Liverpool’s red brick terrace houses allowed producers to recreate turn-of-the-century Bristol. One minute we’re watching flat-capped urchins playing on dirty streets, the next we’re watching one of those urchins – all grown up and wearing a good suit – striding across a soundstage to chat to his pal Doris Day.
Cannon, 86, and her daughter Jennifer Grant, 57, were both intimately involved with the project. The star’s ex-wife and his only child have both written books about Grant offering markedly different perspectives. Cannon endured a bitter divorce after her husband sought to control and mould her; Jennifer idolises a man she remembers as a loving stay-at-home dad. But Pope makes it clear the women’s insights – in particular, details about Grant’s relationship with his mother, Elsie – helped focus his story on the psychological damage wrought by the movie star’s parents.
Pope admits it was sometimes challenging creating a drama probing behind Grant’s carefully constructed mask as two of his close relatives watched from the sidelines. “[However], they both agreed that in the end it had to be my take on everything. It’s not one person’s view or the official Grant family version – there’s editorial independence.”
Isaacs had his own problems as he prepared for the role. How did the star speak when the cameras weren’t turning? Grant was famously private and avoided interviews, so there was little to go on.
Turning detective, Isaacs tracked down an American who had interviewed Grant when he visited his university in 1986 (the year the actor died of a stroke). Grant hadn’t realised he was being recorded and the former student kept the tape close to his chest for more than 35 years. Isaacs pleaded to hear it and when he did, it was a revelation. “I was surprised and thrilled to find out he didn’t sound like he did in the movies,” he said. “His accent was different, his whole demeanour was different. I felt I was listening to Archie Leach, not Cary Grant.”
In a sense, Archie is a salutary tale about celebrity culture, says Isaacs. “There are so many famous people today and the world sees them via their shiny social media postings. Many young people – my own family included – look at these icons and think they must have perfect lives. If there is a message [in Archie], it’s this: don’t think other people’s lives are as shiny as they look, no matter how famous or rich they are.”
Archie is streaming on Britbox this month.
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