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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Mark Lawson

‘Cary Grant’s whole life was a civil war’: the TV drama unmasking Hollywood’s permatanned icon

‘He was crippled by shame’ … Jason Isaacs as Cary Grant and Laura Aikman as Dyan Cannon in Archie.
‘He was crippled by shame’ … Jason Isaacs as Cary Grant and Laura Aikman as Dyan Cannon in Archie. Photograph: Matt Squire/ITV

Freezing rain is lashing the roof of the movie-set trailer. Even with the heating on full, the conditions are still shivery. But Jason Isaacs is sporting the sort of deep tan that suggests months spent under fierce sun. Appropriately, given the role he’s playing, it’s fake. “They spray-paint me every single day,” the actor explains. “At the place I’m staying, I don’t know what the laundry thinks has been going on, with these dark brown sheets every morning.”

These intensive cosmetics reproduce the Los Angeles-broiled face of the movie star Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock’s favourite leading man, the star of North By Northwest, Charade, Notorious and To Catch a Thief, and the No 1 box office superstar smoothie of the mid-20th century. For Isaacs to play him in ITV’s forthcoming four-part bio-drama Archie, a fake tan was only part of the transformation. “When the makeup comes off at the end of the day,” he says, “there’s almost nothing that’s me. The chin and nose come off. The eyes aren’t my eyes.”

The extent of disguise required to become Grant is appropriate because the elegant movie persona – look, voice, manner – was carefully constructed by a man born Archibald Leach into a poor working-class family in Bristol. Archie’s writer and executive producer Jeff Pope hopes the strangeness of Grant’s story will engage even viewers who don’t know who he was. “I’ve always said this could be a story about Grant Cary – ie someone we’ve never heard of – rather than Cary Grant. The pitch would be: a child is told his mother is dead; 25 years later, when he’s the biggest movie star in the world, he learns she’s still alive in a psychiatric hospital.”

Pope’s previous projects divide between horrific true crime (the recent BBC Jimmy Savile drama The Reckoning and ITV’s The Walk-In, about neo-Nazis) as well as entertainment biopics (from the Cilla ITV series to the movie Stan & Ollie). Archie lies between, combining showbiz with terrible grimness, the two sides visually represented in the Merseyside warehouse where Archie was filmed, which switches from the squalid Edwardian terrace of the actor’s childhood to the California mansion his fame bought. “Archie Leach’s family,” says Pope, also referring to the death of his older brother, “was something Dickens might come up with.”

Box office gold … Grant with Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest.
Box office gold … Grant with Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest. Photograph: Moviestore collection Ltd/Alamy

“He was crippled by shame,” says Isaacs. “There are things in his life we haven’t put on screen that I think the audience can fill in for themselves. But certainly, he was mistreated and neglected and abused and hungry. I think he was hungry for most of his early life. He was obsessive about not wasting food. If he saw someone throw something away, a half-eaten peach, he would grab it from the trash can and say, ‘That’s unkind.’ Interesting word!”

Archie is also a story of redemption, through the birth, when Grant was 62, of his only child, with the actor Dyan Cannon, the fourth of his five wives. Laura Aikman, who played Sonia in Gavin & Stacey, was cast due to her resemblance to the young Cannon, three times Oscar-nominated for movies including Heaven Can Wait. So she avoids Isaacs’ daily facial transformation: her challenge was the “big hair” of mid-20th century Hollywood.

“I have a part wig and extensions,” says Aikman. “And I’m playing someone 10 years younger than me. So I still have a fair amount of time in the makeup chair.” One crew member was surprised to see what “looked like a small dog” being carried into a trailer. It turned out just to be the Cannon hair.

Pope says that, when Aikman auditioned, she “had the voice and laugh perfectly. She had clearly deeply studied Dyan.”

“I had!” admits Aikman. “More than the movies, I found the chatshows, where she is just being herself, most informative. She was really famous for her big, infectious laugh so that seemed a good way of unlocking her energy and character.”

Cannon, 33 years younger than Grant, was only married to him for three years. “He had bouts of depression and destroyed four marriages,” says Isaacs. “It wasn’t incompatibility: he made it impossible for women to stay married to him.” But, because it made Grant a father, the marriage to Cannon was transformative. It finished Grant as an actor, but improved him as a human being.

“That was my starting point,” says Pope. “I was at an airport, looking for a book to read. And I went to biography, as that’s my thing. I saw Jennifer Grant’s book Good Stuff, which is what he said when things were going well, ‘Good stuff!’ And I hadn’t known that Cary Grant had a daughter. But the thing that hooked me was that, on the dust jacket, it said that, at the height of his career, he had effectively given it up so that he could be a single dad to Jennifer because he had split with Dyan. Having spent his whole life avoiding children – probably because of the horrors of his own childhood – he suddenly realised, with Jennifer, what love for a child was.”

Redemption … Grant with Dyan Cannon and their daughter Jennifer in 1966.
Redemption … Grant with Dyan Cannon and their daughter Jennifer in 1966. Photograph: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy

So Archie is shaped by three child-parent relationships: Grant with his mother, father then daughter. Central to the drama, though, is the complex relationship between Archie the Bristol boy and Cary the Hollywood man. “His whole life was a civil war,” says Pope. “Very late on, he said that, after years of keeping them apart, he had finally decided to introduce Cary to Archie – and they got along just fine. That’s where I was always heading with the storyline.”

Towards the end of his life, at a Hollywood tribute dinner, Grant insisted the event be described in the programme as being in honour of Archie Leach. This is complicated for Isaacs, who is effectively playing two men: Grant’s screen persona and whatever blurring of Cary and Archie he was in private.

“His movie voice was fairly widely impersonated,” says Isaacs. “Tony Curtis did an impression in Some Like It Hot. But I was going in backwards, trying to work out what voice to use for him as himself. If I were playing Winston Churchill, we know what he sounded like in the House of Commons – but with real people, I’m always trying to find out what they sounded like if they dropped something very heavy on their foot. No one is always the same person. But I couldn’t find any interviews Grant had ever given. Stars in those days didn’t have to go on talkshows. Then I heard one sentence in a documentary and thought, ‘Where does that come from?’”

It turned out that, in his 80s, Grant had unexpectedly given an interview to a Los Angeles college newspaper. The student tried to record the conversation but the actor ordered him to stop. Surreptitiously, though, he kept the tape running. “Most of it was printed after Cary’s death,” Isaacs says. “But it had never been broadcast. I tracked the guy down and he played me the whole tape, which was a goldmine. And he was much more English than you’d think.”

Is there any Bristol in there? “No Bristol at all. It’s someone trying to do a mid-American accent from 1920-30 and failing. Every time he got an American part, like in North By Northwest, he would change some vowels, but inconsistently. When he was at home, though, he relaxed his speech patterns.”

Aikman had the luxury of long Zoom and telephone conversations with Cannon, hoping, beyond the big hair, to get under her skin. Is playing a real living person like being a barrister – representing and defending your character? “There is an element of that. I find her so charming and funny and lovable that I felt the weight of putting that on screen.”

‘He needed to be more bronzed than anyone else’ … Jason Isaacs as Grant
‘He needed to be more bronzed than anyone else’ … Jason Isaacs as Grant Photograph: Matt Squire/ITV

Although Cannon was a strong woman and a feminist, society was more sexist back then and marriages less equal. Did Aikman find her portrayal had to strike a balance between what women are like now and how they were able to behave back then? “It is an interesting balance,” she says. “But even now – behind closed doors – people do all sorts of things to each other and let their partners do things to them that are maybe against their own values. But she was a strong woman of her time – funny and outspoken – and I try to capture that.”

The script, too, aims to reflect contemporary concerns about any imbalances between age and power in showbiz relationships. “There’s a key scene,” says Pope, “where Cary is considering turning down a film in which Audrey Hepburn is the love interest, fearing it might be inappropriate as she is so much younger than him. And Dyan says, ‘Audrey Hepburn is older than me!’ And they have a massive row. But he’s essentially saying it’s wrong for Cary Grant but it’s fine for Archie Leach. There was a firewall between them.”

Winter dusk is falling and Isaacs will soon have to top up his tan again. “Cary somehow got the idea he needed to be more bronzed than anyone else on screen,” he says. “He sunbathed at the studio. He had a reflector under his chin when he was outside at home. His friends sometimes begged him, ‘You look ridiculous!’ But he was always topping it up. It might have looked odd in the flesh, but it worked on screen.”

As the drama shows, it was just another part of the actor’s mask.

• Archie is on ITV and ITVX from 23 November.

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