The TV series revealing the truth behind Hollywood’s always-tanned icon, Cary Grant, describes his life as a constant battle.
The movie-set trailer is being pelted by freezing rain. Despite having the heat on at its highest, the atmosphere remains cold. However, Jason Isaacs has a deep tan that appears to have been acquired from prolonged exposure to intense sunlight. Interestingly, his tan is not real, but rather it is applied daily with spray-paint for his character. He jokes about the confusion his dark brown sheets may cause at his accommodation due to this daily routine.
These powerful beauty products recreate the sun-kissed look of Hollywood legend Cary Grant, who was director Alfred Hitchcock’s preferred leading man and starred in iconic films such as North By Northwest, Charade, Notorious, and To Catch a Thief. He was also the top-grossing actor of the mid-20th century. In order for Isaacs to portray him in ITV’s upcoming four-part biographical drama Archie, a fake tan was just one element of the dramatic transformation. According to Isaacs, when he removes the makeup at the end of the day, there is hardly anything left of his own appearance. The prosthetic chin and nose are removed, and his eyes are no longer recognizable as his own.
The level of disguise needed to transform into Grant is fitting as the refined Hollywood persona – appearance, voice, demeanor – was meticulously crafted by a man named Archibald Leach, who was born into a poor working-class family in Bristol. The writer and executive producer, Jeff Pope, hopes that the peculiarity of Grant’s journey will captivate even those who are unfamiliar with his identity. Pope has expressed that this could be a story about any person, Grant Cary, who we are not aware of, instead of the well-known Cary Grant. To summarize: a child is informed that his mother has passed away, but 25 years later, as the biggest movie star in the world, he discovers that she is actually still alive in a mental institution.
The previous works of Pope include a mix of horrifying true crime stories, such as the recent BBC drama “The Reckoning” about Jimmy Savile, and entertainment biopics, including the ITV series “Cilla” and the film “Stan & Ollie”. “Archie”, however, is a combination of both elements, blending showbiz with dark and unpleasant themes. The visual representation of this can be seen in the filming location, a warehouse in Merseyside that shifts between the rundown Edwardian terrace of Archie’s childhood and the lavish California mansion he acquired through his fame. According to Pope, Archie Leach’s family and the death of his older brother could have been characters straight out of a Charles Dickens novel.
Isaacs states that the character was deeply affected by feelings of shame. There are events and experiences in his life that are not depicted on screen, but the audience can likely imagine for themselves. He was mistreated, neglected, and subjected to abuse, as well as often being hungry during his early years. He had a strong aversion to wasting food and would even retrieve discarded items like a half-eaten peach from the trash, considering it unkind. Isaacs notes the significance of the word “unkind” in this context.
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.
Aikman shared, “I utilize a partial wig and extensions for my role. Additionally, I am portraying a character who is 10 years younger than myself. Therefore, I spend a significant amount of time getting ready in the makeup chair.” A crew member was taken aback by the sight of what appeared to be a tiny canine being brought into a trailer. It was later revealed that it was just the Cannon hairpiece.
The Pope noted that during Aikman’s audition, she displayed the perfect voice and laugh, showing that she had thoroughly studied Dyan.
Aikman confessed, “I thoroughly enjoyed the chatshows more than the movies. Watching her just be herself was the most informative. Her big, infectious laugh was a great way to understand her energy and personality.”
Isaacs states that Cannon, who was 33 years younger than Grant, was only married to him for three years. Despite this short time, Grant’s struggles with depression and his track record of four failed marriages made it difficult for women to stay with him. However, the marriage with Cannon resulted in Grant becoming a father and had a transformative effect on him. It may have ended his career as an actor, but it ultimately improved him as a person.
“I started at an airport, searching for a book to read,” Pope recalls. “Since I am interested in biographies, I gravitated towards that section. That’s when I stumbled upon Jennifer Grant’s book Good Stuff, which was Cary Grant’s catchphrase when things were going well. I was surprised to learn that Cary Grant had a daughter. But what really captured my attention was the statement on the book’s cover that, during the peak of his career, he had made the decision to give it all up to be a single father to Jennifer after his split with Dyan. Throughout his life, he had avoided children, possibly due to his own difficult childhood. However, with Jennifer, he experienced the true meaning of love for a child.”
The character of Archie is influenced by three parental relationships: his mother Grant, his father, and his daughter. The most significant dynamic in the story is between Archie, a boy from Bristol, and Cary, a man from Hollywood. According to Pope, their relationship was like a constant battle. However, in a surprising turn of events, Archie finally introduced Cary to his life and they ended up getting along well. This was the ultimate goal of the storyline.
As his life neared its end, Grant requested that a Hollywood tribute dinner be referred to as a celebration of Archie Leach in the event’s program. This posed a challenge for Isaacs, who had to portray both Grant’s on-screen persona and the blurred lines between his public persona and his true self as Cary and Archie.
According to Isaacs, many people attempted to imitate his movie voice. One well-known impersonation was by Tony Curtis in the film Some Like It Hot. However, Isaacs had the challenging task of determining Grant’s real voice as himself. Unlike portraying historical figures like Winston Churchill, whose voice is well-known through recordings, Isaacs had to imagine how Grant would sound if he dropped something heavy on his foot. He explains that real people are not always consistent and he couldn’t find any interviews where Grant spoke. In those days, it wasn’t necessary for stars to appear on talk shows. Eventually, Isaacs stumbled upon a single sentence in a documentary and was intrigued by its source.
In his eighties, Grant surprisingly granted an interview to a college newspaper in Los Angeles. The student attempted to record their conversation, but the actor requested that they stop. However, he secretly continued recording. According to Isaacs, most of the interview was published after Cary’s passing, but it had never been aired. After tracking down the student, Isaacs was able to listen to the entire recording, which was a valuable find. Additionally, the student’s English accent surprised Isaacs.
Can you find any mention of Bristol in the text? “There is no mention of Bristol. The speaker is attempting to imitate a Midwestern American accent from the 1920s-1930s, but is not successful. Whenever he played an American character, such as in North By Northwest, he would alter certain vowels, but not consistently. However, when he was in his own environment, he spoke more naturally.”
Aikman was able to have extensive conversations with Cannon through Zoom and over the phone, aiming to understand her on a deeper level beyond her appearance. Is embodying a real person similar to being a lawyer, where you must advocate for and protect your character? “There is definitely a part of that. I think she is incredibly endearing and humorous, which made me feel the responsibility of portraying that on screen.”
Despite Cannon being a formidable woman and a supporter of feminism, societal attitudes towards gender were more discriminatory during that time period, resulting in unequal marriages. Was Aikman challenged in finding a way to depict her character that balances between modern-day women and the limited freedoms they had in the past? “It’s a delicate balance,” she explains. “But even today – in private – individuals engage in behaviors that may contradict their personal beliefs, allowing their partners to do things that may go against their values. However, Cannon was a strong and outspoken woman for her time, and I aim to accurately portray that in my work.”
The goal of the script is to address the issue of imbalances in age and power within showbiz relationships. According to Pope, there is a pivotal scene where Cary is contemplating rejecting a film in which Audrey Hepburn plays his love interest, out of concern for their significant age difference. Dyan, on the other hand, argues that Audrey is actually older than her. This leads to a heated argument between them, with Cary essentially stating that it is unacceptable for him but acceptable for Archie Leach. There was a clear distinction between their situations.
As the winter evening approaches, Isaacs will need to tan himself once more. “Cary believed that he needed to have a darker complexion than anyone else on camera,” he explains. “He would tan at the studio and even use a reflector under his chin when he was outside at home. His friends would sometimes tease him, saying ‘You look silly!’ but he was dedicated to maintaining his tan. It may have seemed strange in person, but it translated well on screen.”
As depicted in the play, it was simply another aspect of the actor’s disguise.