''I'm not sure I've ever said f--- before in a film,'' laughs Hugh Grant, with the sort of cheekiness that seems calculated more to amuse than to shock. Playing a perennial bachelor who flirts with both commitment and Andie MacDowell in the bubbly new comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral, the cordial British actor does utter a four-letter word or two, but mostly he consolidates a growing reputation as his generation's David Niven, bringing a playful wit to perfectly turned-out portrayals of slightly repressed Englishmen.
Having first attracted notice as the bisexual Cambridge grad who gets the girl but loses the boy in Merchant Ivory's 1987 Maurice, Grant is suddenly all over the multiplex: In The Remains of the Day, he's a young journalist who patiently endures Anthony Hopkins' lecture on ''the birds and the bees''; in Sirens, he's a moralistic clergyman who stammers hopelessly at the sight of a nude Elle Macpherson; and in Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon, he's a comically uptight Englishman who falls prey to a couple of sadomasochists.
''Am I tired of playing repression?'' Grant repeats the question as if the entire notion is slightly absurd. ''Personally, I enjoy it. A lot of American actors are always saying, 'Emote! Emote!' But people don't emote in real life. They behave, and they're very complex. With Sirens, my character's a bit of a twit, but I realized that instead of playing him that way, what if he thinks he's groovy and trendy? Then when he's finally confronted with the real stuff, he's deeply shaken, and his true conservatism comes out. That's much more interesting.''
In contrast, Four Weddings required little preparation. Grant just had to play himself. ''I'm 33, and I'm not married though I have been living with a girl for seven years,'' he admits. ''Still, you do begin to worry as all your friends are dropping off that maybe you're going to end up a sad old bachelor.''
It's clearly said more for effect than from conviction. Though his next film, An Awfully Big Adventure, directed by Weddings' Mike Newell, takes him to Ireland to play an acerbic gay theater director, Grant expects to spend more time in the States, where his girlfriend, English actress Elizabeth Hurley, is currently making the casting rounds. But while he's just signed with the powerful ICM talent agency, don't expect him to drop his English accent in pursuit of higher-profile projects. ''I can do an American accent and get away with it. But that's not my primary ambition,'' he says. ''I think Englishness is rather fascinating.'' David Niven couldn't have put it better.