Richard Curtis has penned modern romantic-comedy classics such as ''Four Weddings and a Funeral'' and ''Notting Hill,'' so for his directing debut, he naturally returned to a favorite theme. ''Love that's wanted, love that's not wanted, love that's fulfilling, love that's a burden, love that's mischievous -- every variation,'' says Laura Linney, who plays a woman suffering a serious office crush. There's enough love, actually, for 10 overlapping story lines (showcasing at least 12 key star players), from a widowed stepfather (Liam Neeson) who frets over his now-motherless stepson (Thomas Sangster) to a wife (Emma Thompson) whose husband (Alan Rickman) is cheating on her.
The ensemble structure meant no actor had to work more than 10 days -- a big selling point for stay-at-home mom Thompson. ''She's had a quiet few years, so that was a particular joy and pleasure,'' says Curtis. Hugh Grant, meanwhile, agreed to play Britain's prime minister -- but only after he forced Curtis to give the PM a bit more tooth. ''I saw this ideal, wonderful, compassionate, lovable character, and I explained to Richard that I thought at this point in my career, that train had sailed, really,'' says Grant. Curtis says the resulting push and pull made for a nicely layered head of state. ''It was a very good balance, him always trying to make sure he behaved like a man who'd won an election would behave, and me trying to push him back into being more of a kitten.''
In addition to toying with his character, Grant enjoyed tormenting Billy Bob Thornton, who plays the U.S. President. ''He's fabulously eccentric,'' Grant says admiringly. ''You read stuff about how he can't [stand] antique furniture, anything old. He's particularly terrified of Benjamin Disraeli, and seeing as they were shooting in a 10 Downing Street set, it was very easy for me to find pictures of Disraeli. And just before they shouted action, I'd flip one in front of his face. To watch him freak.''
The Killer Moment ''The Office'''s Martin Freeman reluctantly serves as a stand-in for a hardcore sex scene.