Richard E Grant: ‘Every day I thank God for Withnail and I’

Richard E Grant is playing another starry-eyed drunk and this time he's Oscar nominated

The official trailer for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, starring Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant. Video: Fox Searchlight Pictures

 

In 1991, actor, perfumier, director and keen diarist Richard E Grant was on the set of Rambling Rose with Laura Dern when he met an enthusiastic young chap who had just scored a three-picture deal. “Met 24-year-old J J Abrams – incredibly self-confident, self-possessed and rich,” wrote the Swaziland-born artist.

He must have made an impression. More than two decades later, Abrams cast the actor in the still untitled Star Wars IX.

“Let me tell you all about it,” says Grant. “So my character is called [he mouths words] and the end of the movie is just fantastic. It’s [he mouths more words]. It’s a good story, isn’t it? How’s your lip-reading?”

It seems to me you only have one crack at this. So enjoy the ride while you can. There’s so much that you can moan about. But try not to

It stands to reason that the man with the world’s jolliest Twitter feed likes to have fun during interviews. On Melissa McCarthy: “What a terrible person to work with!” he cries, in utmost insincerity. On Brexit: “I think the current strategy is carry a cork and stick that up your arse.” On Yorgos Lanthimos: “He’s the person I most want to work with: put that in print: I’m bent over in readiness.” On his early career: “Well, when I started a hundred thousand years ago…”

“I’m nearly 62,” he says. “It seems to me you only have one crack at this. So enjoy the ride while you can. There’s so much that you can moan about. But try not to.”

Grant has seldom been away from our screens since his iconic drunken turn in Withnail and I in 1987. In recent years, he’s had recurring roles on Doctor Who, Girls and Game of Thrones. Of late, however, he’s on something of a roll. Following Jackie, Logan and The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Star Wars is just the latest in a series of high-profile projects to feature the affable 61-year-old.

Withnail & I (1987)
Grant and Paul McGann in Withnail and I 

“You can’t plan a career in acting,” he says. “Or I certainly can’t at the level that I’m at. All you can really do say yes or no to something. I’m always constantly reminded of something John Lennon said before he died: life is what happens when you’re busy making plans. I never imagined I’d be the guy shot by Wolverine in his last ever movie. I certainly never imagined I’d be in Star Wars. I remember seeing the first one when I was 20 years old at drama school. Forty-one years later and here I am. It feels surreal.”

‘One of those’

With Star Wars under his belt, it seems inconceivable that movies featuring Grant won’t pass the billion dollar mark in terms of this year’s box office. But, having been named by more than a dozen critics’ circles as 2018’s best supporting actor for his work on Can You Ever Forgive Me?, he may well be shortlisted for an even bigger accolade. There’s major Oscar buzz around the film which has already been shortlisted by the National Board of Review and the Golden Globes across multiple categories. And it’s another starry drunk role for the teetotal actor

“The ‘o’ word,” says Grant, excitedly. “I’m just astonished by it, honestly. It is so beyond the realms of anything I could have imagined. I don’t mean to sound disingenuous about this. But every time I hear the word I feel like they must be talking about somebody else. It’s a common denominator I’ve experienced with most artists I know. On the one hand you have to have a large ego to go: choose me over somebody else. But that is absolutely coupled with low self-esteem and the part of you that thinks I’m going to be rumbled. I know there are other actors who think: yes, I deserve awards. But I’m not one of those.”

I love that it’s tangible. I can make the stuff in my own kitchen and get it sold. It’s fantastic having perfumer on a business card.”

A biographical dramedy inspired by the career of art-forger Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), Can You Ever Forgive Me? begins in the early 1990s at the end of Israel’s career as a celebrity biographer writing about such subjects as Katherine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead, Estee Lauder and journalist Dorothy Kilgallen. Unable to get anything published, behind on rent and nursing a sick cat, Israel turned to literary forgery, with the assistance of her hustler pal, Jack Hock (Grant, channelling an older, shabbier Withnail).

“He died at the age of 47 in 1994 of Aids, was from Portland, blonde, tall, had been in jail for two years because he’d held up a taxi driver with a knife to his throat – as you do – over the cab fare,” says Grant of Hock. “We really had to find him from those details. I met with the co-writer Jeff Whitty in New York last week – who wrote Avenue Q the puppet porn musical – and he said that he essentially had to invent Jack Hock from the people that he knew with HIV living in New York at that time. They were living hedonistically because tomorrow was not another day.

“He had one of those small, stubby cigarette holders because he was a chain smoker, and he thought that would stop him from getting cancer. And once Lee Israel had been rumbled by the FBI and couldn’t go out and sell these letters, he was selling them for her, and he was obviously so good at it. Because if she thought he’d get 500 bucks for it, he’d come back with two grand. He didn’t have her brain, but he did have blarney and charm.”

Good reviews

Grant was able to draw, too, on his own recollections of a still ungentrified New York in the early 1990s: “I did a movie in 1991 with Sandra Bernhard. We were in Hudson Hawk with Bruce Willis which was a disaster. Sandra was living in the Meatpacking District at the time. And it was absolutely shocking because there were young men on street corners who were dying of Aids. They had placards saying: ‘No medicare, no money, please help me’.”

The actor is particularly pleased that Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a largely female driven project, anchored by a career-best performance from McCarthy, as directed by Marielle Heller, working from a screenplay co-written by Nicole Holofcener. Things have changed for the better since 1996, when he was directed by Jane Campion in her adaptation of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady.

“It’s that weird thing about being an actor,” he says. “There’s a gap between what you think you’re going to do, what you actually are going to do, and another gap between how it turns out and how it’s received. All of us who started doing this movie in the middle of January last year in Manhattan settled in for a 26-day shoot, didn’t know the f1ilm would hit as part of a broader MeToo conversation. I didn’t know I’d be sitting in Claridges a year and a half later on a sort of tidal wave of good reviews. That just doesn’t happen. Or at least in my life it happens very, very rarely.”

Grant has written memorably about his experiences as the writer-director of the 2005 drama, Wah Wah, which was loosely based on his childhood in Swaziland and almost scuppered by the involvement of the producer he refers to as MC in The Wah Wah Diaries. That entertaining filmmaking diary was published in 2006 and makes for a catalogue of producorial failures.

Richard E Grant plays Jack Hock in the biographical dramedy inspired by the career of art-forger Lee Israel, played by Melissa McCarthy
Richard E Grant plays Jack Hock in the biographical dramedy inspired by the career of art-forger Lee Israel, played by Melissa McCarthy

“I had a French producer that was – not just by my own account – a nightmare for everyone who encountered her,” says Grant. “But in spite of that we got the film made, albeit with her as the self-appointed villainess in the story.”

I don’t understand somebody not wanting to discuss the role that gave them their screen identity or that became the talismanic role of their career

He’s keen to return to that side of the camera, although twice he’s had financing fall through at the 11th hour. Perfume, he notes, is a lot simpler. He launched Jack, his “lickably-more-ish” signature fragrance, in 2014.

“I love that it’s tangible,” he says. “I’ve really enjoyed it. I can make the stuff in my own kitchen and get it produced and made and sold. And it’s fantastic having perfumer on a business card.”

There are many actors who will do anything to put distance between themselves and their most iconic role. It took years for Christopher Plummer to warm to the 1963 musical he used to refer to as “The Sound of Mucus”. The late Christopher Lee absolutely loathed being asked about Dracula.

Grant, refreshingly, has never tired of answering questions about his star-making turn in Withnail and I. He even called his 1998 memoir With Nails: The Film Diaries of Richard E Grant.

“It would be insanity not to talk about it,” he says. “I don’t understand somebody not wanting to discuss the role that gave them their screen identity or that became the talismanic role of their career. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think thank God for Withnail and I. The irony will never be lost on me that playing an out of work actor has helped me get every job I’ve had since.”

Can You Ever Forgive Me? opens on February 1st

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