Richard E Grant: Doing the lurch from ‘Withnail’ to Oscar
His latest role led to his first Golden Globe nomination, and some are betting on an Academy Award nod too
When the script for Richard E Grant’s latest role landed on his desk, his agent told him he had 24 hours to read it and decide whether or not to take the part.
“I said: ‘What is this, Mission Impossible?’,” Grant recalls, craning conspiratorially forward over his pot of English breakfast tea. “‘Who’s dropped dead or who’s dropped out?’”
The answer – out, rather than dead, mercifully – was the Irish actor Chris O’Dowd. The long-in-limbo film he had left behind was about the literary forger Lee Israel, whose faked letters from such great writers as Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward sold to collectors for hundreds of dollars in the 1990s.
The production had stalled after its original lead, Julianne Moore, pulled out in the summer of 2015, a week before filming was due to commence. By the time Melissa McCarthy, of Bridesmaids fame, had been cast in her place, O’Dowd, who was due to play Israel’s co-conspirator Jack Hock, was required elsewhere, and another replacement had to be found fast. Enter Grant, at speed.
“I met Melissa on a Friday afternoon in the middle of January in Manhattan,” he says, “and we started shooting on the Monday.”
His rehearsal time amounted to a lunch with McCarthy and the director, Marielle Heller, and half a day’s sussing out scenes: “And I had to beg Marielle for that. Originally Melissa was just coming in from LA for a costume fitting.”
Grant’s account of his casting in Can You Ever Forgive Me? frames it as a punchline in a farce – or perhaps the middle stretch of a belated sequel to Withnail and I, in which his hapless resting actor character ends up in contention for an Academy Award, rather than on holiday, by mistake.
But first choice or not, he was a good one. His performance – impish, shabby, bitingly tragic – is his best-received since Withnail, and has already led to his first Golden Globe and Bafta nominations in a near four-decade career, with the equivalent Oscar nod widely expected to follow on Tuesday.
Yet Grant, 61, still carries himself like an intruder. We meet at Claridge’s before the nominations are announced, during a day off from shooting the latest Star Wars film, in which he plays an as-yet-undisclosed role. Again, he describes the experience of landing the part as if it were the result of an administrative hiccup.
“I got 10 pages of script from a 1940s British war film, three scenes in total, and had to video myself doing them on an iPad. Then you send it off, and feel like you’re never going to hear anything about it ever again. I got a call two months later to say a car was going to pick me up and take me to Pinewood Studios to meet the director, J J Abrams. Which was odd, because I still had no idea what he was going to direct me as.”
When Grant arrived he was ushered into a room with Abrams and the new trilogy’s heroine, Daisy Ridley: “Surrounded by all this Star Wars memorabilia going back to 1977. And within about two seconds, he said: ‘Are you gonna do it or not?’ And I said: ‘Do what?’ Then he described the part, and I think he told me what my name was, at which point the room went upside down.”
With what appears to be a degree of physical discomfort, Grant stops himself from saying anything more. In the grand old Star Wars tradition, the entire cast has been sworn to secrecy, at least until the trailer and title of the forthcoming Episode IX are revealed in April.
But Grant is an over-sharer by nature, and a self-confessed “nosy parker, fearless about asking any old thing”. Within seconds of saying hello, he places my accent as Edinburgh, adding that his wife of 32 years, Joan Washington, is an Aberdonian dialect coach.
“We met when I went to learn an Irish accent from her in 1982. Didn’t get the job, got friended up instead.” (The couple now have two adult children, a daughter Olivia and Tom, Joan’s son from a previous relationship.)
In preparing for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, there wasn’t much into which Grant’s nose could be stuck. Lee Israel herself came clean about the forging scam in her self-flagellating 2008 memoir – but Grant’s character, a dissolute, middle-aged grifter called Jack Hock who helped her fence the goods, is only feather-lightly sketched. Israel describes him as “a tall, wheaten-haired gay man” who “kept his good looks in spite of the many beatings he had received”.
“You would expect the memoir to be this great Wikipedia fountain of information to draw on,” Grant says. “But here there was nothing.”
Fortunately, Jeff Whitty, who co-wrote the screenplay with Nicole Holofcener, had interviewed Israel’s friends and they were able to plug some of the gaps. Others were filled by bystanders when Grant was shooting scenes in Julius, a venerable gay bar in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village where Israel and Hock had been regulars.
Grant recalls one patron telling McCarthy his memories of Israel sitting sullenly at the bar, “And she asked: ‘Do you think Lee would have been happy with how I’m presenting her?’ And he said: ‘Well, happy wasn’t Lee's thing.’”
Grant, meanwhile, found himself returned to louche lush territory, half a lifetime after Withnail. A teetotaller himself with a genetic intolerance to alcohol, he saw drink’s destructive power first-hand in his late father, a depressive alcoholic who once pulled a gun on his 15-year-old son while in an intoxicated rage.
Grant grew up in Swaziland, “surrounded by reprobates” and “was not short on role models for people who led amoral, charming scallywag lives”. Many of them he met as a young member of the Swaziland Theatre Club, whose amateur productions gave him a taste for the actor’s life. The repertoire featured “everything from Shakespeare and Stoppard to panto”, and he would rehearse after school with his adult cast-mates: “All civil servants who would slosh in and out and take months to produce a single play.”
These days his rate of output is nippier, and with considerably more female leadership. Of his last half-dozen films, three were directed by women: as well as Can You Ever Forgive Me?, there’s Lone Scherfig’s World War 2 drama Their Finest and Palm Beach, Rachel Ward’s forthcoming ensemble comedy set on the New South Wales coast.
He describes being directed by women directors as a “completely de-testosterised” experience, before drawing an amusing contrast with the ambience on Logan, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine swansong, “the final one in the steel-clawed mega-trilogy, where the crew was basically 300 men with arms bigger than my thighs”.
Grant’s relationship with the brawnier end of the box office has been chequered. His uproariously indiscreet first volume of diaries, 1996’s With Nails, recounts the haywire production of the 1991 Bruce Willis turkey Hudson Hawk, about which he wrote: “The patience required would sorely test the most Olympian devotees of Prozac.”
He had fun recounting the chaos at the time, revelling in every on-set bust-up and mishap, but says now that the “post-Weinstein watershed” has given him cause to look back with fresh dismay. Early in production, Willis’s love interest, a Dutch actress called Maruschka Detmers, was dismissed; producers courted Isabella Rossellini and Madonna as her replacement, before settling on Andie MacDowell.
“The way they talked about female actors playing that part, and what was required, was pretty heinously sexist,” Grant says. “And that kind of conversation would be completely unacceptable now.” He says there was one quality they were after: “Fuckability. As in, get a list of people, and choose who’s the most fuckable.” He shudders. “I had never been around conversations like that before, and I hope never to be again.”
With Nails was so unsparingly candid that it seemed to make Hollywood think twice before using Grant. Call the period directly after they were published “the Spice World years”: a run of generally lower-profile work, until Robert Altman, who had winningly deployed Grant in The Player and Prêt-à-Porter, brought him back in Gosford Park.
He’d met Altman at the premiere of Hudson Hawk, of all places, where the maverick director sidled up to him in the foyer and said he had a role for him in mind. Grant writes in With Nails: “This momentarily kick-starts my circulation until the reality of what this man is about to witness freezes thought.”
Grant first acquired the habit of diary-writing at the age of 10, when he witnessed his mother committing adultery in the family car from the back seat – she’d assumed he was asleep – and felt he had to tell someone.
“The diary makes all this feel real,” he says, waggling his fingers at our ornate surrounds. “Because even after so long, it still feels unreal, though I know that sounds disingenuous.”
One entry he has pored over often dates from early 2012, when he found himself interviewing the current US president – then plain old Donald Trump – for his travel series Richard E Grant’s Hotel Secrets.
“He changed the meeting many times, which got the producer nervous, but we finally met at 8.30am on a Friday in Trump Tower, on the gazillionth floor overlooking the Plaza Hotel, him accompanied by two bodyguards the size of walking wardrobes,” he says. Trump began by tetchily announcing he could spare just 10 minutes, before gassing about himself for an hour and a half.
Grant has since asked Sky Atlantic if they could broadcast the entire tape, but the release forms prevent it: “He’d signed that off as being for Hotel Secrets, so we can’t rejig it to make another thing.”
What would it reveal? “The sheer effectiveness of that circus ringmaster, Barnum and Bailey showman stuff,” Grant says. “He was easily flattered, but also very flattering. And” – with one maestro’s admiration for another – “he knows how to spin a yarn.”
- © The Daily Telegraph