Richard E. Grant has seen a few things in his 61 years. He was raised in the then-British colony of Swaziland. He went to school with Mandela’s daughters. He lay silent in the back seat of a car on an African dirt road as his mother screwed a man who was not his father, and then endured said father taking a shot at him in an alcoholic rage.
Later, he moved to London and became an actor making his permanent mark as Withnail, an alcoholic wastrel and the title character in Withnail & I, perhaps the most beloved British cult comedy of all time. He uttered believable lines like “I demand booze” and convincingly consumed lighter fluid. (Despite the fact that, in reality, alcohol makes him deathly ill.) Later, on the set of Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, he prostrated himself at the feet of Daniel Day-Lewis for turning down the Withnail role. The Oscar-winner lifted him up and they had a nice chat. During the rest of shooting, however, Day-Lewis refused to speak to him; Grant’s feelings were hurt until Michelle Pfeiffer told him that Daniel’s character hated his character. Nothing personal.
He soon had a reputation as a dinner-party charmer. His longtime friend Steve Martin wrote, “Once, after only five minutes of sitting next to a woman at a dinner party, he was asking about the duration and flow of her menstrual cycle. The question seemed reasonable at the time, and no one was bothered or offended. I can assure you this is true because I was there, and the woman was my wife-to-be.”
At 42, Grant had a nervous breakdown over his tumultuous childhood. At 48, he made the note-perfect film Wah-Wah, a grueling account of said childhood. In his fifties, he started a cologne line, helped break up a fraudulent HIV drug ring in Swaziland and hosted a preposterously excellent show titled Richard E. Grant’s Hotel Secrets, where the Sky Network paid him money to stay in, well, luxury hotels. (This was a real show and not to be confused with Posh Nosh, his dead-eyed parody of fancypants cooking shows.) Film fanatics know him as the insane, quick-to-sell-out director from The Player. Millennials and Lena Dunham know him as the manager Clifford in the classic Spice World. Still, for misanthropes of a certain age, he’ll always be Withnail to us.
Grant is happily coupled and has a daughter working in the casting director business, which makes him happy because, unlike actresses, she gets to keep her clothes on. Still, one thing was missing from his life — and that was an Oscar nomination. Fortunately, the Academy saw fit to rectify that this year and nominated Grant for Best Supporting Actor for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, where he plays Jack Hock, the gay Sancho Panza to Melissa McCarthy’s Leah Israel, a writer of some note reduced to selling author forgeries to pay for her cat shit-filled apartment in a sad-trombone version of mid-Nineties New York City.
The actor was in town and taking a break from awards-season campaigning to speak at a screening last week for Withnail & I at New York’s Film Forum. Age has not dulled his sniper wit. No one was safe — not the host, not the audience, not a questioner who had ventured out, according to Grant, on an “ass-paralyzing” night without socks. He parried and eye-rolled for a half-hour and then disappeared. It was strangely exhilarating.
The next morning, we met at a Brooklyn hotel. He was wearing the same blue velvet blazer and brightly colored scarf from the night before. He looked fabulous.
You basically went from playing a bad guy in Logan, a superhero movie, to Jack Hock in a film written by a woman (Nicole Holofcener), directed by a woman (Marielle Heller) and starring a woman (Melissa McCarthy).
It was a complete diametric opposite — from the most epic testosteronized experience to working on something that was as intimate and estrogen-bound as I have ever experienced.
And, with Logan, you have the reputation/experience for being a fairly urbane, not muscular man. What that experience was like for you?
I was the least muscularized person on the entire set. Action sequences take an enormous amount of time to convert something into literal seconds of action in a movie. Whereas, when you’re doing something that’s as character-based and dialogue-driven as Can You Even Forgive Me?, then you’re essentially doing what we’re doing now. You’re two people sitting talking to each other — it’s two talking heads. As opposed to heads being sliced off in all directions.
You didn’t have a lot of time with Melissa before shooting began. That must have been nerve-wracking.
Yes, because she’s Melissa McCarthy — that’s a very daunting prospect. If you really admire somebody and you’ve … I had never seen Gilmore Girls, so I knew her comic persona from Bridesmaids onwards. When I heard she wasn’t available for rehearsal, I though, “Oh, alright, this is gonna be one of those.” You know, you’re an adjunct to a star vehicle. Which, the moment I met her … that is literally the last thing that she is.
We ended up meeting the Friday before the Monday we started shooting. I was very grateful that Melissa felt exactly the same way. And that we did meet for a couple of hours, managed to talk through everything, read the scenes and get an idea of what the other person’s doing. If you read the scenes, that is how you find out, instantaneously, at what level the person that you’re acting with is gonna pitch their role.
Was there anyone in your past that inspired your portrayal of Jack — someone charming, reckless and promiscuous?
When I was trying to find somebody in my own life who reminded me of Jack Hock, I thought of a Scottish actor that was very successful called Ian Charleston. He played the lead in the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire movie in 1981. He died of AIDS at the age of 40 in 1990. I’d worked with him, we became friends — and he had this combination of kind of a little-boy-lost charm in conjunction with very openly promiscuous, lush lifestyle and [a] scabrous wit. He’d make you cry with laughter. The last time I saw Ian he was wearing a bandanna, [because] he’d lost all his hair. I asked Marielle, “Can I do the final scene with Jack wearing a bandanna, because I can’t shave my head.” Luckily for me, she agreed to that. That was kind of a homage to somebody that I’d known and liked so much.
Did you have more rehearsal time with Withnail?
We had two weeks. Because [director-screenwriter] Bruce Robinson was very determined that not a single word was to be improvised. Every single thing was as he wanted to hear in the script. Nothing was played for comedy value; it had to be played for the desperation of the situation that they find themselves in. He was also determined that I lose weight: “You’re very fat, Grant.” He said, “You’ve gotta lose 12 pounds before we start shooting.” So I’d just spent a year in my unemployment trying to put on weight with weight-gain powder. I had just worked with Gary Oldman, so I said, “Gary, what do I do to get this weight off? He said, “This is what you do … This is the ‘weight-off powder.'” [Arches eyebrows]
Was your breakdown a product of your childhood?
Yeah. I had an absolute brilliant American psychoanalyst. When I literally thought that I was physically paralyzed, he said, “Your father was 42 when essentially he lost his career, he was very publicly cuckolded as a public figure in Swaziland by his wife and he had a 10-year-old son.” I was 42 and had a 10-year-old daughter. And so, he said, “Subconsciously, you’ve just kind of hit the wall.”
And once he unpicked all that, it was revelatory to me because he made it sound so simple. I understood that it was something I had been carrying and hadn’t been able to deal with — I was just angry all the time. It took me 18 months, but ended with reconciliation with my estranged mother, so it was win-win really.
In the 2005 movie based on your childhood, Wah-Wah, there’s the shooting and your love of marionettes as a kid, real-life things you experienced. Was the facial tic the character has something that you suffered from?
How did you get away from that, especially as an actor?
Because my stepmother did exactly what Emily Watson did in the movie. She had done a psychology degree and she had done vocational guidance with students. She would just imitate me doing this tic and say, “Let’s get it out of you.” And, eventually, after a year it did. It did disappear. But when I have real anxiety …
It comes back a little bit?
I can feel that it is coming back and I sort of involuntarily do that.
Action sequences take an enormous amount of time, whereas something that’s character-based — it’s two talking heads. As opposed to heads being sliced off in all directions.
In a couple interviews, you still have a sharpness in your responses. Including last night with the host. After you specifically said, “I cannot talk about Star Wars with you,” he then asked: “So, are you a villain?” You might’ve questioned his mental faculties.
I did. I said, “Are you mentally retarded?”
So, that sharpness did not go away once you’d reached some level of peace about your family?
No, and I know very specifically where it came from. My father was incredibly witty and charming by day, and volcanically verbally and physically vicious when he was drunk. So, that divide of seeing people that I knew, as adults, were our family friends — I would then hear his take on them when he was drunk.
So, that schism … I don’t think the majority of children have that, where you say, “This is so and so, this is Mr. And Mrs. Smith and they’re lovely people and they have these jobs.” Then you hear, “Yeah, well she’s fucking him and he’s done this and he’s done that.” So, I think once that template is set in your head, it’s set. You don’t buy just the façade of what people are like. You sniff out the motive.
Last week, there was a lot of buzz on social media about you visiting Barbra Streisand’s home and showing a letter you’d wrote her when you were 14 and she was splitting up with Ryan O’Neal. [Grant invited her to vacation at his home in Swaziland.] You seemed to have great, for a 14-year-old, empathy for her romantic troubles. Do you think that was somewhat connected to the childhood experiences you’d had?
Yes, and I think that because I had read everything about her and that she was somebody that, even though she was famous by the time she was 19 years old, her childhood was so dysfunctional. That is an immediate bond that you have with somebody because you go, “This person I understand.” So, when you hear the voice singing, that’s what you hear, whether true or not. You think, as a kid, Well, if I invite them to come and stay here, they’ll have a good time. It’s fantasy time. When I said to my analyst “Why do I have this ongoing obsession with it?” Because, that fan worship should really pass by the time you’re an adult. He said, “Well some people are sort of emotionally arrested at that stage — and you clearly are.”
Grant laughed and he related how happy he was that Streisand wrote back to him on Twitter congratulating him for his nomination and thanking him for his letter. For a moment, I thought Grant — who, as Withnail, never backs down from a scrap and tells a drug dealer, “I could take double anything you could” — was going to cry.
But an assistant told him it was time to go. He was hustled toward a black SUV. I asked him where he was going. He gave me a conspiratorial grin. “We’re touring Barbra’s childhood neighborhood.” He did a little skip and was breathless. “She’s just so fabulous and amazing.” And then he was gone.