The Q&A Debrief: Richard E. Grant
Richard E. Grant is having a fantastic time. But then, part of his charm is always seeming like he’s having a fantastic time, even when he’s playing a down and out garrulous grifter as he does in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
That said, even his usual joie de vivre has gone into overdrive at the garlands his performance has received, topped by his first ever Oscar nomination. We were delighted to host Richard, interviewed by journalist Angie Errigo, for a Q&A following the film, just a week after his nomination.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is directed by Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) and co-written by Nicole Holofcener, who has received an adapted screenplay nod from The Academy. It stars Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel, whose memoir the film is based upon. When we join Israel in 1991, her mild literary success has fizzled, and so she turns her talents to forgery, impersonating the likes of Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward in a lucrative series of faked letters. Joining her at her lowest ebb is Jack Hock, played by Richard E. Grant as a highwayman of Manhattan’s gay bars you’d gladly give your wallet to.
It’s hard to think of anyone else in the role, but Grant was offered the part just six weeks before shooting began. “My immediate thought was, ‘Who’s dropped dead or who’s dropped out?’” said Grant at our Q&A. Given that he was portraying a real life figure, there were definite challenges to taking the part. The only detail Grant knew about Jack going in was he had a cigarette holder, which Grant fought to keep in the final portrayal, and Jack Hock himself had no digital footprint to help with research. Moreover, Grant wasn’t an exact fit. “He was from Portland and he was tall, blonde and died at the age of 37,” said Grant, “so why cast someone who was sixty (upwards!), gray and not American?”
Needless to say, there’s not a moment when he seems anything less than the perfect choice, though Grant didn’t always agree, such as when he was asked to do a nude scene. “As long as the director of photography is kind and I said to him, ‘You’re looking at a sixty one year old arse cheek here. Get the lighting good, because in the age of freeze-frame…’”
With a woman director, co-producer, co-writer and a predominantly female crew, this film had a special atmosphere. Grant had a clear eye for the contrast having recently wrapped his part in Logan with “a crew of 300 guys, arms bigger than my thighs, which is not saying much… it was a very testosterised environment with trucks, guns and machinery,” whereas the focus on set of Can You Ever Forgive Me? was “more emotional and more about small details and nuance. It’s a more nurturing environment.”
Not that everyone in the film industry is as keen to see this change of guard, with Grant suspecting that his last minute drafting might have come down to other leading men refusing to play second fiddle to a female character. “I saw Glenn Close – as you do – at a film festival last week and she said the problem with getting the cast for The Wife lay in the title. She said if it had been called ‘The Husband’, they’d have had finance and it would have been fine. They had to get an English actor – the fabulous Jonathan Pryce – because no American actor would be ‘the husband’ to The Wife.”
Working with Melissa McCarthy had no such issues for Grant. “We got on instantly. It felt like coup de foudre, like lightning in a bottle. We met for two hours and had lunch together. I said, ‘Are you a method actor?’ She said no. I said, ‘Are you?’ She said, no, hence the lack of Oscars! The speed by which I felt seen by her in the true sense that you can if you’re friends with someone, properly really affected our on screen chemistry. So our wedding’s in August!”
The man himself was still clearly effervescent about the ‘absolutely un-fucking-believable fabulous’ honour of an Academy award nomination. “I know you should be cynical about all this stuff, but I’ve been a kind of journeyman character actor all these years,” he said, “and if you’ve never been awarded anything, you’re grateful to be working... I’m gobsmacked and thrilled to my teeth.” Grant’s reconnection with childhood hero Barbra Streisand following the award has been one of the sweetest moments of this awards season.
Not that everyone marked Grant out for acting success from the start though. “When I graduated from drama school, the professor gave me an assessment and said, ‘Clearly you have a talent for acting and directing.’ And I said, ‘Wait a minute… why not acting?’ And he said, “You look too weird.” Anyway, the fucker died and I’m still here.”
The Shadow of Withnail
Of course, Grant’s most iconic role as a scabrous wannabe actor in Withnail & I is still clearly a reference point for many, despite more than thirty years (and many amazing roles) having passed since he demanded to have some booze. Grant thinks warmly of the cult film but says, “Hand on heart I didn’t have Withnail in mind, but I realise you have the same actor, wearing long coats in a period movie who is also an alcoholic.” The similarities end there for Grant. “What struck me so much about Withnail was he so entitled, self-destructive, and unbelievably selfish…” while he describes Jack as “somebody who was as gregarious and ready to shag anybody in sight.” He noted that his inspiration for Jack was Ian Charleson, best known for his role in Chariots of Fire.
That said, both roles call on Grant’s ability to play drunk, as he is unable to imbibe himself. “Nine minutes is the longest time I’ve managed to keep anything down without being violently ill,” he said, going on to recall his youth in Southern Africa. “Swaziland, where I grew up, was a pretty machismo culture, so if you couldn’t drink something was wrong with you. What I’ve observed from heavy drinkers I’ve been around in my life is there’s an incredible concentration when they’ve got to get through a door and try not to appear drunk.”
In any case, we hope Richard is shortly able to celebrate many well-deserved awards wins in whatever way he sees fit.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? plays on our screens from Friday 1 February