Richard E Grant (London Sunday Times Magazine, December 8, 2019)
I met Richard E Grant earlier this year at the Four Seasons Hotel, Los Angeles, peak Awards season. He was on “the ride of his life.” Nominated in every possible award ceremony for his performance as the rakish Jack in Can You Ever Forgive Me? opposite Melissa McCarthy’s literary forger Lee Israel. A crookster, with impeccable charm based on a real-life character who died of AIDS in the 90s, it was a standout performance, but what stood out more was the way he rode those awards. A veteran of over a hundred movies. He made his 61st year a spellbinding second act. He reinvented. This was his most talked about role since he debuted as the debauched Withnail in Withnail and I in 1987. And it’s not like he didn’t have a career. He’s worked constantly in wonderful movies like LA Stories, Gosford Park and who can forget his hair as Michael Heseltine opposite Meryl Streep’s The Iron Lady. Jack put him on the map he’d always been on, but not everyone had noticed.
I’ve known Richard E for years. I’m always enthralled by his diaries which are luxuriantly observed and sparkle with sharp, diamond wit. He deals with the minutiae of life like no other. I also loved his autobiographical film about his unusual childhood in Swaziland, Wah Wah (2005).
More importantly he was the only human who could touch my then cat Shiksa without blood being drawn. We bonded over our mutual obsession with Barbra Streisand. To put it in perspective, he would ask me if he could listen to old interview tapes and this year, she got in touch with him via a Tweet that he posted around the time of his Oscar nomination. He tweeted a picture of a letter that he wrote her as a 14-year-old fan. ‘And look at you now’, she replied as if he were 21, not 61 but nonetheless, it made more than his day and he has since been invited into her inner circle.
Has his life changed since the nominations? He’s working a lot, but he’s always worked a lot. He’s in the new Star Wars – The Rise of Skywalker but he’d already filmed that. Now he gets the precious ‘Oscar nominated’ before his name which is a very elite and fancy club to be a member of, but for him the Oscars meant meeting Streisand at the Governors Ball which he attended with his daughter Olivia.
“She grabbed Melissa McCarthy’s arm at the Governor’s Ball and said ‘That woman in the sparkly black beret is Barbra Streisand. And you know what this is going to mean to my father if he sees her.’ So, Melissa grabbed me and said, ‘You’re coming with me,’ and that was the first time that I had seen her since the Tweet.” And now he gets invited to be in the celebrity section when she played Hyde Park, where the other 65,000 who’d paid hundreds for a ticket, scrambled on the grass.
“She sent me tickets to see her in Hyde Park and then she asked me if I was going to be in New York for Madison Square Gardens, so I said yes. I was filming in Philadelphia when I got an invitation to see a private screening at Donna Karan’s house in East Hampton where Barbra was the guest of honour. I thought how do I get to the Hamptons from Philadelphia? A bus? A train? A helicopter? I ended up in Ron Perlman’s helicopter and I was invited to stay in a guest cottage on his 90-acre estate. I literally ran from the restaurant I was having lunch with Sally Field in. The Hamptons is this surreal place. You already feel like you’re in a movie. The screening was outdoors. A big screen at the other end of the pool with big sofas and I got to sit next to James Brolin and Barbara Streisand and then I sat speaking to her face to face until 1am. I couldn’t believe it and I’ll never forget it as long as I breathe. Everything else pales in comparison…”
The Awards ride started at Telluride Film festival in September 2018. “I kept meeting actors who said ‘you’ll be on the campaign trail for 5 months’ and I was shocked. I can’t not work for 5 months. I have to earn a living. I would say what, have you seen this in a crystal ball? And they would say ‘no, but that’s how it is.’ So much smoke gets blown up people’s fundament in this profession, you’re in one day and out the next, but it all just snowballed and suddenly everybody that I newly wanted to meet or had wanted to meet for a lifetime was in one room. The Governor’s ball – the Vanity Fair party. A second act – it’s more like planet movie star and you’re Cinderella about to turn into a pumpkin.”
The pumpkin never happened. “Tom Hanks said to me it doesn’t matter whether you win or not because for evermore you will be Academy Award Nominee. That moniker goes with you for the rest of your life.” And of course, no one remembers who won but we all remember Richard E Grant’s hell of a ride.
At the time, he’d already worked on Star Wars – The Rise of Skywalker but he wasn’t allowed to talk about it, not even to his family. Not even the name of his character which is Pryde, an evil General. And even now, weeks before the film’s release, he has not seen it. Did he enjoy the experience?
“Star Wars is like a marmite factor. If I say to people, I’ve been doing it, sometimes they proudly tell you ‘I’ve never seen a Star Wars movie and I’m never going to see one’ and some people love it and are obsessive and have seen everything. I saw the first one when I was 20 in 1977.
Two months before I started doing this, I got sent a scene to self-tape with top secret written across it. Your name is written across the pages so you can’t reproduce it and you have to delete it once you’ve learnt it and self-taped. I knew immediately it was generic. A 1940’s B Movie interrogation scene. I taped it, sent it off and didn’t think about it and then I got a call saying you’re still in the running and I had no memory of ever doing it but my agent said ‘the producer wants to meet you at Pinewood. They’re sending a car for you’ and that never happens. They took me to the Carrie Fisher building which was weird in itself as I knew Carrie. I met her back in 1990 when I was doing LA story (where he also formed a lifelong friendship with Steve Martin). I was ushered upstairs and passed on to various people and then I met JJ Abrams (writer/director) in his vast office which is like a Star Wars memorabilia museum. I’d met him once before when I was 24 and he’d just made Regarding Henry with Anette Bening and Harrison Ford about a man who has an accident and has to rehabilitate his whole life. What I remember about Abrams was he was a man who spoke incredibly fast who seemed so self-possessed and I’d written in my diaries that he said ‘I’ll work with you one day’ and almost 40 years had gone by since then.
I walked into his office and Daisy Ridley was there. JJ Abrams speaks bullet speed like a Scorsese and he’s asking me if I’m going to do it or not and I said I haven’t read a script and he said ‘nobody gets a script’ and then he starts telling me ‘you’re going to play this guy’ but at such speed it was surreal and somehow he segued into ‘you’re a Streisand fan.’ Daisy Ridley had done a duet with Streisand for Streisand’s album (Movie Partners on Broadway – 2016) so suddenly we’re just talking about Streisand for an hour and a half. I don’t remember him telling me the name of the character or anything. He just gave me a big hug and said, ‘so you’re going to do it?’ and I said of course I’m going to do it whatever it is. And then I was told I couldn’t tell anybody anything.
They had a dinner for the cast where I was told ‘You’re playing Pryde and Daisy Ridley said, ‘It’s a good part.’ The secrecy continues when you start working. There are bodyguards and you have to hand over your mobile phone. Apparently, you can read the script on an iPad that they give you, but you can’t photograph it or take notes and you’re just given the pages of the daily work.
“They are printed on crimson paper so you can’t photograph them. You’re not allowed to take them away, so you’re handed them on a sealed plastic folder where it says in bold letters that if you do not return these at the end of the shooting day… You’re even given a cloak with a hood on it that you have to wear if you move from your trailer into the studio because various news organisations have got drones flying over the studio.
When you walk onto the set there are various security people with Security written all over them. You’re allowed to use your phone for calls and texts but if you lift it as if to take a photograph, a hand will appear.”
As a person who likes to diarise everything that happens to him, how did he take notes or pictures and aide memoires?
“You couldn’t on this, but I don’t normally. I could sit and text or write. At that cast dinner, what struck me was not a single person took a photo of anybody else…. I can’t remember a dinner with actors or performers where everybody wasn’t instagramming everything. I’m now allowed to say that I’m an evil General. JJ Abrams described what I do as the normalcy of evil, so the most heinous things are completely normal to this person and that’s as much as I’m allowed to say.
JJ Abrams is someone whose brain works very fast and feels like you have to run and leapfrog to catch up with him. He’s always pushing the boundaries of what you do and he speaks to extras as if they leading actors which is a very disarming and delightful thing. But one thing I love about this movie… is that you walk into this set that is a huge spaceship that you have seen your whole life. They open those huge octagonal doors. In the movie they seem like hydraulic doors that have no sound. They just open as you walk towards them. I thought they must have some fancy system of how they work them, and I look around the corner and there’s a middle-aged English crew member standing with ropes and literally pulling the thing with weights. It was so endearing. Walking backwards and forwards down a corridor with troopers all helmeted up and these doors opening and closing. I felt like a kid again.”
Earlier this year he said, “I’m a 61-year-old Awards virgin.” He’s now 62 and an Awards veteran. He’s pretty astonishing at playing characters of dubious sexual orientation and next up he plays a retired drag queen who becomes the mentor to sixteen-year-old Jamie. It’s based on a true story and hit West End show Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.
“I sing and dance in vertiginous heels. It was the most frightening job that I’ve ever taken on because of the singing and dancing and also playing a drag artist. All in a proper Sheffield accent. But it’s a very good thing when you’re of my vintage to have that sort of voltage.”
Both Withnail and Jack were louche and addicted to alcohol which is bizarre because Grant himself has an enzyme problem which means he can’t drink. His father was a demented alcoholic. Maybe that put him off also.
“Technically I should be an alcoholic and for years I thought it was a psychosomatic thing not being able to drink alcohol, but I was tested and they said the missing enzyme means I can’t digest alcohol.”
Grant also doesn’t eat cheese or chocolate because he hates them. If he had to be a dish it would be Christmas pudding. He eats them quite a lot because he tells me they get drastically reduced in January and they keep a long time but mainly because they’re so “rich”. He luxuriates as he says the word “and you cut the sweetness with lemon sorbet”.
He cooked dinner for Meryl Streep, crab linguine followed by pannetone bread and butter pudding. “She loves eating so it’s a pleasure to cook for her.”
Did he not feel vulnerable cooking for Meryl? “Isn’t that the nature of talent?”
He manages a life without alcohol very well, but he says he’s not without addiction. His lifelong addiction has of course been Streisand.
He fell out with his mother in his youth but had a reconciliation and she tells him that she’s proud of him after all these awards. “And that has been surprising and gratifying.”
She asked him to forgive her and he did after a year or so of therapy. He gallantly goes off to get me a coffee even though coffee and tea are repulsive to him. “Hate the taste. The taste of it is pants. Likewise, chocolate, likewise cheese.”
I tell him that’s maybe why his skin is so fresh and radiant after hours and hours of long-haul flights. He says it’s DNA.
He took the character of Jack Hock from the essence of Chariots of Fire actor Ian Charleston who died of AIDS in 1990. “Ian had this amazing little boy lost quality and charm in tandem with a scabrous wit and enormous appetite for life. More than anybody I’ve met, and I thought he was the essence of what Jack Hock was.”
He recently saw that, American actor Darren Chriss, who won the Emmy and the Globe for playing the leading role in The Assassination of Gianni Versace announced that he wasn’t going to play another gay character because he felt he was taking parts away from gay actors. “And I’ve always had that concern. The Transgender movement and the Me Too movement means how can you justify heterosexual actors playing gay characters? We are in a historical moment. If you want someone to play a disabled role that should be a disabled actor.”
I thought the easiest way to an Oscar was playing disabled. Just look at Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot and Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything.
“Yes, I know but I understand why and how it’s come about.” It seems a long time since his friend Rupert Everett complained that he wished he’d never come out because now he only got gay best friend roles. These days there are so much more scope for the non-specifically gay actor. I n the way that Andrew Scott can get away with playing heterosexual very endearingly.
“And what’s extraordinary about Timothy Chalemet is that he has such an androgynous quality. Of all the actors out there, he is the most gender fluid of them all.”
Grant has never been gender fluid, but he’s quite often turned in his best, most nuanced performances when sexuality was never even involved in the part.
Has he witnessed any of the horrors where women were abused or taken advantage of by male producers or actors? “I haven’t been involved in one of those projects where there was misogyny at large. Logan (which starred Hugh Jackman and was an X Men spin off) was particularly blokey. Guys with huge arms. Star Wars is not blokey but it’s not misogyny.” He also starred with Jude Law in Dom Hemingway, which has been loosely described a bromance movie.
I asked a transgender friend what they thought of Grant playing a drag queen and they didn’t hae a problem with that. He’s playing a drag queen,, not a transgender. And his role is as a drag queen mentor. It’s not like he’s got any gay sex scenes.
When he was growing up, he wore a big eyelash inspired by Clockwork Orange when he went to see the movie. His father was drunk and threatened to kill him. He shot him but missed.
“He was so angry because I got back from a movie wearing make-up, but he was also infuriated that I’d emptied a crate of scotch down the sink. If I hadn’t done that, the Clockwork Orange eyelash worn on the lower lid would not have been a catalyst.”
At his father’s funeral a priest jumped into his grave to raise him from the dead. “I put that in Wah Wah the movie but at preview screenings people said it was too extreme, so we cut it. He died 38 years ago at 53, of alcoholism and a devoted love of my mother. That was the tragedy of his life. He drank to numb the pain.”
His mother left him for someone she fell in love with then married someone else and they have been together 40 plus years. His father Henrik was the head of education for the British government administration in the protection of Swaziland. Famous scene in Wah Wah is when Grant was a boy about 10. He was sitting in the back seat of the car and had to watch his mother have sex with his father’s best friend. This led to their divorce and his father’s alcoholism and a fractured relationship with his mother.
From an early age Grant kept a diary for the same reason he’s kept a diary throughout all the Awards seasons. “You establish a reality and a way to process – which seems too fancy a word but to understand what’s going on.”
Because of the deception and adultery of his childhood “secrets to me are kind of toxic. They cripple families. If you have secrets, you have to deal with an awful amount of defence. If you choose not to keep them, you have to evolve and be the stronger for it. It’s a contradiction. People think keeping a secret will make you stronger but it’s the opposite.”
Grant has been married to voice coach Joan Washington since 1986. They live in Richmond and he seems particularly devoted to his daughter Olivia.
He’s still friendly with Lena Dunham. He was in her cult series Girls.
“Lena had seen me in Spiceworld The Movie which completely exonerated all the flak I got at the time for being in that movie. Olivia was 8 years old and a Spice Girls fan and that’s why I was in it, but all the grandees of my profession asked how could you be in Spice World? But the bonus of that is I got cast in Girls and I got tickets to Adele at the 02 because she knew me from Spiceworld. Adele and I share the same birthday but not the same bank balance.”
He got to be in four episodes of Girls, one of which he was in rehab. So often in artistic rehab but in reality, never even a drink or a drug. Does he feel that everyone is less pigeonholed as a result of Me Too and as a result of diversity, or is that just a new box. Have people become less judgmental?
“We’re always judging. My role model for inspiration when I was a teenager was Donald Sutherland. He had a very long face and didn’t look conventionally good looking.”
I was recently at a Big Cat Sanctuary where one of the lions had a really long face and a high forehead. I took a picture of him and told Grant I would name the lion Richard because it looked like him. He was pleased.