Shirley MacLaine

There’s no entourage, no publicist, no hotel suite, just Shirley Maclaine sweeping in to Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica with a big floaty scarf and lots of turquoise and diamond jewellery. Her greeting is a stare with the big twinkly spidery eyes. She exudes an aura that is powerful, certain, and a look and sharpness that can be instantly withering.
We can’t find a place to sit where our conversation is not drowned by a trumpet playing band so we go to the restaurant where everybody is extremely old school charming to her. It seems she’s well known in there. Well enough so that when she asks for cappuccino and an extra cup of just foam it arrives fast and fluffy, no questions asked.
The last time I met her she’d been wearing a wig, a good wig, but nonetheless a wig. This time it’s her own hair styled in the pixie cut that fell so beautifully into place in her Bob Fosse 1950s dancing days. Her skin looks plumped up and smooth. She had a face lift when she was around 50. The rest of the face lines have settled in around it amicably. She’s now 76 (77 April 24).
“My skin’s always been good, but I’m old now and I’m gaining weight and I hate it.” In her latest book I’m Over All That gaining weight is one of the things she’s not over. Dressing up, paying attention to fashion, scheming for film roles, feeling anger at world leaders, caring what people think of her and high heels are all part of the stuff she is completely over. Along with being polite to boring people. God forbid she thinks you’re boring. She would have no time at all, and no problem simply “meditating” right there and then or perhaps she means falling asleep.
Today though she’s very awake, very alive and animated. The voice in her book is always sure of itself; occasionally cruel, always brutal in its honesty. In the book she talks about having loved her ride and appreciating relinquishing the reins. In person though there’s none of that aching nostalgia and feeling that it’s the time to grow old and invisible.
Her book is a mixture of Hollywood gossip, sex on set, tales of Elizabeth Taylor sparking in diamonds and crying into champagne, and other such manipulations. Plane rides on Frank Sinatra’s private plane where there’d be fights with jelly beans.
Her relationships with world leaders, Pierre Trudeau, and Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. The night she spent in a suite that had been rented for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign and when she was sleeping a man entered and climbed into bed with her. She had no idea who he was so she rolled on the floor away from him. It happened repeatedly the same night so she didn’t know if it was one persistent man or several.
Alarming revelations are tucked in between her thoughts on religion, nature, UFOs, reincarnation, fame and ageing. She doesn’t pine for the good old days. She sets them out quite brittlely, fragmented, as if they happened to someone else. Understandably she talks a lot about getting older and fatter.
“I’m not talking vanity. It’s health wise. I don’t want to buy more clothes that are bigger. I’ve been putting together a live show because I miss the live audience. It’s a retrospective of my stuff, not just the acting but the dancing, footage from my shows and television specials. I’ve been cutting it all together and that’s what’s got me in this frame of mind. I am looking back. Look at those legs.”
When you look back at the young Maclaine she was super alluring, but not in an overt way. She had a dancer’s body and a distinctive haircut that made her look like she wasn’t trying and didn’t care. Think Sweet Charity, Can Can, The Apartment.
Did she think of herself then as sexy? “No, never, never, never. I’m a dancer. You have to be a team player and never think of yourself as a diva. And that’s held me in pretty good stead. I’m easy to work with except I’m very disciplined and I want efficiency.
“I should be doing my yoga but I can’t any more, I’ve a spine problem. Really I should pay attention to my posture.” She rises up theatrically in her chair. “I got the bad back from wearing heels and dancing in them. The things that seemed so important don’t matter now.”
I mentioned that I saw Annette Bening, her sister-in-law, at a party and she was carrying her Louboutins. “Yes, she and I talk about how hard it is to wear high heels all the time.” Does she see much of her brother, Warren Beatty. “Sure… he’s very complicated. We’re friendly. They’ve got four kids. We interact. I love Annette.”
Wasn’t there a time when she wasn’t close to her brother? “Oh yes. You know, families go in and out, up and down, I can’t remember when, just like all families.”
Annette is very thin, isn’t she. “Don’t you wish you could be like that, that thin?” I stop thinking about the fried calamari appetizer instantly. Maclaine doesn’t mean to be insulting. That’s just her way. She continues, “To do that you don’t eat much.”
She shows me her Louis heels. The highest she goes these days is a couple of inches.
In her back there’s a chapter: I’m Not Over Vanity, But I’m Trying. She talks about her body a lot. Perhaps because she grew up in the kind of Hollywood that created body fascism. Was it as harsh for actresses to be in shape then as now?
“Probably worse, because it was studio time. On the set of Trouble With Harry (1955), her first movie, Hitchcock wanted me to eat every meal with him. So I put on 10lbs in the first week.”
When she was an actress on Broadway she lived off her own lemonade made at cafes with quarters of lemon and sugar that were on the table, and peanut butter sandwiches. So obviously going from that to the multi-course Hitchcockian meal might add a couple of inches.
“The head of the studio called me in and said ‘What are you doing? We are trying to cut the scenes and you are a different person’. I had gone up to 136lbs. when you are under contract they did that because they owned you they thought, but I wasn’t owned. I didn’t stop eating for the rest of the picture. I said now I’ll have to keep eating so that I would match.”
Does she think Hitchcock had an eating disorder? “”Doh. Just look at him. He had trouble with food. He would lose 20lbs before a shoot. He knew the food would be catered by who he specifically asked to cater it and he would just eat his way through the film. It was very fine good food.”
She says with admiration, “Marlene Dietrich ate only every other day. She taught me how to put a very fine gold chain under your chin to keep it lifted.”
Maclaine talks about her own facelift and when she came home with stitches in her face she couldn’t have energetic sex. “That’s when I got into gentle sex, gentle orgasms.” She’s laughing a big dirty laugh. “Some deep emotions called don’t pop my stitches.”
Who was your lover at the time? “Oh he was very respectful, but no names babe. He’s gay now. Such a lot of people are bisexual.”
After talking about the gurgling gentle orgasm she says that she didn’t love sex so much unless she was emotionally involved. ” It wasn’t that interesting to me. I could never do it unless I was emotionally interested.”
What’s more interesting is how she stayed emotionally interested. Throughout most of her sex life she was married to a film producer turned businessman, Steve Parker, twelve years her senior. For most of that time he lived in Japan with their daughter Sachi. They divorced in 1987.
While married she had passionate, tumultuous affairs. None of which lasted for more than three years. Thus the marriage itself provided both the freedom and the barrier, the protection if you like. “It was an open marriage. A very open marriage.”
It went on for 28 years while she had what she calls “serial monogamous relationships” with many others including Robert Mitchum, Danny Kaye, Yves Montand, Australian Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme.
“Being married was a protection not to marry again. If I had been single then it would have been discussed with the people I was with and I really don’t agree with marriage. It’s not something I would do.”
When you she married in the first place did she think differently? “No, I felt the same way. That’s why it was an open marriage. I was 19. He was my helpmate, my friend, my counselor. When I came to California from the east he was there, so I didn’t go into the world of Hollywood single.”
Somehow not being single in Hollywood was important to her. It’s as if she were in some way vulnerable or prey. Maybe on a very basic level she feared losing herself. Her parents Kathlyn Beatty, a drama teacher, and her father Ira, philosophy teacher turned juvenile detention officer and heavy drinker, had a claustrophobic and dysfunctional marriage.
In her book she tries to explain the contradiction. “What was I doing with all my hormones and attractions and longings when I always felt so strongly the need for freedom. Most of the men I was with wanted to get married. I was already married and I stayed that way precisely so it wouldn’t become an issue.
“My husband and I had a liberal arrangement regarding each others’ lovers. We were friends. We stayed married so we wouldn’t be tempted to marry again. I don’t understand the need for the institution and I could never live a life where I felt tied down to a promise just because my love hormones were raging at the time.”
Why did she divorce from Parker? I read it was about money. “I thought that it was, but it wasn’t. He didn’t want anything. But by the time we separated it was really just over.”
For a long time though if other lovers “got serious with me about divorcing Steven and marrying me, that was not good. All of them did that, and that probably took three years. That was their cycle. When you start looking back you see your behavior patterns and you realize you unconsciously conducted yourself to give them three years.”
Does she not think she should have given them any more than that? “Huh. To do what? I don’t think so. You can’t really control or not whether you have freedom from emotional intensity. It’s just a rhythm. I was kind of shocked myself. How do people do it for 25 years? I guess I did it one year for the body, one for the mind, and one for the spirit. It started with the body, then the mind, then the spirit, then it was done. Ha.” Loud dirty laugh.
What about the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme who was assassinated in February 1986? “We had broken up but we made arrangements to get back together, then he died.” You were about to break the three year rule? “No, it had been two and I thought we could add another year. He was a brilliant man, a brilliant leader. He didn’t believe in any of the stuff I believed in. we didn’t argue but he thought it was ridiculous. I liked his intelligence. Very left wing intellectuals always interest me. And they are always the most suspicious of my metaphysics. He was planning to come to New York and hoping to be Secretary General of the UN.” It must have been terrible when he was killed? “It really was. I talked to him a week before he died. We were planning on seeing each other. He was an extraordinary person. Not good looking. Not a big man, which I usually like.” We get very very sad talking about it.
Robert Mitchum was a big man. “Robert Mitchum was so complicated. My dad was complicated. And I like complicated men. But he was not exactly like my dad. He was very intelligent. He was intense, he was light, he was funny, he was impossible. Interesting to me. Good ground to plough. So much was under there.”
Did she ever get to the core of him? “Mmm, maybe. No, I would have got bored if I got to the core. Once you’ve got to the core what’s the point of ploughing anyway. I wasn’t looking for a lasting relationship, I never have.”
She speaks with sparkly-eyed fondness for Danny Kaye who came to visit her on set in Paris and flew her to New York and cooked her Chinese food. “He was a great pilot. He used to take me to dinner all over the place, not just across the Atlantic. If he wanted a steak he would fly me to Texas. He was a fabulous cook. That was three years. I can’t remember how that ended, but there was someone right after him. I think we’re all kind of cyclical. We have a rhythm and three years was mine.”
There’s an absence of sentiment and nostalgia in the way she speaks. It’s all very matter of fact. Perhaps that’s why her most intense love relationship now is with her dog, a rat terrier called Terry. Her eyes fill as she speaks of her love for her. She seems utterly contented. Certainly not lonely for any man. She chats on about her life in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she lives most of the time. Laughing with good friends and coming home to watch DVDs in bed with Terry.
She’s working on her one woman show – An Evening With Shirley Maclaine – and has a new movie out, Bernie, with Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey “I play a woman who’s a real bitch. She’s very wealthy and everybody hates her. I love playing those parts.
“Jack plays the head of an undertaking firm. We have a relationship and I become very possessive. I make life impossible for him so he shoots me and puts me in the freezer under the frozen peas.
“I’ve got other things coming up but I don’t know if I’m going to talk about them yet.” That’s great I say. A lot of people when they reach a certain age and they’re not leading ladies any more they find that difficult. You know how that goes? “No, I don’t know how that goes.”
Did she never find it difficult to reach a certain age and get offered different sort of parts and then get offered less parts? Did she never reach a point where she felt invisible? “No,” she says loudly and defiantly. I’m not sure if she’s going to snarl at me, but then she just laughs. Moods and shapes shift with her pretty quickly. One minute she’s laughing with you cozily, the next looking at you as if you’re something on the sole of her shoe. And then she’ll do that just kidding face and we’re laughing again.
Her book swoops like that too. From serious to angry, political and metaphysical, to Hollywood insider. And she manages to talk about people with love and disdain at the same time and in equal measure. Such as how Elizabeth Taylor got diamonds to go on a lunch date. You’re not sure if she’s talking in awe or contempt. Or both. Although she says she loves Elizabeth Taylor.
Did she herself get diamonds? “Sure, I got bribes to get married. No names. I said no, but I did not give the diamonds back. They’re in the bank. They may come in handy if I want to get more water rights.”
In the book there’s a chapter called I’m Not Over Making Money. “I think it’s going to cost money for what’s coming up. I want to make a huge garden. I want to collect rainwater. Solar is expensive. Who knows who else might need help. That sort of thing.”
She has always been unafraid to speak her mind. A lot of actresses are driven by insecurity. But not her. She says that she’s never manipulated to get a part.”
“I’ve given up more parts than I’ve been afraid of losing. If an actress called me and I was up for a part but they were so in need of that part it meant everything. To me it meant something, but not that much. I’m basically not competitive. I like the idea of playing a part that required a lot of thought, so there were parts that I wanted because they were interesting.”
What were the ones you gave away? “Oh, I should have played Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More but Ellen wanted it so much. I should have played Breakfast At Tiffany, but I gave that up because of Audrey. I didn’t take these things seriously.”
Why didn’t you take Breakfast At Tiffany? Because you didn’t want to be a hooker? “Oh no. I went and did something called Two Loves with Laurence Harvey. Some terrible thing that three people saw. I liked the script. It was about a teacher in New Zealand working with Maoris.”
You got to go to New Zealand? “No, we filmed it in the studio. I thought that Breakfast At Tiffany was too souffleish. The Apartment started with 29 pages. I just liked the idea of working with Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder. I didn’t know what it was going to be about, neither did he. He wrote it based on the chemistry Jack and I had on set. It didn’t seem amazing at the time. We didn’t know anything when we started. When the first review came out it said they don’t know if they’re making a comedy or a drama.
“After the first screening Marilyn Monroe was standing outside the screening room wearing a gorgeous fur coat and leaning up against the wall. I walked up to her and she walked up to me and she opened her coat and she had absolutely nothing on and told me, ‘You were wonderful.'”
Why does she think she did that? “Well, she didn’t get along with Billy Wilder.”
So she did it to punish him? “Probably. Isn’t that interesting.”
Such a punishment. The first screening of a brilliant movie ends and there’s no attention for Wilder or MacLaine or Lemmon, it becomes not about The Apartment but about Marilyn. “Yes, it really tore up the whole place. I don’t know what that was about. He was awful with her and she was with him. That was not a good relationship.”
What was it about their chemistry? “She couldn’t act. I got along with him. He was very autocratic. He was Austrian. You don’t tell Billy Wilder his script isn’t right. I feel he always needed a strong woman character in his pictures. When he started doing them without it just didn’t have the tension.
“He used to have this editor, Dylan Harrison, and he’d see the dailies and say ‘Billy, you’ve got to shoot the whole day over because you didn’t break my heart’. With men only he didn’t break hearts. Dylan died after our last picture. Dylan was the real Billy Wilder. Without him he was too harsh. He hurt people’s feelings. Sometimes I minded it. I tended to dig my foot in – let me do this, let me do such and such. But after a while with him it’s the law of diminishing returns.
That’s what happened with Marilyn. She couldn’t remember dialogue and he’d be very harsh and she’d forget more. Although I didn’t know Marilyn, that was the only time I saw her and I saw all of her.
“There was one other time when she was doing Something’s Got To Give. She had lost weight and got into shape, but she was doing her number which was not showing up on time and Fox called me to replace her and I said ‘No, I’m in the same union as she is’ and then she died.”
Well that would have been weird to replace her. “Well, it all happened before the picture got started. They did tests. Of her in a swimming pool and Dean was cast in it. I’m not sure if they ever did the picture with anyone else. Maybe it was not made.” (It wasn’t. Marilyn was sacked from the film. She was rehired, but then died).
Her voice and entire body language softens when she talks about Dean Martin. He was never neatly packaged into a three year cycle. Martin was the one man she couldn’t get. “I had a crush on Dean. He was the funniest. His imagination was funny. His brain, I’m not so sure.
“Frank wasn’t funny. Frank would get extremely autocratic. He could and would run the show in every which way, and he didn’t want to work hard.”
MacLaine became a non-sexual mascot for the Rat Pack. One of the boys. “I never had a thing with Frank or Dean or Sammy or Joey Bishop, but I couldn’t have an affair with someone if I was hanging out with them if I wanted to. I was the one they protected, like I was their mascot daughter.”
She says that they didn’t even drink very much. “It was all a show. It was like an adult kindergarten. I was one of the boys. We all played together. But I would always clean up the trashed room.”
It’s the only moment in my whole time with her where she seems uncertain of her role, of who she is. One of the boys? Or caretaker, love object?
She talks in her book of an unrequited longing for Martin and once she even went round to his house to tell him how she felt. But his wife and kids were there and she ended up playing with the kids and had a kiss on the cheek goodnight. And the unspoken sweetness continued. Probably it meant more to her that way.
Does she ever wonder what would have happened if she’d had the affair with Martin? “No,” she says sharply. Does she ever think that about anyone? “No.” She doesn’t fill the silence. There’s nothing unrequited or lonely in your life? “No. I’d had enough. Come on. I’m nearly 77, I’m not interested in that any more…” Then there’s another pause, and a softening. “I mean if something came along.”
She smiles a crooked smile. Hard to tell if she’s serious. “I’m very content. I’m very busy and creative. I have a wonderful life. I have a lovely home in New Mexico. I come to LA and I go to New York and I have wonderful times.
“I think with someone who is as independent as me I don’t think men are all that interested. Unless a man has got a control trip going on, but I’d see that right away. This subject is boring,” she announces.
I wonder if it’s all been about her strong desire never to be controlled. Before I can formulate another question I can see she’s moved on.
She doesn’t mean to be offensive. In fact she’s very charming when she wants to be. She just wants to speak exactly what’s on her mind.
It’s getting dark in the Shutters restaurant and her twinkly eyes squint to see what’s written on my notepad. She orders more foam for her cappuccino. The waiter goes off and brings back a cup of pure foam like a cloud.
How close is she to her daughter? “You know, she’s 53, she’s doing her own thing. She’s doing a little theatre. She’d like to do more. I’m close with my grandkids. They live back east so I have to wait till they’re here.”
For most of the time when her daughter was growing up she lived in Japan with her father. It was deemed a healthier environment than Hollywood and dragging her from film set to film set. But there were long gaps in communication. Does she try to make up for lost time? “Yes, we try to, but she has her own life. She wants to be on her own. She’s going through a divorce now and I don’t want to talk about it.”
As if by magic at that moment Antonio Banderas, looking super svelte, and Melanie Griffiths, looking super baby-faced, appear to meet with her. Although it felt like me and MacLaine could have talked for hours, I realise with the arrival of this Hollywood couple she is in her true element. This is her Hollywood life and I have merely been a guest. I hope that we’ll meet again in this life or another.



Richard E. Grant (Mail Weekend, March, 2014)

At first glance Richard E. Grant appears to be licking the racing green leather walls of the lift in the Ivy Club. He is actually sniffing it. His olfactory powers are on turbo drive since he spent the last year creating and is about to launch his new unisexy perfume Jack.
He is glowing from the experience, that the anticipation of his first days on set as an upstairs character in Downton and a part in the juicily dysfunctional twentysomething comedy drama series Girls, and playing a narcissistic ostrich in the animated Khumba: A Zebra’s Tale. In fact he is looking splendid: tall lithe, sweeping hair and a large Union ‘Jack’ scarf. He wears the large grin of a person who can’t believe his good fortune. The cat who discovered his cream was full fat.
We meet on the day before he is to go on set for his Downton debut. ‘Four episodes,’ he says, looking savour it. Is he a Lady Mary lover? ‘I am an upstairs character and they’ve told me that I can’t say what I am for fear of my knees being removed. I was in Gosforth Park also written by Julian 12 years ago. I was a downstairs character, a footman. Now Julian Fellowes has promoted me to upstairs.’
Did he write it with him in mind? ‘You would have to ask him,’ he says looking constrained. I think he wants to tell me but he can’t. It just came out of the blue? ‘Yes,’ he says… Was he always hoping that Fellowes would write him a part in Downton?
‘It is the thing that my mother who is 84 has asked me on a monthly basis since it started. “When are you going on Downton? Why are you not in Downton and when will you be in it?” She always thought it was about time. All her friends have seen it. She is in Africa so it’s gone global. I spoke to her last week and told her she can tell her fellow bridge players it had come to pass. But you know, until you actually do it and it’s edited and comes out you are always slightly wary because you don’t know if your part will be cut.
‘I am always excited by a new job. That has never gone away and I think the day it does go away is the day you have to hang up your tights and put away your make-up. I am a Downton fan. I have watched it all the way.’
I try to make him tell me more about his part. Are you playing a vet? Isa the Labrador seems to have been around since pre-Titanic. ‘I will ask tomorrow if the dog is going to dog heaven but they’ve already got a vet. I can’t tell you any more.’
Do they give you the script in advance or just your character? ‘I have three scripts at the moment. The fourth one hasn’t been written yet.’ So he knows what’s happening to everybody, not just his character? ‘Yes I do and I can’t tell you, but it’s going to be good. It’s a bit like being the new boy at school. They’ve all been working on this for four years and then people from outside come in…’ He pulls a nervous face. ‘Word is that everybody has a good time. When you reach a certain vintage you already know quite a few of the actors. I was amused that somebody sent me a Google link the other day saying that I was a veteran actor, so there you are, I’m a veteran,’ he says savouring the word.
I’ve always known that Richard E. was special. He is complicated, tangible and at the same time elegantly distant. He was mesmerising on Richard E. Grant’s Hotel Secrets and the second series is coming up. ‘I loved the hotel series. The second series covers Hong Kong, Tokyo, Miami, New Orleans, Venice and Berlin. It did feel very risky at the beginning going literally into unscripted territory where I had to meet people and interview them.
‘My favourite was Heidi Fleiss when I had to interview her in Las Vegas about sex and sex scandals in hotels. She lives with 40 macaws and was extraordinary. In fact I love interviewing people. Being a nosey parker and being paid for it, brilliant.’
When I last interviewed Richard E. he bonded with my un-bondable cat, a ninja warrior of a cat who attacks all who come near her. In fact Richard E. Grant is possibly the only person from whom she has not drawn blood. I have always thought there was something cat like about him.
He says he coped with his hotel series flying around the world subjected to jet lag because ‘I am like a cat, I can sleep anywhere. Sitting upright in a chair.’
I don’t see him as a lap cat though, or as a dog, even though he had one. More of a cheetah. ‘He raises an eyebrow. I’ll go for anything that’s fast and can change its spots. Nobody really changes, do they? Your essential nature I think is unchangeable.
‘When I was doing My Fair Lady in Sydney I saw someone called Richard Clarke who I hadn’t seen since I was 12-years-old since they emigrated to Perth. We had remained pen friends for a year. We had not seen each other for four decades, before our voices had broken. And then I looked out of the lobby window and recognised the signature of his walk from a distance even though now he was a middle-aged man. We met and we talked. We started at six in the evening. Dawn came up and we were still talking. At some point he said, “You haven’t changed at all.”
‘And I thought oh, you hope that some barnacles of wisdom or something is going to accrue to you over the years. And he said, “No, I mean it in a complementary way. You still ask too many questions and you still talk too much.” And I felt the same about him. Essentially he was the same. I think unless something catastrophic happens to warp you off kilter, who you are is a meridian line’
I wonder if Richard E. Grant, 56, is the same as Richard E. at 12. I wonder if what happened to him at 10 traumatised him to the point of changing him completely. He woke from a doze in the back of the family car to see his mother having sex with one of his father’s friends in the front seat. Subsequently he watched his father slip into alcoholic despair, and then was bullied and brutalised by him.
‘It was traumatic, but I think if you are optimistic by nature that is something you don’t have any control over. That’s in your DNA. So I never ever thought that I was going to go under. I think it’s enormously lucky to have that in your life.’
One of his survival mechanisms was the catharsis of diary writing. His memoirs were wonderfully written and he wrote and directed the movie Wah-Wah based on his early life. He stills writes most days.
‘I write on an iPad because my handwriting is not very good and if I write it on paper it disappears because I’m a hoarder. I love stuff. I like to be surrounded by things that I’ve collected or have been given to me.’
Smell has always been the unlocker of memories, a key to him. How did the smell of Jack come about? ‘I was in the Caribbean two years ago and the designer Anya Hindmarsh saw me with my head in a gardenia bush and said what are you going to do about that? And I said do you mean psychiatrically? And she said no, have you thought of making a perfume? And I said it ahs been my dream.
‘She took out her iPhone and magic wanded a list of numbers of people to go and see. Roja Dove the perfumier told me that I have a very sharp sense of smell, possibly because I’ve never drunk or smoked.’
He insists that his intolerance for alcohol was not because he had to suffer the fallout and abuse from a father who became consumed with grief and alcoholism when his mother left him. ‘But because like Gaga says, I was Born That Way. When I was 18 I went to a doctor and found out that I have no enzymes that deal with alcohol. It’s like pouring poison down my throat. I have tried it and been violently ill for 24 hours, so it’s not worth it.’
He gets out a tiny bottle of Jack, which smells exotic, quirky, peppery, but oozing comfort, sexuality and elegance. Mesmerising and curious; a little like Grant himself.
‘So far I’ve had an amazing response. I wake up, live and breathe it. Having never done anything businessy in my life, never passed a maths exam, I think this has been the steepest learning curve for a man in his late 50s as it is possible to get.’
He is actually only 56. I wonder why he exaggerates his age? ‘I suppose you notice it so much because I’ve now lived four years longer than my father did, so every year feels like a bonus to me.’
A pause, a sigh. ‘He drank himself to death with unrequited love for my mother.’ He says this with surprising compassion. His father, Henrik Esterhuysen, was Minister of Education Swaziland.
His drunk father would be cruel, telling him he was ugly and untalented. At one point fired bullets at him that narrowly missed his head. ‘He wasn’t himself when he was drunk. I have come to terms with all that now. You forgive as you get older.’
Surely he missed his mother and he didn’t think oh it’s for the best I’m living with an alcoholic abusive father? ‘No, but the thing that really helped me through it all was writing a diary. Being involved in plays and having a puppet theatre. It was a hobby that was all so engrossing. It enabled me to be on my own and be content to be on my own. And in retrospect that gives you a sense of yourself and your own value and self-possession.’
I always think of Richard E. Grant as a composed person, fiercely independent and a loner. I’m not sure exactly why I have a sense of that. I always imagined him as an only child. He in fact has a brother from whom he is estranged.
‘I think I am an only child in the sense that my brother (Stuart) went to a different school and we had separate friends and I felt like I was an only child. I haven’t had any contact with him for years. I last saw him at my father’s funeral. I don’t know what he does, where he lives or anything about him.’
Is he not curious? ‘Absolutely zero interest.’
He is curious about everybody, why not him? ‘Because if you feel someone harbours resentment towards you or ill will you don’t gravitate towards them. That’s just animal instinct. It’s not something I’m going to poke my nose around. Leave sleeping animosity lying.’
I have read that his brother complained that Richard E. turned up at his father’s funeral with orange hair – it was for a part in a play – and lobbed him a few insults. It sounds like there has been a lifetime of murky discord. Has his mother never tried to get them to patch things up? ‘No. I think she understood. More than anything a parent knows if two children don’t get on.
‘My mother has been married to her second husband for 38 years. She loves gardening, she loves dogs.’ About 15 years ago when he was thinking about making the movie he had a period of depression where he found it hard to get out of bed. He went to a therapist recommended by Steve Martin who he met on the set of LA Story and his therapist asked him how he would feel if his mother died and urged him to make contact. He sent her a fax asking if she could explain what happened on the day he saw her from the back seat of the family car.
She wrote an 18-page letter about what it was like to be a woman in a colonial set-up with a strict hierarchy. She had no idea that his father had become an alcoholic mourning her loss. It is easy to see why he fled to London to drama school. Swaziland remains bitter sweet to him.
He met his wife, voice coach Joan Washington, when she taught a class in 1983. They were married in 1986, the year before he was to star in one of the greatest cult films ever made, Withnail And I. His performance as Withnail remains one of the most brilliantly poised and cleverly observed recreations of a drunk ever to hit celluloid. He went on to win acclaim in How To Get Ahead In Advertising, The Age Of Innocence, The Player, Gosford Park and as Michael Heseltine in The Iron Lady.
His contacts book is pretty impressive. He has worked with just about anybody who matters and one of the actors who matters most to him is Helena Bonham Carter.
‘We have been friends for 22 years. I’ve worked with her twice, first on Twelfth Night and then on Keep The Aspidistra Flying. She’s one of the most innately funny people you could ever wish to work with. When she starts laughing it’s a giggle box you can’t resist. She’s as smart as a whip too. Nothing passes her. I adore her. She is also very very good. Did you see her as Enid Blyton? Her portrayal of this monstrous woman was extraordinary.’
When I ask him about Khumba the animated tale of the zebra who is only half striped and its metaphors with wanting to be accepted he tells me that he hasn’t seen it and he can’t remember much about it.
‘I went into a studio, no make-up, no costume. Everyone in the studio on their own with a sound engineer. It’s cheaper that way because it’s cheaper to fly a sound engineer than some actor who has to be picked up from an airport and put in a chichi hotel. It does feel like a fraudulent job sometimes when everybody else at the coal face working, drawing, doing all the colouring, all that stuff they do in animation. They give you a rough sketch of a character and you only see the bits you are in.’
He doesn’t even know whether Liam Neeson, who is the voice of the one-eyed lion, has an Irish or an American accent. Perhaps he needs to be finessed by Joan Washington. I wonder has Richard ever had any voice lessons from his wife?
‘Yes. My first television job called Sweet Sixteen in 1983 playing a Gloucestershire yokel, and later on I needed a southern American accent for Suddenly, Last Summer with Natasha Richardson. All I can say is don’t do it. It’s the life lesson of marriage. It’s a little bit like getting a driving lesson from anyone you are close to. They are not going to be as patient as they could be with somebody else. That’s par for the course.’ Family and loyalty are very important to him. The scars of his childhood meant he grew up thinking he would be betrayed or abandoned.
He says he misses his daughter Olivia, now 25, even though she only lives a mile away from him in Richmond. They talk every day. ‘Olivia has graduated in creative writing from East Anglia and has been working as a production assistant on four films including Philomena, The Invisible Woman, Posh about the Bullingdon Club and The Theory Of Flight about Stephen Hawkins.’
Recently he had a fire in his house in Richmond. ‘I have a flat roof on the garage at the bottom of my garden and it was being repaired. The roofers let a blowtorch on a fir tree, which went up in flames, and everything caught fire. Fire engines and everything were called. I was terrified of the whole thing. I thought I was going to lose everything but the fire brigade who are literally ten minutes from my house arrived so quickly and were brilliant. I was home alone and I saw it from my study upstairs. Suddenly the tree was on fire. It was in the summer so there was a hosepipe in the garden so I got that out before the Fire Brigade arrived.’
He gives a slight shudder. Possessions collected over the years, the memories of the family home, all very important to him.
He misses Joan when she is away. Currently she is voice coaching on a film in Toronto. She only ever does big films. This one is called Crimson Peak with Tom Hiddlestone and Jessica Chastain.
How has he managed longevity in love? ‘I have no idea… Well, we started talking to each other in 1983 and that conversation has not stopped. It’s a 30 year conversation.’
The life of an actor is by its nature rollercoaster high then dry. ‘Yes, we’ve carried on despite all of that. Her work is consistent. She consistently works with the best people. And her job absolutely dovetails with mine. She understands how actors operate, which is a good thing.’
He is not glib when he says all of this. There have certainly been some bad times. When they first married she suffered miscarriages and their first daughter Tiffany died after half an hour of life. ‘That was 27 years ago. It feels like a long time ago but I still think about it because the road to where we live goes past the cemetery in which our first daughter is buried. I pass it every day so you can’t not think about it. I think you don’t get over something, you go round it. You accept it because that’s the nature of how you live otherwise you wouldn’t be able to get through a day.’
Was it one of those things that if it didn’t break you as a person and as a relationship it made you stronger? ‘Exactly it does, you know, children and whatever happens to them. It’s a thing I’ve seen so often in partnership that causes discord and it shouldn’t.’
More so than having twentysomething lovers on the set of Girls? He laughs: ‘They are very special to me, the cast of Girls. After all, I am a veteran,’ he says, relishing his status with a naughty glint.
The creator of Girls, Lena Dunham, saw Withnail And I and wrote the part especially for him. ‘Lena Dunham is extraordinarily bright and disarming. She said she wrote a part for me after she’d seen Withnail. They haven’t killed me off. There’s a possibility I could come back. I am an older English gentleman who meets Jemima Kirk in rehab. I am a recovering cocaine addict and she is a recovering multi-addict.’
And they have a twisted dysfunctional romance. ‘That’s a very good way of putting it. More in my head I think than hers, in character of course. It’s alarming when you go on set and they are all the age of my daughter and I am older than most of their parents.’
He promises he doesn’t think about the ageing process too much. ‘Not like Bruce Robinson who wrote Withnail who constantly talks to me about how many Christmases he thinks he’s got left. He’s 67.’
Does your mother talk about how many Christmases she’s got left? ‘Never. No. She just gets on with it. Bruce likes to indulge in a maudlin cynicism with me on the phone.’
Richard E. Grant couldn’t look more alive. His skin vibrates with its own glow. His eyes seem to have a constant sparkle. And besides he eats Christmas pudding every month. ‘And then I have a slice of it for leftovers fried for breakfast the next day.’
How is it that he isn’t 25 stone? ‘I have been running around chasing my tail all my life. I think that’s it.’ And with that he needs to leave on urgent perfume business and no doubt more tail chasing.

Jack launches exclusively at Liberty on April 2 and online at
Khumba: A Zebra’s Tale is out on April 11.