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 www.jackperfume.co.uk.
Khumba: A Zebra’s Tale is out on April 11.