“I have some distressing news. I’ve just run out of wine. What are we going to do about it?” These are the first sentences spoken by Richard E. Grant, the Swaziland-born, England-based actor in his now-classic 1987 film debut, Withnail and I, and those words — along with the drunken journey of the acerbic title character — set a course for him during the last 30 years in over 50 films and numerous television series.
Tall and angular, his eloquent rakes, villains and cuckolds in films as diverse as Robert Altman’s The Player and Gosford Park, the supernatural horror thriller Warlock and the erotic biopic Henry & June are by turns funny, tragic, incendiary, bitchy, scene-stealing, and — when it’s warranted — heart-warming. In his latest feature, the based-on-a-true-story Can You Ever Forgive Me? alongside Melissa McCarthy, he is all those things and much, much more.
I had a brief chat with Mr. Grant and touched upon some highlights of his career, as well as the thrill and lunacy of the pre-release Oscar buzz surrounding the performances at the center of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, specifically Melissa McCarthy’s as biographer Lee Israel, who falls on hard times and stumbles into criminal activity as a forger of literary memorabilia, and Grant as Jack Hock, a withered gay drinking buddy who aids and abets his lesbian friend for a brief moment in early 1990s New York.
Hornet: Congratulations on Can You Ever Forgive Me? It’s probably a little odd to start talking about awards consideration, but the buzz is out there. How does it feel to be in the mix?
Richard E. Grant: It is the first time it has ever happened to me in my life, and it is completely surreal. My rational brain goes ‘This is not even a possibility’ and my emotional brain or my emotional heart is going, gudumph!, because it’s such a reward to hear any of that kind of thing considering what a good time we genuinely had making this movie and how much I loved working with the director, Marielle Heller, and Melissa McCarthy. So it’s a complete left-of-field, surreal surprise to me.
How did the movie come to you? Did they seek you out specifically for this role?
I got a call in November 2016 from my agent who said, “You’re not doing anything in New York? You’re not doing anything in January? Will you be back from holiday?” And I said, “Why are you asking?” And she said, “I have a script. You have 24 hours to read it and to make a decision. And I’m not going to tell you anything more about it.” And I said, “Who has died or dropped out?” And she said, “That’s the wrong question.”
So I read the script and I thought it was extraordinary. The characters and the interaction between them was absolutely amazing, and I thought anybody who has dropped out, either death has taken them or they’ve had an offer way better than I’ve had in a long time. So I said, “Who is playing Lee Israel?” She said, “Melissa McCarthy.” I said, “Who’s directing?” “Marielle Heller.” And I said, “When do we start?”
It happened that quickly?
It was very, very fast. I flew to New York in January on a Wednesday for a costume fitting with Arjun (Bhasin, costume designer for Can You Ever Forgive Me?), who came up with these amazing neo-romantic Spandau Ballet-type clothes for a character whose heyday was obviously in the early ’80s but now was scraping around beyond his sell-by date, worse for wear and decrepit at the edges. And I said, “When are we rehearsing with Melissa?” And Marielle said, “Oh, there’s not going to be any rehearsal. We start shooting on Monday.”
I went into a sort of paranoid instant meltdown with palpitations, and I said, “Please, is there any time even if it’s just half an hour? Could we just meet face-to-face to talk through the script?” It turns out Melissa had the same impulse, and we met on a Friday morning in a downtown hotel, read through all the scenes we had together. That cleared up what the intentions were so that I had an idea of how she was going to pitch this part because obviously that would directly affect what I was doing. And within about 15 nanoseconds I knew that she was just going to be a gift of a person to work with. Because she was open, collaborative, funny, emotionally present and completely collaborative, and so it went from there. And it was all really downhill from Monday onwards!
When you prepare for a role like this — portraying a gay man based on an actual person — is your process a little bit different? There’s a sensitivity now for a lot of actors of different stripes when they’re approaching a role outside of their own sexuality.
Mmmm-hmmmm. I think for Marielle Heller, and the way the script was written, the sexuality was absolutely, innately unapologized for, but I never felt like it was issue driven or that it became a commentary of that. It just happened to be two people finding this sort of weird love/hate relationship in the middle of a New York that they had found very isolating, especially for Jack Hock. All of his friends had already died of AIDS, he was already HIV-positive.
Not to get off-point here, but I have to ask. Your character had clanging testicles in L.A. Story, a legendarily enormous penis in Henry & June, and you introduce yourself to Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me? by saying “Jack Hock, big cock.” What’s up with your genitalia, Richard?
[Loud laughter] So, it’s strange that you picked up on that because I was asked in various post-screening Q&As this week if the script was improvised, because people felt that it had an improvisatory, off-the-cuff quality, which was a great complement to the direction and to Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener’s screenplay.
But the only line … the two words that I improvised were when I met Lee in the Julius Bar — the oldest gay bar in New York — and I said, “Jack Hock, big cock.” And I thought it would never, ever make the cut of the movie. It just came out of my head and, you know, I was delighted that it’s in there. And even more so that you have picked up on that.
I watched L.A. Story recently after ages. The first time I saw it was right before I moved to Los Angeles, back in the early ’90s, and the movie has always seemed like a documentary more than a romantic fantasy. Are you and Steve Martin going to work together again?
We have stayed great friends ever since working together on that movie. And where there are so many people that you have movie friendships with, and they last the course of the movie, and you see them a year later and it’s like, yeah, you don’t really have much in common. But we’ve stayed great friends though we’ve never worked together since. Maybe having a friendship is you know, privately, better than having another movie together. But he’s now retired; he’s not making any more movies. So, that’s never going to happen.
And what about working again with Bruce Robinson, your director for Withnail and I and How to Get Ahead in Advertising?
Yeah, that has never happened, so there you’ve got Steve Martin and Bruce Robinson, both of whom we could have further collaborations with. And all I’ve had is 30 years of friendship. So I’ve been really short changed.
In your book With Nails, you talked about the fact that didn’t smoke or drink prior to the filming of Withnail and I. For someone who became famous for playing pickled characters, is this correct?
Yeah, that’s right. I’m allergic to alcohol.
And Bruce Robinson still had you do a night with your co-star Paul McGann where you went out and actually got plastered?
Yeah, because he’s a complete fucking sadist. He called it having a “chemical memory.” “You have to have a chemical memory, you fucker, to know what it’s really like to be drunk.” So I was sent home with a bottle of champagne, which is what I could manage to keep down, sort of at nine-minute intervals, and then threw up and stayed up all night getting this wretched bottle into my head and then managed half an hour of rehearsal the next day.
And they had some French windows at the end of this room that we were rehearsing in. And they were hysterical with laughter because I’m literally falling around and then I knew at one point that I had to get out of the doors. Went out the doors, the grass came towards my face, I could feel the smell of sick coming out of my mouth. I woke up about four hours later in my own bed. And the doctor said to me, “You’re allergic to alcohol. You’re lucky you’re alive.” So, anyway, it paid off!
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about Spice World.
I got derided by many fellow actors for selling myself out for doing this. But you’ll appreciate I had my daughter, who was 8 years old at the time, and when she heard that I’d been offered the part on the answer machine — in those golden days before cellphones — she said, “I don’t care if you get a 10-year deal with Disney, Dad. You have to be the manager from Spice World because I have to meet the Spice Girls.” And she did, and we became friends, and I loved working with them. They were hilarious. And I was also given an incredible wardrobe for it, which I’ve still got in my attic.
And the clothes still fit no doubt.
You are in the forthcoming final episode of Star Wars. Anything you can share about that?
I can tell you that I play (mumbles something inaudible) and all my scenes are with (mumbles something else inaudible).
Is there a film on your résumé that you think has been overlooked and you would like to see revived or reevaluated at some point?
Oh, goodness me. You know, I live my life going forward and don’t look back until I speak to you and you remind me of all these things. And tell me how ancient I am! No, but I would like to … I would like to know when Barbara Streisand is going to call me to act in a movie that she’s going to direct me in.