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Interview: Richard E Grant on lucky breaks, film diaries, and "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"

by Nathaniel R

Richard E Grant's timing was impeccable during my own journey into cinephilia. I was in the process of falling madly deeply in love with movies when he made his debut in the cult classic With Nail and I (1987) and as I became more invested in not just movie stars but the crucial contributions of character actors to rich movies, he was everyone in so many movies I loved: Henry & June (1990), L.A. Story (1991), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), The Age of Innocence (1993). I bought his first book "With Nails: The Film Diaries of Richard E Grant" in hardcover right when it was published and later bought it again in paperback. I bring up this chronological personal fandom so that'll you'll understand that I was surely as visibly thrilled to sit down with Richard E Grant as he has appeared to be for the entirety of this awards season. We're both giddy about the Oscar nomination for his incredible performance as the slippery but loveable Jack Hock in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

But we began by discussing the book. I'd read it too often to begin anywhere else...

[The interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

One of the funniest film books you'll ever read. A must-have for fans of 1990s cinemaNATHANIEL R: Do you still do film diaries or did you do it only for your book 'With Nails: The Film Diaries of Richard E Grant"?

RICHARD E GRANT: I've kept diaries since I was 11 years old, since I saw my mother shagging my father’s best friend on the front seat of a car, by accident. I tried religion, got no reply, couldn’t tell my friends, certainly couldn’t tell my parents what I’d seen, so I kept a diary to keep sane, and it has kept me relatively sane all these years. I was on the ill-fated  Ready to Wear (Prêt-à-Porter) movie for Robert Altman, and a newspaper in England asked me if I would write a diary, so I did, and they published it...

It came out on a Sunday and literally on the Monday, I had six calls from publishers saying, “Do you have any more diaries?” and I said, “Yeah, I’ve kept them since the year dot…” and that’s how it came about!

I've always wanted you to do a sequel!

I have been asked about doing a sequel, but I thought that as it went from somebody who had never made a movie beginning with Withnail and I, and then ending up working for Scorsese, Altman... I thought it had a kind of complete trajectory...

A natural arc.

Exactly, and I thought anymore and it’s just going to be more of the same. Would it be of interest? So I didn’t take the risk of people going, “Oh, yeah… more of that.” I’ve never published anymore, but it’s not for lack of keeping them.

[Excited] So you do still keep them!

Yeah [Laughs]

That run of yours, documented in the book, was so historic. So many classics and infamous movies. I know all careers are like this with ebbs and flows but I hope you're aware that we're totally in a new Richard E Grant upswing. 

Well, I’m 62. In my early 50s, I thought that that was it, that it would be crumbs off the big table. And essentially, you know, I accept that. I wrote a novel called "By Design" in 1996. It was set in Hollywood, and the first chapter was about this song & dance guy who was very old, so Steve Martin said, 'Oh, the person you really need to speak to about that is Roddy McDowall, because he knows everybody.'  When I met Roddy [shortly before he died] he said that after 40 your parts get smaller. Whatever recognition you’ve had diminishes, and you have a choice to either become bitter and twisted like the majority of old actors or you make a conscious decision and you go, 'I cannot believe who I’ve worked with, where I’ve been, how much money I’ve accrued!'

The wisdom of that has stayed with me. Through my 50s, when my parts were getting smaller, but I was still doing stuff that I enjoyed, I thought that was it. So the fact that I’ve now been in Logan, that I have this part, that I'm now shooting Star Wars. It's exactly what John Lennon said before he was murdered, that 'life is what happens when you're busy making other plans.' You have no idea what’s coming, so I’m very grateful. The response to Can You Ever Forgive Me? has completely floored all of us.

This is the best part you’ve had in so long. I was excited as early as hearing you'd been cast.  But the movie was better than I'd hoped and your rapport with Melissa McCarthy is so strong. It actually kind of feels full circle for your career, because of Withnail and I.

Now playing another alcoholic, exactly.

How do you feel about that? Do you think this means something or are careers just random?

I think it’s all random. It’s all chaos and it’s random. Because, you know, I only got Withnail and I because Daniel Day Lewis had turned it down. He had just opened in Room with a View and My Beautiful Laundrette on the same day in New York and L.A., so everybody said, 'Who is this guy who is doing these two parts?' He was offered everything and, mercifully -- or otherwise I know I wouldn’t be sitting here right now --  he did The Unbearable Lightness of Being instead of Withnail, so I got a chance to be in the movie as a complete unknown.

And in the case of this casting, I got a call from my agent last November saying, 'You have 24 hours to read this script,' and I was like, 'What is this, Mission: Impossible, it’s going to implode?' And then I said, 'Who died or dropped out?' and she said, 'Don’t concern yourself with that. Just read it. Melissa McCarthy is playing the lead, Marielle Heller of Diary of a Teenage Girl is directing it. You have to make this decision very, very quickly.' So of course, I read it, and I thought it was an amazing part and an amazing story. I said, yes, and [two months later] we were doing it.

Not to give away your whole process but how do start on your characters to make them as vivid as they tend to be? Are you someone who thinks about the way the character looks and speaks or do you start with something more internal?

It’s everything. Because of where I grew up in Africa, I’ve always -- my understanding of the world is to imagine what kind of animal somebody is. Before anything else, to get an idea of what I’m dealing with. Am I dealing with a predator or somebody who is going to be a cuddle?  So I thought of these two characters: Lee is obviously a porcupine, as prickly and private and impossible to deal with, as you dare risk. And Jack is essentially, for all his scamming and alcoholism and his lack of morals, he’s essentially a Labrador. I thought that he will try and lick anybody into submission, to either fuck him, feed him, cuddle him, or look after him. So there’s a little boy lost Labrador quality to him. So that’s what I went in with.


That’s the impression [I began with]. I had hoped that Lee Israel’s book would be a Wikipedia of information about him but because she was so eccentric and self-obsessed, she’s very scant on information about him.

Oh, oops.

She said he was from Portland, blonde, tall, charming, 47 years old, died in 1994, had a short cigarette holder, because he was a chain smoker and believed that that would stop him getting lung cancer, and had been to jail for two years, because he had held up a taxi driver at knife point, arguing about a fare, naturally. And that’s when she’d had to fence her letters once the FBI had rumbled her. Letters that she thought might be worth $500, he would go out and get $2,000 for. So I knew from that that Jack was somebody that, even though he astonishingly didn't even know who Fanny Brice was, had street smarts and charm that he could go out there and  [trick] people into believing that they could hand over their money. That was really the key.

And then there's his relationship with Lee which is so crucial to the movie.

I thought of the relationship in movie terms as  Ratso and Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy. You’ve got two people who are essentially very lonely, opposites, and grifters in New York where despite all the wealth and money around them, they’re failing upwards. And they find this unlikely co-dependent love-hate relationship. So that was my idea in the preparation, and I knew that because all the scenes I had were essentially two-handers with the Lee Israel character, that I had to, hopefully, find some connection with Melissa McCarthy.

And you obviously did.

I didn’t know, having been obviously fairly well-versed in her movie roles, whether she would be playing it very subtle, small-scale, or whether she’d be very broad...

She’s done both.

Exactly, and brilliantly. So when I saw how she was pitching it,  that absolutely informed and guided how I would do it, and we really -- so many people say on a movie, 'Well, we were this great, big happy family…' but we genuinely got on, and have continued to do so. That’s luck as much as anything, because you have no idea whether your sensibilities can meld with somebody else. But we just did.

I wanted to talk about your final scene. Obviously movies shoot out of sequence. You’re constantly dealing with… 'this has happened and this hasn’t happened.' But you have that jump in time where she hasn’t seen him, and Jack comes across so differently. It's just such a interior soulful picture of him. I don’t know how you conjured that.

Grant suggested Jack Hock's look in his final scene as a visual tribute to his friend Ian Charleson (pictured, triumphant, in Chariots of Fire) who died of AIDS in 1990.

RICHARD E GRANT: Well, thank you. I was great friends with the actor Ian Charleson, who played the Scottish runner who wouldn’t run on a Sunday in Chariots of Fire. He died of AIDS in 1990. Ian had this incredibly loose scallywag salacious aspect to his character as well as an incredibly engaging little boy lost quality so I thought he was the perfect role model. Once Ian lost all his hair, he wore a bandana like that, so I got baby powder from the hotel I was staying in, put that on my face, took the scarf and sort of sunk my cheeks in with a pencil and then emailed these pictures to [Marielle Heller] the night before we did that scene. I said, 'This is the direction that I would like to go. I know it’s not scripted like that, but are you willing to let me try this?' And to her credit, she said 'Yup,' and then the make-up person and the costume designer said, 'We remember guys who looked exactly like this!'. So more than anything, that was an homage to my friendship with Ian for that.

That’s beautiful. The scene is so moving. 

It was just… it came right near the end of the shoot. We found it emotionally very draining to do, because the whole point of those scenes is [similar to] playing a drunk where you’re trying not to be drunk --that sort of concentration of just getting through the door without falling over. In the same way when you’re saying goodbye to somebody, you would think, 'Oh, yes. It’s an obvious place for people to cry and fall apart,' but you’re doing everything in the scene not to do that. I think it’s from that that people are moved. Otherwise, it’s a blub-fest. You know what I mean?

Yes, totally. I know we have to wrap up which pains me! But before you go I have to ask about that social media post you did on your Star Wars audition.    

Oh my God, you’ve seen all of this, okay.

Richard E Grant, all smiles on BAFTA night. What a season he's having.

You had said that you did a blind audition and just a generic scene. That confused me because how on earth does one do a generic audition for something like Star Wars?  I kept remembering all the times Carrie Fisher joked about how impossible the dialogue was to say in a natural way.

Yeah, I got a 10-minute scene that was an interrogation scene from a 1940s British film -- I knew by the language that this was not Star Wars talk, having seen all the Star Wars movies since 1977. And I thought, 'Well this is part of the secrecy.' So I self-taped that and sent it off.

You don’t hear anything. You know, it sort of goes out into the stratosphere for two months, and then I got a call saying, 'A car is being sent to pick you up,' which had never happened to me before for an audition! And I go, 'What the hell is this? Oh, right. I’m going to have to go and do scenes from the actual script' or whatever.  I went to Pinewood Studios to meet J.J. Abrams. Within, I don't know, four minutes he said 'So are you going to do the part or what?' and I said, 'What part?,' of course, just gobsmacked! I  absolutely levitated, I couldn’t believe it!

More Can You Ever Forgive Me? | Best Supporting Actor Nominees | More Interviews

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Reader Comments (16)

great interview, he's so lovely!

February 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterHeyya

E. Grant, Weisz (Stone and Colman by association), Dowd, Pyle, Lynskey, etc. Nat, you'll defeat category fraud sooner than you think when you choose to help the movement get momentum. Great job!

February 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBbrave

Sigh!! I wish he had won the Bafta. This shld be the most likely place for him to put a stop to Ali's steamrollin, but....

Keeping my fingers X for a Grant upset on Oscar Nite!! 😁

February 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

Thank you for a delightful read! In fact, I just watched Can You ever Forgive Me last night and I was floored by his performance and having seen all the nominees for this year's supporting actor, he's my pick and I really hope he upsets Ali (a rather blah performance, no offence to his fans).

February 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJans

I wish he could pull off the upset on Sunday. He’d be so deserving.

February 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge

Ali's inevitable second Oscar feels somewhat like Christoph Waltz's. It's a perfectly fine role, but nowhere near as revelatory (or supporting) as Grant's. Grant's performance is, to me, on the same level as Dianne Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway. It's just superior to everyone else in that category, and such a hoot to watch!

February 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

such a good read, so conversational

February 18, 2019 | Registered CommenterMurtada Elfadl

Wonderful. Such a superb actor.

It's always difficult to watch the rightful critical favorite immediately lose steam once the bullshit televised awards began (see: Laurie Metcalf & Willem Dafoe last year). In a just world, Grant would easily win.

February 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEric

Love the guy. Withnail and I is one of those movies that you can't shake off even if you don't love it.

Sadly, Barbra is totally voting for Sam Elliott. Blame the moustache.

February 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Hi Nat. That's Fanny Brice, not Bryce. :)

February 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

I would defintely buy a volume 2 of his diaries,I know Ali has it in the bag but i'mng alive a spark of hope for him.

February 18, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

It's bizarre that Ali is getting this second Oscar when there are some very good other choices. Richard E. Grant is easily my favourite in this category, and this interview just seals why he deserves it. His philosophy of life is one we should all follow, his delightful presence has been a balm during this weird Oscar season.
I'm hoping that McCarthy and Grant are at least doing a presentation of an award together. Come on Academy, at least give us that.

February 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Great Guy!

February 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDO

It's a good reminder that McCarthy can do underrated, especially in her TV work (GILMORE GIRLS and SAMANTHA WHO? both come to mind). What a delightful interview!

February 18, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterjakey

hot DAMN does his performance deserve to win over the most likely victor!

February 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMarsha Mason

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April 29, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterfazaiza

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