A Very Hollywood Holiday With Mr Richard E Grant
The star of Withnail And I and Can You Ever Forgive Me? plans to make his first award season one to remember
Only a fellow Brit can appreciate the clash of culture of Mr Richard E Grant, from-another-era Swazi-Englishman, lost in the grand lobby of a Los Angeles Four Seasons Hotel as it silently pumps out air-conditioning and self-importance at Christmas. It is, quite literally, Tinseltown. “So bizarre,” he mouths to me, bemused by the Californian version of a marbled foyer and heavy-on-golden-balls majestic tree, searching in vain in all the passing faces for other ironic smirks. “There’s a real entitlement syndrome here,” he whispers mischievously on the way to the lift. “It’s full of Very Important Persons.” Despite working on and off in Hollywood since 1988, he could have stepped out of a colonial-age drama onto planet Beverly Hills for the first time.
This bafflement is multiplied because Mr Richard E Grant, 61, is a name that now has awards buzz around it. He has already been nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor opposite Ms Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Both have now got Oscar nominations chatter. But he can’t quite take it all in earnest. He’s a Brit, after all. He scoffs, “If you listened to a quarter of what is told you or promised, you could go right up your own fundament.”
Still, the incoming guests shoot him a few glances. Until recently, few Americans have been able to place Mr Grant, despite his being directed by Messrs Robert Altman (The Player, Gosford Park, Prêt-À-Porter), Philip Kaufman (Henry & June), Martin Scorsese (The Age Of Innocence), Ms Jane Campion (The Portrait Of A Lady) and, from the sublime to the ridiculous, a camp turn in Spice World in 1997. Since his indelible, maniacal role in the cult British 1987 film Withnail And I, he has worked back to back for 30 years as a powerful character actor with a gift, when required, for the loathsome; on screen his haunted blue eyes can turn from narcissistic to unhinged to menacing. “I did have nine months unemployment once. Back in 1985,” he muses when we settle down in his hotel room.
But he’s been having a visible renaissance of late. “Downton Abbey, Doctor Who, Lena Dunham’s Girls, Game Of Thrones, Disney’s The Nutcracker And The Four Realms, Star Wars: Episode IX. I got offered a part in The Crown. It does read like a bucket list before you kick the bucket. My father died young when he was 52, and that made such an impression on me. I’ve always thought: grab everything you can in life.” And that’s how he plans to approach his first awards season. “This has never happened before and it is never going to happen again,” he says, a little giggly. “So I’m going along for the ride.”
Many have assumed from the sum of these parts that Mr Grant is an alumnus of the Cambridge Footlights with his friend Mr Stephen Fry, whom he bumped into yesterday in Hollywood. But Mr Grant shares none of his Oxbridge prerogative. He comes across as a modest, sweet and sensitive man, still profoundly affected by a traumatic childhood with his alcoholic father in British-African Swaziland. He has kept a journal since he was 12 as a form of ongoing therapy. “It’s a way of making what is surreal somehow tangible, to try and understand it: from starting in the smallest country in the southern hemisphere to sitting here now in La La Land.”
The death of writing is one of the subjects of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a 1990s Greenwich Village-set adaptation of Ms Lee Israel’s memoir. Ms McCarthy plays the former Hollywood biographer, a cranky middle-aged lesbian refusing to play the commercial game, who forges 400 literary letters to pay her rent and is investigated by the FBI.
“It always struck me as an odd thing that writers have been relegated to the bottom of the heap,” Mr Grant says. “In theatre, they have always been the gods.” He plays Mr Jack Hock, the Clyde to her Bonnie, a foppish British reprobate “prepared to clean Lee’s cat’s shit for a bed, a drink, a free meal”. He died of Aids. Mr Grant remembers visiting Ms Sandra Bernhard in the Village back then. “I saw men dying of Aids holding placards saying, ‘I’ve been forsaken by my family, the healthcare system. I have no money. I have no god. I’m dying. Please, help’.” (In 2006, Mr Grant investigated and overturned an African Aids cure scam with the BBC’s Newsnight.)
The film also deals with outsiderness, ageism and “the isolation and loneliness of being a failure in the success-driven [culture] in America”. Mr Grant has always been aware of the “paranoia beneath the sunshine” in Los Angeles. “I remember doing Bram Stoker’s Dracula here in 1991 with Gary Oldman,” he says. “I had English actor friends who had come out here, hired a nanny, a car, an apartment and, after four months, were bankrupt and went home. That left such an imprint on my brain: the terror of being unemployed in LA. The moment you land at LAX, you will see a billboard telling you who is the latest, biggest, youngest…” (Mr Grant has written books about his “bizarre” experiences: With Nails, 1996, and By Design: A Hollywood Novel, 1999).
One of his early films here was LA Story (1991) alongside Mr Steve Martin, “He’s still my best friend in LA,” says Mr Grant. Back then the pair communicated transatlantically via fax. “Steve still has this stack of papers, encyclopaedia-thick.” His conversations with his new friend Ms McCarthy are more economical. “Melissa is a big texter. She’s a good buddy to have on the awards circuit. She got nominated for Bridesmaids seven years ago and I said, ‘Is this what goes on?’ All the glad-handing… And she said, ‘Yes, it is.’”
One senses that Mr Grant will be glad to be back at home in Richmond, Surrey, for Christmas, with his wife of 32 years, voice coach Ms Joan Washington, his daughter Olivia and stepson Tom. “I’m a Christmasaholic.” he declares with the glee of a 10-year-old. “Christmas tree up 1 December. I love Christmas pudding, I eat it all year round. My father was an alcoholic, so Christmas was a nightmare. So it’s a way of fixing the past.”
He was born Mr Richard Grant Esterhuysen, in Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland (now Eswatini), a tiny British protectorate landlocked between Mozambique and South Africa, where his father, Mr Henrik Esterhuysen, was the government’s head of education. When he was 10, Mr Grant witnessed his mother having sex with his dad’s best friend from the back seat of the car, after which the pair eloped, leaving Mr Grant alone with his father as he descended into alcoholism over the twin failure of his marriage and the colonial empire. Swaziland declared independence in 1968. “His whole raison d’être, everything he had worked for, literally imploded at the same time,” Mr Grant says.
In 2005, Mr Grant wrote and directed Wah-Wah, a poignant film based on his childhood, with his autobiographical self played by Mr Nicholas Hoult. It’s a portrait of a boy deeply traumatised by the abandonment of his mother and his violent father, a man, says Mr Grant, who once tried to shoot his son for pouring away a bottle of his whisky. “By day, I adored him,” says Mr Grant. “But when he hit the scotch… I found out on his deathbed that he had never stopped being in love with my mother.” Today, Mr Grant wears two watches: his own, and a second given to him by his father before his death. It is permanently set to Swazi time.
So deeply entwined is his subconscious with his father’s trajectory, that Mr Grant suffered a bout of depression at 42, the age Mr Henrik Esterhuysen was betrayed by his wife. “My psychoanalyst looked like Karl Marx,” says Mr Grant. “I went for 18 months. I owe him my life. It led to a rapprochement with my mother.” (This August, he played a psychiatrist to Mr Stephen Mangan’s psychoanalyst in Channel 4’s hit series Hang Ups. “It was all improvised. We fixated on his anus. We did lots of retakes because he couldn’t stop laughing.”) Mr Grant has also been severely allergic to alcohol since childhood, though he insists this is physiological. “It should be psychosomatic because of my father,” he says. “It’s extraordinary.”
Nonetheless, it was as the unhinged alcoholic in Mr Bruce Robinson’s Withnail And I, about two failed London actors on holiday “by mistake” to a cottage in the Lake District in 1969, that Mr Grant made his breakthrough. It was his first film after moving from Cape Town, where he studied English and drama at university, to a bedsit in London’s Notting Hill in 1982. “Bruce made me stay up all night and drink a bottle of champagne on the penultimate day of rehearsals,” he says. “I managed to keep it down for 10 minutes, then puked, then drank… It was brutal.” Withnail became one of the antiheroes of Baroness Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Mr Grant believes in the subversive power of the British sense of humour. “Irony and anarchy go hand in hand,” he says.
He is a stalwart anglophile who has been known to wear his Union Jack blazer on chat shows. “I grew up between Marxist Mozambique and apartheid-fascist South Africa. So a country that had its colonial attachment to England has always symbolised to me freedom of speech, freedom of expression, complete acceptance of every type of person. Even with all this Brexit fiasco that’s going on, there’s still something in the British character that seems, to me, innately fair-minded and considerate.”
Mr Grant has bottled the nostalgic scent of England in his own fragrance line made in Somerset and wrapped in the British flag. After Jack original, came Jack Covent Garden (his olfactory memories of waiting tables as an unemployed actor there), Jack Piccadilly 1969 (the aroma of his visit to London at the age of 12, when he saw Hair on Shaftesbury Avenue) with Jack Richmond coming out next year. “It’s moss, wood smoke, mud, deer musk,” he says.
Ms Olivia Grant helps run the business, encouraging her father to promote it on Twitter, though he is not a fully paid-up member of the social media world. “I know actors who have not been cast because they had fewer Twitter followers than somebody else,” he says. “It’s jaw-dropping.” When not tweeting, acting or “nosing”, Mr Grant can be found “religiously” at Portobello Road Market and at Kempton Park Racecourse trawling for antiques. “I love dead people’s things,” he says. “I’m a big hoarder. Bruce Robinson’s shrink said that it was to do with dysfunction in your childhood.”
LA’s flea markets might just help him get through the long haul of awards season. And, if pushed, a little Californian grass? “I love marijuana,” he says. “I’ve just been working in Vancouver. They have cannabis shops on every corner. It’s brilliant.” And of course, his anarchic British sense of humour, though this might just backfire on him. “You can curse English people with affection using the worst language. I once heard an English person say to an American, ‘Hello, you silly old c***.’ They were absolutely horrified.” In fact, the c-word is Mr Jack Hock’s very last in Can You Ever Forgive Me? I wonder if it will negatively affect Mr Grant’s awards chances. “Oh yes,” he chuckles. “I’m doomed. Doomed. Doomed.”
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is out 1 February