Shortly after turning 40, Richard E Grant received some sobering advice from the former Hollywood child star Roddy McDowall.
‘He said, “Your roles are going to get smaller, whatever recognition you have will diminish, and the money you have in the bank will decrease,”’ recalls Grant. ‘That made an indelible impression on me.’
Indeed, by his mid-50s, Grant thought that was ‘absolutely the career path that was happening’. But then something changed. Two things, actually: one was that he found himself being cast in blockbuster popcorn franchises like The X-Men (playing the main villain in 2017’s Logan) and the upcoming Star Wars Episode IX. And the other is his extraordinary performance as a shabby, alcoholic grifter in Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? – a game-changing role for which he has already won or been shortlisted for more than 50 awards, including a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at next month’s Oscars. As a result, it’s fair to say that, at 61, Richard E Grant is having something of ‘a moment’.
‘It’s a turnaround, an upsurge, I couldn’t possibly have anticipated,’ he tells Weekend, brightly. ‘I’ve never been nominated for stuff, so I’m not someone who’s blasé about it at all. It’s so far out of the realms of what I’ve experienced before – I’m a journeyman sort of actor – that I’ve literally been levitating.’
‘Journeyman’ is possibly a little disingenuous. Over the past three decades, Grant has ticked off everything from prestige Hollywood pictures (Martin Scorcese’s The Age of Innocence, Robert Altman’s Gosford Park) and global TV behemoths (Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey) to, er, the Spice Girls movie, not to mention writing and directing the autobiographical Wah-Wah. In fact, for all his claims to levitation, he’s been around the block enough to have his feet planted firmly on the ground.
‘You have to take everything with a pinch of salt,’ he says. ‘If I was 24 and this stuff was happening, I might be… less immune to it. You’re only as good as your last job, and no doubt people will soon start saying I’m over-exposed…’
By turns funny and heartbreaking, Can You Ever Forgive Me? tells the true story of Lee Israel, a down-on-her-luck biographer – played by fellow Oscar nominee Melissa McCarthy – who turns to forging letters from such literary lions as Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker in order to pay her rent (and her bar bills). She finds a willing partner in crime in the form of Jack Hock – a somewhat frayed Englishman in New York who’s exactly the sort of waspish, dissolute human car crash that, in the nicest possible way, Grant seems to have been born to play.
‘The first movie I ever did, I played an alcoholic, so it feels a bit like full circle,’ he says – a reference, of course, to his breakthrough turn as a lighter fluid-drinking out-of-work actor in Bruce Robinson’s 80s cult classic Withnail and I, to whom Jack feels very much like a more careworn spiritual successor.
These twin career tentpoles are all the more remarkable for the fact that, owing to a condition that means he is unable to metabolise alcohol, Grant himself is a lifelong teetotaller. ‘It’s just observation,’ he says of his ‘method’. ‘What I’ve noticed, more than anything else, is the level of concentration that people have to try not to appear drunk, and to get across the room without falling over. That’s the key.’
Can You Ever Forgive Me? was shot over 26 days. ‘The whole process was very, very fast,’ says Grant. ‘Melissa and I had to fast-track a kind of on-screen friendship. That’s not unusual in a movie, but what was unusual is how well we got on. We hung out together a lot, and I would come and have lunch with her every day when I wasn’t working. We’ve become great friends.’
Because my parents’ divorce was so acrimonious, it’s definitely made me value monogamy and loyalty more. That, more than anything, has really shaped my life.Richard E Grant
In the film, Lee and Jack’s drunken, dysfunctional relationship plays out against the backdrop of an often frozen Manhattan like a cinematic Fairytale of New York. ‘If you say you’re making a movie about two people who are essentially failing, and are lonely and nearly destitute, it doesn’t exactly sound like it’s going to be bang for your buck,’ Grant reflects. ‘But what struck me more than anything was that it was like the friendship between Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy. I had a great pull to do it, and have been amazed by the response that it’s got.’
Though he feels a certain warmth towards Jack – ‘He’s a scallywag, but he’s not as entitled or utterly selfish [as Withnail]’ – Grant has previously described most of the characters he’s played as ‘bloody awful people’.
‘The nature of my job is to try to understand why somebody does what they do – all the foibles and failings of a human being,’ he explains. ‘I think once you have compassion for somebody, you leave judgment at the door. It’s for other people to judge them, not you.’
Given his CV, can we expect him to be on the Dark Side when he appears in the new Star Wars film at Christmas? He’s not saying, obviously – but he’s hugely excited about getting to play in that particular sandpit.
‘I was 20-year-old drama student when Star Wars came out. If you’d told me that 41 years later I’d be in the final episode, I’d have said you should be institutionalised. It’s absolutely extraordinary to walk into the studios and see the landscapes and the hardware, and that entire world we’ve been familiar with for the last four decades. Every time I go into work, JJ Abrams, the director, pinches my shoulder for me.’
Is he hoping for his own Star Wars action figure? ‘I’m just hoping to be in it!’ he laughs. ‘There’s always a risk you’ll get cut out completely.’
In 1977, the Star Wars sound stage at Elstree must have seemed as far, far away as Tatooine itself to the young Richard Grant Esterhuysen, then a student at the University of Cape Town (he changed his name when he moved to London five years later).
As vividly chronicled in Wah-Wah, his upbringing in Swaziland was notoriously dramatic: his father, the British protectorate’s director of education, was a violent alcoholic who once tried to shoot him for knocking over his whiskey bottle while, aged 10, he woke up in the car to find his mother having sex with his father’s best friend.
The experience, he says, made him ‘very resilient’ – and touchingly devoted to his wife of 33 years, Scottish voice coach Joan Washington, with whom he has a daughter, Olivia, 30, and a stepson, Tom. ‘Because my parents’ divorce was so acrimonious, it’s definitely made me value monogamy and loyalty more – in my friends and my marriage. That, more than anything, has really shaped my life.’
For a while, he was left so traumatised by his childhood experiences he suffered from facial tics and a sniffing compulsion. But he’s since made peace with his past. ‘I’ve completely reconciled with my mother, who is now 87,’ he says. ‘I had a crisis when I was 42 – a breakdown. But I feel fully mentally recovered from that.’
In fact, to the outsider at least, he appears to have an almost permanently Tigger-ish bounce about him. ‘Hugely, absolutely, yes,’ he agrees. ‘Probably annoyingly, to some people. My glass is nine tenths full, most of the time. I’ve now outlived my father by 10 years, so every year is a bonus. I enjoy everything that I can get my hands on.’
From an early age, Grant has found solace and comfort in keeping a daily diary (two volumes of which he has published, to great acclaim). ‘I don’t have a religion, so I suppose, in the same way as some people pray at the end of the day, for me it’s a sort of meditation – a distillation of what’s gone on, who I’ve met, what I’ve seen and observed. I’ve done it habitually since I was 11 years old. And this whole awards season thing, that’s something new to write about. It’s hilarious and bonkers at the same time.’
Above all, he insists he’s taking nothing for – forgive the pun – granted. ‘John Lennon had that great line: “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans”,’ he says. ‘I assumed I was being put out to grass like Old Dobbin. That hasn’t happened. I expect it will,’ he adds, breezily. ‘But for now I’m enjoying the rodeo ride of it.’
An edited version of this interview was published in Waitrose Weekend, February 1, 2019