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Richard E Grant: Taking nothing for granted

Gemma Calvert / 22 January 2019

Find out how the Oscar nominated actor overcame a challenging childhood and made peace with his parents to live life to the full.

Richard E Grant poses for photos at his film premiere

Richard E Grant finds it easy to apologise, but forgive? That’s another matter.

‘If I’ve been betrayed by somebody, I can rationally and intellectually go, “I understand that this has happened,” but I find it very hard to embrace them again. I’ve never managed to do so,’ he says.

Case in point: the implosion of a best friendship after being ‘accidentally’ copied into an email where a pal of 29 years imparted hurtful opinions to a mutual friend.

‘I read stuff about myself, which wasn’t meant for my eyes, and my friendship never survived that,’ explains Richard, electing not to dwell on specifics but the depth of emotion plain from his crestfallen tone.

‘I’ve never really got over it and I still feel heartsore,’ he explains. ‘You can’t unread what you’ve read.’

In Richard’s own words, he’s ‘very judgmental’, a slave to a strong moral code of decency. He’s devoted to his wife of 32 years, voice coach Joan Washington, and isn’t shy about speaking out about Hollywood peers who mess up, such as Bruce Willis – his co-star in the flop Hudson Hawk – whose shortcomings were exposed in Richard’s memoir With Nails.

Yet with fierce judgment comes die-hard loyalty and his long-standing friendships with A-listers such as Steve Martin, Nigella Lawson, Rob Lowe and Julie Walters are testimony to Richard’s sense of devotion.

‘Friendships, to me, are everything,’ he confirms. ‘Outside of your marriage and your blood relatives, they are these fragile things that we all have, that you can very easily take for granted, but the moment you are betrayed or they fall apart, you realise how valuable they are.’

Clusters of actors talk nonchalantly of not giving two hoots about the opinions of peers or critics, but Richard is highly sensitive to feedback, choosing to ‘read everything’ penned about him, because ‘forewarned is forearmed’.

Lately, all the reading material has been blissful. In his new film Can You Ever Forgive Me? Richard joins forces with Bridesmaids actress Melissa McCarthy. They’re a compelling, hilarious and heart-tugging duo, telling the true story of celebrity biographer Lee Israel and her gay, substance-abusing pal Jack Hock, who turn to flogging forged literary letters when Lee’s writing work dries up. Although Melissa’s star quality is indisputable, it’s Richard who steals the show.

I divulge that after a journalists’ preview screening of the film a week before our interview, Richard’s name was the only one being bandied around the ladies’ loos at Fox Film’s HQ, reaping journalistic praise for, in particular, Jack’s riotous one-liners.

‘When you’re on set, you have no idea whether people are going to find it funny or what they’re going to laugh at,’ he admits. ‘There’s no audience response, so it’s a bonus to hear what you’ve said, thank you.’

By the time we speak on a bright, chilly winter morning, Richard is fully abreast of the ripple he’s created on the Hollywood awards circuit. He’s already received a raft of nominations, including best supporting actor from the Golden Globes and outstanding performance from the Screen Actors Guild and is at the centre of growing Oscars hype.

Being on an awards run is a first for Richard in nearly 32 years as an actor. His career launched in 1987 in the cult British comedy classic Withnail and I, before roles in Oscar-winning Gosford Park, Jack & Sarah and Bram Stoker’s Dracula and, one of his most recognised parts to date, playing the Spice Girls’ manager in the Spice World film.

His TV work has grabbed headlines too, appearances in Lena Dunham’s sitcom Girls, Downton Abbey and Doctor Who plus, more recently, presenting the scandal-delving Richard E Grant’s Hotel Secrets on Sky – his most memorable job ‘because it was entirely unscripted’ and he was ‘able to meet everybody from Heidi Fleiss to Donald Trump, up, down, sideways and in-between’. Richard is a bona fide ‘nosy parker’ and during our chat he frequently grabs the reigns and fires back questions.

‘Aren’t you sick of it?’ he probes when conversation turns to Britain’s exit from the European Union. ‘We’re so besieged by all this stuff with Brexit at the moment, I just can’t wait for it to end, to stop.’

What else riles him?

‘People not taking responsibility for what they do,’ he laments. ‘It drives me nuts. If you put your hand up and say, “I cocked up, I did this or I didn’t deliver on this…” but people saying what they’re going to do and then they don’t do it, they’re just not taking responsibility. It drives me insane. What about you?’

‘Bad manners and rudeness,’ I suggest, which prompts an approving ‘Mmm’ from Richard, who adds that niceness ‘doesn’t cost you anything’. It’s perhaps why he has carved such a diverse CV. People like working with people they like, after all.

‘It’s because I’m so old!’ he clarifies, jokingly, and recalls a nine-month period of unemployment in 1985, which crippled his self-esteem and made him feel like a fraud.

For someone who once believed Can You Ever Forgive Me? would be a straight-to-DVD release, being in the running for a plethora of gongs for it must be a glorious surprise and also hugely encouraging. It’s no mean feat reaching a career pinnacle at 61.

‘It’s nothing that I’ve ever experienced before, so I’m very grateful for the ride, as long as it lasts,’ he smiles. ‘More than anything, getting accreditation from your peer group is incredibly satisfying.

'I’m hugely affected by what other people think and feel. It’s sort of a daily calibration.'

‘I’m hugely affected by what other people think and feel. It’s sort of a daily calibration. I’m very gregarious by nature but have a combination of large ego and low self-esteem. You want the job over and above somebody else but, at the same time, you don’t feel worthy of it. That’s a contradiction, I know.’

Richard’s determination to succeed goes beyond ego and is buried in an unconscious desire, he believes, for stability following a dysfunctional childhood growing up in Swaziland during the late 1960s.

The crises in his life have been well-documented, especially the night he woke from slumber in the back of the family car and witnessed his mum Leonne and her lover having sex on the front seat. He was 11. After his parents’ divorce, Leonne abandoned the family and his father Henrik Esterhuysen – then the Swazi minister of education – plunged into alcoholic despair. To the horror of Richard and his younger brother Stuart, who are now estranged, Henrik’s nightly booze binges transformed him into a violent monster. One time, after Richard tipped two bottles of his dad’s whisky down the sink, Henrik pushed a revolver against his son’s temple and pulled the trigger. Such was his inebriation, he missed his target.

‘Those things that destabilise you inadvertently become a motor for you to try to succeed or to try to forge a life that rectifies that imbalance,’ says Richard, confirming that making peace with his dad before he died in 1981 was ‘so important’ in his journey of emotional recovery.

The same goes for creating Wah Wah – Richard’s semi-autobiographical film inspired by entries from the diaries he began at 11, which he describes as ‘the most complete and satisfying’ project.

'If you write your own stories, as I did, and go back in middle age, in control of these events of your childhood, you’re not in the state of chaos and bewilderment you were as a child.'

‘If you write your own stories, as I did, and go back in middle age, in control of these events of your childhood, you’re not in the state of chaos and bewilderment you were as a child. I could approach it from the perspective of understanding, then compassion, then forgiveness follows and rapprochement. All those things that are the good things in friendships and life.’

When Richard was planning the movie, he sunk into a period of depression and sought the help of psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas who, during 18 months of treatment, encouraged him to heal a lengthy rift with his mother. Richard and Leonne, who still lives in Swaziland, now speak on Skype once a week.

‘We now have completely reconciled and have a great relationship, for which I’m very grateful because I never thought that would happen,’ he says, happily. ‘Christopher Bollas literally saved my life. I am indebted to him for that.’

He no longer has therapy, but praises the grounding stability of a blissful family life with Joan, their daughter Olivia, 30, and his stepson, Tom. Yet, for a long time, with no role models to guide him, Richard couldn’t picture creating a family of his own.

'I once thought I would never dare fall in love with anybody and certainly never have a child.'

‘I once thought I would never dare fall in love with anybody and certainly never have a child,’ he says. ‘Then, of course, I fell in love and we had a child, so that was the most profound thing and everybody who is a parent will always say that. That has been the most life-changing thing. I never could have imagined how important that is.’

Anyone who follows Richard on Instagram can’t fail to be warmed by pictures of his relationships with Olivia, a casting agent and partner in his unisex fragrance business, called Jack.

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Although his kids have flown the riverside nest in Richmond, south west London, Richard has no plans to throw in the towel to spend his retirement years globe-trotting with Joan. ‘I haven’t put my bit down for a cruise quite yet,’ he smiles. ‘I couldn’t imagine at this point stopping what I’m doing and she has continued working, so the idea of going around the world? Because of our jobs, we end up going around the world anyway!’

Richard’s ‘peripatetic freelance life’ suits him to a T. ‘Honestly, people in the rush hour, going to the same job, in the same place every day. It does my head in,’ he says, adding that the most exciting thing about his future is not knowing what is coming next. ‘That’s the gamble and thrill of it all,’ he muses. ‘You just hope that keeping in good health in the midst of it all is what will get you through.’

As his father died aged just 52, Richard distrusted he would live beyond the same age and has since counted every one of his subsequent ten years on the planet as ‘a bonus’. He doesn’t take anything for granted and lives ‘life as fully as I possibly can’, which echoes the here-and-now mentality of Jack.

Richard has a deep curiosity about old age, specifically how people choose to live their later years. He values the advice given to him by Sir John Gielgud before he died.

‘He said: “Cultivate younger friends because there’s nothing worse than looking through your phone book or Rolodex” – or whatever it was in those days – “and you want to speak to somebody but they’re no longer breathing”,’ recalls Richard.

As our interview draws to a close, Richard mentions he and Downton Abbey actor Hugh Bonneville met for lunch the day before, which prompts me to ask if his cameo in season five of the much-missed ITV drama has led to a part in the eagerly awaited September-release movie.

‘No, I’m not in that, regrettably,’ he responds. ‘I would have loved to have been. Hugh said they had a very good time on it!’

When you’re on a trajectory towards the Oscars, I’m guessing there are definitely no hard feelings.  

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is on general release from 1 February

Richard E Grant on...

... playing a villain

There’s not mastermind plan for what they’ve done. They fall into a life of forgery and petty crime  through near destitution and necessity and it’s absolutely inevitable that they’re going to get caught  at some point and I think they know that innately but because the character I play is HIV positive and  knows that has to live in the day, for the day because it might be his last day. That gives the energy  and impulse to what he did but, more than anything, once you understand why people do what they do, then it makes you feel compassionate towards them and root for them. 

... Lee and Jack's friendship

The fact that the two characters are so lonely and isolated in their circumstances that they find each other and form this co-dependent relationship reminded me very much of the set up that was in John Schlesinger’s amazing movie Midnight Cowboy in the early Seventies with John Voigt and Dustin Hoffman, two misfits in probably the richest acres on the planet in Manhattan, surrounded by millions of people who are so isolated and lonely. On paper, you think these people shouldn’t be friends with each other but they do become great friends. That’s absolutely something I can relate to.

... the impact of the AIDS story line

When I’d got to the end of the script and I knew that Jack was HIV positive, that then affected the whole view I had of how that character should be played. He was somebody who lived in the day, for the day, of the day because he didn’t know whether he was going to have another day, so that hedonism and living life in the moment is something that gave the energy or the motor of what I thought this part needed. The moment they’ve got any money or pull off some kind of drugs scam, they’ve got to enjoy it for the moment because there’s no rainy day ahead.

... being teetotal and playing an alcoholic

I’m allergic to alcohol but it’s not hard portraying drunk characters because I’ve been around lots of people who drink and what I observed is that the level of concentration of getting through a door or through a room, trying not to appear drunk, that concentration in itself seems to be the key to playing a drunk. They get a look in their eyeball that’s very concentrated and hilarious at the same time.

... when he thought his career, like Lee's, was over

I was unemployed for nine months in 1985 and the definition of your self esteem and thinking that your dream of becoming an employable actor has literally flown out the door, that has stayed with me. Every time I’m unemployed, I think ‘as long as it’s not that nine months’ because you never believe it’s going to go on for as long as it does. You feel like a fraud. You think ‘how can I say I’m an actor or claim to be in a profession when I’m so clearly not able to do it?’. I’ve never forgotten that.

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