If you’re ever stuck for names in a game of Who Would You Invite to Your Celebrity Dinner Party, I have good news for you. The answer is Richard E. Grant. If you can, find a way to fill all six seats with Richard E. Grants, and if you can't, plan every subsequent guest around who you would like to see Richard E. Grant interact with. Richard E. Grant has the social grace of a Venetian courtesan. You want to pass him a fan to giggle behind and just watch him work.
Even the circumstances in which I'm meeting him – the London hotel press junket for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, typically a charisma black-hole where lukewarm anecdotes are ground down and turned into cold copy – he infuses with a cocktail party air. He asks questions. He takes the piss. He calls me "Miss Cork Dot Com"; suggests titles for this piece; is exactly like you want Richard E. Grant to be.
The 61 year-old actor (and very recent Academy Award nominee) is all long limbs, quick jokes and velvet blazers. The slightly feline feyness we all fell for in Withnail and I is still there, and bursts into life with his portrayal of Jack Hock, the heavy-drinking, coke-dealing, hard-fucking accomplice to Melissa McCarthy’s "absolute porcupine curmudgeon" (his words), Lee Israel – the American author known for forging letters by deceased actors and literary figures.
The only people who talk like Richard E. Grant talks are Roald Dahl characters. Perhaps that’s why he's carved out such a specific role for himself in film. From Withnail, to Jasper in Girls, to his quite frankly not-discussed-often-enough BBC show Posh Nosh, to Jack Hock, there’s a sort of cokey Willy Wonka edge to Grant. When you see Richard E. Grant in a film, you know he’s about to take you on an adventure you might never return from. He will betray you. He will endanger your life. He will ask you to forgive him. And – true to his latest film’s title – you will forgive him.
VICE: When I heard you were nominated for Best Supporting Actor, I thought of this bit from your book, where you’re filming Withnail’s last scene. You write: "For some reason I have an overwhelming wish for my father to be alive, to see that I am not tearing tickets at Waterloo station as he predicted one dark night." I can imagine you’ve been feeling that a lot, these last few days.
Richard E. Grant: Yes. Totally. At any moment of great triumph or tragedy, the person that is gone… my father died so young, at 53, so he never got to see that I made a really decent living out of being an actor. He was so worried that I’d be destitute, or that I’d be tearing tickets at Waterloo station. There’s always that longing, that kid thing that you have in you that makes you say, "Watch me, mum! Watch me, dad!" Watch me do this. It doesn’t really go away, no matter what age you are.
Did you ever think there’s a parallel universe where you are tearing tickets at Waterloo station?
I know it. I know that if Daniel Day Lewis had done the part of Withnail when he was offered it in 1986, I would never have got to meet Mary, the casting director, and I would never have met Bruce Robinson. It changed my life. I see so many actors that are brilliantly talented and out of work, and they just never had the lucky break of Daniel Day Lewis turning their role down. It turns on a coin, stuff like that. I’m never not aware of how lucky that is.
Do you think being an actor, in a weird way, makes you inherently sort of spiritual? Aware of karma and luck and chance?
I don’t think of myself as spiritual in any shape or form. I don’t even know what that means. Genuinely. I was brought up without any faith whatsoever. I was brought up to read the Bible and things, and went to Sunday school as a boy, but after my mother left when I was 11 – left my father – I prayed. And I got no answer. So I gave up on it. That was the very last time I had any kind of spiritual life.
My experience is that it’s based on being opportunistic, and having the guts, pig-headedness or blind ambition to grab something when it comes and make the best out of it as you can. It’s pragmatic. When you go to an awards ceremony and you’re surrounded by actors, and you see actors schmoozing directors and writers and other actors… everybody’s kind of on the make. That’s schmoozing.
Are you a good schmoozer?
Ha! No. I’m trying to learn the art of being in a crowd, at an awards event or something, and talking to someone for three to five minutes, and then just get out of that conversation and go speak to someone else. I’m usually the muggins who sits and talks to someone, even if they’re boring me to paralysis, I’ll carry on out of politeness. I’ll be going, "Oh yes? And where did you go on your summer holiday?" when what I really want to be doing is talking to Steven Spielberg over their shoulder.
And then in Hollywood – and certainly at the BAFTAs – you get people who just say "excuse me" and bugger off. Or they don’t even say excuse me! They just go and talk to someone who they deem to be more useful.
Meanwhile, you’re talking to someone’s aunt who’s a dental nurse.
I know! Sometimes I wish I wasn’t constrained by the middle class upbringing and the urge to actually complete a conversation. That’s when you need a publicist to come up to you and say, "You need to speak to this person."
Haha! "Needed." Imagine.
Your career is full of a lot of paradoxes, isn’t it? You play drunks and you don’t drink; you play English gentlemen when you’re from Swaziland; you play sexual deviants when you’ve been married to the same woman for years and years.
I know! I’m waiting to be in The Daily Shame for some terrible scandal.
Maybe I’m projecting on you too much, because I’ve been living in England for almost ten years as an Irish writer, but when you’re from the colonies…
Which we are!
Which we are. I find you’re in a better place to observe people because you’ll never be one of them.
Bullseye. Completely accurate.
So you’ve just been doing that your whole life, really.
My whole life. Yes. The English, as a tribe, are very adept at letting you know that you’re not one of them. As I’m sure you know. They say: "Oh, you’re from Swaziland." And there’s this whiff in the air that you’re not quite one of us.
Do women have a specific reaction to you?
I just feel like you’re our friend, you know? We got you for Spice World. We got you for Girls. Now you’re teaming up with Melissa McCarthy. There’s just a sense that you like hanging out with women. And you don’t always get that with actors.
[Laughing, bemused] Well, my best friend’s a woman. I’ve always loved women, my wife’s a woman, my daughter’s a woman! I don’t know! I’m delighted and flattered, though. I’ve learned almost everything from them, and the people I admire most are women. I mean, you’re still a complete mystery to me, but that’s how I feel. And if that transmits, then that’s all part of the same thing.
Because all this comes so naturally to you, I don’t think you quite understand the effect that you have in this film. The role you play as Jack in this film is almost the exact same role as a Bond girl does in a Bond film.
Bear with me. You saunter into this film like a cat…
Ha! Now this is a first. This is the Irish logic that I have always identified with, right from the beginning, because I absolutely get what you’re talking about – but of course, it’s completely insane. Right, go on, I come in like a Bond girl.
You slink in like a cat, and you sort of saunter around Melissa McCarthy. Your job in the heist is to go into all these book shops, and flirt your arse off. You work the room because she’s unable to do so.
Ha! Wow. Yeah! You’re absolutely right! I am a Bond girl! And how funny, because I live in Richmond, and three doors up from me lives a woman who was a Bond girl in Doctor No. She’s in her eighties now. The bus stop is right outside her house, and when I see her coming out to get her post, I think: 'Oh my god, you're a Bond girl. You’ll be one forever.'
But I don’t think every man in Hollywood would be comfortable playing the Bond girl to Melissa McCarthy’s Bond.
You can’t be a heavily testosterised Bruce Willis and play Jack Hock. You have to willingly know that Melissa McCarthy is going to be earning much more money than you, and that she is the lead, and that the director’s a woman. You’re in the position that most women are generally in, really, in movies. With most women, it’s a male director and a male lead.
I’m Melissa’s bitch, is what I’m saying. Ooh, that’s a good title? I’m Melissa’s Bitch. Willingly! Gleefully! I’m going to join the MeToo movement and say, "I have to be paid the same as Melissa McCarthy for my next movie! Sort it out!"
I’m going to turn up to the Oscars with a shirt that says, "I’m Melissa’s Bitch."
This is the only film I’ve seen with a HIV positive character who doesn’t die on screen, and who’s a hero. How do you go into that role, knowing that this terrible disease has killed so many people, and still bring that energy?
HIs hedonism is the very thing that wrote his death warrant, because there was no cure, at that point in time, and he was very promiscuous. But at the same time, you know that if somebody… I had a friend and an actor that I worked with, a man called Ian Charleston, who was Scottish and in Chariots of Fire. He died of AIDS at the age of 40, in 1990. And he lived for the day, in the day, to the maximum of that day.
And that is what Jack essentially does. If he’s got 20 bucks in his pocket, he’s not saving it for a rainy day, because he knows there isn’t going to be one. He spends. I think it’s a great way of living. I wish I lived like that. I’m too worried, too paranoid. But that’s not him. For him, life’s a party until you can’t dance anymore.
‘Can You Ever Forgive Me’ is out on the 1st of February.