Richard E Grant: My joy at Withnail & I wry quips
THE EXPRESS Nov 17, 2013
Richard E Grant, star of new movie Dom Hemingway, tells Henry Fitzherbert why he is glad to be known for a film that’s 25 years old.
IT IS more than 25 years since Richard E. Grant starred in Withnail & I but his character still follows him everywhere, even to the door of the central London hotel where we meet to discuss his new film, Dom Hemingway.
“I’ve just crossed the road now and a truck driver yelled ‘you’ve obviously gone on holiday by mistake’,” chuckles Grant, referencing one of the numerous classic lines in Bruce Robinson’s cult comedy.
It was not his first Withnail quote of the day either. “I walked through St James’s Park this morning and somebody shouted ‘SCRUBBERS!’ to me. Not a day goes by that somebody doesn’t quote something from that film at me.”
Relaxed, tanned and looking a good deal younger than his 56 years, Grant has no problem with the daily reminders of his defining role as a splenetic, unemployed actor: “I’ve never met a Withnail fan that I thought was a complete tosser. If somebody gets that film or the dialogue you know that they’re all right.”
Nor does he chafe at suggestions that Withnail remains his best-loved part despite a CV bulging with memorable films, including The Age Of Innocence, The Player and Gosford Park, the latter pair directed by the late Robert Altman.
Yes, I have accepted it and embraced all of that!” he says. “I don’t go through my day ruminating on it, it’s not how I live my life, but maybe you’re suggesting that is how I should be in my life?”
He says this with an air of wry amusement whereas Withnail would have had a nervous breakdown if you dared suggest his greatest role was, ahem, some time ago.
In any case, Grant is enjoying one of his best parts in years in writer-director Richard Shepard’s dark comic drama Dom Hemingway as elegantly seedy gangster Dickie Black. With Dickie’s air of dissipation and his arch one-liners we are back in Withnail territory, even if it is Jude Law’s show.
Law plays Hemingway, a verbose ex-con who goes on a booze and brawl spree after 12 years in jail, chaperoned by the faintly despairing Dickie.
“In the past I have been cast as the manic one, so to be the person trying to reign in the completely insane character was a real change and hugely enjoyable as a result,” he says.
He had never worked with Law before and is full of praise: “I absolutely loved working with him. I know that sounds corny. Very often I’ve seen things in the press where people say it was one big happy family and I know it’s all b******s but I really did love working with Jude. He is incredibly open-minded and engaging.”
The script provided little information on their characters’ backgrounds so Grant and Law hunkered down to fill in the blanks themselves: “We decided I’m the black sheep of a well-to-do family and Dom’s from the other side of the tracks in south London.”
The key to Grant’s character was his look: Hunter S. Thompson-style tinted sunglasses and an oily mullet. “I knew I was a seedy old dog,” quips Grant.
He clearly relished the experience as he has two other contrasting projects: a recurring role in the new series of über-hip HBO TV show Girls, created by and starring 27-year-old Lena Dunham, and he stars in Queen And Country, the sequel to Hope and Glory directed by 80-year-old John Boorman.
He describes Dunham as “astonishing”, while working with Boorman (on what is his last film) was a particular privilege. Growing up in Swaziland Grant had posters of the Boorman classics Deliverance and Point Blank on his wall.
“So to fast forward 30 years and say ‘you’re going to be in a sequel to Hope And Glory’ seemed so unlikely.”
Another hero of his was the late Robert Altman for whom he worked three times. Does he miss him? “Absolutely! I see his widow (Kathryn) regularly.
“I had lunch with her in New York last month. He was the youngest octogenarian you could ever hope to meet.” I wonder what Altman would make of Downton Abbey.
“It was Altman’s collaboration with Julian Fellowes on Gosford Park, after all, which gave birth to the beast of Sunday night television. “You can’t lure me into that trap,” says Grant with a twinkle. Hmm. Clearly Altman would not be tuning in.
It is not hard to see why Grant became a favourite of directors like Altman, who combine erudition and wit with a colossal appetite for living.
Grant is a life-enhancer, a doer and wry observer of life’s follies and absurdities as anyone who has read his two volumes of published diaries knows.
What a joy it would be to listen in on Grant’s chinwags with Bruce Robinson with whom he has remained great friends. The pair meet frequently at Robinson’s farm in Herefordshire even though their last collaboration, How To Get Ahead In Advertising, was more than 20 years ago. Given that Robinson is teetotal after years of heavy drinking and Grant is allergic to the stuff I wonder what they drink together?
“A cup of bile!” replies Grant. “He’s fantastically, biliously funny and jaundiced about the world and that always cheers me up. The fact that I’m so ‘glass three quarters full’ probably annoys him and winds him up even more into a cynical, splenetic state of thrombotic carbunculosis.”
I suggest the pair should collaborate again. “I agree. Get him out of that farm!” says Grant who lives in Richmond upon Thames with his wife Joan Washington, a dialect coach (they have two children, Olivia and Tom, her son from a previous relationship).
Grant is an acclaimed writer-director thanks to the success of his 2005 film Wah-Wah, based on his turbulent childhood in Swaziland. He was raised by his alcoholic father after his mother had an affair with his father’s best friend, as witnessed by the young Grant hiding in the family motor.
Other projects have come near to fruition but collapsed, including an adaptation of Some Hope, the trilogy by Edward St Aubyn: “It proved impossible to cast a bankable British actor who would play somebody who had incest with his son,” reveals Grant.
What about that other Grant, Hugh, I venture? “He’d be perfect. He would be, but I think he’d prefer to play golf.”
Somehow I can’t imagine Richard E Grant anywhere near a golf course.