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From the Archive: Richard E Grant on 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'

Nothing Concrete text
21 Oct 2020
19 min listen

In this week's podcast, we're delving into our archive, looking back to January 2019 and a conversation with actor, director, writer and perfume creator Richard E. Grant. 


I longed to see half the things that never ever reached, where I grew up. So, I still go to the movies constantly and watch an enormous amount of TV. I try and kid myself that it's for work, but I'm just a complete glutton for it

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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Ben Eshmeade: Hello, and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I'm Ben Eshmade and this week we're delving into our archive looking back to January 2019 and a conversation with actor, director, writer and perfume creator Richard E Grant.

RG: Every single person on the planet has experience of friendship. The fact that these two go through all the vicissitudes of friendship from loyalty to love to betrayal and then the poignancy of reconciliation seems to be what people have responded to.

BE: In Can You Ever Forgive Me, we find ourselves somewhere in the 1990s following author Lee Israel, played by Melissa McCarthy, as she struggles with financial troubles, writer's block and alcoholism. She creates a false literary letter out of desperation and curiosity to pay her rent and feed her cat. As her journey into literary crime continues, she is soon aided by sidekick Jack Hock, played by Richard E Grant, who stumbles into a bar and into her life.

Jack Hock (Richard E Grant) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: Last time I saw you, we were both pleasantly pissed at some horrible book party. Am I right?

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: It's slowly flooding back to me.

Jack Hock (Richard E Grant) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: May I buy you a drink? Even though you are the posh writer.

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: Thank you.

Jack Hock (Richard E Grant) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: Craig! Top her up.

BE: Grant, the Swazi-English actor, made his name in 1987 with a drink infused, instantly quotable film Withnail & I. He has not stopped working since, with just under 60 film roles to his name, to pick a few, LA Story, How to Get Ahead in Advertising, Jack & Sarah, Gosford Park, who else has appeared in both Spice World and Star Wars? He also wrote and directed the 2005 film Wah-Wah, loosely based on his own childhood. I met Richard E Grant on the day he discovered he'd been Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Role for this film. We do talk in passing about the ending of the film, so beware of spoilers if you haven't seen it yet. We began though with the Academy Award nomination.

BE: I join you on what is a rather exciting day for you!

RG: Yeah, never happened to me. Never before or since, have certainly never been nominated for a BAFTA, let alone an Academy Award. So Oscar, it's absolutely an out of body, levitating experience for me. Yeah, I'm not cynical or blasé about any of it. I'm absolutely thrilled.

BE: Have you gotten there before? In the roles you've done previously?

RG: No I've never been nominated for anything. I was nominated for Most Promising Newcomer in 1987 for Withnail & I. I was beaten by two young women, Jodhi May who won with Kristin Scott Thomas. And that was the last time.

BE: And did you have any inkling that this film, which is rather delightful, was going to gain this kind of traction?

RG: No, absolutely not. It wasn't rocket science to work out that with Melissa McCarthy in it, it would get noticed or get some kind of critical traction. Because it's such a departure, apart from the screen role that she played in St Vincent, her larger than life comic persona has so predominated that I thought whatever she does in this, it will get some attention. But none of us could have predicted the attention that it has got, least of all her.

BE: You've played an incredible amount of roles on TV and film over the years. When you have a new project like this, a new film, what are you looking for? Do you know? Or are you looking for what you haven't seen before?

RG: You hope that the film is about something or that you're going to have a connection with the people that you're working with or the subject matter. And because it's capturing a now-gone, frayed at the edges literary Bohemia of the early 90s in Manhattan, and it's a true story, that immediately is attractive because you know that the source material and the fact that it was all shot on location in the places and bars were all these forgeries and this friendship between Israel and Jack Hock, the character I play, took place gives it a kind of veracity and authenticity that you hope you're going to get in a movie. And that doesn't come along very often. Certainly not in my case.

BE: And how did you become Jack Hock? I mean, the clothes were amazing...

RG: Arjun, the costume designer, gave me all this Spandau Ballet, frayed at the edges, way past their sell-by-date, last glass at the singles bar, new romantic stuff on a very advanced middle aged man, 10 years after they were fashionable. So that was an enormous help and a key into how flamboyant this man saw himself and I also requested that I could use a little stubby cigarette holder. That is what Lee Israel had conceded was a characteristic of how he carried himself off. So I thought that in combination with the clothing gave me a kind of steer, he certainly had the street smarts and self confidence to swashbuckle his way around Greenwich Village at that point in time.

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: You're friends with urm, Julia...Steinberg, yeah?

Jack Hock (Richard E Grant) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: She's not an agent anymore. She died.

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: She did? Jesus that's young.

Jack Hock (Richard E Grant) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: Maybe she didn't die. Maybe she just moved back to the suburbs. I always confuse those two. That's right, she got married and had twins.

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: Better to have died.

Jack Hock (Richard E Grant) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: Indeed!

BE: And I read that you didn't meet or discuss the role with Melissa until very near the actual filming?

RG: Yeah, we met on Friday the 20th of January 2017. And we met for two hours and had lunch together and discussed everything with Marielle Heller, the director present, and then we started shooting on Monday. So there was practically no time. It was a laugh with Melissa McCarthy, she is hilarious and heart-breaking by turn, she's an incredibly emotionally present person. And there's no subterfuge or sophisticated game playing whatsoever. What you see is what you get. I come from a small town in southeast Africa, she grew up on a farm outside Chicago in Illinois. So, there's some sensibility that we met in the middle and thought, we kind of recognised something in each other that has forged a proper friendship.

BE: Obviously, the film rests on your two shoulders. But what did the director bring, or what did she bring out of you two?

RG: She was incredibly open, collaborative, nurturing, and wore her authority very lightly. Having said that, you knew exactly who was in charge of everything. And even though it was a very tight shoot of 26 days and a low budget, all shot on location with snow blizzards in New York at that time of the year, it never felt rushed or that you weren't able to fully give as much value and time to the scenes as you could, so that in itself is a talent. So I would work with her again in a heartbeat. And she's just done the Mr. Rogers biography, starring Tom Hanks, so she's flying.

BE: For you, and perhaps what you observed with Melissa, because you've done so many roles, does she have to do subtle things to sort of shift you out of your comfort zone? Or maybe make sure the comedy beat is correct or how she imagines it?

RG: I don't really know how to answer that because you have all the dialogue and you rehearse a bit and you block out the scenes first thing in the morning, then they bring the crew in to see what you're doing. I'm hopeless at intellectualising anything I've done, it's just completely instinctive. You do research you've come up with to what the what the scene is about, and you react off what the other person is giving you or not giving you. So, I don't know whether that answers your question!

BE: I think that's fair. If you do something for a living, demanding that you tell me exactly how you do it when it's something you do every day.

RG: I don't know how I do it. I know you learn the lines and you put the clothes on and you hope that something's going to combust when you work with another actor. What that is or how it happens is a complete mystery to me. I have no understanding of it. Genuinely.

Anna (Dolly Wells) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: “Lee, today was to have been the Esquire shoot with Spence. Difficult days these. Thank you for your sympathy and understanding. Ever yours, Kate. PS. forgive the splotches, all tears lately"...What a lovely apology. This is very special. Why would you part with it?

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: Clutter? You know I'm not a very sentimental gal.

Anna (Dolly Wells) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: Handwritten even. You're the Lee Israel?

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: Jesus is there another one?

Anna (Dolly Wells) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: I've read your biographies.

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: Have you?

Anna (Dolly Wells) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: You're a wonderful writer.

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: Thank you. Ought to remind my publisher.

BE: Have you had much experience with literary letters, which is obviously the big theme of the film?

RG: Yeah, I played George Orwell in Keep the Aspidistra Flying with Helena Bonham Carter about 20 years ago and also played Anaïs Nin's American husband Hugo in Henry and June, about her affair with Henry Miller. So for those two films, there was an enormous amount of background reading of actual letters and books to be done. That's always helpful and informs what you do. You hope that somehow by osmosis that's going to transmute through the words that you are given, rather than what they had actually written.

BE: This film has interesting ideas in the sense of the character of Lee, she falls into creating these letters, but she wouldn't succeed if there wasn't a demand for it. It's the demand that's the interesting thing.

RG: Yeah, I don't know whether this corresponds with people no longer having religious faith, in the West certainly, in the way that they used to. But this desire that we have to invest literary or celebrity figures in any field with otherworldly or godlike qualities, you know, she's absolutely tapped into that. So autograph hunting market and literary letters, if somebody believes that these are the letters of Dorothy Parker undiscovered or Fanny Brice or Noël Coward or Marlene Dietrich or Lillian Hellman, then I can see the appetite for that. A day doesn't seem to go by where on Instagram, there isn't a new Marilyn Monroe picture that has never been seen. It's hard to imagine that Marilyn Monroe had enough time in the 36 years that she lived to be photographed that many times in that many different locations, but on a daily basis, there are new ones that come out. And they're obviously not fake.

But I can see if you're a mad aficionado of certain literary figure, to have undiscovered witticisms and letters from them, because it's so different from an actual work and because a letter like a diary is the most intimate, personal thing that you can have of that person. So you feel that you have direct access to that personality and she's absolutely tapped into that.

Alan Schmidt (Ben Falcone) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: Thanks for coming.

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: Yeah, I brought some wonderful Faulkners that I unearthed.

Alan Schmidt (Ben Falcone) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: Not why I called. Listen, the FBI has been in here to see me.

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: The FBI?

Alan Schmidt (Ben Falcone) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: They asked me to wear a wire. I'm not gonna do that to you. I'm a good guy. And if they want me to be a witness, I'll lie. But you are gonna pay me $5,000.

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: I don't have $5,000...

Alan Schmidt (Ben Falcone) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: You're a clever woman. Figure it out.

BE: I don't know if you have any letters, but I loved reading that you and Steve Martin in LA Story had conversations or you kept all the faxes or something that he sent you.

RG: I've been corresponding with him for 30 years. So what we used to be faxes then transmuted into emails, so he has a lot of correspondence between us over 30 years.

BE: When you come into the story, it's quite nice because sometimes there's a big long backstory or there's a kind of convoluted way in which you come in, but you walk into a bar. Though it does turn out you had met each other before. But it is quite nice because you're both lost lost souls, lost people that find each other, perhaps at the right time.

RG: Yeah. And I was very struck by two films that when I read the script now trying to find parallels of oddball buddy movies, all be it that Lee Israel is a woman. Neil Simon's play The Odd Couple with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau was an obvious example of two opposites somehow rubbing along together and out of that desperation, sparks of comedy come out. And the other one was John Schlesinger's brilliant film, Midnight Cowboy, with Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, where you've got two very lonely losers living in Manhattan to form this codependent friendship. I thought that was a good steer into this in that you've got people that despite it being such a densely populated island on the planet, and with such incredible wealth visible everywhere, you can be as destitute and lonely and isolated as if you were in the middle of the Sahara Desert. So, the unlikely friendship that they form is something that people have responded to, and I suppose, whereas relationships that are based on marriage or blood relatives, every single person on the planet has experience of friendship in one shape or another.

So, the fact that these two, go through all the vicissitudes of friendship, from loyalty to love to betrayal, and then the poignancy of reconciliation, knowing that Jack Hock is dying of AIDS seems to be what people have responded to. Somebody who has lived his life as hedonisticly, and flagrantly as he has. He lives in the day for the day, because it might be his last day so I think in that circumstance, there's no room or time to waste on, regret filled. You have to you have to grab life while you still can. I think that's what that's about.

BE: And there's a lovely wink in the script where your character says that he could have made a great actor.

RG: Clearly couldn't have made an actor at all because he was such a distinct personality, I think trying to get him to transmute into being anybody else would have been a very tall order. But you know, he's a fantasist.

BE: It's an obvious thing to say, but I kind of want to ask, do you see a parallel between this and the character that you played in Withnail and I?

RG: Well, they're both alcoholic and both abject failures. But Withnail was so misanthropic and entitled and deluded about what talent he didn't have. Whereas I think Jack Hock is so Labrador-like in that he'll go up to anybody and lick them into submission for a bonk, bed, booze, whatever he can get out of the situation. He's a great opportunist. So he would befriend you, whereas I don't think Withnail would have cleaned anybody's cat shit up. But this guy does because there's something much more humane about him and far less selfish, all be it, you know, he's on the couch all the time.

BE: Are there any roles that you haven't done yet? I mean, you've done so many.

RG: I don't know, I'm too old to remember. I don't look back, I only look forward. So you know, like dobbing the old donkey with a carrot in front. Whatever seems interesting or well paid or working with stimulating or talented people then, that's where I go.

BE: There's a nice tweet that you made today where you're thanking the casting director who put you in touch for your role on Girls, and then for this as well. Are those people important along the journey for you as an actor.

RG: Yeah, it's to my astonishment and regret that casting directors, who are so crucial to every actor's career, are not honoured with a BAFTA category or an academy category, and I just don't understand why that hasn't happened. I hope it does, because when you see every department on a movie is honoured with a category, and casting is not. And the movies don't just get cast by themselves they are cast by people who are absolutely brilliant at finding the right people. So, I think that's an enormous unsung category. So, honouring them and reminding of who those people are. I mean, Jen Euston in this case, and Mary Selway who got me seen for Withnail and I, 32 years ago. I'm absolutely, wholly indebted to both of them.

BE: And again, what you've talked about is the fact that you're nominated for Best Supporting Actor for this film. But then why isn't the director nominated for Best Film? It doesn't make any sense.

RG: You tell me. There's something about Marielle Heller's style of direction that is self-effacing in the best possible sense. In the same way that Lee Israel wrote biographies didn't force her personality to the forefront, in much the same way Marielle Heller is not doing 'this is a Marielle Heller production' where you kind of see signature marks of a particular directorial style all over it. The powers-that-be that vote for Best Picture and Best Director think that two performances like Melissa and mine that have been honoured and nominated and won so many prizes already. We didn't arrive at those in isolation or by ourselves. They were the direct result of Marielle Heller. But she is very kind, all forgiving and generous. And you know, she's just directed the Mr. Rogers story. So yeah, she's alright.

BE: And lastly, you're a fan of cinema. I mean, you not only generally enjoy it and, like today we're in the Barbican, but you're a cinemagoer and a TV watcher.

RG: I've watched a huge amount of TV, I grew up in a country where there was one cinema. So the movie used to play for you know (this is pre-internet or video, DVD or whatever), to play Monday to Wednesday, and then another feature would come Thursday to Saturday. So that was your chance to see it. You know, if you really liked the movie had a bunk off school and go to see it three times, because then it was gone, never to be seen again. And there was no television where I grew up in Swaziland, so it's been a sort of lifelong obsession. I used to get Films Illustrated and Photoplay magazine subscription. I longed to see half the things that never ever reached, where I grew up. So, I still go to the movies constantly and watch an enormous amount of TV. I try and kid myself that it's for work, but I'm just a complete glutton for it. And I can't imagine that you've asked any actor that isn't interested in these things, or have you?

BE: I'm not sure. Sometimes people don't want to see themselves on the screen.

RG: Oh, yeah. But that's very different from watching other people.

BE: Or they don't want to rip-off someone else, I suppose.

RG: Oh right, that's never crossed my mind. You can't imitate anybody else. That way madness lies.

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: This one line here was particularly clever, don't you think?

Anna (Dolly Wells) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: It's wonderful? I love his writing. And Dorothy Parker as well. Caustic wit, you know?

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: Caustic wit is my religion.

Anna (Dolly Wells) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: I can't carry it off, you certainly can.

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) in Can You Ever Forgive Me: Doesn't help too much in the relationship department.

Anna (Dolly Wells) in Can You Ever Forgive Me I'm sure that's not true.

BE: He was everything you hoped and expected him to be. Unfortunately, he didn't win the Best Supporting Oscar in 2018, that went to Mahershala Ali for Green Book, but I think it's just a matter of time before an Oscar makes its way onto his mantelpiece.

I'm Ben Eshmade, thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast, here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes of archive finds and themed series. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can leave us a review to help us get the word out.

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