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ScreenTalks Archive: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive Me?
24 Dec 2021

For our final ScreenTalk of Season 2, we’re talking with actor Richard E Grant and his role in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, for which he received his first Academy Award nomination. 

Speaking with host Edith Bowman, Grant discusses his role as Jack Hock: an alcoholic charmer with some withering one liners, who helps sometimes friend Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) forge letters from famous authors. Grant discusses inspiration for the role, working with McCarthy and director Marielle Heller and of course, there’s mention of his most famous role as Withnail. 

The Barbican ScreenTalks Archive podcast is presented by Ellen E Jones and produced by Jane Long for Loftus Media.

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‘So I'm a 61 and three quarter year old nominee virgin. So you know, to have all this happen now in my six decades[...] I'm absolutely thrilled‘

Ellen E Jones: Welcome to the Barbican ScreenTalks Archive podcast. 

It's our final episode in the current series of ScreenTalks. And we're going out with a bang, with actor Richard E. Grant on top form, marking the release of his 2018 film 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?' That film is discussed in detail here, but because this is REG, one of British cinemas greatest all-time raconteurs, you can also expect to come away with plenty of other viewing suggestions besides. Grants very first film role is a cult classic. He played the flamboyantly drunk title character in 1987 Withnail and I, but it took another three decades before he bagged his first Academy Award nomination. That was for 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?' and Q&A host Edith Bowman congratulates him here. 

'Can You Ever Forgive Me?' is adapted from the memoir of the same name by literary forger and misanthrope Lee Israel, played in the film by Melissa McCarthy. Grant co-stars is Israel sometime friend and co-conspirator Jack Hock, another alcoholic who'd have no problem matching Withnail wine for wine. It's a strange coincidence given the Grant himself is a lifelong teetotaler, as he explains. Being a non-drinker has never got in the way of Grant’s social life however, he's particularly amusing on his method for making fast friends with celebrities, not least co-star McCarthy. The lack of information about the real Jack Hock in Israel's memoir, meant Grant had to rely on his own personal life to inform the character. As fans of Grant's 2005 semi-autobiographical film Wawa will appreciate, there's no shortage of material there. One surprising source of influence is the late Scottish actor Ian Charleson, star of 1981 Oscar Best Picture winner 'Chariots of Fire'. Grants filter free conversation style seems to inspire a similar sense of liberation in the Q&A audience. Be warned, as well as some surprising propositions you're about to hear some especially strong language that is definitely not suitable for sensitive listeners. Can we ever forgive him? When a guest is this entertaining, it's pretty hard not to. I'm Eleni Jones, and this is Barbican ScreenTalks with REG.

Edith Bowman: It feels only right that we should start off by saying Congratulations on your nomination for an Oscar today. To add to the many nominations you've had already and wins already as well

Richard E Grant: Completely out of body experience. So I'm a 61 and three quarter year old nominee, virgin. So you know, to have all this happen now in my six decades, you know, 40 years in showbusiness is a complete astonishment to me, and I know I should be blasé about it and go, Oh, yeah, yeah, but I'm absolutely fucking thrilled.

EB: As he should be. I've seen the film a few times. And it's an absolutely wonderful film, wonderful story. Not the three times I've seen it, the cinema I paid and, in the back, I popped in just here to see the last sort of 15 minutes just to hear the atmosphere in this room. And it's wonderful. I'm sure you guys felt it in terms of it's quite a special atmosphere that this film creates in a room. And I wanted to find out if you had a sense of that when you were making the film and when it had finished, we you finish making it that this was something that was going to resonate and connect with people.

REG: We honestly had no idea because when I read the script, I thought well, it struck me I was trying to find immediate movie parallel because of my age. I thought it was the odd couple - Neil Simon's 1967 masterpiece, with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon mixed with John Schlesinger's amazing Midnight Cowboy of Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, in that you've got two completely opposite characters operating in Manhattan, as densely populated as it is, and as rich as it is, and yet you can be destitute and un-utterably lonely and isolated. So I thought 'who was going to buy the story of a gay guy that's HIV positive that is a cocaine addict and sells stuff and you know, scrounges off everybody else? And Lee Israel, who's misanthropic and can't stand any other human being in sight! How do you sell that to an audience? 

But when we were at Telluride Film Festival on this mountainside in Colorado ski resort, we went to the first world screening at four o'clock in the afternoon, and Melissa McCarthy and I watched it with an audience for the first time. And you could feel in the room that where there might have been an expectation that it was going to be a Melissa McCarthy vehicle or a sort of big comic, Melissa McCarthy playing Lee Israel, rather than Lee Israel playing Melissa McCarthy, if you can imagine that. So people laugh quite a lot at the beginning, and then we could hear people, audibly - it being America - you could hear people cry at the end. So we knew that something had happened in there and within two hours, the reviews in the Hollywood Reporter and Variety had come out, so we knew that something had happened.

 So in this ski lodge place, we're just walking the streets people are very tactile and hands on, they would come up to us, Melissa and I and say "Your movie really made us feel something! We found something! We love these guys, we rooted for them!" Sorry, my accent is terrible. So I thought well, that was that was something you know, if you're watching Wolverine or tentpole movies of Marvel Comics, the fact that people were pointing out that they identified with a loneliness these people or they said I knew somebody who was like that, or the way that it deals with friendship, outside of family or who you're married to, or related to or whatever. That seems to be the thing that people have connected with, for which we're very grateful and astonished.

EB: Did you have an instant connection with Jack when you read the script?

REG: Well, he's an alcoholic and I played one of those 32 years before, so it wasn't rocket science to work out why I might have been on the list. And he's also on paper, very unsympathetic. And I know that there's a tradition in America for leading men in America, not wanting to play those kinds of parts. So I thought what it made sense that they were asking a Brit - and we're cheaper. 

EB: How rude!

REG: So it's just you know, it's colonialism in reverse. I understand that. Profoundly. So I like this smattering of applause for that. You know, when I read the script, I thought that Lee Israel's memoir would have a fountain of information about Jack Hock but there was a very, very little because she was so egocentric and only wanted to write about herself. So other than that, I knew that he was tall, blond 47, which I'm not obviously, and he was from Portland, in Oregon, used a little cigarette holder, and was very good at scamming people out of a lot of money for these letters. Once, she'd been troubled by the FBI. 

Other than that, there was there was not much in the memoir to go on. So essentially, Jeff Witty and Nicole Holofcener's script, and then meeting people that knew both of them, that filled in the gaps. And from my life experience, I was very inspired by a Scottish actor called Ian Charleson who was the lead in Chariots of Fire, which came out in 1981. And I'd worked with the Ian, and we were friends. And he died of AIDS at the age of 40, in 1990, and he had this amazing combination of little boy lost charm on the one hand, scabrous wit, and the most louche and promiscuous life on the other. And I thought, there's something in between all that that is somehow in Jack Hock. So that's  kind of what I went for, and really reacted of everything that Melissa McCarthy gave, which was an enormous amount.

EB: This wonderful partnership that we watch on screen, it's, I mean, I hope it's the first of many films that the pair of you will do together, because it is wonderful to watch. How did you find that kind of drive between those two characters? Was that an instant thing with Melissa?

REG: You hope that that's going to happen! But you know, I think it's like internet dating or any kind of dating where you hope it's the person written about on the paper and you actually see them and you go 'What the fuck?' or you're going to have some connection with them. And I arrived on a Wednesday for costume fittings and makeup tests and things. And I said, Well, what time am I rehearsing with Melissa and Marielle Heller, the director said, "Oh, no, she's so busy. She's only coming in from LA on Friday, and she has costume, makeup, wig fittings all day. You won't even meet her till you meet her on Monday for the first time." And I said, "No, you have no idea the depths of my paranoia. It is not possible. I will not sleep for 72 hours. Can I please at least meet her just to find out at what level she's gonna pitch her part." 

So mercifully, Melissa had the exact same impulse, and we met on a Friday morning for two hours, discussed everything, and had lunch together and then started working on Monday. And it was one of those things where it felt like lightning in a bottle because I knew within seconds that there was a profound connection, whether it's because I grew up in a small town in southeast Africa, and she grew up on a farm outside Chicago, maybe the small town or isolated sensibility, whatever it is, we just had a connection and that obviously bore fruit and hopefully because we know from the reaction that we've had, that has transmitted into what happens on screen. So that's luck as much as anything

EB: Whilst you were filming how long was the shoot?

REG: 26 days. I was on it for 20, wanted to be in 26 days, but they didn't make my part big enough. We got on so well that I you know, I would go and have lunch and dinner with her at every opportunity. So we really were connected and she's having my twins in August so it's really worked out. Don't laugh, it's true.

EB: But is it not almost like a year to the day pretty much, did you say it was 22nd January last year was it that you started? 

REG:  Yes! You can do maths. I got 4% in my maths mock O-level in 1973, but thank you for that Einstein!

EB: But whilst you were in this 20 Odd shoot and stuff, would you and Melissa, at the end of the day, once you'd worked on on scenes and filmed scenes, would you talk about it? Would you decompose decompress the day 

REG:  Decompose? Decompress? Yeah, no, no, we never did. And when we had lunch together, we never talked about the stuff. We was gassing about everybody else and talking about who we knew in common and yeah, all that stuff. She got very, she was envious of the amount of socialising that I did, because I know people in New York and because she had to work everyday and had so many more lines than I did. I went to a Broadway show every single night or dinner with somebody. So everyday she said "And who have we been out with tonight?" I said "Well, Steve Martin and Tom Hanks fuck it!" She said "How do you know all these people?!" I said, "Come on!" 

If you're there for 20 days there are enough people that you can shnook around, and I'm such a tart if I see somebody on Broadway I think he's brilliant. I'd go up afterwards and go "Hi, I'm from London, Swaziland. I think you're great. Can we have a drink?" And most often, the Americans say "Yeah, go to Joe Allen." So I did. So I made many new friends, like a complete prostitute really

EB:  Was a bit of life imitating art slightly with you

REG: I was taken over by the character of Jack Hock. Yes indeed. Method!

EB: What do you think Melissa's connection to Lee was? What did she want to tell about this character?

REG: Well first of all, she slept away to getting his part quite literally. I kid you not because Julianne Moore and Chris O'Dowd were cast when Nicole Holofcener, who co-wrote the screenplay was going to direct it two years ago. Then there was nuclear fallout for whatever reason, which I didn't know about. And then Ben Falcon who plays one of the shady booksellers, who demands 5000 bucks from her in order not grass her, to the FBI. He is married to Melissa. So he was the common denominator from both sets of casts. And Melissa then read it once she'd heard that the movie had gone down and said, "God, I'd love to play this part." So once she got attached to it, it then got resurrected. So she essentially was sleeping with a co-actor and the thing and then casting couch their way into getting your thing made. 

And she has said this many times. But she absolutely loved the fact that the script was so unequivocal about playing a misanthropic, somebody who was so authentically herself and didn't give in to anything. She didn't care what she looked like, or what she said about anything. And she said, for a middle aged woman in the movies, the opportunity to play a role like that, which isn't sentimentalised or glamorised in any way, she thought was so remarkable. And it's very satisfying that people root for her even though she is so miserable. And, you know, not high on the hygiene stakes. 

So I met an actor at the Screen Actors Guild screening in New York last week, who came up afterwards and said, I knew Lee Israel, and we were like, "Yeah yeah yeah, what?" And he said, "Oh, she was far worse than anything that Melissa did." And we loved that. She said to Jeff Witty, who went up to her, and said, "I am the person who's written the screenplay of your life." And he had gone over to her wearing an Alice band that had bunny ears on it. And she said, "Well, I like your screenplay. But you look like a fucking idiot, get out of my face." And he's he just dined down on that for years. He was so thrilled to be insulted by her. 

EB: You've worked with an amazing collection of directors in your career so far. And I wanted to ask you a little bit about working with Marielle on this film and what that experience was like?

REG: Well, first of all, she cast me for which I'm eternally grateful, and she wears her authority very, very lightly, and she had been an actor and then directed the film version of Diary of a Teenage Girl which I so admired. And she is so collaborative, nurturing, accommodating and such a good mensch, that I would do anything for her. And she's just directed Tom Hanks in the movie called Mr. Rogers about this 1970s television host that I didn't know about, who's, you know, an icon in American childhoods. So she's well on our way, you know, although I'm absolutely gutted for her that she's not been nominated as a director. And it's all men this year again, in the academy, but because, you know, I have to beg the question, who directed Melissa and I into these performances that have been nominated, but Marielle Heller did so you know, but she is very gracious about all that and still very young 

EB: Right over to you. Please don't do that thing. Where I say it's the last question, and everyone put your hands up. So who would like to ask a question? Hello, sir

Audience member: Firstly, I'd like to say I think you definitely deserve the Oscar and I'm going to be fingers crossed rooting for you on that night. And like he said, there's lightning in a bottle. There's natural chemistry the two of you have fantastic on screen. What I'm interested in is whether there was some really lightning in a bottle moments that came about through improvisation that sort of veered away from the script.

REG: Thank you a question. Are you an actor?

Audience member: No but, hopeful filmmaker

REG: Okay. I'm available.

Audience member: Please take my card.

REG: I will. You think I'm kidding. I worked at John Gielgud, who you won't know who he was. But when he was 94, and I was on a movie called Portrait of a Lady, I said "Sir John, what's your advice for a younger actor?" He said, "Cultivate younger friends." and I see the virtue in that but there was no improvising the thing at all. Apart from two words that when I first appeared in the Julius bar and met Lee Israel, in the first take, I said, "Jack Hock, Big Cock." And where that came from, I have no idea. But Marielle Heller, when I did the second take, I didn't say the words again, I don't know where they came from! And she said, "You haven't said those two words?" And I said, "Well," she said, "No, they're in." So they made it to the movie. So we're in Writers Guild arbitration at the moment for credit, but thank you for your question. So those are the only two words that we improvised, as far as I know. 

Audience member: Did it make it into the trailer? 

REG: No, I think they were appealing to a family audience.

EB: Do you enjoy the opportunity to ad lib? Is that something new?

REG: Because I'd worked with Robert Altman, the late great Robert open three times on Gosford Park, Pret-a-porter, and The Player. And he loved the structured script and framework for the thing. But then he loved people to improvise around that. And those conditions are working in the great ensemble of actors like he always collected around him. That's the ideal. Yeah, because you really feel that you can add stuff

EB: In something particular like Gosford Park where the camera may well be on you and someone in the forefront of the shot. But everything in the background is still as important. So it's this wonderful thing where all the layers of that shot, have that opportunity to play I guess

REG: Exactly. I've just done a series that I shot all of my all six episodes in one morning called Hang Ups with Steve Mangum there is on Channel 4, playing his psychiatrist. And I had a laptop and he Skyped me from another room. And I gave him all this you know, psycho filth. On screen. Every single word of it was improvised, which was just fantastically exciting to do. I love that.

EB: Take note!. Okay, more questions. Here we go. Yes. See the arms have warmed up now. This is great.

Audience member:  Hello, Richard pleasure to be talking to you.

REG: Hi, what's your name?

Audience member: My name is Simon. 

REG: Hi, Simon. 

AM: I just had to ask because with Withnail is one of my favourite characters in any film ever.

REG: Thank you 

Audience member: And you mentioned playing him earlier. I just wondered whether a character of Jack ever crossed characters with Withnail in your mind or whether you approached him from a completely fresh angle. 

REG: Oh, thanks for coming. Well, they're both alcoholics. And if you have the same act of playing them, there's evitable is going to be a crossover that I didn't particularly see but because he seemed Withnail struck me as so entitled, misanthropic and so pigheaded and couldn't give a fuck about anybody else. Where's Jack Hock is always like Labrador light on the scam and trying to you know, lick people into submission for a free bed, bonk or booze. So he just seems much more compassionate and his hedonism is to live every moment of the day, whereas Withnail was kind of on a suicide mission to nowhere but anyway, thank you for bringing them up. I'm just grateful that there's a 32 year gap between that drunk and this one. 

Audience member: Thank you

EB: And we have someone else up there with. Yes, yeah. Okay, there we go

Audience member: Hi, Richard.

REG: Hi, what's your name? 

Audience member: My name is Tom. 

REG: Hi, Tom.

AM: I think you're great. Can we get a drink?

REG: I only do drugs. I'm a hopeless drinking partner because I'm allergic to alcohol. So you know, somebody's drinking diet coke or waters not really going to be a livening evening. Okay, thank you for the offer Tom.

AM: I wanted to tell you that I very much enjoyed your film diaries Withnails.  And I wonder if you're writing anything currently that we might read at some point?

REG: Well, I've kept a diary. Thank you. Since I was 10 years old, since witnessing my mother's adultery on the front seat of a car that I wasn't supposed to see. I couldn't tell anybody else. So really, diary writing has been a way of trying to keep myself sane and making what seems unreal, real. And today, especially I will have a volume of stuff to write down because, you know, this has never happened to me before. And it's never gonna happen again. So in writing about it, it's a way of just kind of going, this did actually happen. I was in the pit at the thing. And I was asked that question or, you know, all the stuff that's going on. 

So the irony is that this film took 26 days to shoot in total of which I did 20. And I've been on the awards, campaign trail, and Q&A's and things for five months. Which is astonishing. And the beauty of that is you don't earn one penny of money doing all that. But you all flown around and you know, looked after and five star hotel-ed and all of that. But that is nothing because I would have you know, I would be grateful to be doing it for nothing. Because if you're talking about something that people have such a positive response to, and it's won so many prizes and nominations, then that really seems like the cream on the cake or whatever you call it. So have I kept a diary all the way through it? Yes, I have. Watch this space. I don't know. But you know, some of the things I've said about people I probably should be put in jail. So you can tell I don't really have the filter between what comes in here and comes out of this. But thank you for your question. And the offer of a drink.

EB: We got a lady down the front here. Be careful. Come downstairs. 

REG: Why be careful coming down the stairs?

EB: There's a lot of stairs, they might trip. 

REG: But they're young. Hi, what's your name?

Audience member:: Addie. 

REG: Hi, Addie, short for what?

Audience member:: Adelina 

REG: Adelina.

Audience member:: First of all, fantastic performance. It was really, really brilliant. And also, my question is, did you find any sort of challenges with connecting to the character of Jack? And second question, if I'm allowed? Is there anything, any roles that you really, really, really like to play next?

REG: How connecting with somebody, I think that, Are you an actor?

Audience member:: I'd like to be

REG: I don't know that you can teach anybody to act. So by that I mean that, once you're in the costume, and you have dialogue is cleverly written as this screenplay is, then when you react with the person who's playing opposite you, something happens and what that thing is, I have no idea what it is. Or I can't rationalise or intellectualise it in any way. And I'm always astonished when people can go, "Well, there was this. And there's a subtext of that" because it seems to me that once you have all the information, and you follow what the script is, and the intentions of the characters, you play those actions, that something happens there, that, to me is a kind of, it seems like magic to me. And when I see other actors do it, I go, how do you do that? Now, I've often said, "How do you do that?" They go, "What the fuck, I don't know what I've done!" And I think that's exactly what it is. You don't know. And in not knowing, I think that's the best thing. It's like, if you fall in love with somebody, if you have to try and say, "Aell, it was this and was that and was that" already, it just it's like juggling with water and jelly. I don't know you can really do it. And the second part of your question, I'm so old, I can't remember. 

EB: Are there any specific or other roles? 

REG: Oh, I'm like dobby the donkey, you know, put the carrot in front of me and if it's something else that I haven't done, without a 32 year gap of drunks, I'll be there and going for it. And especially somebody turned it down and suddenly a part is available.  Thank you for your question.

EB: Okay, we got a lady here.

REG: Hi. What's your name?

Audience member: Ruby.

REG: Hi, Ruby

Audience member: Hello. So, in regards to being challenged for that character, you said you're allergic to alcohol. How would one kind of relate to something like that to say Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting? How would you kind of substitute those feelings of addiction?

REG: Um, what I was observed in people who do drink is that there comes to that moment where the level of concentration to get out of the door is so intense. And just the focus on that, that everything else kind of goes. And there's also that slight delay that happens that I see. And I thought, well, if you if you do that you feel what? Maybe that's seems like so I don't know, it's basically just winging it. 

Audience member: So observing is...

REG: Yeah, so I'm trying to see what it is to try and get through the door without falling over. So I don't know. I think it's just acting.

AM: As Laurence Olivier says. 

EB: And it's our last question

REG: You've got great hair! 

AM: Thank you so much. So I'm not really going to say a question, but what I'm going to say is, thank you so much for giving me my two favourite moments where somebody calls somebody else a cunt, and they're my two absolute favourites of all time. And that's all I wanted to say.

REG: Thank you!

EB: He had to be Scottish.

REG: I can hand on heart tell you that in all the places and all the bars that I've been, nobody has ever thanked me publicly for saying "You terrible cunt" in two movies.

AM: I salute you, sir.

EB: Amazing. I think that's where we leave it. Thank you very much for your time. This evening, the wonderful Mr. REG. Thank you

EEJ: Thank you for listening to this Barbican ScreenTalk on Can You Ever Forgive Me with REG. If you enjoyed this episode, you might want to listen to the Richard Attenborough ScreenTalk from our first series, which also includes plenty of colourful anecdotes from the British film industry. 
To make sure you don't miss an episode and to support cinema at the Barbican to boot, please rate and subscribe to this podcast via Apple podcasts, Acast or wherever you get your podcasts or visit Maybe you are in the audience for REG at the Barbican, or a guest at an equally brilliant ScreenTalk that you'd like to hear again on the podcast. 

If so, please come find us and tell us about it @BarbicanCentre in all the usual social media places. Barbican ScreenTalks archive is presented by me Ellen E. Jones and produced by chain long for Loftus media. We hope to be back with a new series very soon. But in the meantime, be well and goodbye.

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