It was 32 years ago that Richard E Grant made his big screen debut as the wisecracking, overdressed, flamboyantly alcoholic titular character of cult classic Withnail & I. Fast forward to today, and the 61-year-old actor is enjoying something of a renaissance; the eccentric embodiment of ‘good things come to those who wait’.
But, despite landing his first Golden Globe, BAFTA and Academy Award nominations this year for his turn as an exuberant drug dealer — a parallel of Withnail, in many ways — in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Grant has enjoyed a full, varied and long-running career. And, from facing off against Gary Oldman’s Dracula to Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, he’s stepped into the shoes of characters spanning horror to comedy, from film to television.
Along the way, Grant has gained a fervent fanbase, launched a unisex perfume brand and made his indelible stamp on such institutions as Downton Abbey, Doctor Who and, next year, Star Wars.
So, what has the Swazi-British icon learned along the way?
It’s good to have a role you’ll always be associated with...
Every single job that I’ve ever had came as a result of playing an out-of-work actor in Withnail & I. Working on that film irrevocably changed my professional and personal life beyond all measure.
I believe that I’ve influenced or affected the younger acting generation by playing an unemployed actor in that, my first film. It’s a role that young actors have identified with — everything from the financial struggle to the frustrations of not being recognised.
Find inspiration in those you share similarities with...
When I was starting as an actor, I’d say I found my inspiration in Donald Sutherland and Barbra Streisand. Both of them have long faces, and features that were deemed ‘oddball’ when they started out. But both of them have succeeded due to their immense talents — and both of them I’ve since thrillingly met.
With regards to my style, my inspiration is purely practical. I have a long neck, I’m 6ft 2in tall and I cope with the cold by wearing turtle necks, jeans, waistcoats and scarves to keep warm. Entirely practical.
“How would people describe my career? A curate’s egg...”
Use your career to amass useful skills...
I’ve never had a plan when it comes to my career — other than I try to accept the most interesting or different roles available to me.
One of the most useful skills I’ve learned while preparing for a role was riding a horse. I rode a horse up a mountainside while delivering Bruce Robinson’s scabrous finale monologue in How To Get Ahead in Advertising, and I did that in one long take. The horse was very frisky — so I was grateful not to have fallen off!
Time really does cost money...
The most important piece of advice I have about the film industry? Be prepared for anything. Be punctual, patient, know your lines and be ready for last minute schedule or script changes — because time really does cost money!
One particular story from the set has stayed with me. Richard Griffiths, who played Uncle Monty in Withnail & I, had trouble remembering his lines on his first day when we filmed a lunch scene. Lots of time and as a result, lots of food. I ended up eating an excess of roast lamb and potatoes that day, which I’ve never eaten since.
"I was born hyper-curious and impatient..."
It’s never too late to win critical acclaim...
How would people describe my full career? A curate’s egg! I’d imagine they’d describe it as an indeterminate mixture of good and bad.
I’d never been nominated or won any awards before, so to receive both critical recognition, not to mention nominations, from my BAFTA and Academy Awards peers was off the chart. It’s the best affirmation and approbation you could wish for.
Experiment to make sense of the world...
I was born hyper-curious and impatient. And, as I’ve only got one life, I’ll tend to always have a go at doing something — like launching Jack, my perfume brand — rather than putting it off and waiting for a rainy day ‘moment’.
I have also kept a diary every day since I was 11 years old. I find that it’s a way of making sense of the world. By keeping a record of whom I’ve met and where I’ve been, it makes it feel more real.
This interview first appeared in our March issue, click here to subscribe and get your copy sent to your door today…