Richard E Grant: ‘Acting is like juggling with jelly and water’


Jack Hock is the one friend of acid-tongued, literary letter forger Lee Israel in director Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? His bulletproof charm is matched by his thirst for intoxication. Richard E Grant, forever emblazoned in the cultural imagination as another drunken chancer thanks to his iconic role in Withnail & I, took a break from shooting the new Star Wars to talk about getting into the skin of a real person, the truth-o-meter effect of acting opposite Melissa McCarthy, and why perfume-making is more lucrative than movie-making.

LWLies: When you’re playing someone this over-the-top, is it like playing a character on top of a character, or did you have an idea of who Jack was underneath all his flamboyance?

Grant: Once I knew that Jack Hock was HIV positive, living under the Damacles of, ‘Is today my last day?’ then his hedonism is all in relation to that. The moment he got any money it burnt a hole in his pocket. He had to go and have a good time because, as he says to Lee in a diner, ‘Life is grim. Make the best of it while you can.’ Knowing that you’re on a short fuse of what’s left I absolutely understood why he did what he did and was out to grab as much as he could of life before he was rendered incapable, so I suppose that underpinned it.

How did knowing that he had a death sentence inform the way you approached characterising him?

Once Lee had been rumbled by the FBI, he was the person who went out and had to sell the letters convincingly. In the memoir, Lee Israel notes that where she might have expected between $400 and $600 dollars for a letter, he’d come back with two grand, so he was obviously really good at fleecing people and putting on the charm. That was a great clue to what level of confidence he could put out. Whatever his scam he obviously had the imagination to pull that off, so you think, ‘What kind of person does that and does it successfully?’

Is acting a similar kind of a scam?

Yeah, I think it is. You do something that you don’t feel confident about doing, but you have to feign that you are. I can remember reading Dawn French, the comedian, talking about how when she was as an adolescent she used to pretend to be somebody else in order to be able to handle a social situation with many people. She’d think, ‘I’ll pretend to be somebody who is confident.’

How do you know if you’re pulling off the performance?

If people around you believe what you’re doing. Melissa McCarthy’s truth-o-meter is so accurate. She doesn’t allow for any fakery. She’s so true to what she is doing that you react to that. I don’t know – it’s so hard to rationalise things that you do instinctively and are also informed by the script and the part that you’re playing. As soon as you try to explain how you do something, or how you act a part, it’s like juggling with jelly and water. The moment you try to hold onto it, it slips through your fingers.

It sounds like you’re sensitive to the people around you.

I think that everybody is, aren’t they? If I sat here, Robert De Niro-like, and gave you monosyllabic answers it would change the atmosphere of our room. If I was here doing a Simon Callow and talking very garrulously or very loudly then it would be a whole different way. You react off the person that you’re meeting for the first time, don’t you think?

How did they make you look so unwell in the end scene?

I had a great friend, Ian Charleson, who was in Chariots of Fire, who died of AIDS in 1990. When he lost all his hair he wore that bandana-scarf around his head and was very, very pale and drawn. I literally took some baby powder the night before, put it on my face, pencil marked in my cheeks, tied a scarf around my head and sent this to the make-up department and to Marielle. I said, ‘This is what a friend of mine looked like before he died. Is this too extreme to do?’ They googled pictures of what people were looking like at that time who’d had AIDS and agreed.

Is that one appeal of acting: that you get to channel things you’ve seen or learnt elsewhere in life?

Every experience that you have whether you take it on board consciously or not influences and references what you do and what choices you make. The older you are – and I’m nearly 62 – the more you have to draw on in what you’ve lived through that that inevitably informs how you play a part. Yep. Unquestionably. That’s absolutely dead accurate.

You made a film about your childhood in Swaziland. Have you any more films in you?

Hope so. Writing and directing an indie film, it took five years from script to screen for me to get that made. I’ve adapted or worked on two other projects, indie films, that both collapsed four weeks before we began shooting for the last 10 per cent of finance. I got so frustrated with that, that I then started making perfume and that business has been very financially rewarding. Also, you have a result and something tangible. You don’t have to wait 10 years for the thing to get made and to disappear, so I’ve got waylaid into perfumerie.

You can funnel your perfume billions into your next film.

Exactly, I’ll do that.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is released 1 February. Read the LWLies Recommends review.

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