Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: From the moment he sauntered into Withnail And I, Richard E. Grant’s innate magnetism was apparent. As told in his book With Nails: The Film Diaries Of Richard E. Grant—a sharp account of the actor’s first decade in the entertainment industry—Withnail stuck with him, opening doors in Hollywood, and paving the way for his next 30-plus years of performances. Having collaborated with legends like Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and the Spice Girls, Grant has an anecdote for everyone and everything, which he’s known to share with glee. As his own star continues to rise, he’s still a gushing fan at heart. It’s that unbridled enthusiasm that’s made him something of a social media darling these last few years, starting with the awards season run of Can You Ever Forgive Me? (earning Grant his first Oscar nomination), all of which he documented with exhilarating abandon. Since then, it’s felt like we’ve been living in the golden age of Richard E. Grant, watching the actor pop in roles big and small as he shares his joys with the world.
Last month, while making the virtual press rounds for his turn as a drag mentor in the musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Grant shared some of those stories with The A.V. Club. Since he’s dutifully recounted many of his early works in the aforementioned With Nails, the conversation focused more on his splashiest roles of late. As ever, the actor was full of keen observations, like the surprising similarities between being a drag queen and being a Loki, how fandoms haven’t changed all that much over the years (they’ve just gotten more online), and the funny things that happen when Robert Altman’s communal approach to filmmaking tries to map itself onto the upstairs-downstairs divides of Gosford Park. You can read the full interview transcript—and watch some video highlights from the conversation—below.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (2021)—“Hugo Battersby / Loco Chanelle”
The A.V. Club: It’s a trip to see you in drag as Loco Chanelle, but the movie allows us to get to know Hugo Battersby as well—what he’s been through as a gay man from an older generation. What was your approach to this sort of performance-within-a-performance?
Richard E. Grant: [I felt] terror in the prospect of trying to convince people that you could have been a successful drag artist in Soho, London of the 1980s. That was the thing that I found very challenging, overwhelming at the beginning. But Jonathan Butterell, the director, got a great team of people around me to help with the singing and the dancing, the costume, hair, makeup. There was an extraordinary team of people, all of whom I’m entirely indebted to for that. And I think, more than anything, I was struck by playing somebody that [sees himself as] a real has-been, a failure. There’s the journey of resurrection—or redemption, if you like—through mentoring this teenage boy who wants to be a drag queen. That was very interesting to do, and so I thought, “that’s what you have to focus in on.”
REG: Well, I’d never seen drag before, and the director introduced me to an avant garde drag artist named David Hoyle, who is from the north of England, who’s the same age as I am. His vulnerability and his bravery—that combination is something that I was so struck by. And, when I saw him perform in front of an audience, he just went out on a limb, and I thought that was inspiring to see. You know, the best kind of performance artist you could hope for.
And I then watched, as you know, over three weeks worth, 11 series, of RuPaul’s Drag Race. There’s a struggle that is in almost every one of those drag queens—whether it’s the prejudice of their family, or in society—to fulfill their dream, facing rejection at every level. Just the talent, and the chutzpah, and the sheer—whatever it takes—steel to get through that whilst throwing shade, and being vulnerable, and all of that stuff. It’s an extraordinarily unique combination of talent, and that’s what I was really inspired by. So, I’ve now watched Down Under, Drag Race UK, All Stars—everything! Everything RuPaul. [Laughs.] And it’s really hard work! Not only have they got to perform, they’ve got to be able to sew and paint and come up with one-liners. It’s an amazing world.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)—“Jack Hock”
AVC: Your work in both Jamie and Can You Ever Forgive Me? centers on out, gay men and their experiences with the AIDS epidemic. As the conversation around whether or not straight actors should play gay roles continues and evolves, have your feelings on the matter changed? What has it meant to you to step into these roles?
REG: I had no hesitation about doing Jack Hock in that film because whoever was playing the part dropped out, so I got an email from my agent saying, “You have to read the script.” It was in November four years ago—saying, “You have to read the script and make a decision within 24 hours.” I saw there was Melissa McCarthy, and it was a true story, so I said, “Yes, of course I’ll do this.” It was just instinctive.
During the awards season that that film then became a part of, Darren Criss said, as a heterosexual actor, he would never play another gay role. So the conversation involving much of the press became, “How can you justify doing [this role] if you are not a gay actor?” So, when Jonathan Butterell approached me two years ago and said, “I want you to play [Loco Chanelle],” I said no. Unusually, where actors are normally trying to convince a director to have a role, it was the reverse. He had to convince me about doing it because I said, “Why don’t you get a real drag queen, or gay actor, an out actor to do this part?” And he said, “The whole production team and creative team is gay, and we want you to do this.” I said, “Well, if the argument comes down on your head that you’re not being politically correct, or not listening to the conversation, the movement…” And he just said, “Don’t worry about that.” To my knowledge so far, nobody has sort of come out in a Sherman tank saying, “Blast this guy because he’s he hasn’t got the proper credentials to do it!” But I don’t know how you really answer it. With the limited number of screen roles that there are for gay actors playing gay characters, I’d quite understand if somebody took umbrage.
I was friends with an actor who was in Chariots Of Fire, Ian Charleson, who died of AIDS in 1990. He had this little-boy-lost quality on the one hand. He had an openly debauched kind of lifestyle—in terms of what very orthodox people wouldn’t approve of—but he was so life-embracing and nonjudgmental. And I thought those were the qualities that Jack Hock had. Jack, in real life, died of AIDS, as he does at the end of the movie. I thought [Jack] was as close of a match to this person that I knew very well, and had worked with a couple of times. So [he was], I suppose, my route into trying to understand who Jack was and what he was [going through].
AVC: You mentioned the awards season, and it was this role that earned you your first Oscar nomination. Three years removed from its premiere, does it feel like Can You Ever Forgive Me? represented a shift in your career?
REG: Oh yeah. I mean, the fact that this tiny, low-budget movie that was released on three screens in November three years ago would then have these awards legs, if you like… Not that Melissa and I won “the big ones,” but I think all of us were absolutely sideswiped by that. And I knew that it was a once-in-a-lifetime ride that would never, ever happen again. So, you know, I enjoyed it for every nanosecond—the whole ride, all of it. It was brilliant.
Loki (2021)—“Classic Loki”
REG: Another role in tights! I didn’t have high heels, but I did have little yellow booties. And that Kermit-like [neck piece].
AVC: I know you’ve previously lamented the lack of muscles built into the suit, but what else can you tell be about stepping into that costume, and that role?
REG: There is a moment—and I think every actor will identify with this—where you put on the tights, and you’ve got the sort of wooly, baggy Y-front pants over your tights, and a cloak, and horns on your head, and you walk out in front of 120 crew members in a studio in Atlanta that you’ve never met before. My expectation was that they would go, “You have got to be kidding, right?” Can you be taken seriously? But, of course, that’s the fear that you have, and I suppose that’s what keeps you going. The same thing happened when I was in the full Loco Chanelle gear: I thought, “What is the reaction going to be when I totter out there at six-foot-eight with the wig and the heels and the 36D brassiere. There’s always that moment where you think, “Is someone going to rumble and and go, ‘You haven’t got this gig right.’” [Laughs.]
AVC: So, you’re saying drag queens and superheroes have a lot in common?
REG: Oh, tights, yes—tights and practically tucked! [Laughs.]
AVC: Speaking of tights, after your character’s reveal, you shared a post on Instagram where you recalled your late father asking you four decades ago: “Do you really want to spend your life in tights and makeup?” What would he have made of Loki?
REG: He died in 1981. So 40 years later, his prediction—or his summation—of what show business, and my life in it, would be absolutely came true. To the letter. [Laughs.]
AVC: In the final moments we see of your Loki, he’s laughing in the face of imminent death, and it’s this fantastic grace note for him.
REG: It says [in the script] that he’s laughing in the face of annihilation, the wrath of Alioth. So it was just whatever comes out, and you hope that—against all the wind machines and everything else, the debris that they’re throwing at you—that you’re going to be audible at all. So, I can’t really remember, but that just comes out of you!
AVC: You’ve been involved with a number of projects with pretty loyal fanbases, from Loki in the MCU, to Star Wars, to Game Of Thrones—all the way back to Spice World, really. Have you noticed the culture of fandom change over the years?
REG: I’m a lifelong fan of people and of movies, so I absolutely understand this completely adolescent-like—as a psychiatrist told me—frenzy that you have that is not rational. The first movie that I was ever in, Withnail And I, has a cult following in the U.K. So I was used to somebody—20 years after the movie had come out—[seeing] me on the subway, or on a bus, or whatever, and [going], “I saw your movie!” And I’d know that they didn’t mean anything else that I’d done—they only meant that movie. And they could quote lines from the movie when I couldn’t even remember that stuff.
So I’ve had experience with that! Between Withnail and Game Of Thrones and Star Wars and Spice World—and my social media numbers went berserk after that Loki. I mean, I was in one episode probably for 10 minutes of screen time, so I didn’t really take on board that it might have, I don’t know, been noticed! Tom Hiddleston had said to me on the first day I worked—and I thought it was because he was trying to quell my nerves, being an actor and producer and [having] played the part for 10 years—“You know, I think that when you are seen as Old Loki, there’s going to be a big response to this.” And I thought he was just blowing smoke up a fearful old actor’s backside. But, my god, he was right, because the stuff that has happened online since then—and continues to as a result of Loki—has completely floored me. I had no idea that that could happen.
Star Wars: Episode IX—The Rise of Skywalker (2019)— “General Pryde”
AVC: Speaking of massive franchises you had to stay tight-lipped about, you capped off the Skywalker Saga with a role in Episode IX. As a longtime Star Wars fan, was this a part you lobbied for?
REG: I got sent—as actors do now—a generic interrogation scene that was clearly from a 1940s B-war movie. I taped it, and then you send it off into cyberspace, [thinking] you never hear anything again. Then, about three or four months later, I got a call from my agent saying, “J.J. Abrams, who’s casting Star Wars, wants to see you at Pinewood Studios,” because of a tape that I’d done. I said, “No, I never auditioned for this,” and she said, “Well, you have!” And I argued with her—I’d been a fan of Star Wars since I was 20, if I had auditioned for Star Wars I would remember that. I asked, “Can you send it back to me?,” so she did. And then I realized that it had nothing to do with Star Wars, there was no script for Star Wars at all. But I got the idea of what they were after.
So then I went and met J.J. Abrams in the Carrie Fisher Building—and I knew Carrie really well. As I walked in, he was sitting with Daisy Ridley, and I thought, “Oh, right, am I reading with her? What’s the deal?” And, I think, five minutes in the door, he said, “So are you going to do the part?” And that’s when the room literally felt like it went upside down. He told me the name of the part and the plot, but I didn’t listen to any of that because I just I saw his mouth moving and I thought, “Wow, I’m going to be in the final Star Wars movie—is this really going to happen?” And then he segued into talking about Barbra Streisand, and Daisy had done a duet with her on her Partners album, and he’s great friends with her, so we talked about that. Just the combination of Star Wars, and Barbra Streisand, and Pinewood Studios...
And then I subsequently found out that I had got this part, and you had to go into a conference room where there were bodyguards and closed circuit cameras. You have to leave your phone behind, and you read the script, and then you leave again. And on the day, you only get a sort of plastic folder with your dialogue printed on red paper so you couldn’t photograph it. And you have to learn it from then, and then you had to sign it off, and then hand it in at the end of the day. Secrecy was Fort Knox-like. It was an extraordinary experience. I didn’t even tell my family the name of my character for fear of being fired, or it going out onto the internet in some shape or form. The Disney police would come and break my knees!
Spice World (1997)—“Clifford”
AVC: When you filmed Spice World, your daughter was right in their target demographic—she was a huge fan. Did she ever come to set with you and get to meet them?
REG: It was the mid-’90s, so there were still answering machines with little bleeping lights to tell you how many messages you had, and when she heard agents leave a message saying, “Will you be the Spice Girls’ manager in Spice World the movie?,” she levitated. She said, “I don’t care if you get a 50-year contract with Disney, you have to be in Spice World the movie so I can meet them.” And that’s what happened! So, almost every day that I worked, I either got her out of school, or got her at the end of school to come and join [on set]. And they were amazingly kind. I mean, they were all 20, 21 years old, so they were closer in age to my daughter than they were to me, who was double their age. And she brought all her friends, and they accommodated all of that. Every time I’ve seen [the Spice Girls], all these years later, they still ask after her and use her nickname. So it’s very, very sweet.
AVC: Do they still consider you their Old Spice?
REG: Old Spice! Definitely Old Spice. I had just turned 40, so, you know, I was the age of their father. When you’re 20, 40 is double your age—you are literally a dinosaur. I was Jurassic Park.
AVC: One of the great tragedies of our digital age is that Spice World is not readily available to stream. How can we make this happen?
REG: I have no idea. [Laughs.] I have no idea whatsoever. But I think you’re well placed, Cameron, to find these things out.
AVC: It’s been said that Spice World is the project that secured you the guest arc on Girls.
REG: Yes! Oh, I’d watched all of Girls. Because, again, my daughter is two years younger than Lena, so she was absolutely obsessed with it. So we watched that together. And I was working on a movie with Jude Law called Dom Hemingway, that was written and directed by Richard Shepard, and Richard is married to Jenni Konner, who was the producer of Girls—so, inside story. I thought, “Oh, I’ve been offered a part in Girls because Lena had seen Withnail.” Of course, no, she hadn’t—she’d seen Spice World! She said, “Right, okay, you’re going to bring that mania and play a coke-addicted nutjob who’s trying to jump on Jemima Kirke at any given opportunity. So, she wrote one episode, I did that, and then she said, “Okay, can you do two more?” So I did it with enormous pleasure. Really, I had such a good time working with her. She’s a brilliant director also.
Also, Felicity Jones is in there [playing Jasper’s estranged daughter]. So, you get Felicity and I in our pre-Star Wars mode! [Laughs.]
Withnail And I (1987)—“Withnail”
AVC: As you’ve mentioned, Withnail And I is a role that’s followed you your whole career. Were there times where you felt like you had to break outside of that, and work to prove to people that you could do more beyond the dark comedy of that film?
REG: You know, “cult” always seems to me a sort of euphemism for “five people saw it,” so you’ve got five fanatics and then the rest of the planet of cinema goes, “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” And I think that still applies. So, no, I didn’t feel like that. I think now that I’m as old as I am and there’s enough that’s gone behind, that’s not coming ahead, that you can look back on stuff and wonder. But, on a day-to-day basis—unless, you know, Cameron Scheetz asking me these questions—I never think about it. [Laughs.]
AVC: Your book, With Nails, details your experiences making Withnail And I, and in it you claim of the film, “Never before or since have I read something that conveys what goes on in my head so accurately.” Does that still hold true for you?
REG: I think because I had been unemployed for nine months before I got that part—and because I was 29 years old, which is the age of that character as well—there were so many parallels in my experience and my frustrations. I suppose the other thing is that: There are things that I would love to be able to say in a real-life situation, but manners and civility and all that stuff prevent you from doing it. Whereas Withnail is so undiluted and unfettered in what he says about anything and everything—to his cost, you know, he still pays the price for it. But I thought, “That is so what I would love to say in a situation to somebody,” but of course you don’t. It’s the uninhibited, just don’t-give-a-fuck, completely hedonistic, selfish way of living that I’ve matured from. So, if I read it now, it would be not what is going on in my head, but it certainly was at the time.
AVC: With Nails is such a gift because it really does welcome us into your headspace at this pivotal time when your career was first starting to take off. I’ve stuck to asking about some of your more recent roles because the book provides such detailed accounts of Withnail, Warlock, L.A. Story—much of your work through the ’90s. But would you ever consider writing a follow-up?
REG: Well, I still write every day! And I wrote a diary about the experience of writing and directing my first and only movie so far, Wah-Wah, which was entirely autobiographical. And I think, in the same way that With Nails was [about] somebody who’d never made a movie, then ends up working in L.A., there’s a real journey to go through that from ingenue or cynic, or whatever you call it. Whereas, I think that what was has put the brakes on doing it again is that I was fearful that it might just seem repetitive, or not have the same kind of impetus. So, I’ve not pursued that, but I have kept writing.
Hudson Hawk (1991)—“Darwin Mayflower”
AVC: Hudson Hawk makes up a significant portion of the book, and you dive into what a dreadful slog that production was. Outside of your friendship with Sandra Bernhard, would you say anything else valuable came out of that experience?
REG: [Pauses.] It was just Sandra Bernhard. [Laughs.] Lifelong friends with Sandra. And you don’t want to be her enemy. [Laughs.] Oh, she’s just great—I love Sandra. She is so unequivocally honest and she just doesn’t take any prisoners, and she’s not changed one iota. She’s an amazing person, and I absolutely love her.
The Player (1992)—“Tom Oakley”
Ready To Wear / Prêt-à-Porter (1994)—“Cort Romney”
AVC: As the story goes, it’s at the premiere of Hudson Hawk that you ran into Robert Altman, and that’s essentially when he offered you a part in The Player, which kicks off this this great series of collaborations with him. Given his distinctive approach to filmmaking, what have those experiences meant to you?
REG: Well, you always hope that the Altman experience is going to go into other movies because he works on film like [it’s] an ensemble in a theater company. In that there are two salary tiers, so—like, for instance, on Prêt-à-Porter, which is a disaster, but the experience of making it was quite fun—you know that Julia Roberts and Sophia Loren, that echelon of people, are all on one payroll. And then, the lower lot—which I was—that’s on another [payroll]. But it’s not as extreme as somebody getting $30-to-50 million and you’re getting scale. It’s that sort of disparity that immediately affects how people are because, you know, the impetus, or the reason, that most actors might want to become an actor is because it’s such an amazing job to be able to do. If you get some fame and then money comes with it, that is kind of the bonus of it, to some extent. It certainly wasn’t, for me, the sole motivator to want to do this job. So, if there’s no disparity between somebody getting $50 million and somebody getting $100 a day, it means that there’s a kind of communal atmosphere and support system that is unique.
Altman also invited all the actors in the crew to watch the rushes, the dailies, every night, so everybody can see what everybody else was doing. So you felt that you were really part of the whole process, of how it was made. It also gave him the opportunity to find out—albeit with a partisan audience—what was funny, or what was moving, or what did and didn’t work. Whereas, almost without exception, with every other director, it’s very, very secretive and you don’t see the dailies. You know, that’s something that happens in the headmaster’s office. Altman was very, very inclusive, and shared everything.
And, by the same token, if there were 18 actors in a scene, every single person was miked up. On another movie, it’s the people talking—you know, the three or four people at most—they’re miked up, and everybody else is sort of background, or was switched off. Altman was as interested in the far corner of the screen of what was going on there as what was going on center stage. And I think that was what was so idiosyncratic and unique about his talent.
Gosford Park (2001)—“George”
AVC: Did that communal aspect carry over to a film like Gosford Park, where there cast was split along this upstairs-downstairs divide?
REG: Oh yeah, but it’s amazing how people got infected, or affected, by what class they were playing. Usually in my career, I’ve played people in the upstairs section of life, so being in the downstairs—I can remember one day, an actor I’d known really well and had worked with before, said, “You can’t sit there,” when I had just sat down on a sofa in the “upstairs.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Well, you’re servant class!” I said, “Hello, this is a movie; it’s not real life!” He just cut himself short, he realized that he got so taken up into the world of this. So that amused me enormously—that people are affected by their surroundings and even their clothes on set. The sense of entitlement infiltrates. [Laughs.]
Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events (2019)—“Man With Beard But No Hair”
AVC: In our conversation with the great Beth Grant, she remembered you having a very early call time to get into hair and makeup for this part. How was that transformation process for you?
REG: Oh, yes. [Laughs.] That was 3 a.m., into the chair to have the bald cap and all that done. So, yeah, that was dedication. You go into sort of Zen-like trance mode. You’ve got two incredibly dedicated, hardworking, talented makeup artists transforming you into looking completely bald and much older, and then having this huge Rip Van Winkle-like beard and sideburns and glasses. It’s an amazing thing—it’s so early in the morning that you do go into this trance-like state, inadvertently, and they’re sort of “whale music” while talking in the background. Then when you sort of resurface, you look and you can’t believe that you have been turned into this ancient old gizzard. So, that was always a sweet moment, and I enjoyed it enormously.
But Beth Grant was great, indeed. She was great to work with.