'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Richard E. Grant ('Can You Ever Forgive Me?')

The veteran character actor, who was most famous for his debut film role in 1987's 'Withnail & I' prior to his Oscar-nominated turn in Marielle Heller's 2018 dramedy about a pair of Big Apple misfits, reflects on his bizarre childhood, the working-actor's grind and why he's savoring every second of his current moment in the spotlight.
Photographed By Sami Drasin
Richard E. Grant

"I'm about to be 62 years old," the veteran character actor Richard E. Grant, a best supporting actor Oscar nominee this year for his portrayal of substance-abusing hustler Jack Hock in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, tells me during our sit-down at The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR's 'Awards Chatter' podast. "I've never been nominated for or awarded things before. So to have this happen at my age is so extraordinary I can't be blasé about it. I am absolutely made up. I'm incredibly grateful for it."

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Grant was born and raised in Swaziland. His home life was shattered when his parents split up after his mother had an affair, which, in turn, drove his father into alcoholism and violence towards him. His great escape, from an early age, was performance of one sort or another, although the notion that he might pursue a career as an actor did not sit well with his dad: "He used to jokingly say, 'You will live a life in destitution wearing makeup, tights and avoiding being sodomized," Grant recalls. But Grant, whose father died at 53, was undeterred, and he headed to the University of Cape Town to study drama. (He also co-founded a theater troupe there.) Not everyone anticipated great things for his future; indeed, his own advisor was skeptical, Grant remembers with a laugh: "He said, 'I don't think that you really are cut out — or are going to make it as — an actor, because you look too weird."

Nevertheless, Grant persisted — with limited ambitions. "I thought I was going to spend my whole life doing Chekhov in the theater," he insists. "It didn't really cross my mind that it would be possible to ever be in a movie — that's what happened overseas or in America or in Hollywood, which was this fabled land on the other side of the planet." In 1982, rather than relocating to Hollywood, he moved to London, where he beat the boards — and worked as a waiter — for a few years before landing his first film role: as an out-of-work actor in Bruce Robinson's 1987 dark comedy Withnail & I (Daniel Day-Lewis turned down the part), which wasn't a box office smash at the time, but has since become a cult classic ("It's been one of the slowest burns ever," Grant chuckles) and catapulted his career ("When that movie came out, it literally changed my professional life completely and entirely," he adds).

Grant reunited with Robinson two years later on the less successful How to Get Ahead in Advertising, and began working in Hollywood, too, appearing in 1990's Henry & June and L.A. Story and then the 1991 bomb Hudson Hawk, after which, he admits, "I thought I would never work again." But Grant, a consummate professional and likable guy, went on to collaborate with the likes of Robert Altman (1992's The Player, 1994's Pret-a-Porter and 2001's Gosford Park), Martin Scorsese (1993's The Age of Innocence) and Francis Ford Coppola (1992's Bram Stoker's Dracula), before basing himself once again in England in order to be present for the childhood of his daughter, Olivia. Once she had grown up, he again began taking on jobs abroad, including two for prominent HBO series, Game of Thrones and Girls.

Then, while working on 2017's Logan, he heard about Can You Ever Forgive Me? and jumped at the opportunity to play the co-conspirator of Melissa McCarthy's Lee Israel in Marielle Heller's dramedy, which he immediately likened to two classic films about unlikely pals struggling together in the Big Apple, 1968's The Odd Couple and 1969's Midnight Cowboy. His chemistry with McCarthy proved electric and hilarious. "It was helped," he says, "by the fact that we got on so well, and have stayed friends ever since." As for the awards that have come his way as a result — the first nominations of his career for Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice, SAG, BAFTA, Spirit and, most meaningfully to him, Academy awards, all in the category of best supporting actor, and a gig in the next Star Wars movie also recently confirmed? He shakes his head in disbelief and confesses, "I'm still in a state of complete astonishment."