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Richard E. Grant plays a melancholic drag queen who takes on a teenage mentee in Jonathan Butterell’s musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.
But before signing on, Grant had never been to a drag show or seen a single episode of a certain Emmy-winning series from RuPaul and World of Wonder — so he immediately got to work on binge-watching included 11 seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race. “Their courage, chutzpah and creativity are off the scale. They are astonishing,” says the Oscar-nominated actor, who is now mourning the loss of his wife Joan Washington, a celebrated dialect coach who passed away Sept. 2. “The shade-throwing and the sass and the vivacity of what the drag queens come up with is so witty and funny and heartbreaking at the same time. I’m a complete RuPaul addict.”
Grant likens his transformation for the film to a pit crew making over a vintage Ferrari but instead of mechanics, he leaned on “a small village” comprised of hair, makeup, choreography and vocal professionals, including Washington, who helped him nail an accent for Sheffield, England, where the film is set. During a Zoom interview about the role (done before Washington’s passing), Grant credited his colleagues, talked about his transformation for Marvel’s Disney+ series Loki and opened up on how his Oscar nomination changed his life.
I hear that you owe a bit of your preparation to the queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race?
Not a bit, like a whale size because I binge-watched 11 seasons in three weeks. I don’t know how many hours of the day that works out to because I can’t do math, but that’s what I did. Their courage, chutzpah and creativity are off the scale. They are astonishing. The prejudice that they have to overcome in broader society and the resistance that many of their life stories have within their own families is so touching. The shade throwing and the sass and the vivacity of what the drag queens come up with is so witty and funny and heartbreaking at the same time. I’m a complete RuPaul addict.
I found it really helpful in how to play the melancholic Hugo when he’s down and out. His partner died of AIDS and his career went down the pan in the 80s, but then he’s reinvigorated through mentoring this teenage kid, Jamie, who comes into his shop and says, “I want to be a drag queen.”
Have you gotten a chance to meet or speak to RuPaul or any of the queens?
No, because of [COVID-19 isolation], but I hope to meet him one day.
Costumes are always crucial to fully embody a character, but what was the experience like on this film?
It took a team of people. If you can imagine an old vintage Ferrari, i.e. me, that has taken a pit stop in Monaco with a team of people changing the tires, the wheels, the oil, the car seats, the uniform, absolutely everything, and then sending it off down the racetrack fully done. That process took about two months of many, many different wigs, many trials, and errors of the right bust size, hip size, and all of that. It took a small village to get me ready and I had a great team. I had a singing coach, Anne Marie Speed. Shaun Niles, who is a 6-foot-6 dancer-choreographer who works with Kylie Minogue on her tours and with supermodels like Naomi Campbell, taught me how to walk. I learned a Sheffield accent from [my wife] Joan Washington. Guy Speranza did the costumes. Nadia Stacey and Guy Common did the drag makeup and hair. I had this huge fuck-off wig which was factually right in its dimensions, and as RuPaul says, “The bigger the wig, the closer you are to God.”
Playing a drag queen sounds like great fun. Is there anything else that you haven’t done that you’re champing at the bit to try?
I have never played an astronaut. I was in one episode of Loki. As I was born without any muscles, I have longed to have a muscle suit in anything. That would make me really happy.
Your Loki suit was pretty great, though. Doing a Marvel project always brings a legion of new fans. What has been the most surprising part of that?
My social media went literally berserk within an hour of that thing transmitting. I was only on it for about 10 days, and Tom Hiddleston said to me on my first day of shooting, “When people see you in this old Loki suit, they are going to have a big reaction.” I thought he was just being a good mensch, helping to calm my nerves on the first day. I said, “But I’ve got no muscles.” He said, “Don’t worry about that.” I had no idea that just being in one episode would have that kind of reach. On social media and in the post, I’ve been sent fan art and people have followed me that assume that I had never acted before now. It’s literally like that old Disney song — it’s a whole new world.
Speaking of, getting nominated for an Oscar can, for many, bring about a whole new world. How did it change your life?
Because I’ve been around for four decades, I had no delusions that whatever heat that came would disappear almost as quickly. That made it even all the more precious and enjoyable. The great advantage that the other four nominees in my category had that year was that it was clear, right from the get-go, that Mahershala Ali was the favored guy. That meant we could enjoy the ride without thinking, “Oh my God, I’d better have a speech just in case.” It became a running joke. We used to say to each other, “Have you got your speech?” We’d go, “Yeah, here it is. I’d like to thank Mahershala Ali.” Mahershala was such a great gentleman, such a sport about this.
From that point of view, it meant that it was a ride of a lifetime for me. I grew up in the smallest country in the Southern hemisphere, which has recently been renamed Eswatini from Swaziland. The idea that you could come from there and be in a movie or succeed in making a career as an actor was so remote that running around the Oscars and that whole awards circuit was just an out-of-body experience. It felt like an ongoing party to me, and I loved it.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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