Richard E. Grant Breaks Down His Career, from ‘Downton Abbey’ to ‘Star Wars’ | Vanity Fair

published on July 2, 2020

– You have to go by instinct,

a combination of does this script appeal,

who are the other actors attached,

who is the director?

All of those things
combined to make it seem

a viable project

You have no way of knowing because

you have to take a gamble otherwise

every movie you made
would be an instant hit

because we'd all known and
you know nobody does that

As William Gilbert the
late screenwriter said,

"nobody knows anything"

[upbeat piano music]

My name is Richard E Grant

and this is the timeline of my career

What a piece of work is a man

How noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties,

how like an angel in apprehension,

how like a god of beauty of the world

I had been unemployed for nine months

before I got this part,
so playing somebody

who is bitter and twisted about being

an alcoholic, unemployable actor

was the best and unplanned life experience

that I could possibly have had

I was 29 years old in the spring of 1986

They had tried to get this movie

with an unpronounceable
title "Withnail and I" cast

Daniel Day Lewis had just come off

a double whammy of appearing
in "Room With a View"

and "My Beautiful Launderette",

so he was offered absolutely everything

including the lead in "Withnail and I"

Massively he turned it down
and the casting director

was then scraping around, I
had never done a movie before

let alone an audition for one

and got called up by the late Mary Selway

the casting director, she cast me in it

that gave me the
beginning of a film career

and the irony is that I
am allergic to alcohol

as I discovered when I was a teenager

that I had blood tests and
have no enzyme in my system,

so Bruce Robinson the writer/director,

he's a masochist of course and he insisted

that I had a chemical memory

and so he sent me home and
I got paralytically drunk

on a bottle of champagne

Throwing up, drinking,
throwing up, drinking

until I eventually went to
rehearsals the next morning

and then there was a moment where I knew

that I had to get out of the door

because I could feel a
Persian carpet of vomit

coming up my throat, passed out outside

and then woke up in my
own bed 24 hours later

having no memory of how I got there

In the scene of the movie
where these two characters

are just so desperate
for any kind of alcohol

or substance he takes lighter fluid

and during the rehearsal it had been water

and Bruce Robinson replaced it

with very, very strong vinegar,

so when this went down my throat I choked

and then vomited all
over Paul McGann's shoes

out of site of the camera

Paul McGann had a big television series

He was very self-confident and I'm 6'2"

and he said, "you know, you're never ever

"gonna make it in the movies because

"everybody is height
impaired like Tom Cruise"

and I said, "well, Clint
Eastwood's over 6'2"

"and there are people that are over 6'2"

He said, "Nah, you haven't a chance"


He was you know funny and mocking,

but I was convinced that
I would never work again

and ironically playing that out of work,

alcoholic, drug-addicted actor

has lead to every single
job almost without exception

that I've had in the
movie industry ever since

Would not Satan have saved you,

were he thus inclined?

– Perhaps he'll save us both, Redferne

– Withnail had opened in America

before it did in England and a director

called Steve Miner and
the late great producer,

Arnold Kopelson who had just won an Oscar

came to London because
they were doing this

historical horror movie called "Warlock",

set between the 18th
century and the 20th century

and they wanted Sean
Connery, he turned it down,

they then went to Michael
Douglas, he turned it down

and then they'd seen Withnail

and thought well we'll
get a skinny English guy

who's gonna cost us nothing,
he'll do a Scottish accent

because we originally wanted Sean Connery

So I went to LA and
the first job I did there

was this horror movie
that had this tagline,

"He came from the past
to destroy the future"

All I know to say, oh you know Hollywood

and write it off as a superficial place

of no consequence, but
I absolutely loved it

I'd been a film buff because
I grew up in Swaziland,

which was a British protectorate
in Southeast Africa

There was no television where I grew up

at all until I had left

Movies and the radio were the two outlets

into the world beyond

The idea that I would ever be in a movie,

let alone work in
Hollywood was so unlikely

that I was just gobsmacked to be there

– Hi

– I loved your wacky TV bit

– Thanks, I loved your too

– But I didn't

– You know I can explain
it's a very simple thing

– Oh, I see

– See it's a thing that I do regularly

– That's marvelously funny

You have a lot of verve

– Verve?

– I had done a second
film with Bruce Robinson

called "How to Get Ahead in Advertising"

and at the premiere of
that I met Steve Martin

and he said, "Would you
be in my next movie?"

and I thought yeah, pigs might fly

A month later true to his word

I got the script of "LA Story"

and was flown out to LA, so
that was my second job there

and I had been warned that Steve

was very difficult to get to know,

there would be no small talk whatsoever

So I was staying at the Chateau Marmont

and I got a phone call, "Hey, it's Steve"

I said, "Steve who?"

He said, "Steve Martin"

"Do you want to come over for brunch?"

I said, "Okay"

And he opened the door
and he was very friendly

and he said, "Would you like a drink?

What do you want to eat?"

I meet his wife Victoria Tennant

who I was playing the
husband of in the story

and I thought I'd be
there for half an hour,

10 minutes I had no idea,
stayed the whole day

So he was the complete opposite

of what I had been told he would be like

We've become from that
age onwards great friends

and we used to communicate at
the end of the last century

by fax on a weekly basis

So he's got apparently sort
of box of faxes that thick

There's a book that we
have written between us

of this 30 year friendship

I've got all the emails

He's kept all the faxes

He could have me in court really

or other people could have me in court

because they are unvarnished in which

nothing is censored and
no prisoners are taken

So there was this scene
inside the LA Museum,

Steve was on roller skates,
he's such a physical comedian

when he puts his mind to it he just has

this obsessive determination
to get something right

and it was an amazing privilege

to be able to film in that museum

without anybody else around,

so that's all I remember from that day

and the fact that all the fashions

were high-waisted, pleated pants

I don't think will ever
come back into fashion

She's dead

I'll tell you there's not
a dry eye in the house

– She's dead?

– She's dead

This is a tough story, a tragedy

in which an innocent woman dies


Because that happens

I was in an absolute
disastrous movie "Hudson Hawk"

starring Bruce Willis doing this

James Bond-like spoof or
that was the intention of it

At the premiere as I sat down

there was a tap on my shoulder,

"Hey, E Grant"

Robert Altman

And he said," I've got a part for you

"in a movie called "The Player",

"which I'm starting
shooting in a months time

"Are you available?"

And I said Bob, what you're
about to see "Hudson Hawk"

is so diabolical that I will never ever

be able to work in LA or
the movie industry ever again

He said, "Ah, no"

When I got this career resurrection

to finally work with Bob Altman

was an amazing, life reaffirming thing

because he absolutely loved actors

He liked actors with very long faces,

who were very thin and
didn't cost a lot of money

I had seen "Nashville" when I
was a theater student 27 times

in a movie house, so I was
a complete Altman obsessive,

so when I got the opportunity
to work with him once

and then subsequently got to be

in three of his other movies
was the real fulfillment

of a teenage movie buffs dream

I miss him and his wife Kathryn

more than anybody that
I've ever worked with

in show business because he would invite

all the crew and all the
actors to watch the dailies

every evening, everyone
was offered a joint

or a drink, you really
felt that you were part

of an experience of a movie being made

rather than the piecemeal
in which movies are made

where people are so isolated

I've been in movies
where I haven't even met

other actors who were in the movie

because your scenes don't
cross over until the premiere

From an actors point of view
if you're a social person

like I am it was really the ideal

The fact that "The Player" completely

resurrected Altman's career
was an amazingly touching,

warm-hearted moment, so I
was honored to be in it

Really here at the opera
like that sitting her

next to May Welland, it's all very odd

– Well, she's had such an odd life

– Will he even bring her
to the Beaufort's Ball

you suppose?

– [Older Man With Glasses] If they do

the talk will be of little else

– During "The Player" one of the producers

threw a party at which
everybody in the room

was Al Pacino, Warren
Beatty, Barbara Streisand,

Ellen Barkin, Winona Ryder who was 19

She came up to me and blew fan smoke

because she was still
living with Johnny Depp

at that time and she said, "Johnny Depp

"and I know every single line of Withnail"

and she started quoting it at me

Winona said to me, "You
have to be in Dracula,

"which I'm doing"

And I said well who's directing it?

And she said, "Coppola"

I said, well what power do you have?

She said, "No, I'm the one that's

"got the thing financed"

Through Winona, I got to be in Dracula

and once I was in Dracula I then

got cast straight after that again

I think because of agent Winona

in Martin Scorsese's "Age of Innocence"

playing a small part, but
when I meet Daniel Day Lewis

on the first morning
I did prostrate myself

and I said, "Oh Daniel, thank you

"for giving me my career
break by turning down

"'Withnail and I' four years previously"

and he said, "Arise my son"

The following day he didn't speak to me

for the next three months

and I didn't know what I'd done wrong

and I said to Michelle Pfeiffer,

"What the [beep] is going on?"

She said, "Oh, it's because his character

"hates your character"

Oh, okay

It was very unnerving and
then from then onwards

he never spoke to me until my last day

and then he suddenly
broke out of character

and said, "Hey, it was so
great to work with you"

or whatever

Completely floored

Working with Altman, then
Coppola, then Scorsese

for somebody that had grown up

on all of their movies in the '70s

was something that I couldn't
possibly have taken on board,

so both being Italian-American directors

Coppola works in an atmosphere
of circus-like chaos

He said, "I can't cook for two people,

"I have to cook for 30", so when we were

staying at his house and every night

he'd cook for all of us

People would arrive with their dogs

and their pets and their relatives

and they were friends, there was visitors,

it was a very social, extended
Italian family atmosphere

and that went on for the six
or seven months of shooting

Flip to a month later, New York,

Martin Scorsese who speaks at bullet speed

as you know, everything
was monastically quiet

Somebody would even whisper to me

[unintelligible sound]

Everybody's on tenter hooks at all times

and I said to Michael Ballhaus
Director of Photography,

you've worked with Martin
Scorsese before, is this the norm?

He said, "Oh yeah, yeah,
this is how it is"

So it seemed almost a
contradiction inters to me

that a man whose movies are so charged

with the sounds of violence

and incredibly iconic soundtracks

full of amazing music when he works

it is as quiet as a tomb
that was a big surprise

– It's up to us whether we turn up

to this gig or not tomorrow, all right

– Okay, stay at home

That's fine

– Fine

– Fine

– What about the fans?

We can't let them down

– Well that's just too bad

I love that we're segwaying from

working with Martin Scorsese
to "Spice World" the movie

But there's a great
outcome to working on this

In the days of answering machines

my eight year old daughter came back

and of course she loved doing this,

she'd press the button
and listen to the messages

and there was a message that went,

"You have an offer to
play for X amount of money

the Spice Girls manager in
'Spice World' the movie"

She went absolutely apoplectic

She said, "Dad I don't care
if you get a Disney contract

"for 50 years, you have to be
in the 'Spice World' movie,

"so that I can come meet them"

I did and they were very, very kind

and generous towards her and I got

an enormous amount of professional flack

from very grand actors who said,

how can you be in a
movie, they aren't actors,

there was no real script to speak of

and you've basically prostituted yourself

Fast forward 20 years Adele
was a "Spice World" fan,

she sent me tickets to go and see her

at the O2 when you couldn't
get in to see her live

for love nor money

Likewise, Lena Dunham who
didn't know "Withnail"

or any of those things had seen me

in "Spice World" the
movie and asked me to play

a part in one episode of "Girls"

and then wrote me into
three more episodes,

it paid off in the end
and now "Spice World"

has a cult following and there are people

that dress up as the Spice Girls

Mostly men I think

They weren't in the acting discipline

of you have to do it like this

they were basically encouraged
to be entirely themselves,

so I loved working with them

The biggest surprise is
that Victoria Beckham

has this persona of non-smiling

and being very serious,
but she was really funny

and had a great sense of humor

They sent me to a sort
of rock and roll tailor

and they kitted me out in amazing satin

and wet-look fancy suits,
all of which I've still got

I got them at the end,
so they're in my attic

– Thank you for your efficiency

– You're all set then

– [Male] Yes, George?

– Nothing, sir

– [Male] I should hope not

– What was extraordinary
about "Gosford Park"

is that Altman had two cameras

working simultaneously on two tracks

and one would be going that way

and the other one would be going that way

You never knew who it was focused on,

so you had to be completely in character,

completely in the moment
and interact with everybody

in the way that felt as close to real life

as you could possibly conjure up

The full arc or trajectory
of an actor's career

was visible and you could
go and speak to somebody

that was bright eyed and bushy tailed

who just coming out of drama school

is you know first movie and a big break,

then to the middle aged ones
of which I was at that time,

then to the older ones
who were sitting around

telling war stories
and you know who's died

and this bevy of knights and dames

Kristen Scott Thomas
and Dame Maggie Smith,

it was a great education about

what to expect or not expect
or just to enjoy from a career

You felt completely, communally involved

and valued as an actor in it

and he knew everybody's
name and he was as much

interested if the frame
of the movie was like that

of what was going on in
this left-hand corner

as what was in the center of the frame

He would microphone between 18

and 25 actors so that
what happens in real life

is people overlap, interrupt or whatever

and he wanted that to be the nature

of how a movie was made

I don't understand why most movies

are not made like that

In 2002 when "Gosford
Park" won Best Ensemble

at the SAG Awards it was at a time

when award shows were not as they are now,

these huge media events,

but we were thrilled that we got one,

but kind of impact or import of it

didn't strike in quite the same way

because it's like oh yeah
you guys got an award


That's how it was

Whereas now every corner of
the English speaking globe

seems to know when the SAG Awards are on

and the Golden Globes

In the two months of the award season

there seems to be one
almost every two days

– Gary said I'd be bored stiff,

but I love it

– How very hubbly-jubbly for you

– Hubbly-jubbly
– Hubbly-jubbly

– Blah blah this, tub
a bub, hubbly-jubbly,

hoighty toighty, toodle loo, ding dong

Sounds like a load of old Wah-Wah

– I had a very dysfunctional childhood

where I grew up my mother ran off

with my father's best friend when I was 10

and I inadvertently
woke up in the backseat

of a car and saw her imforgranted

with my father's best
friend on the front seat

which is the opening scene
of my movie "Wah-Wah"

and "Wah-Wah" is what
my American stepmother

identified as the way
posh English people spoke,

it's all wah wah wah like that,

she couldn't really understand
what they were saying

[unintelligible sounds]

It was really a coming
of age when I was 14

and Nicholas Hoult played me,

it was an amazing experience to go

back to Swaziland where no movie

had ever been made and being a first time

writer/director I was able to recreate

in all the places where
these events happened

in my life and film them and have people

that were middle aged when I was young

now in their old age
playing extras in the movie,

so it was a very cathartic
experience to do that

and also unlike being an actor

you are in control of everything

For somebody who's a detail obsessive,

which I am it is the perfect job,

so being asked a thousand questions a day

of somebody saying you know
should it be this color,

do I come in from here or
what's the motivation for this

I love that

I met the late great director Mike Nichols

just before I started shooting

and I said, "what's your advice?"

He said, "actors can always act faster

"than they think", so
we'd do one or two takes

and when I was satisfied
with what I had got

I always asked the actor do one for you

and then I said always at the end,

let's do one for Mike

In other words leave whatever pauses

or whatever you are doing
and just motor through it

and almost without exception
the doing one for Mike

were the takes that we used because

they had the most life, the most freedom

and the thing of speed that
was a great learning experience

and a very, very simple note
that had a kind of genius

– [Interviewer] Are you
hoping to direct again?

– I am now on a movie that I've
been told is fully financed

and we're in the process
of beginning casting

So I'm back in the helm

– We've a letter from his mother,

she's just heard about
the Fall of the Bastille

and her son was on his way through France

She was so desperate to get him home

she sent it by special messenger

– Mothers

– Some things never change

– Lots of things never change

Julian Fellowes had written "Gosford Park"

that's obviously the
first time I had met him

and he got the Oscar for Best Screenplay

and there is a tradition in England

that almost every
English actor has been in

a medical soap opera, a Dickens,

an Agatha Christie, any kind
of period drama that is going

we're always in britches and tights

or cravats, it's just the
way of English actors

They had done three or four series

of "Downton Abbey" and I suppose

they were probably scrapping the barrel,

who haven't we had on this program yet

I got cast to play Elizabeth
McGovern's love interest

or he sees her as his love interest,

this sleazy art dealer

Most of us either knew each other

or had all worked together

I'd worked with Jeremy Swift

and Maggie Smith on "Gosford Park"

and what is interesting for me is that

Altman couldn't decide
whether I was going to play

an upstairs character, which
is what I'm usually cast as

because the way I look and speak

or somebody who was downstairs

and he thought it would
be much more interesting

to have me playing somebody
who was downstairs,

ie servant class, working class,

so in "Downton Abbey" I was cast

to type in that I was playing somebody

who was middle to upper class educated,

it was very interesting
to experience that

– You're friends with Julia something?

– [Man At Bar] Steinberg

– Yep

– She not an agent anymore

She died

– She did?

Jesus, that's young

– Maybe she didn't die, maybe she just

moved back to the suburbs

I always confuse those two

No, that's right she got
married and had twins

– Better to have died

– Indeed

In November three years ago I got a call

from my agent who said, "You
have to read this script

"in 24 hours, they start shooting

"at the beginning of January in New York"

I said, who's turned
it down or who's died

She said, "Irrelevant,
don't ask that question"

I said, well who's playing Lee Israel?

And they said Melissa McCarthy

and I thought it's gonna
be a very broad comedy

I started reading it and realized

there was an amazing true story

and astonished that I had never
heard of Lee Israel before

or this scam that she pulled off,

these literary forgeries of
famous dead writer's letters

So I read it and of course said yes

and we read through the script

with Marielle Heller the director

What we liked about how
we approached our work?

What do we like to eat?

Got on instantaneously
and we started shooting

on the Monday

The contrast of coming off "Logan",

which had a crew of about 300 guys

with arms bigger than my thighs,

which is not saying much but
with explosions of hardware,

to then go from that to working

on this very intimate, small scale

in apartments and
bookshops around New York

the emotional intimacy of it compared

to the machismo of being on
a big action Marvel movie

couldn't have been more extreme

and of course that subject matter

But it is the way that
Mari approaches work

that she creates a very
communal atmosphere

in which you feel safe to
do whatever you can bring

to the table or to try and surprise her

We had no concept or idea that this movie

would have the critical acclaim
that it subsequently got

or that any of us would
get award recognition

or nominations in those big five awards

It's about as ideal a working condition

that you could hope for as an actor

I would work with both of
them in a nano-second again

– It was a coordinated
incursion Allegiant General

They overpowered the guards and forced me

to take them to their ship

– I see

Get me the Supreme Leader

– Yes sir

– Tell him we found our spy

Star Wars exactly like
the casting of "Logan"

I got sent a generic interrogation scene

from a 1940s English war movie,

pages of dialogue which you had to learn,

self-tape on an iPad, send
it off into cyberspace,

don't hear anything for two months,

don't even know what the
title of the project is

or what it's for you just know

that they want two different
flavors from the scenes

that they've sent

I got a call saying JJ Abrams

of course you know the
front half of my brain

knew exactly who he was

I was amazed at his self-confidence

and self-possession
because we don't get people

like that in England, certainly
not in the movie business

and they said, "JJ
Abrams is sending you a car

"to go to Pinewood Studios
just outside London,

"for a meeting" and I said, for what?

And they said, "Oh, it's for
Star Wars, the final one"

So I went and walked into the room,

Daisy Ridley was sitting with him

and I thought well what am I doing,

am I auditioning with Daisy,

am I reading in or whatever and he said,

"So, are you gonna do the part?"

And I said well what part
and he started describing it

I just felt the room going upside down

and I thought how the
hell am I being offered

in my early 60s a villain role

in the final ever Star Wars movie

and I didn't really believe it

all the way through the shooting

I kept being convinced I'd be fired,

cut out or replaced, so
every time I came into work

I'd say to JJ, "Please
pinch my shoulder,

"so that I know I have
some physical evidence

"to show that I've actually been here"

because everything is filmed
under incredible secrecy

You have to wear a cloak
going from the makeup trailer

into the studio because they had drones

from various tabloid
newspapers flying overhead

On the day that you worked
you would get the scene

and you had to sing in
for it and sign out for it

at the end of the day and
then learn it on the spot

Most secretive job I've ever been on,

it was like Fort Knox lock down, nothing

I never even dared tell my wife

and daughter the name of my character

because I thought if they told anybody

or my daughter mentioned
it on social media

to a friend I would get exposed and fired,

so it was a unique experience
from that point of view

and I thought the movie
was absolutely amazing

and how he managed to
wrangle all these nine movies

and satisfy so much of what
that franchise ended with

and I think he did an amazing job

Having begun last year
with an Oscar nomination,

Golden Globe, SAG all those things

and then at the end of the year

to be in the final ever Star Wars movie,

which I had obsessively followed

since I was a 20 year old drama student

in 1977 when I saw the first one,

it's a year that will never be repeated

in my experience ever again

So I'm very grateful to it and
it all happened in America

This is Peter

Peter was you if you entered your day

in the same place you began it

with no change everyday like the others

This is existing, not living

Now you know Peter, squint
your eyes and Peter is you

enough so at least that I think

we can jump right in to
day something changes

Doing the run up to the Oscars

Jason Segal contacted me via my agent

and said, "Can I have breakfast with you

"at the Four Seasons Hotel"

He then spoke with great erudition

and he's very articulate
and passionate about

this dream project that he had

in which he was the writer, showrunner,

director and lead actor and he described

what I was playing as a kind of

essentially a puppet
master of somebody who

is controlling a game where a whole

disparate group of people
start going on a quest

and it's to do with identity
and going into your past

via a virtual reality set on your head

He won me over and I met Sally Field

and I said, "Have you
read the whole thing?"

and he said "no" and I said,

"Well can I read the whole thing?"

and he said, "No, it doesn't exist yet

"We've got a couple of episodes

"that you can go on that
and this is the concept

"and this is how we
think it's going to end"

But nothing was finite at that point

I thought well if Sally
is taking the chance

and gamble on it, I'll do the same thing

My father was dead at 53
and I'm now about to be 63,

so I feel that every year that I've lived

longer than he did is a bonus

and that because he died
so young it has really

made me appreciate the here and now

and grabbing every
opportunity that you can

so that you don't end up
as many people I know do

by my age of going
should've, could've, would've

and that way bitterness
and unhappiness lies,

so seize the day

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