If Richard E. Grant were an animal, he’d be a flamingo. It’s clearly something he’s put some thought into, as he has his pink-feathered answer ready as soon as the question is asked. “I’ve got pretty long, stretched-out limbs, and I’m a very nosy parker,” he says. “I like to know about everybody. I’m very curious about other people’s lives. I’ve got a big beak.”
For instance, at one point in our conversation—and not at my prompting—we end up talking about Grant’s backside. In a scene midway through the film, Hock (who introduces himself as “Jack Hock, big cock”) is seen getting out of bed after a fling—without a shred of clothing on. That was at Grant’s insistence.
As per his explanation of how he found his way into playing Hock, which shifts from practical to deeply personal within seconds, Grant is almost disarmingly willing to venture into candid territory. Stepping into the shoes of a real man about whose life very little is known, Grant latched onto one of the precious few details that Israel afforded about him: that he used a short cigarette holder because he thought it would stop him from getting lung cancer. That single prop—antiquated and unusual by the 1980s, when the film is set—suggested a certain romanticism and self-confidence, and clicked with a key aspect of Hock’s lust for life.
He’s quick, however, to qualify his work. “I sound like I’m trying to aggrandize what I’ve done,” he says, sounding sheepish, “but it’s all in the script, and the reaction of playing opposite Melissa.” He doesn’t hesitate in professing his love for Heller (“such a compassionate, collaborative, all-enabling director”) and for McCarthy (“an absolute astonishingly generous, kind, emotionally present human being”). But as for his own part in it all—let’s put it this way: When he saw the finished cut of his first and arguably most famous film, 1987’s Withnail and I, he offered his entire salary to director Bruce Robinson, right then and there. “I thought I’d ruined his movie and that I would never, ever work again.”
Of course, the film speaks for itself, and, far from being the nail in Grant’s coffin, launched him into a career in Hollywood, and films like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Gosford Park, Logan and next year's Star Wars: Episode IX.
I said, 'Please be kind, put me in shadow. This is a 60-year-old butt-cheek that’s coming your way.'
The key to getting through it (he hasn’t felt the need to return to psychoanalysis since then) was a reconciliation with his long-estranged mother. “[My psychoanalyst] said, ‘As your mother is still alive, you must do everything you can to reconcile with her,’” he explains. “It took a long time to find a bridge to do that, but when we did, it was absolutely redemptive. She said three magic words to me, ‘Please forgive me,’ which changed everything.”
She said three magic words to me, ‘Please forgive me,’ which changed everything.
Though Grant describes himself as Hock’s polar opposite, he at least has the same gift of gab (“I can talk the hind leg off a donkey”) and, despite (or perhaps because of) his faintly fatalistic streak when it comes to his work, a willingness to embrace life. His relationship with his family, his commitment to his work, the way he speaks about his characters and collaborators, the risk he took in launching a perfume line (after being told he’d lose everything, he invested all the money he’d saved by not drinking or smoking in his adult life and found himself in profit after six months: “I’ve had the last laugh! Ha ha!”)—everything, in combination with his willingness to discuss it, speaks to a tremendous sense of empathy and understanding.
And if that doesn’t all scream “flamingo” to you, know that Grant has a second answer to the animal question. A flamingo is just what he’d be if he were on land. “If I was under the water, I’d be a dolphin.”