Rotten Tomatoes’ “Get To Know Your Nominees” series will provide an in-depth look at one nominee from each of the major awards categories – the four acting categories, and directing – diving into their highest-rated work from both fans and critics, essential titles from their filmography, and featuring thoughts on their nominated film drawn from an extended interview.
How could Richard E. Grant not have nabbed an Oscar by now – let alone a nomination? His 30-plus-year cinematic career reads like a pipe dream, with plucky performances in films helmed by a who’s who of iconic auteurs (Altman, Scorsese, Coppola, and Campion, to name a few). What’s more, he brings it, leaving indelible marks whenever he’s on screen, walking that razor-thin line of grabbing an audience’s full attention without hogging the limelight. Think of him pitching his screenplay poolside in The Player, or going toe to toe with a manic Tom Waits in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or doing—hell—literally anything in Withnail and I.
Come February, though, that golden statuette may no longer elude the 61-year-old, whose turn in Can You Ever Forgive Me? has garnered hosannas, racking up (as of this writing) Best Supporting Actor for the Film Critics Circles in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, as well as a Golden Globe nomination. In the 98% Certified Fresh feature, Grant plays Jack Hock, a sort of half-vagrant, half bon-vivant who befriends Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a biographer reduced to forging letters by literary luminaries for fast cash. Jack has a “scallywag charm,” Grant explains over brunch at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. “You don’t give him your car keys, but you lend him some money knowing that you are never going to see it back.” Grant is electric the movie, an impish yin to McCarthy’s despondent yang.
The Oscars aren’t all that’s on the actor’s horizon in the coming year. In December, he’ll appear in Star Wars: Episode IX . “You have to wear a full disguised cloak to go from the dressing room into Pinewood Studios, because there are drones going overhead trying to get pictures of the characters and the sets,” he explains. “You have to read the script in a security guarded room that has closed circuit camera.” So…no juicy morsels for us. Got it. Thankfully, the gentlemanly actor was more than happy – and, you know, legally allowed – to chat through the details of the rest of his filmography.
Would Richard E. Grant the Actor even exist without Withnail and I? “If Daniel Day-Lewis hadn’t turned down Withnail and I, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you right now,” Grant says bluntly of his film debut in Bruce Robinson’s 1987 dark comedy. But it wasn’t just fortuitousness that launched him into the spotlight. As Withnail, a booze-addled, constantly grousing failed actor in the dying days of the ’60s, Grant sparkles, giving arguably the most enjoyably accurate depiction of a drunk ever and spitefully spitting out endlessly quotable lines. “The one that I’m asked to repeat to people is, ‘Monty, you terrible c–t,’” he says.
Almost three decades later, that low-budget cult classic earned him a spot on the priciest and biggest TV show of all time. “David [Benioff] and D.B. Weiss were Withnail fans and so they asked me to do this Izembaro character, a bitter and twisted old character actor who’s harrumphing around,” he says of his role on Game of Thrones. (Yes, there’s more than a whiff of Withnail at play here.) The following year, in 2017, he further proved his mettle in Comic-Con fare, tackling the villainous Dr. Zander Rice in Logan, a critical darling that piqued his creative interests. “[The film] wasn’t just superheroes who bounced back as they usually do,” he says of his first reaction to the script. “Because there was a human cost to it.”
Grant crossed paths with Robert Altman on The Player and then in the high-society murder mystery Gosford Park, penned by future Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes. “[The director] said that he was as interested in what is happening in the corner of the frame as he is in the center,” Grant says of Altman’s pioneering technique of miking and capturing a dozen or so actors at once. With two constantly moving cameras, Grant – who played a country estate’s sardonic first footman – had to “to be completely in character all the time [because] you’re never told whether you’re in close-up or in a wide [shot].”
His résumé with New Hollywood heavyweights doesn’t stop with the king of overlapped dialogue. In the ’90s, Grant caught the eyes of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Age of Innocence, respectively. “I met Winona Ryder at a party during the making of The Player,” he says. “She was 19, and she said, ‘I know every line of [Withnail and I], my boyfriend Johnny Depp knows every line. You have to be in Dracula.’ So she got me in a meeting with Coppola.” That chance encounter proved fruitful again: “And then straight after Dracula, I was offered Age of Innocence, which she was in. So Winona Ryder was my Talisman.” As far as the directors’ styles, Grant muses, “Coppola is like a circus ringmaster, where the set is organized chaos,” where Scorsese “is the exact opposite, work[ing] in monastic silence, incredibly quiet and disciplined.”
Grant’s journey hasn’t been without its rare bumps, however. “I genuinely thought I would never work again,” he responds plainly after we ask him about Hudson Hawk, a 1991 action-comedy flop starring Bruce Willis. “Because it cost so much money to make, and I think practically closed the studio down. And it was critically annihilated.” The flop, though, has gained something of a cult audience, which shocks the actor. “Oh my god,” he replies when fronted with this. “I assume they’re on drugs.”
Another Rotten role awaited in Spice World, in which Grant plays the buttoned-down manager of the ever-bubbly girl-group phenom. But his agreement to sign on came from an admirable place. “My daughter was eight and saw that I was offered it and said, ‘You have to be in Spice World because then I can meet them.’ So I did, and they were amazing.” Equally amazing: “As a result of being in that, Lena Dunham saw me in that and wrote four episodes of Girls that I was in,” he says, referring to his arc on the zeitgeist-tapping show as Jessa’s druggy chum Jasper. “You know, people were snooty about Spice World when I first did it. But it’s paid dividends.”
Can You Ever Forgive Me? opened in limited release on October 19, 2019. The Golden Globe Awards will be broadcast on January 6, 2019, on NBC.