Ever since making a splash in the indie classic, Withnail and I, Richard E Grant has been a memorable presence in over 100 films and television shows. Appearing in virtually every genre of cinema, Grant touches hearts in Can You Ever Forgive Me? with his hilarious and poignant portrayal of Jack Hock, an AIDS-stricken grifter, and the only friend of a fellow reprobate, forger Lee Israel, played by Melissa McCarthy.
In an exclusive chat with LMD: Grant spoke of his connections to that era, having a cinematic renaissance, and the secrecy around his upcoming Star Wars character.
The Lady Miz Diva: I understand that you resided in the US for a while in the early 90s, around the time when this film takes place. Jack Hock is quite a colorful character, I wondered if in your time here you come across people like him?
Richard E. Grant: The person that is most Jack-like -- although he was a successful actor, he had all these qualities -- was an actor called Ian Charleson, who played the runner in Chariots of Fire. He was the person that most inspired me, because he led a very louche, promiscuous life, but on the other hand, he was also incredibly boyish in his outlook. He was incredibly charming, witty, and engaging, and he died very young, in 1990. And he was the inspiration I had for Jack wearing the head bandana, because he’s lost all his hair. So, that was my homage to my knowing him and my experience of that.
I also remember visiting my friend Sandra Bernhard in the Meatpacking District in 1991 and seeing men dying on the street corners with placards, saying, “I’ve been abandoned by my family, everyone has given up on me. Please help me. I’m dying.” It made a really profound impact on me, so I was very aware of that when I began playing this part.
While CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? has the fun of the hows and whys of Lee Israel’s forgeries, what really stands out to me is her friendship with Jack. It has been my experience amongst gay and lesbian friends that each group often has some feeling of antipathy towards the other…
And that still persists. It’s so unusual that Lee Israel should’ve been alone; the only woman in the Julius bar. Why is that?
I have no idea. It does make Lee and Jack’s friendship even more unique. They are two very different types of people, who get on like gangbusters. What do you think their connecting thread was?
Loneliness, I think. And especially in a time -- certainly in the early 90s -- where the stigma of having AIDS was absolutely undeniable and palpable. Even though it’s only a historical blink away, it really is a period movie in that that is not the case now. So, I think that they were two people who were so isolated and in need of somebody that they could rely on at the most basic level, that they become friends, almost all against the odds.
Jack is quite overwhelming when he meets Lee. He is like a deluge of sunshine over her very drab life. Does he really see her as a friend, or rather, as a mark?
I think it’s both. I think that as much as he is a grifter and an opportunist, he genuinely had a connection with her, and they found each other funny. And there’s an adolescent quality to what they did; like when they phoned up the agents, and Lee impersonated Nora Ephron, and she said, “You’re just a starfucker. You won’t answer me when I call.”
And when they called up this snooty bookseller, who won’t buy her secondhand books in order to pay her veterinary bills; she does the prank call, saying, “Well, your apartment’s on fire, and your dog’s about to get barbecued,” it reminded me of being 10 years old, when I called somebody up and I said, “is your fridge running?” And the person says, “Well, I’ll just go and check,” and they come back and say, “Yes, it is.” “Well, you better go and catch it.” It’s as sort of puerile as that.
And that quality is what you don’t expect in Lee Israel, but somehow between them, that’s what Jack Hock brought out in her, and I think that’s very endearing.
In your amazing career of so many varied roles, I’ve always wondered if you were an actor who had to find something humanising or relatable about your characters?
Oh, always. Yeah.
What did you find relatable in Jack?
He grabs life and opportunity with both hands, even if it’s failing. That you feel that if he’s got five bucks, or done a shady drug deal, or whatever; if somebody gives them the opportunity to do something, he’ll be the first one in there.
And that impulsiveness, and willingness to just make the best of whatever situation you’re in; that, to me, is extremely attractive, because it’s unguarded, and there’s something childlike about that. I love that. I loved that about him.
Tell us about working with director Marielle Heller. You mentioned the bandana, but was there anything else you were able to add to Jack that wasn’t on the page?
Marielle is very collaborative; open, nurturing, compassionate, and at the same time, is very clearly the captain of her own ship, and crew, and cast. But she carries her authority very lightly, and as a result, you feel completely safe. That whatever you come up with, or present her an idea with; she is open to that. She is not closed. She doesn’t micromanage things. As an actor, that is almost the ideal of what you want to work in -- to work in an environment like that.
She used the crew that she had worked with before, and she loved Lee, and she loved Jack, and so you feel if the director is so invested in the friendship of the two characters, that makes you feel that everybody is on the same page.
I understand it was a bit challenging because there wasn’t much about the real person available. What were some of the touchstones you found or detected to create Jack?
Well, I thought that essentially it’s a buddy road movie, that just happens to be going from a road of bar, to apartment, to courtroom, to bookshop. And the movie that had most reminded me of my head when I read it, was the relationship between Ratso and Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy; two people who, on paper, shouldn’t have any connection, but they do, and it is as much out of emotional need as economic necessity as anything else.
But they are in Manhattan, where you’re surrounded by such wealth and so many human beings, but you’re absolutely isolated and lonely. I’ve certainly been in cities and experienced that as an actor; you will arrive on location, you don’t know anybody, and you think, ‘How do you begin?’
Tell us about creating the chemistry between Jack and Lee with Melissa McCarthy?
It’s in the script. It’s absolutely in it. The script is the road map of what you’re doing. If you follow that, if you play it, it informs what you do, and sort of by osmosis, that happens.
You wrote and directed your one and only film, WAH WAH, thirteen years ago. When will we ever have another feature written and/or directed by yourself?
I have worked on two subsequent indie films, that I adapted, or co-wrote for somebody else, and the both of them collapsed four weeks before we started shooting. The finances -- the last 10% fell through. So, making indie movies now is really tough, tougher than it ever was, I think. But I’ve had this sort of career surge of more movie roles, so I haven’t concentrated on all that.
Speaking of which, I’ve really appreciated that you stuck to your indie roots with your upcoming project. Something about a ragtag group of way out scalawags fighting against the man. Your STAR WARS character has no name listed on IMDB. Has he got one?
Yes, he does. Yes, I was told it the night before we started shooting.
Following the Law of Izzard, as you are possessed of a British accent, may I safely assume which side you’re on?
You can’t safely assume anything! Absolutely nothing. You know, the way of the world -- how movies are made -- who knows if I’m even in the final edit? I mean, I could say to you, “Yeah, I am in Star Wars,” cos I’m currently shooting it, but whether I’m going to be in it on 19th of December, 2019, who knows?
What would you like people to take away from CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?
That you feel compassion and understanding of who and why these people are, and what they do, and what they do out of necessity. And we know from Telluride and Toronto, that people have come away and gone, ‘This movie made us feel something,’ and, that’s a great complement to it.
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review
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