An English­man abroad

On the eve of a grand tour of Amer­ica, the ac­tor talks about sniff­ing trees and singing for his sup­per

Country Life Every Week - - Interview -

RICHARD E. GRANT is the god­fa­ther you never had—the one who’d have sent you ham­pers from Fort­nums once a term and opened Cham­pagne on the slight­est pre­text. He would never, ever have for­got­ten your birth­day. The first thing I no­tice about him is that he re­ally, re­ally wants every­one around him to be hav­ing a good time—a rare qual­ity in an ac­tor. The sec­ond, even more un­usu­ally for some­one in his pro­fes­sion, is that he gives the im­pres­sion of never quite be­ing able to be­lieve his luck.

‘I’m 60 in two blinks and I’m ab­so­lutely as­ton­ished to be work­ing as much as I am,’ he says earnestly. As we speak, he’s fling­ing things into suit­cases ahead of a six-month stint in Amer­ica. He’ll spend half that time film­ing Can You Ever For­give Me, play­ing Hol­ly­wood bi­og­ra­pher­turned-forger Lee Is­rael’s co­cainead­dled side­kick. Then, it’s off to Chicago, where he’ll be star­ring as Henry Hig­gins in My Fair Lady.

It’s the sec­ond time he’s taken on the role—his first Prof Hig­gins (Syd­ney, 2008) got rave re­views. ‘On the opera cir­cuit, if you’ve done it once and didn’t fall off the stage, they’ll ask you to do it again,’ he dead­pans. ‘And you don’t have to be a great singer to play the part. My wife [Joan Washington, who he mar­ried in 1986] is an ac­cent coach—a female Henry Hig­gins— so I’ve sort of been around it for a long time. Also, the op­por­tu­nity to do the mu­si­cal with a full-sized orchestra was ab­so­lutely ir­re­sistible. T. S. Eliot said it was ac­tu­ally an im­prove­ment on Shaw’s al­ready bril­liant play, so it has a very high pedi­gree.’

As does Mr Grant. He be­came a con­firmed na­tional trea­sure when he ap­peared in the fifth se­ries of Down­ton Abbey (as cor­ri­dor­creep­ing art his­to­rian Si­mon Bricker), but, un­like some of his con­tem­po­raries, he keeps peo­ple guess­ing. He’s worked with ev­ery- one from Martin Scors­ese to the Spice Girls: his new film, Jackie, a biopic of Kennedy’s wi­dow, opened in the UK last week. He’s play­ing Bill Wal­ton, the painter who mas­ter­minded JFK’S fu­neral.

Mak­ing the film, he says, was a ‘monas­tic’ and hum­bling ex­pe­ri­ence. ‘We started film­ing in Paris two days af­ter the 2015 ter­ror­ist at­tacks, so the city was in com­plete lock­down, plus Pablo Lar­raín, the di­rec­tor, likes to work in near si­lence. The com­bi­na­tion of that, plus the sub­ject mat­ter… No­body was sit­ting around hav­ing a laugh.’

Jackie is an Academy Awards fron­trun­ner: Mr Grant de­scribes Natalie Port­man’s per­for­mance in the ti­tle role as ‘truly ex­tra­or­di­nary’, but bats away any sug­ges­tion that his own star is in the as­cen­dant across the At­lantic. ‘English ac­tors are more will­ing to play un­sym­pa­thetic parts than our Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts— and we’re much cheaper. It’s all such a con­flu­ence of luck, avail­abil­ity and chance.’

Things could so eas­ily not have come to­gether for him. Born Richard Grant Ester­huy­sen in Swazi­land, he moved to Eng­land in 1982 and spent years trudg­ing around the au­di­tion cir­cuit— his fa­ther told him he’d end up tear­ing tick­ets at Water­loo sta­tion. Then came With­nail and I and the chance to play the el­e­gant waster of the film’s ti­tle. When di­rec­tor Bruce Robin­son found out Mr Grant was tee­to­tal (he’s al­ler­gic to al­co­hol), he made him go on a 12-hour ben­der that ended with him pro­jec­tile vom­it­ing all over Shep­per­ton Studios. His ef­forts paid off: 30 years on from the film’s re­lease, With­nail is one of the im­mor­tals.

‘Hand on heart, there isn’t a sin­gle day that goes by when I don’t have some­one quot­ing a line from it to me,’ he says. Some ac­tors might get sniffy about their best-known film be­ing one they made nearly half a life­time ago. Does it bother him? ‘No, no, not at all. I’m just glad I’m still vaguely recog­nis­able as the per­son who played that part.’

What will he miss while he’s away? ‘The hu­mour and the weather,’ he says im­me­di­ately. ‘Not al­low­ing any­thing to be taken too se­ri­ously is our sav­ing grace and the sea­sons in Eng­land are ex­tra­or­di­nary. I know we moan on end­lessly, but I love them— I ab­so­lutely revel in it, all of it.’ He lives op­po­site Rich­mond Park and can’t get enough of the smell of the oaks, the moss and the leaves when it rains.

That brings us onto the other string to his bow. In 2014, he raised eye­brows by an­nounc­ing that he was launch­ing a per­fume, Jack. Celebrity fra­grances tend to end up in the bar­gain bin, but his, it turned out, wasn’t to be sniffed at: it’s an earthy, grown-up blend of cit­rus, pep­per, ve­tiver and (in what he in­sists wasn’t a nod to With­nail’s in­fa­mous Cam­ber­well Car­rot) mar­i­juana notes. He has a suc­cess­ful range stocked in Liberty and his daugh­ter Olivia works with him.

With a brand to build, he’s had to join In­sta­gram, but @richard. e.grant (‘Snif­fer of all things snif­fa­ble, bed jumper, ac­tor, writer, dad, hus­band’) seems at ease post­ing pic­tures of his gar­den and din­ners for his 10,000 fol­low­ers. Per­haps it’s be­cause he’s a nat­u­ral en­thu­si­ast: when I put for­ward a ten­u­ous hy­poth­e­sis that With­nail and Hig­gins share a kind of rest­less, manic en­ergy, he seems gen­uinely de­lighted by it (‘Yes! Ab­so­lutely! Bullseye!’). Or per­haps, as a long-time jug­gler of plates, he’s bet­ter suited to doc­u­ment­ing his life on­line than most ac­tors.

Doesn’t he ever want to just lie down for a bit? ‘I think it’s in my DNA—I like to have days crammed with dozens of things to do,’ he ad­mits. ‘My fa­ther said to me when I was nine that I was like an over­wound clock. On Jackie, Pablo was con­stantly telling me “Be as still as you dare to be” and it felt com­pletely alien. Even when I thought I was like a tomb­stone, he would say “Less, less”.’

‘I’ll prob­a­bly crash and burn when things come to a stop,’ he tells me—so cheer­ily that I can’t imag­ine it’s go­ing to hap­pen any time soon. Then, he’s off, to try to cram even more into his burst­ing suit­cases. Emma Hughes

‘I’m just glad I’m still vaguely recog­nis­able as the per­son who played With­nail

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