Interview: Richard E Grant

Longer stuff
June 4, 2015

When Richard E Grant suggested we meet at Fulham’s exclusive Hurlingham members’ club, it seemed to make perfect sense. He lives just up the road in Richmond and it’s exactly the kind of place I can imagine him hanging out, especially after having watched him star in Downton Abbey. I had visions of wood-panelled walls, winchester sofas, views over the croquet lawn… Not so much.

Instead, we’re tucked away in a staff ante-room that Grant matter-of-factly describes as “a shithole”. He’s here delivering a speech for the annual hedge fund awards. “Jimmy Carr was unavailable,” he says. I laugh. “No, really. He did it last year. I know nothing about hedge funds.”

The setting is surreal: it’s broad daylight and hedge fund managers in evening-wear keep swaying up to him, champagne glasses in hand, slurring demands for selfies (for which he duly poses). The furniture has been cleared away while the venue is being cleaned. “I swear there was somewhere to sit before,” he mutters apologetically.

We roam around until we end up in a large, industrial-looking dressing room with strip-lights and a mirror running across the length of one wall. It echoes and it’s freezing. The only furniture is a ratty old sofa and an even rattier armchair. The lighting makes even Grant, with his healthy olive complexion, look pale and gaunt. He’s 56 but could be a decade younger. He has a serious face with bright blue eyes and unusually dark hair for a man his age (flecks of grey suggest it hasn’t been dyed).

He’s telling me about his anxieties over being interviewed, speaking quietly in his rich, woody voice that still carries the faintest trace of his upbringing in Swaziland. “I’ve been hung drawn and quartered by people who have been charming to my face; when you read it you feel like you’ve had a schizoid experience. I’d rather someone just came up to me and said: ‘I think you’re shit, I hate you, you’re ugly and I don’t think you have much talent: respond’. The honesty of it would be nice.”

I don’t think any of that. I think he’s charming, if a little intense. He’s inquisitive, asking as many questions as he’s asked – “why do you do what you do?”, “would you like to write a novel?”. He’s also a bit weird, in an endearing way. He’s a compulsive sniffer, for instance; as we walk through the club’s grounds he occasionally dives into a bush, sticking his nose deep into the flora: “Variegated bamboo,” he’ll say as he clambers back out, “it doesn’t really smell.” I’d read about the sniffing thing in past interviews and wondered whether it was an affectation but it seems genuine. He also does a tremendous impression of a peacock – when one waddles across the path in front of us he takes a deep breath and lets out a mighty Kaaa-Aaaaaah. The peacock doesn’t flinch. “They usually respond to that,” he assures me.

You’d be forgiven for thinking I was interviewing Richard E Grant, star of stage and screen, anti-hero of cult classic Withnail & I, about his latest film or a new TV project. But I’m not. Let’s play a little game: what do Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, Pamela Anderson and Richard E Grant have in common? Hint: it’s not that they’ve all had a sex tape leaked on the internet (Grant’s bedroom repertoire remains a mystery). The correct answer is they’ve all released their own perfume.

Last month Grant added a second unisex fragrance to his Jack range, this one called Covent Garden, which he says smells like “oranges, roses, ginger, a little carrot oil and musk.” The venture stems from his aforementioned obsession with smelling everything, he says. “It’s the shortest synaptic leap from your brain to your memory. If you smell something familiar you’re instantly transported back there. It’s how I remember everything. In the same way people who cook think about combining different ingredients, my brain thinks about scent combinations. Some people think it impertinent to sniff everything but to me it’s weird not to. Why wouldn’t you smell your food or the person you’re about to kiss?

Does he have a favourite smell? “Gardenias. It’s the one flower from which nobody can extract its scent – it’s the holy grail for me. In Swaziland where I grew up I tried to make perfume for a girl by burying bottles of gardenias but it just turned to rancid sludge water.”

His new fragrance has been rather more successful: the first Jack sold out in Liberty and now it’s launching in other high-end department stores including Selfridges. Annie Lennox is a fan, as is fellow Downton star Hugh Bonneville. I suggest launching a fragrance is a bold move, given his most iconic role is playing Withnail, a man we can safely assume smells of methylated spirits and wee.

“It never crossed my mind,” he says dismissively. “Withnail was 28 years ago, you know? I get stopped on the street more often about Hotel Secrets [his Sky Atlantic documentary series] than I do Withnail.”

It’s a fair point – Grant is one of the most recognisable actors of his generation, a film and TV star both at home and in the US (recent jobs include a recovering drug addict in Lena Dunham’s zeitgeisty hit Girls and a stint presenting a series for the discovery channel).

“I never thought I’d be a film actor,” he shrugs. “I wanted to do theatre. It came from a desire to express myself that I’ve had since I was a kid with a shoebox theatre. The fame that comes with modern celebrity is brutal. ‘Talent’, however you define the word, is the thing that has to sustain people through a career rather than the instant fizz, bang, wallop that happens today. The moment a reality TV winner is announced there’s this national embarrassment that we ever supported them. I don’t know how people get their heads around it – to be watched by 10m people and then for it to be gone.

“I’m looking forward to the next reality TV show: Fuck Thy Neighbour, because we’ve had everything else. In the show I’d be able to see my neighbours at it. Everything else has been done.”

The ratty armchair creaks as he laughs. Then his phone rings. Actually, his phone rings again. I can personally vouch for the fact that Richard E Grant is a very busy man. At one point he answers his phone and a second one rings from within his pocket. You have more phones than a drug dealer, I tell him. “Business stuff,” he says sheepishly. “I wake at 6am and I stop at midnight. Running a business has been the steepest learning curve I’ve ever had. Thanks to the internet I can keep working while I’m on set – it never stops.”

That would explain the last time I saw him, at the Royal Haymarket production of phone-hacking play Great Britain. By the second half, Grant was fast asleep. “That was nothing to do with business,” he snaps. “It was a terrible play.”

As we leave to get his pictures taken, I ask him which part of his career he’s most proud of. “Writing and directing Wah-Wah [a semi-autobiographical film about his childhood in Swaziland] gave me a sense of achievement I haven’t felt before or since,” he sighs.

Why the sigh? “I had two other films in pre-production, four weeks and three weeks before shooting, and both collapsed financially. It takes so much energy and dedication to get a movie off the ground. I can finance the perfume, I can’t finance a film.” For the first time he sounds a little jaded. “Every year at the Oscars someone stands up and says: ‘I’ve been slogging away for five years to make this film’ – those are the winners, think of how many struggle and struggle and their film never comes out…”

It would be a great tragedy, I think, if Grant were unable to produce the movies and TV shows of his dreams. After all, the world needs to see Fuck Thy Neighbour.

First published in City A.M.