Richard E. Grant is earning major Oscar buzz for his scene-stealing role in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” as Jack Hock, friend and accomplice to literary forger Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy). While he won numerous awards as part of the cast of “Gosford Park” in 2001 including the Screen Actors Guild Award, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is giving him one of his first awards runs as an individual, with nominations at the Gotham Awards and Independent Spirit Awards plus a win with the New York Film Critics Circle.
Grant spoke with Gold Derby managing editor Chris Beachum and contributing editor Zach Laws in October about how he found his way into Jack Hock, working with McCarthy and director Marielle Heller, and what it would mean to earn his first-ever Oscar nomination. Watch the exclusive video chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby (Zach Laws): So Richard, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is one of those really great “truth is stranger than fiction” stories. I wonder, the first time you read the script, what about the role of Jack just jumped right out at you and made you want to make this movie?
Richard E. Grant: I was at university or college with a guy that still owes me money and he slept with some of the girls I slept with while I was going out with him, and he was just somebody that, he kind of grifted and huckstered his way through, and even though I knew that he was doing this, there was something in the way that he operated that was so charming and beguiling that I suppose you’re complicit in it. You know that you’re being stung, but you give in to it. The other person that it so reminded me of was an actor called Ian Charleson, who played the Scottish runner in “Chariots of Fire,” who wouldn’t run on Sunday because of his religious convictions. He was an actor called Ian Charleson who died of AIDS in 1990. He had a very loose, dissolute life on the one hand, and on the other was incredibly endearing and boyish, and I thought that the combination of those two things were very winning and I thought that that informed the kind of character that this guy is, that, if I put him in animal terms he’s a Labrador that just goes up to anybody and licks them into submission. He doesn’t quite count on the fact that he’s meeting hedgehog/porcupine in Lee Israel. Somehow they just manage to rub each other the wrong way until eventually they become friends, use each other and then realize that they are codependent.
It just seemed to me to deal in essence with the nature of friendship and the movie references that immediately sprung to mind were Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” and then, again, another movie from the late ‘60s, “Midnight Cowboy,” John Schlesinger’s film with the brilliant Dustin Hoffman playing Rizzo, and Jon Voight. So you’ve got this platonic relationship that is codependent and you think, “How the hell are these two people friends but somehow they are?” And that struck me as the way in to doing this, so that’s what I had in advance, because Lee Israel being so prickly and self-obsessed in her memoir, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”, she doesn’t really give much time to Jack Hock. It’s very, very sketchy what she says about him. So I think that Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s screenplay has fleshed that out and made a friendship that I thought was very winning and having the extraordinary Melissa McCarthy play her made it all the more attractive.
Gold Derby (Chris Beachum): We can’t help but give away a couple spoilers today so anybody reading this or watching this, beware before you go see the movie. I do want to ask you as an actor when you see a screenplay and then you’re shooting scenes, I’m sure all through your career you’re looking for, “What’s my entrance and what’s my exit,” as the character, and you get one of each that is so wonderful in this movie: the moment we first see you and the moment we last see you. Tell us about each of those from a shooting standpoint.
REG: It was mostly shot almost chronologically, which helped enormously, but the first time that I meet Melissa/Lee Israel in the Julius gay bar in Manhattan, Greenwich Village, I had such extraordinary clothes that Melissa loved. She loved all the wardrobe that I was given by Arjun [Bhasin], our great costume designer. She wanted all of those immediately before I even opened my mouth, but coming into the movie where I knew that the relationship she’d had up to that point was her cat and taking her cat to the vet, so that when this character comes in and says “I’ve seen you before” and tries to scadge a drink off her, that he’s not ever gonna take no for an answer. He’s just one of those people. He’s a barfly. That was a great way to start the story on such a positive note, and then, spoiler alert, at the end when he’s dying of AIDS, they’ve been estranged for seven months because she’s caught by the FBI and there’s all these restrictions on her, she then invites him for a meeting, again, in a Julius bar, so it’s full circle, to ask his forgiveness and permission to write him into the story. And he initially is very curmudgeonly and says, “I know that you’re after something,” all these things, he says, “Just as long as you don’t make me sound stupid and you make me look 28 years old and be smart.” It’s all a poignancy and tenderness of a real friendship that’s also got the Damocles of death hanging over it. We found it very emotionally, because it came near the end of the movie, very draining to get through. We had all day for all the coverage. We cried a lot that day.
GD (Chris): And putting on that hat and walking out the door, what more could an actor ask for as an exit?
REG: Exactly. There’s a great moment in the movie “Cabaret,” which I saw when I was a teenager, where the Sally Bowles character can’t bear to say goodbye to Michael York’s character. He just walks along the thing and just does this little thing with her hands. I did that walking out, so any movie buff would see that’s a reference to that (laughs).
GD (Zach): I’m gonna have to rewatch my copy of that so I can look out for that. It’s interesting because you’re playing a real person, but as you mentioned, there’s not a lot in the book about this guy. A lot of it is fleshed out in the script. Does that liberate you as an actor to be able to, in terms of creating a character, the fact that there’s not a lot about this real guy out there?
REG: The thing that was clear in the book is that he’d been in jail. He also used this little stubby cigarette holder because he thought that that would be the antidote to getting cancer. Of course he got AIDS. I also thought that it was a measure of affectation, to be a man trolling around Greenwich Village in the early ‘90s with a cigarette holder. It suggested a kind of loose panache to his character that I thought must be intrinsic to who he was. And also in the book she does detail that he was very, very good at fencing these letters when she was no longer able to go out and publicly do it because people had rumbled her. So the fact that there were cases where she thought that she could get 800 bucks for a letter and he was coming back with two grand, means that his street smarts and his way of bullshitting people was obviously quite sophisticated, that he could schmooze people. That’s all I really had to go on.
GD (Chris): We’ve known Melissa McCarthy for a long time here in America, Emmy winner, Oscar nominee. Tell us something we don’t know about her.
REG: I have to be very discreet about this. She’s very bad-tempered.
GD (Chris): (Laughs.) So she’s not acting in this movie? Is that what you’re saying?
REG: She has terrible breath. She’s unkind. She’s always late, and worst of all, she never knows her lines, and to top it off, finally, she hates English people. So you can see how difficult it was for me to go to work every day. So thank god it was only a 28-day shoot, because I worshipped her.
GD (Zach): (Laughs.) I wanted to ask you about your experiences working with Marielle Heller. She’s already with two movies, showing herself to be an assured and confident filmmaker. How is she working with actors?
REG: She reminded me of my experience of working with Lena Dunham on “Girls,” in that, you know who is in charge, but she carries her authority with incredible lightness of touch. You know exactly what she wants, but at the same time, she’s very open and very collaborative. As an actor, that’s the dream, because I’d seen all of the screen work that Melissa had done, and the range was from very small scale to the most extreme. I thought, with Lee Israel, how extreme is she going to be? There’s a tightrope when you step out on there, and I thought that, if we’re going with this metaphor, Marielle was like the emotional safety net for all of us. If she thought something was too much, she would guide you in a way that we absolutely trusted her implicitly. She was very, very clear about everything. She had a predominantly female crew and creative team, so the feeling that you were being looked after, nurtured, was very powerful. I think that is reflected in the tone of the movie.
GD (Chris): We’re an awards website so I wanna ask you a couple awards-related question. The biggest thing you’ve won in America so far was the SAG Ensemble award for “Gosford Park” quite a few years ago. We all on our team feel like you’re about to get your first Oscar nomination. If that happens, what would that mean to you?
REG: You know those James Bond films where you see the guy levitate straight up from zero to (stands up) like that? That’s what would happen. it would be literally an out-of-body experience, beyond the realm of possibility of anything that I’ve ever considered, really.
GD (Chris): Tell us about that “Gosford Park” win because I remember that year, there were quite a few great ensembles, obviously, that season, and your movie is a little bit smaller, it got in for Best Picture at the Oscars and Robert Altman. Were you there that night? And if not, tell us about hearing the news then, of winning that award.
REG: I wasn’t there at all. I think there were maybe half a dozen of the actors that went or had their air fares paid for. It was a thing of getting the certificate and then being sent the award on the post. It didn’t feel real, somehow and, of course, in retrospect I wish I had been there and if I thought that it had a chance of winning I would’ve probably paid my own ticket to get there. The country that I grew up in is the smallest country in the Southern Hemisphere, a little kingdom called Swaziland, in Southeast Africa. The idea to have one movie house which showed a movie from Monday ‘til Wednesday and then another one Thursday ’til Saturday, and there was no TV or anything, so being a lifelong movie buff, the idea of ever actually being in am movie or sitting here talking with you guys now, seems, still I have to pinch myself. It seems beyond the realm of possibility, somehow. But I’m very delighted to hear what you’re saying.
GD (Zach): You mentioned “Midnight Cowboy” and it made me think, it’s a movie about these two outcasts and in a way, these two characters you and Melissa McCarthy play, a middle-aged woman and a middle-aged gay man, they’re both outcasts and remain outcasts in today’s society as well. Is that what draws the two of them together or what do you think it is?
REG: I think that is exactly what happens. People that on paper, should have nothing in common, but what they do have is a need for connection despite her prickly, porcupine exterior. Other than her cat who can’t answer back, unless you’re a psychopath, just the social contract is that you want to have some connection with another human being, and especially as she was a writer, leading such a solitary life. She would go to the Julius bar as a lesbian woman in a predominantly male gay bar and then would sit with her Walkman headphones on so that nobody would mess with her, but she knew she’d be safe there because she was not in a heterosexual bar where somebody could harass and say, “You look a bit homely. Who want to fuck you?” You know what I mean? Any of the harassment that you could imagine would go on. So the fact that she went there as opposed to just drinking Scotch in her own apartment, that need is in there, and Jack happens to come along and says that he’s met her before, reminds her of where they met, where he peed all over these fur coats, which he thinks is gonna end the possibility of getting free drinks off her and then it amuses her. There’s a connection there that happens that then flowers into a kind of oddball, interdependent relationship. To answer your question a long way, that’s two lonely people who meet where they shouldn’t out of need.
GD (Chris): Once the public sees this movie you’ll never buy a drink in a bar again.
REG: Yeah, you’re speaking to a man who’s allergic to alcohol so I never go in there.
GD (Chris): Oh okay, well you’ll never buy a Diet Coke again, let’s say that. As we wrap up, I had just one question. I was looking over all of your credits today. So many movies, so many TV shows. If somebody meets you out in public and wants to bring up something they’ve seen of yours, what is it typically? What movie or show comes up the most often?
REG: Well thank you for asking that. I live in London and because the first movie that I was ever in in 1986 which came out in ’87 called “Withnail & I,” which I play this drug-addled out of work actor, because it has this cult following and is sort of a rite of passage for students every year — I know this because I get emails, tweets and Instagrams about it — when I’m on the subway or the tube in London or the bus or whatever, there’s not a day goes by that somebody doesn’t either tweet me a quote from this movie… it hasn’t gone away. It has this ongoing life. That is bizarre, because it’s like, I know when somebody comes up to me I can see by the way they’re dressed or what their demeanor that they’ve seen “Withnail.” They’ll come and just quote stuff at me as though I know exactly what they’re talking about and I’ve now just gotten used to it. It’s 32 years ago, like, what the fuck, I can’t remember what I did last week.
GD (Zach): That was definitely a big college movie from me, so I’m glad to hear people still talk about it to you. Richard, thank you so much, congratulations on this movie and thank you for your time. It was a pleasure talking with you.
REG: Thank you very much.