Richard E Grant: ‘Every job I’ve had is a result of being in Withnail & I’

Actor Richard E Grant just got his first-ever Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?' Find out how Richard's early life and fledgling film roles landed him where he is today in this week's Letter To My Younger Self

When I was 16, I had a sudden growth spurt and had to take time off school as I suffered acute pain in my legs. I was pipe-cleaner thin and grew my hair as long as possible as I had acne that I was told would disappear by the time I was 18. I had a lifelong passion to be an actor and made shoe box theatres with scenery and cut-out figures attached to lollipop sticks. I progressed to glove puppets and then marionettes. My parents gave me Pelham Puppets for every birthday and Christmas, which proved lucrative, as I did shows in the school holidays at kids’ birthday parties and in a full-sized puppet theatre in our garage.

I always wanted to be an actor, but had no clue as to how to go about it. I was good at art and model making, so my father encouraged me to consider architecture – but as I failed every maths exam, this kiboshed that idea. He then suggested I become a barrister, as I was so argumentative and he said it required acting skills.

I did school plays with Zindzi [Zindziswa] and Zeni [Zenani] Mandela. None of us believed that their father would ever get out of Robben Island alive, let alone become president two decades later. Waterford Kamhlaba school [in Swaziland where Richard grew up] had 27 nationalities and an ethos of tolerance, multi-faith acceptance and multi-racial openness and inclusivity. The injustices of apartheid in neighbouring South Africa made a profound impact. Prejudice and ignorance based on someone’s skin colour is ludicrous and abhorrent.

After my parents’ acrimonious divorce, my father became a violent alcoholic. His personality switch at night culminated in him attempting to shoot me at close range after I’d emptied a crate of his Scotch whisky down the sink. He drunkenly lurched when he pulled the trigger and mercifully missed. There was no treatment nor AA meetings available, and the social stigma was such that everything was kept secret. Christmas was invariably a nightmare, with everyone on tenterhooks. So I have made up for it as an adult by celebrating Christmas to the max.

Neil Armstrong landing on the moon in 1969, when I was 12, made an indelible impression. It was about proving that what had seemed impossible could somehow be achieved. It has been a lifelong passion to go into outer space, but increasingly looks unlikely to happen! But having the dream is everything.

Being teased for wanting to be an actor and accused of ‘playing with dolls’ [puppets], inadvertently helped inure me to the derision and rejection that is part and parcel of an actor’s life. Once I got used to being told ‘You’ll never make it’, it strengthened my resolve to prove those naysayers wrong. Where that determination and self-belief comes from is a mystery, but wanting to prove yourself is a very powerful force. I would tell my younger self: ‘Never give up’ and ‘Don’t try and imitate anyone else’. I am just grateful that my teenage dream came true, in spite of being pants at maths.

London is the epicentre of the theatre, so it was always my plan to come and live here and try to make it as an actor. My parents periodically brought me to London when I was growing up, and we saw as many films, plays and musicals as could be crammed in, which left an indelible impression. When I emigrated to England in 1982, the directors I met observed that I spoke like someone from the 1950s. This reflected the time-warp effect of growing up in Swaziland. I can only assume that this has influenced my getting cast in period dramas.

I had two role models – Donald Sutherland and Barbra Streisand. He was very tall, gangly, long-faced and funny and didn’t fit the Robert Redford movie-star mould. My final drama school assessment was that I was too tombstone-featured to make it as an actor and should concentrate on becoming a director. Having seen Sutherland in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, it felt like a dream come true when I got to meet him and subsequently work on three Altman films – The Player, Prêt-à-Porter and Gosford Park. Streisand was likewise derided for her unconventional looks, but her astonishing talents and determination were inspiring. I finally got to meet her in Los Angeles in 1991 and was delighted that she asked even more questions than I do!

I genuinely thought that my entire career would be in the theatre, and never thought I’d ever be in films. That all changed in 1985 when I was cast in an improvised film for the BBC alongside Gary Oldman and Adrian Edmondson called Honest, Decent And True. The day after it screened in 1986, I got a new agent, Michael Whitehall, who introduced me to casting directors – one of whom, Mary Selway, auditioned me for Withnail & I, which completely changed my professional life.

DID YOU KNOW…

If you pay for the magazine you should always take it. Vendors are working for a hand up, not a handout.

Almost without exception, every job I’ve had is a direct result of  being in Withnail & I. I am so indebted to the writer/director Bruce Robinson for taking the chance on a complete unknown, and for the decades-long friendship that’s ensued. I am allergic to alcohol, so it’s ironic being identified for playing a drug-addled alcoholic.

I am utterly and completely gobsmacked to have been cast in the final episode of Star Wars, 41 years after I’d first seen it as a drama student! And it would really surprise my younger self that I’ve either got to meet or work with most of the actors and movie stars I grew up admiring and reading about in Plays And Players and Films Illustrated monthly magazines that I subscribed to. I remain as starstruck as ever I was.

I never thought I would ever risk falling in love or having a child. The experience of my parents’ divorce was so cruel and pain-filled – but as John Lennon wisely quipped: “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”

My late father gave me some advice that has proved to be invaluable. He advised that “If you have five true friends, consider yourself a rich man” – the wisdom of which I’ve come to acutely appreciate. He also said: “Good manners cost nothing and maketh the man”, which was another fine piece of advice.

The film from my back catalogue I think is most underrated is Wah-Wah, which I wrote and directed. It had an exceptional cast and took five years from script to screen. Regrettably it opened on the same weekend as The Da Vinci Code, so it got ‘drowned’ by the tidal wave of that movie’s mega success.

If I could have one last conversation with someone, I would want to speak with my mentor, Bunny Barnes, who died 11 years ago. She was my piano and English teacher with whom I became lifelong friends. She believed in and encouraged me to pursue my dreams of becoming an actor, and the collection of letters we wrote to one another over decades continues to be a great source of wisdom, gossip and hilarity. Her love for classical music inspired, informed and educated me.

I’ve kept a diary ever since I was ten years old, in an attempt to make sense of the world. It helps whenever I get panicked or feel out of my depth, as there is always the reassurance, that no matter what you’re currently troubled by, you can somehow wiggle your way through. It’s also ‘proof’ that I’ve met the people I’ve long admired and the extraordinary places I’ve got to work in and visit.”

Read the full article in this week's Big Issue.
Find your vendor
Scythe Matters! Poldark’s plan for a better Britain