For Richard E. Grant, acting is a constant joy – but the past year has mostly been about tackling grief. By Stephen A. Russell.

Actor Richard E. Grant

Richard E. Grant.
Richard E. Grant.
Credit: David Myers Photography / Alamy

A hush descended over London in the days leading up to the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. During this strange hiatus, Withnail and I star Richard E. Grant, as gracious as he appears in countless screen roles, takes time to talk to me about the difficult days that lie behind him. It’s just over a year since the death of his wife, Joan Washington, a celebrated dialect coach who worked with stars such as Cate Blanchett, Ralph Fiennes and Meryl Streep. In Grant’s bittersweet but often uproariously funny memoir A Pocketful of Happiness, he writes about their remarkable life together and her final year battling cancer. This month he’s touring a show of the same name across Australia.

Washington, an Aberdonian, showed him how to deal with losing her, Grant says. “Very smartly, she charged my daughter Oily [Olivia] and I to try and find a pocketful of happiness in each day, and that really has become a mantra for navigating grief, in all its varieties, shapes and colours,” he says, with the pronunciation that comes from his schooling in the South African country formerly known as Swaziland, now the Kingdom of Eswatini. It’s this accent that brought Grant to Washington’s door, “to iron out my colonialisms”.

Grant arrived in London in 1982 to pursue a childhood dream of becoming an actor, despite his father’s warning that it would lead to “a life spent in tights, wearing make-up and avoiding a buggery”. His father’s insistence on a cultural trip to London in 1969 had first put the idea in Grant’s head – when he saw a young Gary Warren play opposite Ginger Rogers in Mame at the Theatre Royal, he realised a career in performance was possible.

Not that it took off overnight. Grant was working as a waiter when he followed a fateful tip. “There were so many Northern Irish dramas being done at the time because of the Troubles, and an agent said, ‘You have dark hair, you could feasibly play Northern Irish if you learn the accent,’ ” he says. He rocked up at Washington’s classes at The Actors Centre in Covent Garden and begged for private lessons, haggling her down from 20 quid a session to £12. “I was paying £30 a week for a place in Notting Hill Gate and working as a waiter, so, yeah, my income was not vast,” he says.

Washington sorted him out in two short lessons and he thought he’d never see her again. But a year later, she called to enlist his aid on a play for the Royal Shakespeare Company that required a Swazi accent.

“I went round to hers, she made dinner, I put the script on tape, and then it came midnight,” he says. “I knew the last train back into London had gone, so I asked if I could possibly stay the night.” The spare bedroom was an icebox with no radiator, so he politely knocked, shivering, on Washington’s door. “And we never stopped sleeping with each other in the same bed.”

Despite almost 150 credits to his name, including Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence with Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer, and Robert Altman’s star-studded Gosford Park, Grant still gets a thrill meeting celebrities.

“I’ve never been cool,” he says. “Joan was completely un-starstruck but I have been unashamedly wide-eyed in the sweetie shop of fame ever since I can remember.” A huge fan of Barbra Streisand, he says it was lucky that Washington had completed work coaching on the Funny Girl star’s Oscar-winning directorial debut Yentl before they got together. “Because she might have dumped me for being a complete maniac.”

Washington gave him tapes of Streisand performing the film’s songs to a stripped-back piano accompaniment, which Grant treasured during the difficult days attempting to kickstart his career. His big break was Bruce Robinson’s cult hit Withnail and I. Casting Grant alongside future Doctor Who Paul McGann, the shaggy dog tale depicts two out-of-work actors who flee London’s drudgery for what they hope will be a restful escape in the Lake District. It does not go to plan.

It wasn’t so far from Grant’s life at the time. He had been riding high off appearing in a BBC teleplay about badly behaved ad execs, Honest, Decent &True, with Gary Oldman, Arabella Weir and The Young Ones star Adrian Edmondson. “I thought that I had landed, and then I didn’t get a sniff of work for nine months,” he says. “[The actor’s life] is a weird combination of large ego on the one hand and low self-esteem on the other. You think everybody else is better than you and that you’re never going to work again.”

When Honest, Decent &True broadcast early in 1986, Grant landed an agent, and then came the call from Robinson. “Daniel Day-Lewis had turned [Withnail and I] down, thank god, to do The Unbearable Lightness of Being instead, which I was very grateful for and prostrated myself in front of him when we met,” Grant says. “But inadvertently, those nine months were the best preparation I could have had for playing somebody who was a frustrated, out-of-work actor. It’s ironic that it has led to every ounce of employment I’ve had in 40 years.”

Withnail remains his favourite screenplay and the experience kicked off a career’s worth of accruing lifelong friends on movie sets. Grant was in America for the awards season in 2019, nominated for an Oscar, a Golden Globe and more for his supporting role in Can You Ever Forgive Me? He took the chance to drive out to Streisand’s residence and asked her security guard if it was okay to pose for a picture outside her gate, while Washington slumped, mortified, in their rental car.

He posted the snap on Twitter with a fan letter he wrote to Streisand when he was 14 inviting her to come to Swaziland. “Barbra Streisand replied in a tweet the next day, and I just lost it,” he says. They finally met backstage at the Oscars, where he was already overwhelmed at all the famous faces on a night he likens to “Madame Tussauds come to life”. Oily had to hose down her ecstatic father.

Grant has no time for the snobbery of “more serious actors than I” who sneered at him for appearing in Spice World: The Movie. It’s a career highlight. “Oily was eight years old at the time and so levitatingly excited about the prospect of my being in it that I couldn’t resist,” he says. “Working with them was so unfettered and joy-filled. It felt like being on a roller-coaster ride on a daily basis, and they couldn’t have been more generous with my daughter. And it turns out Adele is a great [Spice Girls] fan and she sent me tickets to see her sold-out show at The O2 arena because of Spice World, which was thrilling. Lena Dunham wrote a part for me in four episodes of Girls because of it. So for me, it’s a win-win on every front.”

Washington joked that Grant has reached the “condimentary” stage of his career – meaning that now he plays cameo roles that bring either some smooth Dijon or spicy Colman’s mustard. He points to his turn opposite Dakota Johnson in the recent Netflix adaptation of Persuasion, for example, as a blend of both. He also donned tights, as his father once prophesied, to play a Loki variant in the Marvel television series of that name. Grant says that even box office bombs such as 1989’s Killing Dad or How to Love Your Mother and 1991’s Hudson Hawk were joyful.

“The actual filming of Hudson Hawk was a sort of weekly descent into chaos and near insanity, but I became great friends with Sandra Bernhard, who played my wife,” he says. “Killing Dad came out for about a week then went straight to video, but I had such a good time making it with the late Denholm Elliott and the sublime Dame Julie Walters.”

He and fellow Oscar-nominee Melissa McCarthy – they were about to film Can You Ever Forgive Me? – hit it off instantly when the Bridesmaids star caught him sniffing fabric on an elevator wall at The Beekman hotel in downtown New York. But a technological snafu almost derailed their friendship. “I hadn’t heard from Melissa from the day we finished filming until we both turned up at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado almost two years later.”

Anxious that he’d imagined their bond, the truth was more banal. McCarthy communicates exclusively via text and only had his temporary New York number. He’d been emailing an address she never checks. “Within a minute, we found out that it was just bad luck in this age of mass communication and everything was resolved instantly.”

Some of the most affecting passages of A Pocketful of Happiness are the notes from the stars Grant and Washington invited into their home. Gabriel Byrne’s visits are particularly moving. Byrne was shooting War of the Worlds in Cardiff when Washington was dying and he would drive to their Cotswolds cottage on his days off. “He would turn up and sit on Joan’s bed and talk to her as though absolutely everything’s fine in the world,” Grant says. “Towards the end, when she had moments of confusion because of the brain tumours, whatever Alice in Wonderland hole she plunged down he would just go with her. And I will never, ever forget his kindness and generosity.”

Grant cast Byrne as his alcoholic father in his semi-autobiographical directorial feature Wah-Wah with Nicholas Hoult playing his youthful self. It was Grant’s way of taking back control of a somewhat chaotic childhood.

“The script was really delving into and trying to understand what happened. Because when I was 10, I woke up on the back seat of the car and inadvertently saw my mother bonking my father’s best friend on the front seat, which is the opening scene of the film,” Grant says. “Going back, as a middle-aged man, to the country where it all happened, with a script I’d written and was directing, afforded me a feeling of control that as an adolescent I had none [of] whatsoever.”

Byrne didn’t want to see photographs of Grant’s father or hear any stories. “He went entirely on the script and his experience of dealing with alcoholism and unrequited love,” says Grant. “So it felt like a conjuring act, because he so reminded everybody that knew my father of him.”

Grant also befriended the future king while working as an ambassador for The Prince’s Trust, and says the then Prince Charles also dropped by. “He turned up with mangoes, which were Joan’s favourite fruit, and beautiful scented roses from his garden in Highgrove,” Grant says. “At one point Charles said, ‘It’s been an absolute privilege and honour to have known you, Joan.’ And she said, ‘I’m still here.’ Which was just what she was like. She spoke to prince or pauper in exactly the same way.”

Grant loved Washington reining him in. It was “like teaching a family member to drive” when she helped him nail a Sheffield accent for his turn as a drag queen in the movie adaptation of the musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. Washington insisted he had to stop flirting and get it right, otherwise Grant would make her look as though she couldn’t do her job.

He most keenly feels Washington’s loss when he’s driving home from friends’ houses, only to realise she’s not home to fill in on the gossip. “It gets less traumatic day by day, but that tsunami of grief still wallops you when you least expect it,” he says. “The reality of not being able to have a laugh or watch the Queen’s funeral together, or banal things like making porridge in the morning. I accept that is just the depth of love, so I remain profoundly grateful.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 12, 2022 as "A life in tights".

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