Richard E. Grant Barely Survived Childhood. Now He's Thriving As An Actor The self-described "lifelong character actor" plays an alcoholic sidekick in the film Can You Ever Forgive Me? Through Grant is allergic to alcohol, he grew up in Swaziland with an alcoholic father.
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Richard E. Grant Barely Survived Childhood. Now He's Thriving As An Actor

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Richard E. Grant Barely Survived Childhood. Now He's Thriving As An Actor

Richard E. Grant Barely Survived Childhood. Now He's Thriving As An Actor

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Richard E. Grant, gives a terrific performance opposite Melissa McCarthy in the film "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" That performance has already earned a Best Supporting Actor award from the New York Film Critics Circle. And he's nominated for several others, including a Golden Globe and an Independent Spirit Award. Grant made his film debut in 1987 in the movie "Withnail & I" playing an out-of-work actor, which he was at the time he got the part. He grew up in Africa in Swaziland, which was a British protectorate when he was a child. His father was Swaziland's director of education, but he was also an alcoholic who could become abusive.

Before we hear the interview we recorded yesterday morning, let's hear a scene from "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" The movie is based on Lee Israel's memoir of the same name. Melissa McCarthy plays Israel, a writer who's broke and spends a lot of her days in a neighborhood bar in Manhattan, drinking alone. Later in the film, she starts making decent money by selling her forged letters from writers she loves like Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward. In this scene, she's sitting at the bar when a man walks in, played by Richard E. Grant. He calls out her name and says he remembers meeting her before, but she doesn't remember that. He sits down uninvited at the bar stool next to her.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?")

RICHARD E GRANT: (As Jack) Last time I saw you - thank you - we were both pleasantly pissed at some horrible book party. Am I right?

MELISSA MCCARTHY: (As Lee) It's slowly flooding back to me. You're friends with Julia something.

GRANT: (As Jack) Steinberg (ph).

MCCARTHY: (As Lee) Yeah.

GRANT: (As Jack) She's not an agent anymore. She died.

MCCARTHY: (As Lee) She did? Jesus, that's young.

GRANT: (As Jack) Maybe she didn't die. Maybe she just moved back to the suburbs. I always confuse those to. No, that's right. She got married and had twins.

MCCARTHY: (As Lee) Better to have died.

GRANT: (As Jack) Indeed. I've just come from having my teeth bleached. How do they look?

MCCARTHY: (As Lee) Why would you do that?

GRANT: (As Jack) Oh, teeth are dead giveaway.

MCCARTHY: (As Lee) OK.

GRANT: (As Jack) Can I buy you a drink even though you are the posh writer?

MCCARTHY: (As Lee) Thank you.

GRANT: (As Jack) Craigy, top her up.

GROSS: Richard E. Grant, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on your performance in that film and on the awards you've gotten for it and the awards you're nominated for. I'm delighted...

GRANT: Thank you very much, Terry.

GROSS: ...That you've been honored this way.

GRANT: (Laughter).

GROSS: The script for this - your performance is so great. And the script is so good, even your line in it that you bleached your teeth because teeth are a dead giveaway. Like...

GRANT: (Laughter).

GROSS: We have no idea yet what they might be giving away, what they might be betraying about you.

GRANT: Right.

GROSS: Yeah. So you and Melissa McCarthy both play, you know, alcoholics. But you deal with your depression and your issues differently. She's kind of like withdrawn from the world, whereas you've become, like, very extroverted and theatrical in the world. Did you talk with her about the differences in your characters and how they handle their own depression and despair?

GRANT: I met Melissa McCarthy, I think, in the middle of January last year in Manhattan for a couple of hours on a Friday morning. And then we had a meal together. And I knew instantly - and she must have with me felt the same - an instant empathy or way of looking at the script and these characters. I've said this before. Watching her work, it was like the set of her gravity shifted and the natural buoyancy and ebullience of a character was completely subsumed and submerged into playing Lee Israel without any ounce, as far as I was aware, of sentimentality, vanity, any of the things that you could easily fall into when you're playing a character who is so misanthropic and prickly as Lee Israel obviously was.

So once I knew that that is precisely where she was going - and of course, that was the dream, that she did exactly what the Lee Israel memoir "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" implies with this incredible, caustic wit - I knew that by contrast, playing a man, Jack Hock, who was HIV positive that as an audience, you only find that out in the final scene that he has in the story. But knowing that right from the beginning meant that everything that I did and all the choices I made were based upon a man who was completely hedonistic, driven by pleasure and enjoying life in the moment, for the moment...

GROSS: Nothing to lose.

GRANT: ...At the moment, nothing to lose because, you know, if you quote Scarlett O'Hara, there is no - the possibility that there is no tomorrow for his character.

GROSS: So you're playing a character who isn't an actor but who treats life as a form of theater. Were you ever that way? Have you known people that way?

GRANT: No, but I was at drama school with somebody who still owes me money who was larger than life, a complete scallywag, louche, dissolute. But you knew that even if you lent him money - as long as you didn't lend the keys to your apartment or your car or anything - there was something so attractive and life-enhancing about this kind of person that you - it's like taking a gamble, knowing that you are never going to get your money back. But no, I'm not like that at all.

GROSS: So somebody who is like that, who is similar to Jack Hock in some ways, though probably not quite as dangerous - did you feel you could get only so close without being burned? Like, he was a - like, a life force in some ways but, really, like, a negative force in others.

GRANT: Yes, because his foot is firmly on the pedal of the self-destruct. And as he reveals partway through the story, he doesn't have any friends to share a secret with because they've all died of AIDS.

GROSS: Yeah. So your character, as is Melissa McCarthy's character, is an alcoholic. Your father was an alcoholic. Did you base anything of your character and how your character handled alcohol on your father?

GRANT: I'm allergic to alcohol, ironically. But my father was somebody who was very charming by day and then - literally Jekyll and Hyde - very violent by night when he was drunk. And Jack Hock has no violence at all in him. You know, if anything, he is somebody that gets beaten up by people, as happens in the story. So what is autobiographical is that my observation as a kid and as a teenager was that the concentration that alcoholics have or drunks have when they're trying to cross a room and not fall over or bump into things or convince the world that they are sober, that concentration and focus is what I latched onto.

GROSS: And describe how that works in your character, like - because he always seems kind of in control of his language. Like, he's a terrific speaker. He's a very, like, funny, caustic speaker. And he knows how to manipulate people really well. So in a lot of ways, he seems in control - you know, like, very much in control.

GRANT: Yeah. But his life is completely out of control because he has no apartment. He's destitute...

GROSS: Right, right.

GRANT: ...Literally, hustling on the street. I also have experience with people who - and I expect you have, too - that somebody can be really drunk but manage to sound completely articulate, even if they're slightly slurring at the edges. But they're very articulate in their drunkeness. And I think that that's one of the - kind of the fallacies of being drunk, that - you know, they say that when people are drunk, they tell you the truth. Well, what they tell you isn't - in my experience, is not the truth but a very warped, toxic version of the truth. And it can very often come out with great articulacy, but it doesn't mean that that is truth or kind.

GROSS: I want to talk about your life a little bit. You grew up in Swaziland, which is, I think, the smallest...

GRANT: Smallest country in the Southern Hemisphere, exactly.

GROSS: Yeah. And most Americans don't know much or anything about Swaziland. Can you just describe a little bit about where Swaziland fits, like, culturally and politically in Africa?

GRANT: OK. It was the penultimate country to become independent. And this happened in 1968. And the meaning for that...

GROSS: Penultimate meaning the next to the last (laughter).

GRANT: Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: Good.

GRANT: And the last one was Zimbabwe. And this was because uniquely in Africa, Swaziland was a protectorate colony in that the king of Swaziland at the turn of the last century appealed to Queen Victoria to say, we do not want to be taken over by the Boers, who were the neighbors on the one side. Can you form a protectorate colonial jurisdiction over it? So it never had any of the coup and revolution problems that happened in all the other countries that had to fight against colonial rule. Because they'd invited them in, there was a kind of laissez faire attitude about it. So the changeover to independence when I was 10 years old was completely peaceful and fairly unique in Africa as a result. So my father was the director of education for the British government, which is why we were there and why I went to school there rather than go to school in England, which most of the kids did when they went to high school.

GROSS: So the British protectorate ended in 1968, and you were 10 then. Did you feel like a colonialist during the period when it was still a protectorate?

GRANT: The...

GROSS: Not that a 10-year-old would understand the...

GRANT: No, no. I did understand because my...

GROSS: ...Political and economic implications of colonialism. Yeah.

GRANT: Well, because of my father's job, he inculcated my brain from a very, very young age. He said, even though you're born here, you are essentially a guest in this country. And you have to learn the local language in order to be able to justify why we're here. And he spoke absolutely fluently. And in 1963, when I began school, it was the first time that black Swazi children were amongst white colonial children. So right from my first year at school, it was mixed race, as it was called then.

So I didn't - I wasn't aware in my childhood that there was a division my parents had because of my father's job. But there were many government officials that were black Swazis who came to cocktail parties at our house. And so that division didn't - there was no apartheid in the same way is my point. And it was also a historical position in that it's the tiniest country. And it was called the Switzerland of Africa in that it had Marxist Mozambique on the one side and apartheid, fascist South Africa on the other. So it tread a very neutral political path in the midst of all that.

GROSS: Am I right in saying that you went to school with Nelson Mandela's children?

RICHARD E GRANT: I did, yeah.

GROSS: And what part...

GRANT: In Swaziland.

GROSS: In Swaziland. So what...

GRANT: Yes, I went to school in Swaziland. I went to a school called Waterford Kamhlaba. And Kamhlaba is what the king of Swaziland called the school because it means - in siSwati, it means the world - all the world in one. And when I was there, there were only 300 students, 27 nationalities. And many political dissidents from South Africa had sent their children to be educated in the school because it was multiracial and multidenominational as well. So that was the basis of the school, and it has absolutely informed my whole life.

GROSS: Well, when you knew Nelson Mandela's children, was Mandela in Robben Island - in the prison, Robben Island?

GRANT: He most certainly was. And certainly in the mid-'70s or the early '70s, when I was at school with them and did school plays with both of them. It seemed inconceivable to all of us that he would ever come out of prison alive, let alone become the president of the liberated country in the '90s. So they used to visit their father once a year. And they had obviously enormous sympathy from people at the school because people who were boarding, you know, if they saw their parents four or six times a year, they felt that they were being shortchanged. And here were these two young women who could only see their father once a year and, you know, had to go to a prison island to see him. So that made an enormous impact on all of us who were at the school at that time.

GROSS: You know, you said your experience of being in the school informed, like, the rest of your life. Tell us more about how it did.

GRANT: That compassion and kindness are things that you have to nurture and work for. They're not the common currency of how most people seem to deal with things. And accommodating other viewpoints and other religious convictions is something that you have to have a kind of broad, I suppose, Catholic allowance for as many viewpoints as possible and the baseline to be tolerant.

GROSS: I want to take a short break here and then talk with you some more. So if you're just joining us, my guest is Richard E. Grant. And he stars with Melissa McCarthy in the film "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" He won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for it, the San Diego Film Critics Society. Now he's nominated for a Golden Globe, an Independent Spirit Award and others as well. Oh, you just got nominated for a SAG. My producer just told me you're nominated for a SAG Award.

GRANT: Wow. Wow. That's amazing.

GROSS: Did you not know that?

GRANT: No, how would I know that?

GROSS: Oh, congratulations.

GRANT: I've been talking to you. Sorry, I'm talking to you, so I had no idea. Goodness me. Thank you.

GROSS: Oh, I'm sorry. I'm taking you away from the big news. Do you want to check your phone for a second and see?

GRANT: I'm sure my daughter might have texted me. Can I just...

GROSS: Sure. (Laughter) Take a break.

GRANT: Let's have a look. Oh, wow, and Melissa has got one too. That's fantastic. Wow. God, I'm absolutely thrilled. Goodness me. There's nothing like the approbation of your own peers.

GROSS: No, no. I know. I know.

GRANT: Wow. You've got me at a emotional moment here. I never thought this would happen to me. Thank you.

GROSS: Now that we've heard that good news, we're going to take the real break (laughter). And after we take a short break, I'll be back with Richard E. Grant. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUDY ROYSTON'S "BED BOBBIN'")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Richard E. Grant. And as we're recording this, he was just nominated for a SAG Award for his role in "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" with Melissa McCarthy, who's also nominated for a SAG Award. He's already won a couple of awards this season and is nominated for several more. And he made his film debut in the film "Withnail & I."

So I want to talk with you more about your life. You made an autobiographical film called "Wah-Wah." There's a couple of really disturbing scenes in the film. Your character, the person who, you know, you're portrayed as is a child. I think the character ranges from about 10 to a teenager. And when he's around 10, he wakes up in the backseat of the car to find that his mother and his father's friend are having sex in the front seat. This actually happened to you. How old were you? And were you old enough to even know what sex was?

GRANT: I was 10 years old. And I knew that what I was seeing, I shouldn't be seeing. And I tried, God - got no answer. I couldn't tell my friends. I certainly couldn't tell my father or my mother what I'd seen because I was supposed to be asleep on the backseat. So I lived with this kind of - felt like a toxic secret for decades.

GROSS: Decades?

GRANT: Yeah. And it was the thing that was the catalyst for starting to keep a diary because I thought the only way that I can keep a record of this and feel sane was to write it down. And so I've been a lifelong diarist ever since.

GROSS: Weren't you afraid your mother or father would go through your room and find the diary?

GRANT: I suppose I was. And I hid it. But the breakup of their marriage was so acrimonious that I don't think looking for a diary of a 10-year-old was something that was even on their radar whatsoever.

GROSS: So your father didn't find out from you that your mother was having an affair. How did he find out?

GRANT: Oh, he knew. I don't know how he knew, but he knew because my parents had been great friends with this other couple, who my mother then fell in love with this other man. And so we knew that they were very, very close family friends and that my mother then, you know, fell in love with him. And it became obvious because for the nine months before they were divorced in 1967, she did not speak to him. So she went into a kind of epic sulk mode and talked via me. So it would be a case of, you know, pass the salt - pass this to your father. Ask your father for this. Or my father would say, ask your mother for that. So I was, you know, the classic go-between in the situation.

GROSS: That's depicted in the film, but I didn't realize it lasted...

GRANT: It is.

GROSS: ...For nine months that way.

GRANT: Yeah.

GROSS: That is so selfish, if you don't mind me saying that - so selfish of your parents to make you their messenger boy, their intermediary. That's a horrible position to put a boy in.

GRANT: I agree with you. And I think, like anything in life, that's - in retrospect, you can go, how could that have gone on for so long? But I think that it's, like, I know - this may sound daft. I was unemployed for nine months in 1985. And if I'd known in retrospect, I would have gone - oh, I have to go and get another job, go and, you know, change career, try and do something else. But because you have no idea that it's going to go on as long as it does - I'm sure that my mother thought that she could get out of the marriage sooner than she could.

And you know, perhaps I'm finding mitigating circumstances for her that it took her nine months to finally have the courage or organize her life sufficiently to be able to get out. So at the time, I judged it very, very unequivocally and without any forgiveness. But then once I'd had psychoanalysis and understood where my mother was coming from and then had a rapprochement with her, then, you know, compassion and forgiveness follow suit...

GROSS: I'm also thinking...

GRANT: ...Or I've been told that.

GROSS: I'm also thinking just how, like, really - I hate to be judgmental - but how, like, just kind of stupid and wrong it is to have sex on the front seat with your 10-year-old in the back seat. I mean, it's not like you were unconscious. You were just, like, napping.

GRANT: (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: It was likely you were going to wake up.

GRANT: Well, it was 10 o'clock at night, and we'd been out at a cricket match all day. So I suppose they thought, well, you know, grab the opportunity when they can. And lust blinds people to doing things that, in retrospect, they, you know, would feel sorry for. And when I finally had a face-to-face with my mother about this 20 years ago, she broke down in front of me and said three magic words. She said, please forgive me. And the power of that was astonishing and remains so and led to the complete rapprochement that I had with her. So I now speak to her on Skype once a week.

GROSS: My guest is Richard E. Grant. He stars with Melissa McCarthy in the film "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" He's nominated for a Golden Globe and an award from SAG, the Screen Actors Guild. After a break, he'll tell us about how his drunken father once tried to shoot him. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID FELDMAN'S "NAVEGAR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Richard E. Grant. He stars with Melissa McCarthy in the film "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" He won a New York Film Critics Circle Award for that performance and is nominated for several more. He grew up in Africa in Swaziland, where his father was director of education but he was also an alcoholic who could become abusive. When we left off, we were talking about how Grant was traumatized when he was 10, after waking up in the backseat of a car to find his mother having sex with his father's friend. The affair led Grant's parents to divorce.

So did your father start drinking more after that?

GRANT: People tell me - and from my childhood recollection, I don't remember him drinking to excess at all before he got divorced. But I know that the day that my mother left - and she said to me very early in the morning when she left at - I don't know - 5:30, 6 a.m., she said, you won't have to go to school today. My father was paralytically drunk that night and then basically drank for the remaining years of his life. And I found out on his deathbed, when he could barely speak - because he had brain and lung cancer - he said, I never stopped loving your mother. And I thought he was referring to my stepmother, of course. And I said, do you mean my stepmother? - who'd just walked out of the ward. And he said (slurring), no, your mother.

So I knew then. It was - literally, it felt like a bomb going off in my face because I understood, in that moment, the tragedy of his life, that he had never stopped loving her. But as a child, for those 15 years, 15 years post- their divorce, it seemed that they were so acrimonious towards each other that the idea that he could have loved her or still loved her was inconceivable to me. But of course now, you know, as an adult, I understand that.

GROSS: Right. Another, like, really horrifying sequence in your autobiographical movie, "Wah-Wah," is - like, you went to boarding school. You started acting there. And you came home on a break, and your father saw you in makeup that you were wearing for a play. He called you a fairy. And then he took out his gun and chased after you and shot at you. Would you describe what happened?

GRANT: I had been to see "A Clockwork Orange," which was - had a ban. You know, I was 14 years old, and you had to be 21 years old at that time to go and see that X-rated movie. It was XXX-rated where I grew up. So I snuck out to see that with my best friend and had one of those Malcolm McDowell eyelashes, like, stuck down on my face. And he was outraged that I had - A, had gone to see this film and that B, had come back wearing this thing.

I then - because he was drunk and trying to stop him drinking, I emptied a crate of Scotch whisky down the sink and didn't realize that he was still awake. And he came at me with a revolver, chased me around the garden - or the yard, as you call it - and found me, cornered me and jammed gun to my temple and said, I'm going to blow your brains out. And I said - at that point, I was so - I'd had such a gutsful of living this sort of charmed life by day and then this alcoholism by night that I said, you know, go ahead, as I do in the movie. Shoot me. Get it over with. And because he was so drunk, when he pulled the trigger, it was - he missed, so - which is how I'm here today.

GROSS: You think he was actually trying to aim and shoot you.

GRANT: Oh, I don't think. I know. Yeah, somebody's got - I know if you've had that experience - if somebody's got the barrel of the gun literally pressed against your forehead, there's nowhere else to go. You know that that is - that is their intent. And when they're violent and drunk and abusive, then there is no escape. It felt like there was no escape. I thought that was the end of my life.

GROSS: It frightens me to think about how your father's mind must have been twisted by alcohol to actually try to shoot you, his son. I mean, that just goes against everything. I know you can't drink because you're allergic to it. Your body can't process alcohol. But do you think you ever would've even considered drinking after seeing what alcohol did to your father?

GRANT: Well, you know, it's that old thing that's - because all these things happened in the secrecy and privacy of family life, when I was with my peer group and they were, you know, teenagers, everybody tried smoking. Everybody tried dope. Everybody drank. And it was a very, very heavy drinking culture. So there was enormous machismo pressure to drink and to the point where I couldn't keep alcohol down for more than about seven, eight minutes without becoming violently ill - but really, really, really ill.

So I went to our family doctor, and he said, oh, I'll take - I'll do a blood test on you. And he said - 'cause I said, is it psychosomatic because my father's an alcoholic? And he said, well, I don't know. We can only find out with a blood test. I'm no mind reader. And took a blood test and he said to me, do you have any Asian blood? And I said, what do you mean? He said, you have no enzyme to process alcohol. You can never, ever drink. It's completely toxic to your system. So I never have.

GROSS: After the gun incident - the way it's depicted in your movie, you go to a respected doctor, a friend of the family, tell him what happened. And he says - the doctor says, we have to keep this a secret; your father is too loved and respected. So after keeping it a secret for a long time, being told by a doctor to keep...

GRANT: Yeah.

GROSS: ...It a secret - and then there was the secret of, like, your mother having sex on the front seat of the car while you were in the back seat.

GRANT: Yeah.

GROSS: Those are, like, some really deep secrets to have to keep. But then you went and made a movie about it, and then you knew you'd be asked about it, you know, in interviews afterwards like this one. And this is, like, years after you made the movie. So what was it like to go from one extreme - like, you can't tell anybody - to the other, actually making, like, a movie about it, making it, like, very visible, very public?

GRANT: Terry, I think that your observation is precisely why I have been so open-booked about my life ever since - because those two things made such a profound impact on me that I thought that secrets - the nature of keeping a secret is almost inherently toxic. And I thought that to liberate myself and anybody else that might have gone through anything like this kind of childhood trauma, it enables other people to go, you're not alone. So in speaking about it, I've met many other people who've suffered far worse things than this. So my feeling is to be open-book about everything. It's - I've felt like I've gained strength from that rather than felt the oppression of having to keep secrets.

GROSS: Can I ask you to apply what you've just said to your portrayal of Jack Hock in "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" because he is full of secrets. I mean, he's a mystery man. He's not really going to tell you much about his past. He's got a lot to cover up.

GRANT: Well, because of Jack Hock...

GROSS: Yeah.

GRANT: ...I'd - I had very little to go on in terms of - I knew that he had died at the age of 47 in 1994 of AIDS. Most of his friends had died. There were no photographs of him. He was a stubbly cigarette holder. He was blond and came from Portland, Ore., and was obviously American. And that is as much information as - that I could find about this man. So it is...

GROSS: So his life was a secret to you, too.

GRANT: His life was a secret, yes, exactly. So I thought, well, this is somebody who lives on the street. And what Lee Israel did reveal is that once she had been exposed by the FBI and she then used Jack Hock to fence her remaining letters in order to carry on her earning money, where she might expect to get 300, 400, 500 bucks for one of her forged letters, he would go out and come back with 2,000. So from that I thought, this is somebody who has street smarts to the degree that he can go out and scam people or hustle them for money. And I thought, in order to do that, you have to have a modicum of charm and some kind of presentation, which - you know, that informed the choices I made.

GROSS: So after the shooting incident where your father shot at you, did you leave home for good after that?

GRANT: Oh, I ran away, and I stayed with a friend for a week. And then my stepmother found out where I was, and then I came back. And of course, like he always was, he either had blacked out or had no memory of what he'd done the night before and would sign a check and push it across the breakfast table and be full of remorse and, you know, beg for forgiveness and all of that. You know, I absolutely loved and adored him because he was a very, very funny, sharp-witted man and very provocative in his conversation. And he was very well-read and all of those things. So reconciling that with this person that he turned into - you know, I think that's it's a measure of how much a child loves a parent, that even though you've suffered those things - I always very, very clearly understood that who he became when he was drunk was not who he was. I - to me, that was the monster. And it wasn't my father, who I loved.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us my guest is Richard E. Grant. And as we were recording this, he was nominated for a SAG award - that's the Screen Actors Guild - for Best Supporting Actor in the film "Can You Ever Forgive Me?," which also stars Melissa McCarthy, who's also nominated for a SAG Award. He has already won the New York Film Critics Circle Award and an award from the San Diego Film Critics Society for his performance in "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" And he's nominated for a Golden Globe, an Independent Spirit Award, Critic's Choice Award and more. So...

GRANT: And right now he's levitating.

GROSS: (Laughter) Good for you. You deserve it.

GRANT: (Laughter).

GROSS: We'll be right back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOUNTAIN GOATS SONG, "PEACOCKS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Richard E. Grant, who stars with Melissa McCarthy in the film "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" for which he's just been nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award. He's already won the New York Film Critics Circle Award and the San Diego Film Critics Society Award for his performance in that film.

You've mentioned that in another interview that when your father died, there was an evangelical minister presiding over the funeral.

GRANT: Yes.

GROSS: And describe what happened at the end.

GRANT: Well, there was a young man called Becky Gumenza (ph), who was Swazi, who'd done an evangelical course in the USA and had come back to Swaziland. And his father had been, ironically, the man who became the Swazi minister of education after independence, so they were great family friends. And he misguidedly believed that he could raise people from the dead. And so he jumped into the grave - because my father refused to have a church service when he could still, you know - when we talked about his funeral arrangements. He jumped into the grave, undid the casket and opened it up and tried to - you know, he said, I'm going to raise (speaking Swazi), which is the Swazi name he was given. I'm going to raise (speaking Swazi) from the dead. I'm going to raise him from the dead. And then of course, you know, my father was a cadaver of, you know, 65 pounds.

And there's this awful Monty Python-like, Joe Orton grotesque moment when - you know, everybody leant forward, myself included, to look in almost the mistaken desire or belief that maybe a miracle was going to happen. Then Becky had to be consoled because he then collapsed on top of my father's corpse and - in a hysterical state because he felt that his faith had failed him, so he had to hauled out. And we, actually, filmed this with a young Swazi actor who'd been training in England. And when we tested it with test audiences, they said that - almost to a man and woman, in all the written response was that it was too out there and too bizarre at this point in the story to take, so I very reluctantly cut it out. But in the making of documentary, you - there's footage of that.

GROSS: You identify as an atheist. Did you already identify that way when this minister or priest tried to revive your father from the dead?

GRANT: Yes. And my father was absolutely unequivocal about not believing in anything, even when he knew that he was dying. And he said that heaven and hell are on Earth, that there is nothing beyond this and that you have to grab life and enjoy it in the here and now.

GROSS: So what was it like to see an evangelical priest kind of intrude into yours and your father's atheism by actually believing that with the help of God, he could raise your father from the dead?

GRANT: Well, he was a family friend, as I said. And he is such a kind, compassionate person and was there with the best intentions and had requested if he could make a speech at my father's funeral, so he wasn't leading a service. It was like if you had said to me, would you mind if I, you know, said a few words? And you'd go, well, of course. In the state of grief that everybody was in, and it's a family friend, you say, yes, of course. Go ahead. None of us had any idea that it would turn into the kind of completely insane circus that it had then erupted into.

GROSS: Why did you want to act? What made you want to start acting? And I'm wondering when I'm asking this if it was a good way to kind of get out of your life because with your parents having the acrimonious relationship that they did and your father having tried to shoot you and, like, just crazy things going on, I could see how it would be a relief to be somebody else for a while.

GRANT: Yes. And I escaped from - I mean, it's a perfectly valid point that you made. I started making theaters out of shoe boxes with painted scenery, a desk side lamp, a little hole in the top for lighting and cut-out figures from magazines stuck on lollipop sticks, going - you know, either side of shoe box and then progressed to glove puppets and string puppets - marionettes - and a full-size theater in my parents' garage, amateur plays - school plays - and amateur theater club, which existed in Swaziland. So it was a very clear progression. It - what wasn't clear is that anybody from there could possibly make a living and pursue this as a career seriously. That was what was deemed ludicrous.

GROSS: Were you exposed to a lot of movies, television, theater when you were growing up in Swaziland?

GRANT: They - I religiously listened to the BBC World Service radio, which is what we got. There was no television in Swaziland until 1980, after I'd already emigrated. So...

GROSS: Wow, that's so hard to imagine for me.

GRANT: I know. And there was so - I was a complete bookworm. You know, I read voraciously and still do. And there was one movie house, which showed a movie from a Monday to a Wednesday, and then Thursday to Saturday, there would be another movie. So if you liked it, you had to go and see it three days in a row, and then it was gone.

GROSS: Did that make it...

GRANT: So I went...

GROSS: ...More special for you?

GRANT: Yeah, I just - because I didn't know anything else. I went to the movies avidly - "Midnight Cowboy," which absolutely informed "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" because it, again, was about two outcasts, you know, grifting through New York and people who, on paper, shouldn't have become co-dependent or friends and do; Robert Altman's "M.A.S.H."; Bob Fosse's "Cabaret"; "Nashville," which I saw 27 times; obviously, "The Godfathers." And there used to be a Saturday morning movie showing when I was at school. And I, you know, went to those, as well. You could also kiss people in the back row because it was dark.

GROSS: (Laughter) So you saw "Nashville," Robert Altman's film, 27 times. Then you had to work with him in "Gosford Park" and "Pret-A-Porter." What did you learn from actually working with him?

GRANT: Well, I knew that, when I worked with him the first time in "The Player" in 1991, he liked and was very loyal to pipe-cleaner tall actors with long faces - you know, like the Carradine brothers and Donald Sutherland, all of whom I had as role models because I knew that I didn't look like Robert Redford. The way that he worked and working in an ensemble way was the movie equivalent of being in an ensemble in a theater company.

And he encouraged you to improvise. And if you asked him for what your character motivation was or, you know, any character notes whatsoever, he said, I don't know, E. Grant. E. Grant, E. Grant - he always called me E. Grant. He said, you know, that's why I've employed you guys. You're the people who do it. I'll just do all the other stuff, and I'll just make sure that, you know, I edit you so that you don't look like an ass-[expletive]. And that's what he did.

GROSS: (Laughter). My guest is Richard E. Grant. He stars with Melissa McCarthy in "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" and is nominated for an award from SAG, the Screen Actors Guild, and a Golden Globe. He won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for best supporting actor. We'll be back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

("SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL FREEDMAN'S "LOVE TAKES TIME")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our interview with Richard E. Grant. He's nominated for several awards, including a Golden Globe, for his performance in "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"

So when you were making your film debut...

GRANT: Yes?

GROSS: ...As the star of "Withnail & I"...

GRANT: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And he's a character who drinks a lot - and you didn't drink because you can't tolerate it; you don't have the enzyme to process alcohol - the film director told you that you should drink a lot in rehearsal for the film as - you know, like, in preparation for the film so you'd understand the sensation that you get from drinking. Not to ask you to be judgmental, but was that the right thing to do? Was that an appropriate thing to do?

GRANT: I thought that it was an insane thing to do. But Bruce Robinson, being a self-confessed alcoholic himself - the writer-director of the film and now a recovering alcoholic - said to me that he was very determined that I had what he called a chemical memory of what it is like to be drunk. And I said, Bruce, I have drunk alcohol and kept it down for nine minutes. He said, no, no, no. You've got to understand, in order to play this part properly, what it is like to be absolutely bladdered.

So he sent me home the night before the final day of rehearsals and said, here's a bottle of champagne. Work your way through that, even if you vomit in between - which I did all night long. You will be drunk by the time you come in in the morning, which I was. So I do have that experience of it. But whether, in all honesty that helped my performance or my acting of drunks, I very much doubt. I seriously - I don't believe that for one minute. But he likes to, and he's one of my best and greatest friends. So I'd agree to disagree with him about that (laughter).

GROSS: In the TV series - the HBO series "Girls" that...

GRANT: Yes.

GROSS: ...Lena Dunham created, you played somebody who Jessa meets in rehab. You're both in rehab. And Jessa is the British friend of Hannah...

GRANT: Lena Dunham's character.

GROSS: ...of Hannah, which is Lena Dunham's character. And so, again, you're playing somebody with, like, addiction problems in that. And Jessa - I don't know. Jessa, to me, was always, like, the least likable of all of the characters. I mean, she was, like, a liar and very manipulative. And you knew that she had problems underneath, but she'd always be covering them up. But I just want to play a scene that you're both in. So this takes place in rehab. And you're both sitting in your room in rehab, talking and smoking.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GIRLS")

JEMIMA KIRKE: (As Jessa) You're not allowed to smoke in here.

GRANT: (As Jasper) I am.

KIRKE: (As Jessa) How do you get them to leave you alone?

GRANT: (As Jasper) A very respectable accent.

KIRKE: (As Jessa) Yeah, well, so do I.

GRANT: (As Jasper) But you have the accent of a little girl who grew up somewhere between Heathrow and JFK. My daughter's is similar.

KIRKE: (As Jessa) How old is she?

GRANT: (As Jasper) About your age, I guess. I haven't seen her for a while. Her mother hates me, and she takes after her mother.

KIRKE: (As Jessa) Do you know that today in group, some dumb bitch threw coffee in my face, all because I told her that she's a lesbian. I did her that favor. I just got to it quickly, rather than this [expletive] of everyone tiptoeing around it and just told her she's a raging dyke.

GRANT: (As Jasper, laughing) Dyke or no dyke, people have to come to things in their own time. Now, you have to learn when honesty is righteous and when honesty is nothing more than a party trick.

KIRKE: (As Jessa) You're a real [expletive] for not knowing how old your daughter is.

GRANT: (As Jasper) All right - filtered through the kaleidoscope of your own daddy issues.

KIRKE: (As Jessa) I do not have daddy issues.

GRANT: (As Jasper) Please, please, please, we all have them. Now, periodically, if you can, take time to reflect on the daddy issues that your daddy had with his daddy, and his daddy with his daddy and his daddy before him and every daddy that's being going on daddy-ing before that daddy. I know you know this. You're quite wise.

KIRKE: (As Jessa) You know nothing about me.

GRANT: (As Jasper) Wisdom comes from experience. And I suspect you've had many, many experiences - too many, probably, for someone of your age.

KIRKE: (As Jessa) I've had fun.

GRANT: (As Jasper) But it wasn't always fun, was it?

KIRKE: (As Jessa) No.

GROSS: That's a scene from "Girls" with my guest, Richard E. Grant, and Jemima Kirke. When you got the part, did Lena Dunham or anyone else know about your background and that your father was an alcoholic and that you, certainly, had father issues?

GRANT: No, not as far as I know. Lena cast me because she'd seen me in "Spice World," the movie.

(LAUGHTER)

GRANT: I know. Go figure that one.

GROSS: I guess you never know who's watching...

GRANT: You never know who's watching.

GROSS: ...And what it's going to lead to. Yeah.

GRANT: Exactly.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GRANT: Yeah. Adele gave me tickets to go and see her show. We share the same birthday and not the same bank balance - to go and see her show in London because she was a "Spice World" fan. And yet, when I did the movie in 1996, I was berated by people for doing something that they said was not highbrow enough, you know? What are you doing a Spice Girls movie for? And I said, for my 8-year-old daughter.

GROSS: Oh, that's so interesting. Well, it worked. I mean, it had a happy ending, right?

GRANT: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. Richard E. Grant, it's just been really great to talk with you. Congratulations on "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" and your awards and nominations. And thank you so much for talking with us. It's been great to talk with you.

GRANT: Thank you, Dr. Freud.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Richard E. Grant is nominated for several awards, including a Golden Globe, an Independent Spirit Award and a SAG Award for his performance in "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, Bruce Springsteen's sold-out solo Broadway show closes Saturday. But the Netflix film version of it will be available this weekend. We'll feature our 2016 interview with Springsteen recorded in his home studio. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN SONG, "BORN TO RUN")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN TO RUN")

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) In the day, we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream. At night, we ride through the mansions of glory in suicide machines. Sprung from cages out on Highway 9, chrome wheeled, fuel injected, and stepping out over the line. Baby, this town rips the bones from your back. It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap. We got to get out while we're young 'cause tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.

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