The Wah-Wah Diaries

Profile & Interview: Richard E. Grant

by Carlo Cavagna


LEFT: Richard E. Grant on the cover of his latest book, The Wah-Wah Diaries.

To a majority of film-goers in the United States, he is a vaguely recognizable face from one costume drama or another. In Britain, he is known for having worked extensively in both film and television, but still not a huge star. To his fans, though, Richard E. Grant is larger than life, having played one of the most memorable and inspired characters ever to reach the screen—the embittered, jittery, dissolute, drug-addled Withnail from Bruce Robinson's British cult comedy hit, Withnail and I (1987).

Set in 1969, Withnail and I portrayed two starving London actors who leave their fetid apartment for an ill-conceived vacation to England's Lake District. Elegant in squalor and given to grandiloquent rants, Withnail was portrayed so brilliantly by Grant that many of the film's fans wanted to be Withnail. They did not realize, perhaps, that the character is a tragic figure closely based on a complete failure, Vivian MacKerrell, who eventually drank himself to death (a fact that adds poignancy to Grant's Hamlet soliloquy at the end of the film). Another irony is that Grant himself is a teetotaler with an allergy to alcohol, and has only been drop-dead drunk once in his life—at the insistence of Robinson to prepare for the role.

Substance abuse aside, Withnail and I bore considerable parallels to Grant's life. Prior to the film, Grant had been unemployed for nine months—“marooned, becalmed, beached, and increasingly bleached of self-confidence,” as he put it in his memoirs. After five years of struggle in London, Grant had earned only two television credits. Yet unlike his character, Grant never again had to worry about work. Withnail and I was his big breakthrough and the defining event of his career.

1986 also saw two defining events in Grant's personal life—his marriage to dialogue and voice coach Joan Washington and the tragic death of their daughter Tiffany half an hour after her premature birth. “Not a day goes by without me thinking about her,” Grant told Now Magazine in 1999. “We still talk about Tiffany…not in a macabre, candle-burning kind of way. But we still honor the day she was born and died. When something like that happens, it binds you to the person you've shared it with.” Bound together indeed—twenty years later, Grant and Washington are still happily married. They did eventually succeed in becoming parents in 1989, to a daughter, Olivia, and Grant is also stepfather to Joan's son Tom from her first marriage.

An invitation to Hollywood followed on the heels of Withnail and I—to star with Lori Singer and Julian Sands as a time-traveling witch hunter in the dreadful Warlock (1988), a role originally offered to Sean Connery who wisely declined. Back in the UK, Grant sported a bizarre haircut—at his own insistence—as a hair tonic salesman in Michael Austin's comedy Killing Dad (1989). Grant then anchored Bruce Robinson's follow-up, the scathing satire How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989), in which Grant, playing a smarmy ad exec who tries to clean up his morals, literally grows a second head, which serves as an outlet for his raging id. The film was not reviewed that well, but Grant was, and Hollywood again took notice of his gift for eccentric, volatile intensity. Big names now sought him out for big productions.

Grant first took the role of Anaïs Nin's boring husband in Philip Kaufman's Henry and June (1990), proving he could play straight roles. Then Steve Martin wanted Grant for L.A. Story (1991), in which he loses Victoria Tennant to Martin. For Francis Ford Coppola, Grant courted the ill-fated Lucy and hunted vampires in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1991). For Robert Altman, he was a relentless screenwriter in The Player (1992). For Martin Scorsese, he was an upper-crust lounge lizard in The Age of Innocence (1993). And of course, mega-producer Joel Silver and star Bruce Willis enlisted Grant to participate in one of the most notorious bombs of all time, Hudson Hawk, in which he and Sandra Bernhardt strutted and ranted as billionaire megalomaniacs.

Though he remains unabashedly star-struck today, Grant soon tired of the Hollywood scene. Much later he would say to The Guardian, “ Hollywood is on what they call a shit tide, meaning a tide where stuff comes in and goes out very quickly. People come in, get a part in something, get in a magazine, then they go away and you never hear of them again. The sun shines; the level of paranoia is bottomless; and everybody you meet has an agenda. And that's it. Show business, twenty-four hours a day. If you're doing well, you're a target; nobody's interested in you except how you can be of use to them. And you can't engage with anyone; you can only engage with their agenda” (The Guardian, 6 August 2005).

After a series of unsuccessful auditions, Grant decided to return to living and working full-time in the UK, where his wife and daughter had remained. As a result, Grant began gradually fading from view in the United States. Twice more he worked with Robert Altman, whom Grant often cites as his favorite director, appearing as an off-the-wall fashion designer in Prêt-a-Porter (1994) and as a tightly wound servant in Gosford Park (2001). At the insistence of his daughter Olivia, then nine years old, Grant also accepted an invitation from the Spice Girls to play their manager in Spice World (1998).

Grant's other work, much of it art-house or period stuff, was not widely seen in the United States. Highlights included:

  • Tim Sullivan's Jack and Sarah (1995), in which Grant's lawyer adapts to the challenges of single fatherhood with the help of Ian McKellen and Samantha Mathis;
  • Rudolf Van Den Berg's The Cold Light of Day (1995)—based on the same material that was later made into Sean Penn's The Pledge—in which Grant plays a police detective obsessed with catching the murderer of a young girl;
  • Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night (1996) based on the Shakespeare play, in which Grant unsuccessfully courts Helena Bonham Carter's Olivia;
  • Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady (1996) based on the Henry James novel, in which Grant's Lord Warburton courts Nicole Kidman's Isabel Archer, also unsuccessfully;
  • Robert Bierman's comedy A Merry War (1997) based on George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying , in which Grant's advertising executive leaves his job to be a poet;
  • Stephen Fry's snappy satire Bright Young Things (2003), based on Evelyn Waugh's novel Vile Bodies about frivolous young socialites in late 1930s England, in which Grant had a small part as Father Rothschild.

On British television, Grant starred as “an 18th Century Batman” (as he likes to say) in The Scarlet Pimpernel miniseries and two subsequent TV movies (1999), opposite Patrick Stewart as Scrooge's employee Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol (1999), and opposite Richard Roxburgh's Sherlock Holmes as Stapleton in The Hound of the Baskervilles (2002). Most recently, Grant was heard but not seen as the detestable Barkis Bittern in Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (2005).

Except for the occasional big-studio film shot in the UK, including the Reese Witherspoon comedy Penelope later this year, Grant's fling with Hollywood is today a thing of the distant past. It has, however, given Grant two strong friendships, with Steve Martin and Sandra Bernhardt, and endless creative fodder. In 1996 Grant published his gossipy, confessional, and hilarious film diaries With Nails, in which we learn that Grant was once told he would never make it in the movies because he had a face like a tombstone. He reveals he can't watch himself on screen, and self-effacingly makes clear that he didn't contribute a word of dialogue to his most famous character Withnail. Grant also dedicates fifty fascinating, uproariously funny pages to how an intended box office smash can be incrementally destroyed by creative interference and competing egos. The train wreck that was Hudson Hawk also inspired Grant's 1999 comic novel entitled By Design, an observation about our celebrity-obsessed culture centered around the production of a disaster movie called “Zeitgeist.” He now plans to turn the book into a screenplay.

Wearing his emotions on his sleeve, Grant writes freely about his anxieties and insecurities in colorful, inventive language replete with made-up words and creative exaggeration. After an industry screening, Grant doesn't just make his exit; he handshakes and no-but-you-were-greats his way to the side door. Steve Martin “talks in telegraphese as though he last saw you five minutes ago.” At an L.A. premiere, “young women with piles of peroxide hair switch on like megawatt bulbs when an agent or director is radared.” In another vivid passage, Grant describes another premiere, that of Die Hard 2, thusly, “Before the end-titles have rolled, before the lights have brightened, the stalls are erupting. Human lava flows over the backs of seats, scrambling to get within reach of the volcanic epicenter of this hit. Namely Messrs Willis and Silver, Inc.”

Grant doesn't affect boredom with celebrity or the movies, nor does he pretend to prefer the stage. He repeatedly pooh-poohs the sacred Method in With Nails. In 1996, he told Oxford University Trinity Magazine that he views his profession as entertainment. “No more, no less; that's what it is. You can say that something can change someone's life. You can get intellectual about it and say it's a mirror up to nature; it can change the way people think, and all those noble things. But it seems to me that when people set out to try to do that, the end product is so worthy and so boring and dull as a result. The thing that has no gravitas, or subterranean subtext, or whatever you want to call it, can reach people's hearts.”

Expressive, unpretentious, self-deprecating, and down to earth—these qualities are not exactly consistent with the posh Englishman Grant often seems to be on screen. Perhaps that's because he's not really a posh Englishman, or at least not fully.

Born Richard Grant Esterhuysen in 1957, Grant is from Swaziland. His was a British colonial family, to be sure, but he was raised in a multi-racial environment. His parents divorced when Grant was eleven, prompted by his mother's adultery with his father's best friend, an episode of which Grant actually witnessed in detail. Grant remained with his father, who was asked to stay on as education minister after Swazi independence in 1969, but he began to abuse alcohol so much that he once fired a gun at Grant. His father eventually died of cancer in 1981 at just fifty-one years of age, shortly after Grant finished studying drama and English at Cape Town University in South Africa, where he also co-founded the mixed-race Troupe Theatre Company. The next year Grant, aged twenty-five, left for London.

Grant's childhood is the basis of Wah-Wah, a film written, directed, and produced by Grant. Starring Gabriel Byrne, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, and About a Boy's Nicholas Hoult, Wah-Wah isn't just based on or inspired by Grant's life. Everything in the film is literally true. Though he has changed the names, the only creative license Grant has taken is to compress time, amalgamate some supporting characters, and write his brother Stuart completely out of the story. Perhaps that's because he hasn't seen Stuart since their father's funeral, which hasn't stopped Stuart (now an accountant living in South Africa) from occasionally sniping at his older sibling jealously through the press.

The emotional trauma of Grant's childhood explains why family is so critical to Grant today. Perhaps it also has something to do with why Grant is compelled to be so honest about himself in Wah-Wah. In turn, the six-year struggle to bring Wah-Wah to the screen has instigated more of Grant's inimitable writing, in the form of the just-published Wah-Wah Diaries.

In May 2006, Grant gave a lengthy, sometimes boisterous roundtable interview that was typical Richard E. Grant—witty, self-effacing, and candid. Interviewers should beware, however. Never afraid to engage with a question, Grant will sometimes turn it around and direct it back at you. In fact, the interview begins with Grant posing a question.

Grant: [It took ages] for me to get here. I couldn't argue with [the PR company]. They said, “You've got to talk about the title straight away. Wah-Wah. Why Wah-Wah?” Have any of you seen the movie? Do I need to explain to you why the title is Wah-Wah? The kung-fu sounding movie?

Question: You don't have to explain why the title is Wah-Wah. But why was that the nonsensical word that you chose, as the representative word?

Grant: Because I thought it's the American stepmother, Emily Watson, Ruby, coming into this world, which is homogenously, hermetically sealed, with its own tribal pretensions and small-time social pecking order. She just comes in and punctures the whole thing, and says it's basically a lot of old wah-wah. That seemed to me the ethos of people who were living in a society where history had— You know, they were past their sell-by date, and time was running out on them, and created this panic.

I was given so many alternative titles, like Requiem for Swaziland, or Goodbye Africa, or One Brief Shining Moment. All the [maudlin] stuff. [I said,] “I can't fucking live with that. So I'm going to stick with a movie [title] that no one knows what the thing sounds like.” Of course, the distributors pulled their hair and teeth out trying to get me to change that. But the people who've seen the movie, they get it. They don't seem to have a problem with it. I'm very grateful that it's stuck.

AboutFilm Question: Why was it important to you to make this film?

Grant: I had always wanted write about the experience of growing up in this last gasp of empire. I'd seen White Mischief. I'd seen Out of Africa. I'd seen Cry Freedom. I'd seen all the things that were either very romantic about Africa, or political. There was nothing I had seen that actually dealt with this last-minute panic, if you like, from a personal point of view, that didn't have wild animals running around, or people in safari suits, or all the traditional things that you see, or starvation riots and dictatorships that have beset so much of the continent now. Originally I had this idea to write a Raymond Carver-like Short Cuts of many different stories told from multiple viewpoints, I suppose because I didn't have the self-confidence that my own story had sufficient dramatic heft or weight to carry a whole movie. Then people said to me, “Well, it begins with adultery, then there's divorce, then addiction, then death, first love, lost love, unrequited love. Your father tried to shoot you. Amateur dramatics on top of it, to sort of comedically balance it out. Why do you think there's not enough story?” So, once they had pointed this out to me, I then had the courage to stick to my own story and think that that was of sufficient interest to sustain a whole movie.

Question: When you do something autobiographical, do you worry that there are things that speak to you on a personal level that might not speak to the people who only see the 90 or 100 minutes of the movie?

Grant: No, because my intention was never to make an art-house movie where you excluded people, [where] it was made for four people to see in Wichita. I want people to see it. My experience of it now, showing it at the Edinburgh Film Festival, Toronto, Dallas, Palm Springs and Tribeca last week, is that even [with] those [things] idiosyncratic to my childhood in Africa at a particular point in historical time thirty-five years ago, the bottom line is it's about family, and what goes on behind closed doors. The public show and the private face of what goes on, and that's common to everybody. I know from the response that we've had that— It's almost been like a combination Jerry Springer/Oprah Winfrey response. People come up to me afterwards and go, “Oh my God. This is exactly what's happened in my family.” And I think, “Well, you know, I've never met these people, they've haven't lived in Africa.” But all the elements that are in it, at some point, touch other people's lives. So I know that it has a broader appeal than just a British audience or people that have some kind of a colonial connection. Or so it seems. Unless they're all lying.

AboutFilm Question: This is billed as semi-autobiographical. What parts are fiction?

Grant: It's only semi in that there's historical license and dramatic license taken, because it's things that have happened over ten years that have been concertinaed down into a three-year timescale for the movie purposes. Otherwise it'd be like Gone with the Wind. You'd be there for ten years. So that was the reason. Otherwise, everything that happened, happened. The supporting characters are amalgams, and based on people that I knew and grew up with. The biggest historical jump is that independence happened in '68, A Clockwork Orange in 1971. Camelot was done in 1975. Princess Margaret [was in Swaziland and] left in 1981, in the middle of a play. Those things I combined for this story, because essentially, they were all things that happened. They weren't things that were isolated. It's like sunshine in LA. It doesn't shine just one day. In five years, it's still going to be shining another time. So essentially, it's the same story, if that makes sense.

Question: The film seemed like a love letter to your father, and an indictment of the British upper classes, especially the monarchy. Was that your intention?

Grant: Well, I think it is. You've nailed it exactly. It's a combination of affection and also a critical view. Because people living in this acutely snobbish social pecking order, with the equivalent of the king and queen being the High Commissioner and his wife, and then going down to the mudflats of people who were in the trade industry, was so preposterous and so acute that you couldn't really make it up. And these are people living a standard of living, and a way of life that they couldn't possibly sustain when they went back to England. They had a great deal of leisure time, very cheap servants, and they lived almost like 19th Century aristocrats.

Question: In terms of the affection the family has for the servants, was that depicted accurately? Were the servants seen like extended family?

Grant: Yeah, it was absolutely feudal, in the pre-war empire sense that the black servants people had stayed with [them for life]. The woman who was our housekeeper died six months ago, and she had been working with my family, and looked after my father more than any doctor did while he was dying, for the last forty years. My father paid for her children's education. So there was this benign feudal— It's difficult to understand now in post-colonial history that there was this co-dependent relationship that people had. It's very easy in retrospect now, to knock it and say, “These people were exploited.” But speaking to them, and going back to Swaziland, I never encountered any animosity or discomfort about that. It was just accepted. That was the status quo then, thirty-five years ago.

Question: When you're a white person in Africa, most outsiders would think, “Colonial invaders.” You can't be white and be from Africa.

Grant: As my father always said to me, ever since I remember talking, “You will learn the language of this country but remember that you are a guest. Behave accordingly.” I think that people who haven't been to Africa hope that somehow you're going to be a racist, machete-wielding white supremacist. Unfortunately, I went to [a multi-racial] school. I couldn't really fit that bill.

Question: Is it easier to make the transition to writing and directing when you're more of a character actor, so it's not like Mel Gibson's directorial debut, which draws a lot of attention to the process?

Grant: Well, you'd have to ask Mel Gibson about that. I have no idea because I've never been Mel Gibson or in his position. What makes it a lot harder is that unless you have a big name, you can't attract finance or big names to go with it, which is why it's taken six years for this movie, from first script pitch meeting in October 1999 to finally come out in movie theaters on May 12th, 2006. Whereas I'm sure for Mel Gibson, the turnaround is a great deal faster. You can make three movies in that time.

Question: Didn't attaching names like Gabriel Byrne, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson help that process somewhat?

Grant: It does. But they're not, you know, they're not huge box office stars. They're not the handful of five people that open a movie from here to Bogota.

Question: But it shows that it's going to be a competent movie with professionals. It's not going to be a vanity project.

Grant: Oh yeah, sure. And I certainly know that people don't do anything out of the favor of friendship. They do it because they think the script is good, and it's good for their careers, as well.

AboutFilm: It's a pretty impressive cast, regardless of their box office draw. How difficult was it to attach them to the script?

Grant: Oh thank you. It was difficult in that the first five actors—the only five actors between the age of forty and fifty in England—that you can get any finance on the movie all turned me down. That took up about two years. And then I went up to an older generation, and Gabriel Byrne was the one who grabbed it, and has done an absolutely brilliant job. No American actress that I approached accepted to do the film. Because, if you'll appreciate, this is a first-time writer/director that they may never have heard of, a seven-million dollar budget, shooting in Swaziland, which they've certainly never heard of, in Africa, and the character of Ruby comes in on page thirty. It's certainly no rocket science to work out that if you present that scenario to any agent up and down Wilshire Boulevard, they're not going to be saying, “My client has got to be doing this job.” Various agents said to me, “Why doesn't Ruby come in on page two?” I said, “Well, because it's autobiographical. There's no way I can make her come in on page two.” I then hit on the idea of Emily Watson, because I'd worked with her on Gosford Park. My wife is a dialect coach, and had coached her for an American accent in a play that she'd done, and said she has a really good ear; she's a brilliant actor. So I approached her, and my wife coached her accent. It's a great approbation of Emily's talent and commitment, and my wife working with her, that people in America bought her as an American.

Question: How about the process of casting smaller versions of yourself?

Grant: I went for the best actors that I could get. The initial idea was to get a Billy Elliot-type, Jamie Bell, just to play the [whole] part, because as soon as you change over ages, you then risk losing sympathy with the audience. They've fallen in love with one person, and who the hell is this new person who's come on? But I couldn't find a boy who looked vulnerable and young enough to be a ten year old waking up to see his mother bonking his father's best friend in the front seat in the first scene, and then ending up falling in love, having a joint, taking on his father—all that. So I cast two people.

Question: Did you direct them as a director, or as the person who had lived the life they were playing?

Grant: As a director, because once you've written the script, it's already at one remove from yourself in that you've had to objectify and write as three-dimensionally and rationally about these characters as possible. One person asked me, “Did you cast Nicholas Hoult because he looks like you?” No, it never crossed my mind.

Question: How that scene occurs in the car, is that pretty much how it went down in real life, with you witnessing the adultery?

Grant: Absolutely. Everything that you see happen, happened. It's just been kind of concertinaed down.

AboutFilm Question: I did wonder, though. Your mother, having sex in the car like that with you in it; it seems incredible.

Grant: Well, it was— Again, that's something that, kids sleeping in the back of cars— If you traveled around the country, it was a different era. It was incredibly safe. People didn't lock their front doors. So you were either sleeping in trunk of the car, because that seemed like a good fun thing to do, with a sleeping bag or with pillows and stuff, or the cars then had big long back seats. They didn't have these bucket seats, so people just— We slept in cars a lot. You know, you were traveling [long] distances. So the mood took them, and they were at it. Thought that I was asleep, so one thing led to another.

Question: How is Wah-Wah being marketed and promoted differently in England?

Grant: The trailer here has emphasized the comic elements of the thing much more. In England the trailer has been re-cut to be much more serious.

Question: Why do you think that is?

Grant: I think there's a terror here that if something seems like it's going to be Sturm und Drang, and people are going to want to slash their wrists, they won't go see it. Whereas if you can say these are funny English people doing funny things in some other funny place and time, it might be an easier sell. But the audiences we had at Tribeca, two people stood up and said they'd seen the trailer and they thought it didn't reflect how moving and how much gravitas the film had at the end, that they were beguiled into thinking it would be a light comedy. They weren't unhappy about that. They just thought that people should have the courage to say, this is what it is.

Question: Do you think that for British audiences your name assures them that there will be a certain amount of humor?

Grant: I don't know. I am obviously known in England, and the cast are known there. The colonial and historical setting of the film are familiar in a way that they won't be here. So I think that hopefully makes it a slightly easier sell on that side.

Question: American audiences, we're not so good even with our own history, let alone the history of Swaziland. Did the studio suggest putting in a title card at the beginning to explain the context?

Grant: No. Nobody did, because there's been no studio involved. We made the film without a distributor. That's how difficult it was. Apart from suggesting changing the title, they haven't [said much]. Somebody did suggest putting up “Swaziland, Southeast Africa, 1969” as a logo up front, but apart from that, no, nothing else.

Question: You didn't consider doing that yourself for audiences who might not have that background?

Grant: No. Do you think that it matters?

Question: It could matter. I think if you're smart enough, you'll figure out enough of the history watching the movie that you won't need to know. There will be some people who see the movie and obviously won't have a clue, and that might not make any difference to them.

Grant: No, I never thought of that, because I honestly have a dread when I see things at the beginning when they say, [intoning] “In 1492, in the land of—” It's almost like Star Wars stuff up front. I don't know that people are prepared to read that. They'll see it as subtitles and say, “Oh fuck. Whatever. Let's go get popcorn.” So thank you for raising this great seed of doubt that's going to squat in my ass all day long!

Question: No, no. It's much better that you didn't do the 1492 thing.

Grant: Okay!

Question: Kubrick pulled The Shining out of theaters to re-cut it. There's still time.

Grant: Right. Okay. Don't start!

AboutFilm Question: I have to ask you a Withnail question. I know that Bruce Robinson was very specific about what he wanted on that film. How much of you, if any, was there in the Withnail character?

Grant: Well, if you have seen my movie, you will know that I've grown up with an alcoholic, so I had first-hand experience of being around heavy drinking. We'll put it that way. But he was so specific about how he wanted the dialogue acted, because his [film] was entirely autobiographical. I never met the guy that I was playing, in the same way that Gabriel Byrne never saw pictures or voice tapes or anything of my father, and yet his portrayal of my father is uncannily like I remember my father. People that have seen Withnail said that I am very like Vivian MacKerrell, the guy Withnail is based on, was. But he died of throat cancer, drinking a bottle of scotch down a tube into his stomach at the age of forty-seven a few years ago. As you can see I'm forty-nine and fit and very healthy. So I don't know. I don't know how close they are, really. It's difficult for me to judge.

Question: Any plans to continue your memoirs?

Grant: I've just published film diaries about the making of this film over the last six years, which is stuff that went into making it and the producer shenanigans I couldn't possibly make up. It's a nail-bite ride in itself. The first scene in the movie is when I began keeping a diary, so I kept a diary ever since. I knew that I was going to publish diaries about the making of this film. I told all the actors and the technicians that I was doing it as a record.

Question: Did you ever get into any trouble for being so honest in your writing?

Grant: Maybe you know something that I don't, but I haven't stopped working since. It was never my intention to write a slash-fest. What really interests me is how—a bit like falling in love—when you begin a movie, you begin with the best intentions. You don't know that it's going to turn into Hudson Hawk the disaster. At the beginning everybody's very friendly. It seems like you're going to make Die Hard 3. It just died hard! How that thing happens, incrementally, on a day-by-day, month-by-month basis, it makes for a very good narrative.

Question: Speaking of which, that's a film that has begun to win some favor with fans.

Grant: [incredulously] Has it?!

Question: There is a cult following.

Grant: Right. Where are they?

Question: They are in this country. There's one in this room, actually.

Grant: What drugs do you take, young man?!

Question: Any variety, and all at the same time when watching Hudson Hawk.

Grant: Right, okay. Excellent.

Question: So nothing has changed since you wrote your chapter on Hudson Hawk? Nothing you wrote has come back to haunt you?

Grant: Well, put it this way, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Joel Silver are not going to be worried about some skinny English guy writing about them, because I'm not in the arena of the kind of movies that they make. I knew that from the get-go. It was a fluke that I was involved in the movie in the first place. You need an all-purpose foreign or English villain who's not going to cost you the same amount as an American movie star, so you know, I happened to fit the bill at that point in time. But I'm glad that it's a cult. I hope that it makes some money for the people who lost so much when it initially came out.

Question: Bruce Willis says it's in profit now.

Grant: Oh he does? Well, good.

AboutFilm Question: Yours is a pretty unusual journey from Swaziland to the world of movies. How was the transition of coming to London and getting involved in acting there?

Grant: Well, after I'd been to university and drama school, then I came to live in England, and started as a waiter like everybody else starts out, painting and decorating, driving people to the airport, every job that I could get to make a living. I'm just glad that it worked out that the thing that I had dreamt of doing as a kid has now come to pass. It's a very logical line, starting with shoebox theater and going all the way through, and then coming full circle, going back to Swaziland thirty-five years later, and having my life re-played as it were, re-created with live actors. I don't know. I don't think I was good or equipped to do anything else. I haven't tried. I've pretty much stuck at it. I'm just glad that it's worked out.

Question: What's your view of the English class system and the monarchy today?

Grant: It's alive and well! The class system is one of the great sources of comedy and tragedy in English life. It's unimaginable for it to be taken away. It's so ingrained in everything. Oh, the borders have blurred, hugely, as there are so many dot-com billionaires running around all over the place. But essentially it's so deep in the English psyche that I can't see that ever disappearing.

Question: Do you see yourself as part of the upper classes?

Grant: No. I see myself as a fake Englishman outsider who seems to have been embraced by them. Happily.

Question: Is there a film in the next step of your life?

Grant: Yeah, I want to write a screenplay about the making of a disaster movie called Zeitgeist which is basically The Poseidon Adventure in outer space.

Question: [laughter]

Grant: The right response. And it's dealing with how actors and how movies actually are, as opposed to the PR-speak version of what's going on.

AboutFilm Question: Drawing a little bit from your own experiences?

Grant: You could say. Yeah. Write what you know.

Question: Do you have anyone attached to your next movie yet?

Grant: No. I'm writing it at the moment. But I'm on a on-my-hind-legs poodle publicity promotion tour now—New York last week, LA this week, and then London. Then I go to Sidney to do film festivals there, and around Australia. And then to South Africa for the premiere there. And then Brazil. So for the next few months I'm at roundtables speaking to handsome young men like you guys.

Question: Will that be a much bigger film, more of a major studio film?

Grant: It depends how this goes. If people go to see this movie or it gets any kind of attention, that always makes it easier to finance the next one.

Question: And on the acting front?

Grant: Oh, I've just done a movie, playing Catherine O'Hara's husband. We play the parents of Christina Ricci in Penelope, a film that co-stars and is produced by Reese Witherspoon. So that comes out this Christmas. It was like being on holiday, being an actor again.

AboutFilm Question: So you're working in American films again?

Grant: It was all shot in England. We just finished shooting two, three weeks ago.

Question: It's a comedy?

Grant: Yeah, comedy. Oh yeah, with that cast, it's comedy!

Question: What kind of father are you playing?

Grant: What kind of father? An American, downtrodden, put-upon billionaire.

AboutFilm Question: How's your American accent?

Grant: It's perfection! [laughing] What do you think I'm going to say? It's Ivy League. Which may end up sounding like Joan Collins Mid-Atlantic, who knows. But Catherine O'Hara was such a blast to work with. I've been such a huge fan since Best in Show and all those Christopher Guest movies.

Question: Thank you.

Grant: Thank you. Thank you for the Hudson Hawk reminders. Oh my God.




Withnail and I
Richard E. Grant (right) with Paul McGann on the cover of the UK DVD release of Bruce Robinson's Withnail & I (1987).





Gosford Park
Emily Watson and Richard E. Grant in Robert Altman's star-studded Gosford Park (2001).





Jack and Sarah
Richard E. Grant with Samantha Mathis on the DVD cover of Tim Sullivan's Jack and Sarah (1995).





A Merry War
Richard E. Grant with Helena Bonham Carter in the cover art for Robert Bierman's A Merry War (1997). Grant also appeared with Carter in Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night (1996) and Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (2005).





The Scarlet Pimpernel
Richard E. Grant stars with Elizabeth McGovern in BBC Television's The Scarlet Pimpernel (1999).





With Nails
Richard E. Grant on the cover of his film diaries, With Nails (1996).





Wah-Wah poster
Movie poster for Richard E. Grant's Wah-Wah, starring (top to bottom and left to right) Emily Watson, Gabriel Byrne, Miranda Richardson, Julie Walters, and Nicholas Hoult.





Byrne and Watson
Gabriel Byrne and Emily Watson star in Richard E. Grant's Wah-Wah.





Hoult in Wah-Wah
Nicholas Hoult waits for a ride in a scene from Richard E. Grant's Wah-Wah.





Richardson and Byrne
Miranda Richardson and Gabriel Byrne star in Richard E. Grant's Wah-Wah.





Hoult and Watson
Emily Watson comforts Nicholas Hoult in Richard E. Grant's Wah-Wah.





Richard E. Grant
Richard E. Grant on the set of Wah-Wah.

[Read the AboutFilm review of Wah-Wah]

Article and interviews © June 2006 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
WAH-WAH images © 2006 Samuel Goldwyn Films. All Rights Reserved.

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  IMDB page for Richard E. Grant
  Rotten Tomatoes page for Wah-Wah