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 Richard E. Grant on playing a “Labrador” to Melissa McCarthy’s “porcupine” in their new movieRichard E. Grant has been a familiar face since his breakout role in the British black comedy Withnail & I, in which he played the perpetually drunk out-of-work actor named in the title. He’s had a long stretch of strong work since then, ranging from supporting roles in movies like The Age of Innocence and Gosford Park to roles on TV shows including Girls and Game of Thrones.

His latest big-screen role is as Jack Hock, the roguish sidekick to Melissa McCarthy’s down-and-out writer Lee Israel, in Can You Ever Forgive Me, based on the real-life Israel’s memoir. The pair meet in a dingy Upper West Side bar in the middle of the afternoon. Mutually lonely and prickly, they develop a sort of friendship and then a partnership in crime, when Israel starts forging letters by famous writers and passing them off as the real thing to sellers of rare books.

Both Grant’s and McCarthy’s performances drew praise during the film’s fall festival run. Grant’s take on Jack is electric — he’s a live, uncontrollable wire, an endlessly cheerful fast talker, and a delightful hustler with a misanthropic streak that stands in stark contrast to Lee’s more straightforward bristly exterior. But he’s also sick and lonely, slowly wasting away, and his friendship with Lee is, for a time, a cure.

canyouever6 Richard E. Grant on playing a “Labrador” to Melissa McCarthy’s “porcupine” in their new movieMary Cybulski / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is as much a buddy-heist comedy as drama.

In person, though, Grant is charming, friendly, and delightful. On an October Saturday in Manhattan he sat down with me for a few minutes to talk about the film, his role in it, the loneliness of characters like Jack in New York in the early 1990s, and why Melissa McCarthy is “impossible.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Alissa Wilkinson

How did you get interested in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Richard E. Grant

I got a call from my agent in November [2016], saying, “You have 24 hours to read this script.”

I said, “What is it, like, Mission Impossible? Is it gonna explode?” And she said, “No.” And I said, “Well, who’s dropped out? Who’s passed on it, or dead?” And she said, “Don’t concern yourself with that because it’s irrelevant.” I said, “Do you know?” She said, “Read the script.” So I did, and I saw there’s Melissa McCarthy playing Lee Israel and Marielle Heller, I knew from Diary of a Teenage Girl. I said, “Yeah, great, when do we start?”

Alissa Wilkinson

Did you know Lee Israel’s story before?

Richard E. Grant

I didn’t know her story, but I had her biography of Tallulah Bankhead, which I’d read, and which is really good. I had her name on my bookshelf but this story, I didn’t know. I thought, “How is it possible that I didn’t know about this story?” It’s such an extraordinary, grand feat of literary ventriloquism that she pulled off, passing off these letters of really great writers of such disparate talents and styles in the 20th century. I thought that was an amazing thing.

Now her story’s out there. I just wish that she was alive to see how celebrated it is for her crimes. Crimes of passion really.

Alissa Wilkinson

That’s a good way to put it — passion for whom?

Richard E. Grant

Passion for the written word. Passion for the great writers who may have become more neglected from an audience now that don’t know the breadth of Noel Coward or Lillian Hellman or Dorothy Parker — these people that she held in such high esteem.

Alissa Wilkinson

The movie is about Lee’s story, but it’s also almost like a buddy heist.

Richard E. Grant

It’s a buddy heist. It’s like a buddy road movie to me, one that happens to go through the highways of Manhattan, from bar to bookshelf to bar to bookshelf to seedy apartment and then back again. Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the Wild West of Manhattan and downtown in the 1990s, without the guns and the pistols. There’s no dead bodies.

Alissa Wilkinson

And that makes you Robert Redford, right?

Richard E. Grant

In your dreams. More like Ratso and Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy, probably closer to the mark.

canyouever3 Richard E. Grant on playing a “Labrador” to Melissa McCarthy’s “porcupine” in their new movieTwentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Alissa Wilkinson

All good road movies have a journey of discovery built into them. Your character is not the main character — but you still have your own arc. How did you approach him?

Richard E. Grant

Lee Israel’s memoir was astonishingly scant on detail about him, which tells me how eccentric she was — thinking that she was the only person involved in this story. I know the producers who knew Lee, who spent years trying to get her to write this story, who knew all the ins and outs — which is what the screenplay fleshed out so cleverly.

He was from Portland. He was blonde, was tall, was charming, had died of AIDS at the age of 47 in 1994, used a stubby cigarette holder because he was a chain smoker but thought he wouldn’t get cancer by using that, had been in jail for two years for holding at knifepoint a taxi driver in a dispute about a cab fare, which absolutely fit the bill. That is as much as I knew to go on.

And also the fact that she praised him, because once she had been rumbled by the FBI and couldn’t go out and sell these letters anymore, she got him to do it. Where she thought he might predictably get $500 or $600 for a letter that she conjured up, he came back with $2,000 or more. That was testament to how good he was at scamming or schmoozing people.

Alissa Wilkinson

Hustling.

Richard E. Grant

Yeah, just a hustler. A street-grifting hustler.

Alissa Wilkinson

And yet he’s very lovable in the film as well. She’s a downer, and he’s very cheerful in a manic way.

Richard E. Grant

I always think of them in animal terms. I think of people I meet in animal terms: what kind of animal are they, first and foremost? She’s a porcupine to his Labrador. He will just go schmooze, wag his tail, and lick anybody into submission until they finally give him some food, give him a shag, give him a bed, or give him a bone to go chew on, figuratively. I thought that was the most bizarre dynamic: Two animals that would never, ever be together, but somehow they go through little journeys together.

canyouever1 Richard E. Grant on playing a “Labrador” to Melissa McCarthy’s “porcupine” in their new movieMary Cybulski / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
The odd couple, plotting.

Alissa Wilkinson

So you end up with an odd couple dynamic.

Richard E. Grant

Exactly. Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in The Odd Couple, 1968 — that was the other movie reference along with Midnight Cowboy that I thought of. It’s what the essence of this movie was.

Alissa Wilkinson

I’d somehow had never seen the original Odd Couple until this summer.

Richard E. Grant

You’d never seen it?

Alissa Wilkinson

I know! But it’s interesting that both that movie and this one are about single people who band together to find their own family. And then drive each other crazy.

Richard E. Grant

Lonely people in a city — millions of people, but you can still be lonely as a cloud surrounded by everybody.

Alissa Wilkinson

The fact that your character and Melissa McCarthy’s character find each other in the bar in the middle of the day tells you everything you need to know.

Richard E. Grant

Absolutely.

Alissa Wilkinson

Part of the reason this movie is so appealing to me is that I’m a New Yorker, but I wasn’t here in the early 1990s, when the movie is set. So it’s a New York I didn’t know. It looks kind of dingy. Were you here much during that time?

Richard E. Grant

I first came here in 1989 — 42nd Street in Times Square, all the sleaze of that. It wasn’t all floodlit and touristified like it is now. There were sex joints and strip joints. There was hustlers. You felt like you were in a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape: “Hold onto your wallet, keep your head down.” It had a sort of seedy, fascinating, roughish quality. Nothing had been gentrified to the degree that it has now, when you have to have a lot of money to live in Manhattan.

I had done a movie with Sandra Bernhard. We played husband and wife in Hudson Hawk with Bruce Willis, which was a disaster. Sandra was living in the Meatpacking District. And I was so shocked in 1991, because on more than one street corner I saw men who were dying of AIDS. Young, younger than I was, who had placards saying, “Abandoned by my family, no medicare, no money, please help me.” It was so shocking to see that.

In the middle of this film — it doesn’t make a big deal out of it — Lee says to Jack, “Can I trust you, telling you this story about this scam that I’ve got going?” And he says, “Oh, you can tell me, because I don’t have anybody else to tell; all my friends are dead.” He’s flippant about it. And then of course, at the end, you realize that he is dying of AIDS.

That really hit home. I thought, that was the reality of that generation. There are no photographs of him. I imagine his backstory: He would have been abandoned by his family. It was pre-social media, so there were no photographs. Polaroids that might’ve existed were gone. All his friends were dead. He’s somebody that lived and grifted, lived for the day. As soon as he got any money from some shady deal or whatever he was involved in, he just spent it. He wanted to live a life of pleasure and then pay the ultimate price at a very young age.

Alissa Wilkinson

The movie has a huge undercurrent of anxiety — being anxious about where your money is coming from, whether you’ll be able to have healthcare. A lot of writers I know — including myself — walked out of the screening and said, “Well, that’s a horror film,” because of how familiar that feeling is. It’s something we’re seeing here and in Britain, something that’s resonating with a lot of people.

Richard E. Grant

And the loneliness! I walk around the streets now — the silhouette of our age is heads down to a tablet or a mobile. People are not looking at each other. We see people, couples having dinner and they’re looking at their mobiles and they’re not talking to each other. That need for connection is so strong in this story. People have responded to that in this movie.

1029353820.jpg Richard E. Grant on playing a “Labrador” to Melissa McCarthy’s “porcupine” in their new moviePhoto by Suzi Pratt/Getty Images
Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy at the premiere of Can You Ever Forgive Me? in Toronto in September 2018.

Alissa Wilkinson

So what was it like playing this character alongside Melissa McCarthy?

Richard E. Grant

[Grins slyly] You can’t even imagine what a nightmare it was to work with her. I mean, can you really imagine how difficult that was? She’s so grumpy and uncooperative. She was Lee Israel. All this persona of her being warm, cuddly, and lovable in real life? Ha! She should not be up for any awards at all, because she is that person. She is impossible.

Have you seen her today?

Alissa Wilkinson

No!

Richard E. Grant

Oh, you’ve been spared!

Alissa Wilkinson

The first role I ever saw her in was on Gilmore Girls — have you watched?

Richard E. Grant

Yes, I have.

Alissa Wilkinson

Her transition from that to Bridesmaids and then a career in comedy was such fun to watch.

Richard E. Grant

She’s also done a huge amount of drama off Broadway in the early 1990s, so the fact that she’s come full circle in a sense and now playing this role in a movie is not what I think people have expected to see her in. Yet she mines the comedy and compassion out of it in a way that only she can.

Alissa Wilkinson

What was your dynamic like on set, since the dynamic between the two characters was so important?

Richard E. Grant

[The grin returns.] It was terrible. Oh, it was terrible. We hated each other. Never saw each other. I didn’t speak to her between takes. It’s just awful.

No, I absolutely worship and adored her and we’ve become great friends. That was the bonus. I think it’s the only movie I’ve ever been on when you have days off you think, “Oh my god, what am I gonna do, I’m in New York?” And you’re gonna go see this show and you’re gonna do that and this museum, that art gallery, see these people perform and every day we had lunch together when I was working. That’s real testament to the bond that we forged on this. I think it certainly shows in the final movie.

Alissa Wilkinson

The movie is also suffused with books. Did you do any supplementary reading?

Richard E. Grant

Yeah. I’m a voracious reader so I re-read the Tallulah Bankhead biography, and I read the other books that she’d written, and then of course, the memoir that the film is based on and the great writers that she loved. The fact that she liked the most caustic and witty writers of the 20th century was in such contrast to this porcupine saying, like, “I’m not budging.”

The fact that she was so politically incorrect, uncompromising, and unwilling to change anything — even in her court confession. She could have been contrite and full of public remorse while privately thinking, “Oh, fuck the lot of you.” She just says quite blatantly, “Well, yeah, I know it wasn’t the greatest thing that I’ve done, but it’s the best work I’ve ever done, and it’s the best time I’ve ever had.”

The fact that she says that, you kind of go, “Yes!” She’s just the most quintessential unlikely romantic heroine that you could possibly conjure up and I loved her for that and I know Melissa did too.

Alissa Wilkinson

She takes so much pride in the fact that she thinks her forgeries are better than the real thing.

Richard E. Grant

“I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker.” I guess Lee really was that fantastic.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? opens in theaters on October 19.

Author: Alissa Wilkinson


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