10th November, 2005
by Phil Willmott
Two big flags dominate Richard E Grant's dressing room at the Criterion Theatre where he is currently starring in Simon Gray's play Otherwise Engaged. One flag's the Union Jack and perhaps the other is for Swaziland, the African country where he spent his childhood.
At 48, he's still slim and handsome with that magnificent mane of hair, in fact, stretched out with his feet up beneath this flag he reminded me of a sleepy lion, currently relaxed and prepared to indulge me but with the potential to suddenly spring with ferocious energy. It wasn't an atmosphere which invited small talk so I plunged straight in.
Q: What's your earliest memory of going to the theatre?
A: Back in Swaziland. When I was a kid seeing my mother in Cinderella. She wore glittery shoes and my prospective teachers were all in it too.
Q: Were you hooked?
A: On the shoes? No, I think I was when I made my first appearance in a school play. I was the king in Snow White, It was improvised. The Queen and I stole all the lines, poor Snow White didn't get a look in.
Q: How did Otherwise Engaged come about? Was it your idea?
A: No, I bumped into the director Simon Curtis at the Covent Garden Hotel about a year a go. He was with John Malkovich who I'd just been working with. He offered me this short tour and a limited run in the West End, I liked the sound of it and said yes.
Q: Before you'd read it?
A: Oh no, I read it first.
Q: How many week's rehearsals did you get?
A: Four weeks.
Q: Can you tell me about the shape of those rehearsals? How did you start?
A: We just read it through and got up on our feet and just started. The technical rehearsal was great. There's only about 5 lighting or sound cues in the whole piece. It took about 15 minutes to work through them.
Q: Did it seem odd having so much rehearsals time compared with film or TV?
A: Well, I'm on stage for nearly two hours so rehearsals helped me learn all those lines as much as anything.
Q: And presumably build up stamina?
Q: But what's your approach to creating a character? Do you use the same techniques as when you work on camera?
A: Well the Stanislavski approach usually works. You know, asking yourself why the characters make each choice, assigning an action to each line, working out what the character hopes to achieve with each thing they say. You can learn a lot by asking yourself who does my character want to f*ck, when and how.
Q: Someone once told me if you work out your character's attitude to sex, death and money then you've probably got it.
A: Could be.
Q: So Otherwise Engaged. Is it just a posh play, by posh people for posh people?
A: I don't know, I suppose it's a play about mid life crisis, I don't know. Theatre goers are middle class I think we just have to accept that. It's always been the case. Theatre's expensive. At the Citizens theatre in Glasgow they use to do cheap tickets and I gather Nicholas Hytner's having a great success with his £10 ticket scheme at the National.
Q: Class may not be a question of money. If we went to Mary Poppins or Mamma Mia tonight there'd be a wide range of people who'd paid a lot of money for tickets.
A: Ah but that's musicals, very different. Actually I have had people come up to me and say they went to see this show because Anthony Head's in it who they know from Buffy or Little Britain on TV and perhaps people know my work. And they say they've never been to the theatre before and that they've had a great time and they'll come again. It's very difficult isn't it? You have to invest a lot in watching a play, it's not like a film, you can't leave. And a bad movie can still transport you. Bad theatre doesn't.
Q: If you see bad film you just shrug it off whilst a bad theatre experience can put you off for years.
A: This play wouldn't work as a film. There's too much talking.
Q: I suppose a director would try to open it out and spread the action over various locations.
A: Which would weaken it.
Q: The only film I've seen where the stage experience wasn't diluted is WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOLF.
Q: Were there any specific challenges you faced with this particular play?
A: Well, stage fright. I hadn't been on stage in twelve years. In film your detached from your audience. It could be a year before anyone sees your performance. Here you're judged immediately.
Q: You feel judged?
A: Well, by the critics.
Q: Do you read your reviews?
A: Oh yes, every one.
A: I've been caught out in the past. Someone you meet will refer to something unpleasant they read and it's difficult if you don't know what they're referring to. The four bad reviews I have got were very useful. I took on board what they said.
Q: You'd adjust your performance based on something a critic said?
A: Oh yes, I mean why not? If four independent people have made the same point it's got to be worth thinking about it.
Q: I'm intrigued. What specifically did you change?
A: I had some reviews saying he, my character, wasn't tough enough, that he needed a Teflon coat. So I've gone for that now. In the beginning I think I made him too passive, just drawing on his desire to be alone. Criticisms stay with you, don't they? If someone compliments me I either tend to ignore it or brush it aside but a criticism, a teacher saying you've got a face like a pizza, that hurts. It stays with you all your life.
Q: What future challenges would you like to be given as an actor?
A: In fact I've just finished writing and directing an autobiographical film about my childhood growing up in Swaziland. It's taken years but it's finished and I'm very proud of it. I've found that very satisfying.
Q: Are you getting fed up with acting?
A: No not at all, but you're always going to be a hired hand. As a film maker, although your jostled from all sides by crew and money men you're always essentially realising your vision.
I left him to prepare for the show and later that evening I joined an undeniably posh audience (nice clothes, clipped or braying accents, lots of talk about publishing deals etc) and many impeccably behaved American students to watch. We all had a great time and you will too. It feels quite an old fashioned piece with events unfolding slowly but with just the right amount of twists and turns in the gentle plot to keep you hooked. Grant is charismatic and enigmatic. You're never quite sure what's going on in his character's mind which works very well when our sympathies and perceptions shift.
Do you have a question for Richard E Grant? I'll be interviewing him again, live on stage after the performance on November 23 and there'll be a chance for you to ask things too. Do join us.
Yes folks, now it's your turn. If there's something you're simply dying to ask Mr Grant - you can grill the cast on November 23 with our exclusive Q&A evening.