September 11, 1998
Feature by Mary Fletcher.
Photos by Alan Olley
The Quirky star talks about his film career and family life.
He made his name in "Withnail and I", the film comedy about a struggling sixties actor, but now this unique talent is going back a couple of centuries to play a role that seems made for him - The Scarlet Pimpernel.
They seek him here, they seek him there. Those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Those words describe the dashing 18th century spy, The Scarlet Pimpernal. But substitute the word "Frenchies" with "film-makers" and they could just as well apply to actor Richard E Grant.
Richard is one hot property. He'll not only be seen in October, as the lead in BBC'1's spectacular £5.5 million three-film series The Scarlet Pimpernal, but the star also has two cinema films set to be released before Christmas.
As if that wasn't enough, his first ever novel will be published by Picador this month. Called "By Design", it's story of outrageous Hollywood intrigue and follows up on the success two years ago of "With Nails", his wittily observed 'film diaries' book.
Born and brought up in Swaziland, Richard arrived in London in 1982 and starred in the cult film "Withnail And I" four years later. Since then, with films like "The Player", "Dracula", "The Age Of Innocence", "Prêt A Porter", "Jack And Sarah" and "The Portrait Of A Lady" under his belt, he's been riding high.
After a spell of working and living in Hollywood during the early Nineties, he now resides in London with his wife Joan, a national theatre dialect coach, and their daughter Olivia, nine. But despite his obvious successes, his life has had more than its fair share of sadness.
After his parents divorced when he was 11, he was brought up by his father, who was Swaziland's director of education. His death from cancer when Richard was 24 affected the actor deeply. But nothing touched him quite as profoundly as another death 12 years ago, that of a newborn baby who he and Joan named Tiffany.
However, the birth by Caesarean three years later of another daughter, Olivia, brought intense happiness. "She was only 4lbs when she was born, but she's our miracle," he says.
OK! caught up with Richard in Prague, on the set of "The Scarlet Pimpernel", in which he plays one of the all-time great fictional heroes. Based on Baroness Orczy's gripping adventure yams, first published in 1900, the 12 Pimpernal books record the adventure of a foppish British aristocrat with a secret life saving French aristocrats from the guillotine.
Already turned into at least seven films, four TV series, a play and musical, the Richard E Grant version has a lot to live up to. But, judging on past performances, if anyone can bring exciting new life to the classic yarns, he's the one to do it.
We'll see you soon in two costume drama films. "The Serpent's Kiss" and "All For Love". But BBC1's "The Scarlet Pimpernal" is the one that will be seen by millions. Has it been fun to make?
It's been tremendous. I'm like an 18th century Batman - someone who's an incompetent fool in normal life and then secretly goes out saving people and doing extraordinary things. I get to ride horses, have swordfights, punch people and seduce beautiful women. And get paid for it.
And what would you say is the role's most difficult challenge?
Getting the right balance between the two sides of character. If I look too idiotic when I'm playing the fop, no one will believe my beautiful French wife (played by Elizabeth McGovern) could possibly fancy me. If I look too heroic when I'm pitted against the villain (played by Martin Shaw), I won't look as if I'm in any danger.
As the fop, your silk costumes were wonderful, but were they uncomfortable??
On the contrary. They're incredibly flattering, and once you've been wearing them for a day or two, they become second nature. And because everyone else is in the same stuff, the only person who looks out of place is the one out of costume, wearing the bright green anorak.
What's the worst part about spending the best part of four months away filming?
The penalty for what is otherwise a wonderful life is having to spend huge stretches of time away from your family - in my case, my wife Joan and our daughter Olivia. I've managed to fly back for the odd weekend, but I also spend huge amounts of money on phone bills.
It sounds like your family is the centre of your world...
Absolutely. They're the ones who give you your grounding - who knows what you're like at five O'clock in the morning, when you're grumpy and horrible. They'll be the first to tell you if you get any inflated notions about yourself. Initially, the idea of going off to lead a bachelor life working on a film is very attractive, but the excitement wears off after about two days.
On a film set you're pampered and flattered. Are you hard to live with when you go home again?
Ha Ha! you'd have to ask Joan that. But it's true that when you're away you're watered and fed and cosseted. You get so used to never having to do anything for yourself, that when you go home, even washing up seems like an exotic thing to do.
How difficult is it to be private when your face is so well-known?
Luckily, I'm not exactly in the mega-star class, so I don't suffer from too much intrusion. I once went to dinner at Madonna's house, and she told me she even had security men guarding her dustbins because unscrupulous newspaper people kept going through her rubbish. To live with that kind of scrutiny must be nightmarish.
You recently turned 41. How did you celebrate your birthday?
Because I was in the middle of filming, I had to make do with phone calls from home, rather than having my loved ones with me. But after work, I went out to a soul night at the only decent club in Prague with some of the other actors and crew. I had hours of intense dancing and then went home to bed at our hotel. it was a bit like Cinderella, because everyone had to be up early the next morning.
And how do you feel about being in your forties?
Of course, Olivia thinks I'm about 5,000! But I regard myself as being a third of my way through my life, because I fully intend to live to at least 120. Don't laugh - I'm serious! Before I slough off this mortal coil, I want to go on the first passenger ship into outer space, even if I have to be wheel-chaired onto the space shuttle. I'll be able to go 'ga ga' in space!
How did you meet Joan?
She taught me a Belfast accent at the Actor's Centre not long after I arrived in London in 1982. I thought she was really cute with a wonderful voice and huge eyes. Unfortunately, she was married to someone else at the time. Four years later, I went back to Africa for Christmas and missed her so much that when I got back to Heathrow, I got down on bended knee and asked her to marry me. Luckily for me, she said yes.
You now have a beautiful nine year old daughter, Olivia, but it must have been the worst possible experience to lose Tiffany 12 years ago?
Tiffany died an hour after she was born because her lungs were under- developed. Registering and birth and death of your own child on the same day, and then having a funeral for a child you've actually heard make a noise, is absolutely devastating. You get round it, you don't get over it.
And now you're about to publish your first novel. How did your writing start?
I've been writing a diary since I was 11. Growing up where there was no television, it was a way of entertaining myself. Now it's habitual to jot something down last thing at night, every day. My diaries led to my book WITH NAILS and now I've written BY DESIGN.
You're so busy with your acting career and your writing, do you ever see yourself slowing down or retiring?
Absolutely not. I can't imagine ever wanting to put my feet up, because my brain would atrophy. I intend to go on working as long as I can still get out of bed in the morning and someone's still offering me a job. I worked with Sir John Gielgud on the film "The Portrait Of A Lady" a couple of years ago when he was 94. He told me he felt like a 39 year old encased in an older body. I have a feeling that's exactly how I'll be.