From the DailyMail Online (UK) website - 20th September 2007
By PETRONELLA WYATT
Somewhat taken aback, I am about to walk out on Richard E Grant. We are in a private room in London's Covent Garden Hotel and he has just asked me an impertinent question about my sex life.
"Excuse me," I upbraid him. "But I'm the one who is supposed to be asking the intrusive personal questions and you are the one who should be threatening to walk out. Let's get our roles straight."
There is little that is straight-forward about Richard E Grant.
Since the early years of his visibility as an actor in the late 1980s after the iconic Withnail And I, hostile critics have called Grant insufferably pretentious, a poseur and a ham so rare he cannot be cured.
Richard E Grant is presenting a programme on Roald Dahl, one of his favourite authors.
Much has been written about his dietary fads (Grant doesn't "do" alcohol or dairy) and his alleged navel-gazing.
He has also been accused of dressing like a Wildean aesthete.
Before meeting him, I am expecting an epicene figure swathed in velvet or perhaps wearing knee breeches, clutching a green carnation.
But the man before me is far more virile than he appears in his films, in which he often seems in need of a large sirloin cooked saignant.
He is wearing a conventional jacket and a pair of khaki trousers.
His face is tanned and his overtly intelligent eyes are a sparkling turquoise.
Grant is something of a polymath, which may account for the animosity he sometimes attracts.
As as well as appearing in more than 60 films, including the Oscar-winning Gosford Park, he has published two volumes of film diaries and a novel about Hollywood, By Design, all of which are full of cloudbursts of delicious malice.
In 2005, he wrote and directed Wah-Wah, an autobiographical account of his childhood and youth in Swaziland.
At present he is eating a prawn Caesar salad while talking to me in a penetrating baritone.
Unlike most mortals, he is succeeding in doing this without any spillage.
Is there no end to his accomplishments, no borders to his hinterland?
"Are you the Denis Healey of acting?" I ask him. "You appear to be able to do everything but play the flute."
I am somewhat nonplussed by his reply. "Actually, I do play the flute."
Grant was born in Swaziland in 1957, during the dying days of British colonial rule.
His real name is a mouthful: Richard Grant Esterhuysen. His father, Hendrik, was the Swazi minister of education, while his mother Leonne was a free-spirited filly out of White Mischief.
The family had six servants but no television. "Because of that strange isolation, I turned to books and introspection," he says.
"I still admire great writers to the point of obsession." (Tomorrow, Grant is presenting a programme on Roald Dahl, one of his favourite authors, on ITV3.)
At the age of 11, Richard began keeping a diary. "How disgustingly precocious," I remark.
It turns out I have dropped a slight clanger. "It wasn't precocity, it was my mother," he says.
"You mean she kept a diary, too?" I ask.
Grant in Withnail & I, the film that made him a star.
"No, she kept a lover. I saw her committing adultery with one of my father's friends," he replies.
He says this with no actorish dramatics. "Writing a diary was my way of coping. I tried God but I didn't get a reply.
"Do you keep a diary? Is it full of sordid secrets?"
I remind him it is I who should be asking the questions, not the other way round.
"But I want to know," he says. "Please." Rather huffily, I tell him to mind his own business.
"Why should I?" he asks, affecting surprise. Grant is the most interrogative interviewee I have ever encountered.
He cannot resist upending the see-saw. His questions are fired out rat-tat-tat, partly because of an almost journalistic curiosity and what I sense to be a desire to control situations, having been hurt in his youth.
As Grant tells it, life as an expat in Swaziland was like something out of one of Somerset Maugham's less cheery novels - a miasma of heavy drinking, promiscuity and nocturnal gun shots.
Hendrik was an alcoholic whose health and behaviour deteriorated after Leonne left him.
"There was a lot of pressure on me," Grant recollects, his expression becoming troubled as if a ghost has flitted past.
"I ended up parenting my parent, so I was forced to grow up before my time."
One night, his father tried to shoot him.
"The bullet whistled past my head," Grant remarks matter of factly, as if being shot at by one's father was an everyday occurrence.
"Luckily, he then passed out. He didn't remember it the next day." Hendrik died of cancer in 1981.
I wonder if this was in some way a release for his son? "No," he says quietly, "you forgive a person for everything if you love them."
This has not always been the case. In 2005, Grant's younger brother Stuart, who is a tour guide in Johannesburg, made an astonishing public attack on his famous sibling, claiming he deliberately insulted their father's memory by attending the funeral with his hair dyed orange.
He also accused his brother of being a liar, a fraud and a bad actor.
Grant shakes his head in mild irritation. "It's pure sibling jealously. I never had any relationship with my brother.
"His attacks on me make him feel good because they make his anonymity less anonymous.
"There has been no contact between us and there will never be any. I did attend my father's funeral with dyed hair, but that was because I was in a play, acting a Nazi soldier."
He gazes at me candidly with those startling turquoise eyes.
Grant's looks are of the kind that paralyse the vocal cords and reduce the contents of the brain to cauliflower.
Since 1986 he has been married to Joan Washington, a voice coach (jammy cow).
Yet, extraordinarily, Stuart Esterhuysen also intimated that his brother had the tastes of a "pansy" and enjoyed playing with puppets and dolls.
I broach this with some unease. "Erm, is it true you liked playing with dolls?" Grant hesitates for a moment.
"Yes, it is true." There is a slight pause. "I have nothing to hide."
His unbuttoned collar falls open a little and I notice something that looks suspiciously like a necklace.
"Why are you wearing something that looks suspiciously like a necklace?"
"Because it is a necklace. It's some beads from Swaziland."
I brace myself. "Are you gay?" Grant nearly expectorates the piece of prawn he is chewing.
"God! No one has ever accused me of that before! The answer is no. I am not gay."
He begins to ruminate. "At any rate, my gayness hasn't shown itself yet. I just like to have a part of my homeland on me."
"Then why don't you carry a map?" "Ho, ho! Very amusing," he says sarkily.
Although Grant can sound like a caricature of an English gentleman (something he did so well in the 1999, BBC adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel, in which he played SirPercy Blakeney) he says he often thinks of himself as an immigrant.
Somewhere in his paternal ancestry there were men who were Dutch and Afrikaner.
He says he is English, but also Swazi. Until recently he wore two watches, one set to Greenwich Mean Time, the other to Swaziland time.
He came to Britain in 1982, after studying drama at Cape Town University but found the transition difficult.
"It was an enormous shock leaving and coming here. I had led a gilded, feudal existence.
"The expat Swazi community was a hermetically sealed bubble in a time warp.
"I came here with no friends, no support group. I felt like a nerd. Everyone thought I was a nerd.'
Like many introspective people, Grant is excruciatingly self-conscious, so much so that he has only once watched himself on the screen.
That was more than 20 years ago, when he sat through the entirety of Withnail And I, suffering more agonies at what he thought to be a "no-hoper" performance than most early Christian martyrs did in a lifetime.
Why did he, a man who hides his lack of confidence beneath a veneer of self-deprecating irony, choose the acting profession? He drums the table distractedly.
"I did consider writing, but it was too solitary for me. When I wrote my novel, By Design, I hated being locked away for five months.
"I am a gregarious person, oddly enough. I love acting because you always meet people. Meeting people tends to cheer me."
His break came in 1986, when Daniel Day-Lewis was offered Withnail And I but turned it down.
The part of Withnail, a self-indulgent, out of work, alcoholic actor, made a star of Grant and the film has since become a cult hit.
"I would never have predicted any of it," he says. (I have noticed that Grant never comes out with a straightforward boast.
He only repeats what some kind person has told him.) "It had no stars, no women and no car chases. Who knows. Do you?"
"No," I say, "I'm afraid it never really floated my boat."
"Oh." Grant is discombobulated, but rallies. "I was told a lot of people seemed to find the script very funny."
His life has been an upward curve ever since. He remains happily married to Joan and has a 17-year-old daughter, Olivia.
He has just completed Ernest Hemingway's The Garden Of Eden with Mina Suvari, and Penelope, with Reese Witherspoon.
After our interview he is flying to Hungary to star in a celluloid version of The Nutcracker.
"Yes, I am still employed, to my satisfaction. I shall continue acting as long as they will have me.
"I am in my 51st year, so it may be time for character roles."
He pops another prawn into his mouth.
"Is it true you are teetotal and follow a bizarre macrobiotic diet?"
"Not really," he replies evenly.
"Actually, I eat lots of meat. I don't like dairy - but not for health reasons.
"But it is true that I don't drink." Grant says he is physically allergic to alcohol.
"I don't have an enyzme in my bloodstream that processes it. If I drink I get a rash and become ill for 24 hours."
Even so, he drank a bottle of vodka during the final rehearsals for Withnail.
"It wasn't my fault," he insists. "The director made me. He said I had to know how it felt to be paralytically drunk.
"I passed out for a day. It was terrifying. But I was more scared that the part might be taken away from me."
Grant's attraction to cerebral and slightly mannered roles - the scriptwriter in The Player, the young psychiatrist in Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Sir Percy Blakeney, who spent much of his time saying "Odds fish," has typecast him somewhat, perhaps to the detriment of his international career.
In Hollywood he must have been a fish out of water. I mean, you won't catch Brad Pitt or George Clooney saying "Odds fish", will you? Grant sees the truth of this.
"No, I have never heard them say 'Odds fish'. I lived in Hollywood for two years in the Nineties.
"But in the end who you are and what your culture is determines your life. If I had tried to become an 'American' it wouldn't have worked.
"No one could ever have been fooled into thinking I was an American, and Englishmen who sound English are relegated to bad guy roles."
I tell him it is a great pity that he wasn't alive in the Thirties and Forties, a golden period when English actors in Hollywood, such as the crystal-voiced Ronald Colman and the soulful Leslie Howard, who also played Sir Percy Blakeney and to whom Grant bears more than a passing resemblance, were routinely cast as dashing heroes.
"In those days, you probably would have been a huge star," I tell him encouragingly.
This does not go down like the proverbial bacon and eggs, for he says with some asperity: "So I have missed my prime date, then? I was born too late? You're calling me a failure, are you?"
Then he laughs all of a sudden and asks if I have ever been to Hungary.
When I inform him that I am half-Hungarian, he insists I give him a list of places to eat in Budapest.
I recommend a restaurant, the attractions of which include the best gipsy violinist in Europe, who happens to be a friend of mine.
Grant looks at me slyly: "Have you slept with him?"
"What!? How dare you!" I squeak. "But have you?" he persists.
"This interview is at an end," I declare, and get up to leave. Then I remember it should be the other way around.
ROALD DAHL'S Revolting Rulebook is on ITV3 tomorrow at 8pm, as part of The Roald Dahl Weekend.