Film Review Magazine - August 1989
by James Cameron-Wilson
You would be forgiven for fearing to meet Richard E. Grant for the first time.
This is the man who knocked back lighter fluid in Withnail & I, sported lingerie in the BBC’s Here is the News, disinterred the dead in Warlock and, in his new film How To Get Ahead in Advertising, carries on a conversation with a boil on his neck.
And it was Grant who was previously quoted in Film Review as saying that Hugh Hudson’s Revolution was “obscene because they spent GBP15 million on it. You can’t justify that. Those films I think are a crime – but not as much of a crime as the Rambo films, which are just so f**king mind-boggling”.
Of course, Grant is still best known in this country as Withnail, the alcoholic, chain-smoking, arrogant, self-centred druggie in HandMade’s Withnail & I. I was just dying to meet the man.
To my surprise, Richard Grant (the E doesn’t stand for anything, but distinguishes him from another actor of the same name) is polite, articulate and abstemious. He doesn’t smoke or drink, refuses a coffee, refrains from swearing (almost) and is even wearing a tie. I’m terribly disappointed.
He has also completed a co-starring role in Bob Rafelson’s 25-million-dollar Mountains of the Moon, a costly epic by anybody’s standards. And, to my total mortification, he accepted the role in Warlock for all the wrong reasons.
“They originally wanted Michael Douglas or Sean Connery, but then decided Warlock would be a ‘cult-sized’ genre movie, so saved themselves some money”, Grant explains. “I was absolutely thrilled to be case in the role (as a witch chaser). If they thought a stick insect with a tombstone face like myself could play a big macho lead, then I’d go for it”.
He continues: “Warlock is not a serious horror film. I liked the quirkiness and the humour in it – it’s not going to give art critics a sleepless night”.
But, Richard, how could you find artistic satisfaction in a film that involved sorcery and eye-plucking, and was totally devoid of social comment?
“People have accused me of selling out, but I say: ‘bugger that’”, he answers. “I had enormous fun making the film, enjoyed a first-class trip to America – my first – and all the star treatment. I was born in a small African kingdom without television and only one cinema. I grew up on Hollywood movies”.
Richard E. debuted in Swaziland thirty-one years ago, the son of that British colony’s Minister of Education. At the age of seven, he already knew he wanted to act. And, although he didn’t know it then, he was already preparing for his role as Withnail.
“The flotsam and jetsam of humanity drift through a country like Swaziland”, he says – “all kinds of left-over aristocracy wandering about the world. Knowing them was a tremendous help with Withnail”.
Withnail & I, a black, semi-autobiographical comedy written and directed by Bruce Robinson, was the tale of two out-of-work thespians coming to terms with poverty in 1969 London. The meatier role, the manic Withnail, went to Grant – who made it his own.
It also made him into a star.
Robinson is less happy with the Eighties, and his new film, How To Get Ahead in Advertising, should fasten on to a few raw nerves. Again, Richard has the lead, playing Dennis Bagley, a hot advertising executive attempting to launch a campaign for a new pimple cream. Unable to cope with the pressure, Bagley develops a beastly boil on his neck that starts talking back.
“The audience and myself see it as a talking boil with my own facial features”, Grant explains, “but the other characters just see it as a large carbuncle and assume, quite rightly, that I’m having a nervous breakdown.”
“Bagley goes to hospital to have it lanced. Suddenly the boil expands, unwraps itself, wraps the bandages around Bagley’s head, and the wrong head is lanced. Then the maniac alter ego takes over.”
“For the second half of the film I play a drying boil, while the Yuppie Thatcherite model for the late Eighties rants and raves.
”Bagley is another peach of a part for Grant and the actor excels as both cynic and maniac.But he’s due for something a little more normal. Or is he?
“I get to fondle Iain Glens knee in Mountains of the Moon”, the actor says proudly. “And in Killing Dad, my next film – with Denholm Elliot and Julie Walters – I carry my dead father around in a carpet”
In all seriousness, Richard, is there anything you wouldn’t do on screen?
“You’d have to come up with something”, the star says, suppressing an enormous grin.