Time Out Sydney / Issue 47: October 5 - 21, 2008
Best known as Withnail in cult classic Withnail and I, Richard E Grant is trading booze for ballroom dancing, and coming to Sydney in the rather more sober role of Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady.
By Alexandra Coghlan
You've a reputation for turning the tables on interviewers, and often seem uncomfortable as the focus of attention. What made you want to become an actor?
I grew up in Africa before the media-storm, and hadn't really realised that talking about yourself and your work was such a big part of the job. When you are playing a role, that's what you want to think and talk about. I've always been much more interested in other people than in blathering on about myself.
So, for you, acting is all about curiosity?
Yes, curiosity about everything, and a love of adventure and novelty. I've never done a Shaw play before, I've never done a musical professionally, and I'm going to live in a foreign city, Sydney, for four months - the whole adventure of My Fair Lady is still ahead.
Are there any actors that you think do give good interview?
I envy people like Jack Nicholson who come across as witty. That's what you long for as an actor - the last thing you want is to seem boring. Very often I find that you may admire an actor enormously, but when you actually hear them talk about a part, they put you to sleep. All the Himalaya Mountains shit-talk that goes along with discussing a film [assumes earnest and whiny voice]: "I had to get up at four o'clock every morning, and I had to study for ten years and lose half my body-weight..." All of that fills me with deep embarrassment.
You've not done much theatre before. Why is that?
I had a very unfortunate experience 15 years ago doing The Importance of Being Earnest with Maggie Smith, and basically lost my nerve for the theatre for a long time; I just felt that I couldn't do it. Losing your nerve as an actor is the most terrible thing, but you get it back - you have to.
Being required to sing on stage for the first time must be quite terrifying...
Yes, I've been having intensive singing lessons. But Higgins was a part originally written for Rex Harrison, who spoke-sang it. I've heard versions of the show where his songs have been sung out properly and it just seems wrong because you lose the wit and the verbal gymnastics of the lyric-writing. Higgins is not meant to be Pavarotti, otherwise they wouldn't have asked me and I wouldn't have agreed to do it!
Did you have to audition for the part?
No, I was just asked. Stuart Maunder, the opera director, had seen me on Andrew Denton's Enough Rope and cast me from that. I'd never actually met him, so it was a huge leap of faith on his part.
In our age of political correctness and gender equality why do you think we still find romance in a man 'creating' his ideal woman?
The Cinderella syndrome of someone being transformed from one thing to another is a process that underpins most reality television - makeovers, facelifts, life swapping - it's absolutely in the DNA of our culture and the way we operate. The shift from the ugly duckling to the swan is a kind of magic that we all still want to believe in. In My Fair Lady though, Eliza is anything but a passive doll. She is incredibly feisty, and it is actually that attitude that Higgins responds to and falls in love with.
Musicals are typically seen as rather girly. What would you say to persuade unreconstructed males into the theatre for My Fair Lady?
"For all male chauvinist-pig bastards who hate musicals - this is the one for you!" How's that?
My Fair Lady plays at the Theatre Royal from Thu 9 Oct.