CheekToChic Website - 2nd May, 2012
Written by Sarah Cangley.
The inimitable Richard E Grant
Picture by Paul Massey/Camera Press
Richard E Grant has captured the popular imagination with his startlingly blue eyes, freckles and ectomorphic energy since his first movie appearance in Withnail & I in 1987, when he was immediately catapulted into the international limelight. This distinguished actor has just been named the patron of a huge three-day musical extravaganza, the MTN Bushfire Festival which is on in Swaziland this month.
It has still to be confirmed whether he will be attending the festival, as he has been very busy working on his next movie, but rumours have been growing that he will indeed be attending as he never lets an opportunity slip to visit the beloved land of his birth.
Not everyone realises how deeply his theatrical roots penetrate South African soil ... he studied at UCT, and worked with some of the top names in South African theatre today before going on to conquer Hollywood.
Since then this serious actor has made a name for himself on screen and stage, radio and TV and even written a book. The most recent movie I saw him in was The Iron Lady, in which he played a serious role, that of Maggie Thatcher's advisor Michael Heseltine. The original Michael Heseltine subsequently complained that Richard didn't have his hair!
The official Richard E Grant website, www.richard-e-grant.com, run by fans and volunteers, and headed up by "withnailite" Dominique Falla, has the feel of a friend who knows him well and Richard has made it his official site. It is wonderfully humorous, comprehensive and seems to encapsulate his personality.
The website covers the vast body of his work in such an accessible way. The fans obviously comb the internet for mentions of their icon. I even got a mention on it myself, for including him in my True SA celebrities story on my site and was very chuffed!
Richard has been interviewed by so many prestigious publications and been asked every question under the sun, so it is almost intimidating to ask him anything (his interviews have even listed in alphabetical order, according to headline!).
But he is so down-to-earth and drily funny that all butterflies in the stomach simply slip away. This fellow African cleared up burning questions like: what does the E in Richard E Grant stand for, and why he loves Swaziland so much. He wouldn't tell me who the most interesting person he had ever dated was, though.
Q: You say you always wear a watch set to Swazi time. Your love for your birthplace is something that probably every African can relate to. I was born in Zambia and when I went back last year, it was not dramatic, just when I stepped down from the plane at Livingstone Airport, I thought: "I am home". There is a different blue in the sky there and the earth is so red.
What makes the Swazi sky, earth and air so special for you? Are there sounds, smells, tastes that set off your memories of Swaziland wherever you go? Does South Africa ever remind you slightly of home?
A: I think that wherever you are born and brought up, the place leaves an indelible impression. For me, Swaziland will always feel like my home, even though I've been living in London for longer than I did in Mbabane.
It's to do with the landscape and proportion of everything. In Swaziland, the sense of scale is utterly different from that of England. The sky in London always feels like its going to close you in or fall on top of you, whereas the Mbabane sky feels enormous and endless. It also smells completely different and I wish I could capture the variety of smells in a bottle.
Q: I think people have been intrigued about the E in Richard E Grant ever since your name first appeared on a movie screen. It is such an old-fashioned touch of elegance, the old Hollywood screen name. Is it a nod to your real name Richard Esterhuysen? Did you change your name of your own volition when you first moved to Britain? Was there an unwelcome association with South Africa at that time?
A: When I went to UCT to study drama in 1976, my acting professor asked me what my second name was, which is Grant. He advised me to use it as my acting surname instead as there was already a professional actor with my real surname.
When I emigrated to England in 1982, I worked for a couple of years as Richard Grant. Then a retired actor with the same name called up Equity and demanded I change my name. I phoned him up and it turned out that his name was Peter Grant and he had had to change it so as not to clash. So he was very understanding when I asked if I could put a letter between my names and Equity suggested the 'E' as it is a vowel and easier to say.
Q: What do you think is your strongest acting attribute? Your voice? Your physicality? Your endless versatility that takes you from being elegantly wasted and rakish to side-splittingly comedic, to playing dark, period or serious roles with equal impact? All of the above?
A: It's very difficult to try and analyse yourself as an actor, and much better to let writers and directors come up with 'answers'. That is the 'kick' of being an actor - never knowing whats around the corner or how you will get cast. Keeps things interesting.
Q: You have been a powerful character actor ... Have you fought against being typecast all your life?
A: I wish I could pretend that there was some masterplan in operation. As far as possible, I have taken roles because they were interesting, different and challenging. However, your physical 'type' marks you down as being more suited to some roles than others.
Q: You have had some glorious character names during your career from Denis Dimbleby Bagley onwards. Which was your favourite nom-de-plume from your many movies?
A: Vyvian Withnail, as it was the role that gave me a film career and lifelong friendship with the writer- director Bruce Robinson who makes me laugh harder than anyone else I have ever met.
Q: Everyone loves Withnail, of course, it has achieved cult status, and I think you have a particular affection for it. What was your favourite line or scene from Withnail & I?
A: The scene in the Penrith Tea room, when the two characters drunkenly demand "the finest wines" known to humanity.
Q: Who was your favourite actor or director? You have worked with so many!
A: I worked for director Robert Altman three times on The Player, Pret a Porter and Gosforth Park.
He was the ultimate actor's director and having seen all his earlier films at the Labia cinema in Cape Town when I was a student, I felt like I had won the lottery when I got the chance to work with him. An incredible man.
Q: After Wah-wah, any further plans for directing? Or would you like to do a lot more movies? Or write another book? Hopes for an Oscar?
A: Two films I was going to direct collapsed at the 11th hour due to financial meltdown during the credit crisis, but I hope to direct another feature as it is the most all embracing and creatively satisfying job I have ever done.
Q: Tell me about those early days working at The Space in Cape Town...
A: After graduating from UCT in 1979, a group of us founded the Troupe Theatre Company based at the Space Theatre in Cape Town which included Ian Roberts, Fiona Ramsay, Neil McCarthy,Fred Abrahamse,Thoko Ntshinga, Joko Scott,Penny Lorrimer,Sean Taylor, Lammie Shoba, Hilary Jones,Grethe Fox and Brumhilde Van Rensburg. Everyone got paid the same and we all collaborated using as many of the company's skills as possible in the direction, design, and acting of a variety of productions. Having to rely on each other and work together as a team was an unforgettable and invaluable formative experience.
Q: Advice for young southern African actors? What sort of world do they find themselves in?
A: I think it's almost impossible to give advice other than this - Don't attempt to become a professional actor unless you are 100% committed to it, as it is very tough and you have to deal with far more rejections than you might ever imagine possible.
Q: How do you see yourself ageing?
A: The problem with age is that I don't feel any older than I did when I was 25, so will happily mosey along in that frame of mind until the world tells me otherwise. Until all my hair and teeth fall out!! Hahaha.