The Daily Express Saturday Magazine - 21st December, 2002
Richard E Grant will have you on the edge of your seat on Boxing Day. He tells Tim Oglethorpe about his eccentric habits and the BBC’s new adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles.Here’s a piece of showbusiness trivia with which to impress your family over Christmas dinner: the E in Richard E Grant is a truncated version of his surname, Esterhuysen (Grant is his middle name). Richard inserted the initial to avoid confusion with another actor called Richard Grant. Not a lot of people know that. And those that don’t but have seen his work – especially movies such as Withnail And I and the Argos TV ads – could be forgiven for thinking the E stands for eccentric.
For nobody does eccentric quite like Richard. In Withnail and I, his out-f-work actor character drank cigarette lighter fuel – and anything else alcoholic he could lay his hands on. In the hilarious Argos commercials, Richard camps it up as over-the-top pop star Zak and in The Hounds of The Baskervilles, BBC1’s big Christmas chiller, he’s up to his old tricks again as larger-than-life Jack Stapleton. Jack lives on the wild and windy moor, where the hound is said to roam, surrounded by a macabre collection of bones and artefacts. He definitely seems to be a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic. At one point, he fixes ace detective Sherlock Holmes with his steely gaze and says: “I must confess I covet your skull,” followed by, “Would you have any objection to me running my fingers along your parietal fissure?”
Sitting across a table at the West End private club Soho House, 45 year-old Richard seems anything but eccentric. He talks quietly, with just a hint of his naïve, southern African accent (he was born in Swaziland).
And while he might be dressed like a man about to take a bracing moorland walk (Lime green sweater, brown cords, sturdy shoes), his economical body movements suggest introspection rather than eccentricity. Until, that is, you notice he’s wearing watches on both arms. That’s a bit odd, isn’t it? “Not really,” he says, “One is on UK time, the other on Swazi time. I’m hopeless at maths, hopeless at working out what time it is wherever. I once made the terrible mistake of ringing someone in Swaziland at what I thought was 4pm but turned out to be 4am. I felt so guilty, I’ve worn two watches ever since.”
So it’s a practical measure, rather than something a little strange, and much can be said for his clean-living lifestyle. Here’s a man who has good reason for declining the pleasures of coffee, tea, cigarettes, alcohol and dairy products. “I just don’t get on with any of those. On the few occasions I’ve tried alcohol, I’ve been violently ill; I’ve tried hot drinks and don’t like the taste, and so it goes on.”
And those Argos ads? Further proof of Richard’s keen appreciation of the real world? Seems so. “I do them for the same reason – the only reason – that any actor does an ad; money!”
“Any actor who says that they are doing an ad for artistic advancement is … well, I’ve yet to met those people. When Sir Laurence Olivier did a commercial for Kodak cameras 30 years ago, nobody was under any illusion. He wasn’t doing it because he thought the technological advances represented by those cameras were going to be a great significance to life. He did it to earn lots of money.”
That’s fair enough, of course, and the grin on Richard’s face when I ask him how much he’s earning from the Argos ads suggest he’ll be able to afford his dream Christmas presents – a pair of 42-inch, flat-screened plasma TVs – without calling the services of Santa.
But is there a slight concern about damaging his artistic credibility? Is the man who became coolness personified when the cultish Withnail and I was released 15 years ago putting his image on the line? “I think that if I was speaking to the camera in the advert saying: ‘My name is Joe Bloggs and I recommend you buy this type of tea because it is going to transform your life and give you magical powers,’ then maybe so. But Julia [Sawalha] and I are playing two characters and not personally recommending anything. It’s just not that kind of advert.”
Richard’s pursuit of the down-to-earth and the matter-of-fact also extend to his family. He comes from a broken home – his mother, Leonie, walked out when Richard was nine – and the tall, dark-haired thesp has worked hard to achieve the domestic stability in his adult life that was lacking in his childhood.
His book, With Nails, a dairy account of his raise from obscurity to starring roles in movies such as The Player and Dracula, recall the pain of being away from his wife Joan Washington, a voice coach, and his daughter Olivia, now 13, as he pursued his career aboard. Is that why his upcoming projects – including movies Making Waves and Bright Young Things – are being shot within relatively easy reach of his London home?
“The truth is, I didn’t suddenly decide to cut back on working aboard,” he says. “Instead I was lucky. The film industry in Britain revived at the same time my daughter was starting school and I was therefore able to work more over here than I had done before.”
The revival he talks about has been a bit stop-start and Richard himself has appeared in the odd home-reared turkey. Remember Food of Love and Keep The Aspidistra Flying? No, not many people do. Movies like those demonstrate the precarious, unpredictable nature of acting – although that would never stop Richard encouraging his daughter to follow him into the profession. “I think you worry whatever job your child wants to do, but support from one’s parents is hugely important so I’d be right behind Olivia if acting is what she eventually chooses. At the moment though, she is 13 and changes her mind about what she wants to do on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. To date, she has expressed no interest in becoming an actress. But that could change.
“When I was her age, I wanted to be an astronaut, after seeing the first moon landings in 1969. My lack of maths let me down in this ambition, although to this day I hanker after space travel. I image it must be the most extraordinary experience to have a view of the Earth from above. I hope that, within my lifetime, space travel becomes more commonplace and that I can do it.”
At the moment however, the only place that Richard seems keen to travel to is out of the room where he’s being interviewed. He’s been polite and thoughtful but, towards the end of our chat, behaves like a man who has left a pan heating up in the room next door and wants to check on it before it boils over.
Just for a while, the E in his name stands for Eager to Exit.
The Hound of The Baskervilles is on BBC1 on Boxing Day at 9pm. With Nails: The Film Diaries of Richard E Grant is published by Pan Macmillan at £7.99 (paperback).