Richard E. Grant
Forms an Odd Couple with Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
by Jay S. Jacobs
Richard E. Grant has been quietly putting together one hell of a career for himself in the three decades since he exploded on the scene as the title character in the film Withnail & I. Since then, Grant has disappeared into dozens of roles, in things like the Star Wars universe, Downton Abbey, Dr. Who, the Wolverine series, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Game of Thrones, Gosford Park, Girls… even Spice World.
However, his latest role may be his meatiest character in years and has him counted as an early favorite for a Best Supporting Actor nom when awards season comes. (This would be his first Oscar nom.) He plays Jack Hock, a homeless HIV-positive, very flamboyant con man in 1990s New York who becomes involved in a literary forgery scam with author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) in the buzzworthy new film Can You Ever Forgive Me? Grant radiates a sweet charm and guile in the role.
Based on a true story, Israel and Hock became involved in a scheme to make forgeries of literary letters for resale to book and collectibles stores. In doing so, these two outcasts formed a brittle connection and friendship, before the law started closing in on them.
When asked about working with Grant, co-star Melissa McCarthy joked, “Very difficult. Awful. It’s all a sham.” Then she laughed. “No, he’s constantly as charming as he seems. It was just fun. He’s attentive and a remarkable actor… He’s a tremendous listener… He’s like that as a person. When you talk to him about anything, he’s all in. He’s one of the most present fellows I ever met. Each scene, it was like the lights went out around us and we were just singular. What a dreamy situation to have with someone you’re working with. We met on Friday and were shooting on Monday. If it didn’t work it was going to be tricky, but in seven seconds I knew it would be great.”
A few weeks before the national release of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, we were one of a bunch of news outlets who got to sit down with Grant at the Whitby Hotel in New York to discuss the film.
When you saw Jack Hock, when you read the script, did you immediately hear him and see him?
My immediate thought was: What is the essence of what’s happening in this story? Like Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple, and also like Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy, you’ve got two people who are on the fringes of society that are lonely and they’re in New York and they’re struggling. Despite all the wealth that you see around you and millions of people, they’re lonely and they’re struggling. That was the basis of their platonic friendship. They’re trying to find a movie reference.
Yes, I see that.
Because I grew up in Africa, I always see people and try and understand characters as what kind of animal would they be? Just to get a lead in. I thought she is essentially a porcupine. She’s prickly and private and you’re going to get hurt if you go in there. Jack was like a Labrador in that he’ll just go up to anybody and lick them into submission. (laughs) To try and get petted. To try and get dinner. Jump on somebody or steal their food, or whatever. But he won’t give up. That scene in the Julius’ bar, where he first meets her, that’s what he does. He sees that she’s got some money, because she can afford a scotch. He can’t. He tries to scadge off her.
So, how did you play it so she would stick around?
They have this odd, platonic love/hate relationship. In knowing how to pitch it, I thought we were having a week of rehearsal. That didn’t happen. So, I begged Marielle Heller, the director, I said, “Look, we start shooting on Monday. Melissa McCarthy is only coming into New York on Friday. I will not sleep, because I’m so paranoid, for 72 hours if I have to see her on Monday morning and pretend to be best friends with her.” I had no idea. I was very aware of her comedy movies, from incredibly subtle to incredibly broad characterization. I didn’t know at what level she was going to pitch Lee Israel. Mercifully, Melissa felt the exact same. We met for half a day on a Friday, talked through the script. All the scenes we had together. What the intentions were. As you know from meeting Melissa, within five seconds I realized what kind of person she was and how difficult it was going to be. (laughs) By Monday, when we started working, there was the relief of going, “Ah, okay.” I saw how she was pitching it, and then that affected what I did.
We’ve talked a lot of the New York of this period being gone. Do you see Jack as being a product of that era of Manhattan? Or, do you think he’d still be the Labrador today?
I think that those kinds of scammers that I can remember seeing on what existed of 42nd Street in the early ‘90s – which is [now] floodlit and touristified out – that doesn’t exist anymore. That sort of sleaze-fest where he would have operated. One of your fellow journalists next door met Lee Israel in a food bank. He lived on the upper West Side. He said that the Jack Hocks were absolutely all over the place in the early ‘90s. He remembers people like that. You’re New Yorkers. Do you think those people don’t really operate in the same way now? It’s too expensive to live in Manhattan. I don’t know if that answers your question, but I remember, I had done a movie playing Sandra Bernhard’s husband, called Hudson Hawk with Bruce Willis.
We remember… (the writers laugh, because the film was a notorious bomb.)
(Apologetically) I know. I know. (returns to his story) [Anyway,] I went to meet Sandra in the meat-packing district in 1991. On the street corners – not just one street corner, many street corners – there were emaciated men dying of AIDS. They had placards saying, “I have no Medicare. My family have abandoned me. I have no money. I am dying. Please help me.” It was so shocking that I’ve never forgotten that.
It must have been heartbreaking.
The final scene that my character has in the Julius bar… I had a friend that was in Chariots of Fire called Ian Charleson, who played the Scotsman who wouldn’t run on Sunday. He died of AIDS in 1990. He wore one of those bandanas the last time I saw him. I took photographs of myself the night before [they filmed the scene] and I put baby powder on my face and penciled in my cheeks. I said, “Can I do this? Because, this is what my experience was with a friend of mine who died.” It wasn’t what they had imagined, but they agreed to it. They had all these online photo records that this is what they did, because they lost the hair. It was awful. For me that was a personal homage to somebody I had direct personal experience of who died. That, in conjunction with seeing these men when I went to visit Sandra, it fits in my head about what my New York experience was in 1991.
What was the source of Jack’s optimism? And why did he and Lee click as such an odd friendship?
I think because he is such an opposite to Lee Israel. Despite having no money, and being between apartments, and most of his friends having died of AIDS, and he was HIV positive already in the story at the time we come into it…. Again, my experience of Ian Charleson, I was affected by this and drew upon him in that on the one hand, he had a very incisive wit and a very debauched side of his life in the way he lived. And on the other, an incredible, boyish, engaging optimism. I thought this was such a great combination to have in this character.
Yes, it is…
He is somebody that doesn’t take no for an answer. He would just keep on reaching out and going: Come on, I’ve got a bit of money in my pocket. I’m not going to leave it there for a rainy day. Let’s burn it. Let’s go to a cabaret, or let’s go shopping, or let’s go to Zabar’s, or whatever. I think that is a very endearing thing to find in another human being, because at the end of it, it’s only your friends. I’m 62 and I realize the value of that more than anything. You can have all the money in the world. You can have all that, but your friendships and your interactions with other people is the most important thing. I thought he was somebody who saw the value of that.
One thing that fascinated me was that you couldn’t find a picture of Jack. He was such an extrovert, so you’d expect them to be out there. What does that say about his life, and how did it affect how you portrayed him?
That’s a great question. From what I understood from that was it was pre-social media, when every nano-second of people’s lives… if they are buying Starbucks, they document it. It’s fascinating. Look at me in Starbucks! At a time when all his friends have died of AIDS, so you have a generation of men who have been wiped out. Likely, he was disowned by his family. If you’ve got people who are disenfranchised to that degree, and are then dying of a perceived plague, their photo records are likely… they don’t exist. All I had to go on was that he had this shortened cigarette holder, because he was a chain smoker and he thought that would stop him getting cancer. He’d been in jail for two years for holding up a taxi driver at knifepoint, because they disagreed about the fare. Naturally. (laughs)
He was tall, from Portland and blonde. That was as much description as Lee gave about him. What she did say is that he was really good at the scamming. If she reckoned that a letter that she’d done was worth six hundred bucks, he’d come back with two grand, even when he was trying to cheat more money off her from that two grand. He still was capable. He wasn’t good on the math. He didn’t know who Fanny Brice was, which was bizarre to me. But, he obviously had a way of charming people and I thought that was a key to who he was.
Yes, that seems to be true.
He lived for the day, in the moment. I think knowing that you have this time bomb of being HIV positive probably added to that. It’s like, tomorrow is literally another day and today might be my last. To me, I wish I could live my life like that. I’m too conservative, but it’s very endearing. I’ve known people like that all my life. I’ve liked them and loved them, but I wouldn’t give them the keys to my apartment, or my car, or lend them money. (laughs)
Or let them watch your cat…
Yeah. Or your cat.
Do you think it would work as a play?
Do you think it would work as a play?
I think so, because it is character driven and has a strong arc…
Yeah. Yes, and essentially two-handed scenes. It’s a road movie in Manhattan that goes between bars and book shops. Yeah, I think very easily. I never even asked that. I think it would make a play. You could easily do that. Although, how you get the cat to be trained, I don’t even imagine. Animatronic.
How would you define a really good friend?
My father – he died, 37 years ago yesterday when he was 53 – he said to me when he was dying, “If you have five friends in your life, consider yourself a rich man.” At the time I thought: I’m 24, I’ve got lots of friends. I’ve got all you guys! You’re all my friends. But, when it comes down to it, as you know, I’m now 62 and five is a lot. Somebody that you can call at three in the morning that’s going to bail you out, or listen, or hear you out. So, how do you define a friend? Loyalty, more than anything. Somebody that is not married to you, that is not blood-related. They’re just out there because – despite anybody else saying, “Well, I think the guy is a bit of a schmuck,” or she is – that person, they know you, and you know them. You are known, in the fullest extent, to somebody else. That is my understanding of friendship.
Did playing Jack make you appreciate your friends more?
Uhh, yes, and more than anything – I know Melissa gains friends on every job she does, which of course is very annoying (laughs) because she is as friendly with Jude Law as she is with me, and everybody else she’s worked with – but, in my experience on movies you have this incredibly intense, emotionally intimate relationship with people for two, three, four, five months. Sustaining a friendship beyond that, that is the test of it. Usually, you meet somebody a year later and you go, “Hi!” Then all you really have in common is: Oh, we sat next to each other at that hotel. Beyond that, you realize that there is nothing more. I haven’t seen Melissa for a year, but it is as though I saw her last night. And she’s pregnant with my twins, so it’s worked out. (laughs again)
Did you have to kill the poor cat, though?
Oh, I know. I know. Isn’t it horrible? That cat… that cat was dying. I don’t think Jack Hock killed the cat. Do you believe he did? Do you hold that against me? I was dying of HIV and you’re telling me that I should feel guilty that the cat died on his watch. (laughs) I love cats.
What was it like working with the cat? Was the cat more important in those scenes than you?
What’s interesting is they claim you can’t train a cat. To tell a cat that it’s got to sneeze in a veterinary scene – which it did – and use that in a take. Melissa did a double-take like, “What the fuck?” That’s out-acting me. Also, when he was given shrimp on the sofa and turned his head away. It’s a cat! How does it learn to do that? Put shrimp in front of my face, I’d gobble it up. “You can’t do that, save it for the next take.” I’d gobble them up until eventually I was sick. How they got the cat to do that, I have no idea. I think it was some sort of extraterrestrial cat. I have no idea. We were all just astonished by its acting skills.
Jack and Lee both have a lot of charisma, but very different charisma. You have charisma as an actor in general. What is charisma, and can you detect your own charisma?
Thank you for saying that. I have no idea. I don’t know what it is. I get asked by young actors, “Can you help me spend $30,000 to go to acting school?” or whatever. My answer is always the same. I don’t think you can teach somebody how to act. If you go into a room of people, what this indefinable thing is that we call talent, that makes you want to watch somebody more than the person right next to them? [The other person] may be better looking, may be better dressed, may have better money, or better feel, whatever they have, but something makes you look at somebody, or want to watch them. I don’t know what that is. I think if we knew what that was, you could bottle it and sell it and make a billion bucks.
It’s unique to everybody. I think it’s a sort of energy inside somebody that either demands attention, or you just are drawn to that person. That’s like sex appeal. I don’t know how you define that. Some people have it, or they just don’t. You can look at two people – incredibly beautiful people – and you could find that the homelier person is who you’d want to jump.
What’s your perfect Sunday?
What is my perfect Sunday? Eating in bed. Having sex and then eating in bed. And what is your perfect Sunday?
This is Saturday. (laughs)
Besides being at work, what are some of the things you did on your down time or you’d ideally like to do with Melissa?
Well, we shot this in six weeks, and she was on set in every scene, as you know. I wasn’t, annoyingly. I’d just come on the days that I wasn’t working. I’d just come and hung out. Had lunch with her every day. That is pretty unusual. Usually the days you have off, you go, yeah, I’m going to do this. I’m going to see that. But, that’s what we did.
Was she recognized out on the streets?
She had her Lee Israel wig on. So, we just would walk down the street. She had a hat on. And, you know, it’s New York City. We live in an age where, as you know, the silhouette is this (mimes someone staring at a cell phone). So, actually looking up and having a conversation with anybody, or recognizing anybody, is far less. We just walked around. Lee’s apartment was around the corner from here, on 57th, I think. So, no, that never happened.
There were a lot of women behind the scenes in the making of the film.
A majority. The writers. The producers.
Since this is being considered “the year of the woman,” was there a different energy on the set?
That’s a great question. Okay, I’ll put it like this. It felt like the most de-testosterized, communal, nurturing, collaborative environment. I think because it was such an intimate story and female-centric. Whereas the movie that I just came off before was Logan, which had a crew of three hundred men with arms thicker than my thighs. I’m not exactly Mr. Chunky, but it was guns and jeeps and cars and fucking cranes. I felt like a dandelion in the wind amongst this macho set. So, the contrast was enormous. I mean it was a different kind of movie. People had blades coming out of their hands. People being decapitated in all direction. Even the twelve-year-old girl in it was karate killing people with batons, so there’s some contrast to the world of Lee Israel and Jack Hock. Does that answer your question?
Copyright ©2018 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: November 2, 2018.
Photo #1 ©2018 Jay S. Jacobs. All rights reserved.
Photos #2-5 ©2018. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. All rights reserved.