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Interview: Richard E. Grant

Richard E. Grant as Dickie Black in "Dom Hemingway."
Fox Searchlight
Richard E. Grant as Dickie Black in "Dom Hemingway."

Indie Britsh Actor Scores A Hit In 'Dom Heningway'

Richard E. Grant may not be a household name in the U.S. but he is much beloved by indie film fans who remember him dearly in films such as "Withnail and I" and "How to Get Ahead in Advertising." Now he reinvents himself for a new generation with "Dom Hemingway."

I can never think of Bengay without thinking of Richard E. Grant. That because in his brilliant first screen appearance he played the crazy Withnail, who, to stave off the cold when he had no heating, covered his body in Bengay. It's an image I can never forget. But with every role, no matter how extreme or restrained, Grant always impressed and amazed me.

He also left an indelible mark on writer-director Richard Shepherd who wrote the part of Dickie Black in "Dom Hemingway" specifically for Grant.

Richard E. Grant in his first screen appearance in "Withnail and I."
Richard E. Grant in his first screen appearance in "Withnail and I."

"'Withnail and I' is one of the seminal films in my filmgoing life," Shepard told me by phone, "I think it is one of the most perfect comedies. And I loved him in it. So as I was thinking about this movie I was thinking what British actors could I have in this? I started thinking about Richard. I didn’t know him but I was thinking he could be great When I wrote the script I sort of sent it to him even though we didn’t have the money or anything, and I was just like you don’t know me from Adam but will you read the script and he did and loved it."

Like many who fell in love with Grant after "Withnail and I," Shepard felt that Grant was not getting the parts he deserved.

"So I just wanted to bring him back" Shepard added, "I kind of wanted to introduce him to a new generation of people. And he’s just so funny and such a scene stealer in 'Dom Hemingway,' just one look from him gets more laughs than a huge other swath of dialogue. Cause he’s in a way us and he’s looking in total fear at Dom, almost praying that Dom doesn’t shoot his mouth off and get into more trouble."

I had a chance to interview him and he was delightful.

How did you come to play the role of Dickie Black in "Dom Hemingway"?


RICHARD E. GRANT: The writer-director Richard Shepard got a hold of my Skype address and I never met him before but I had seen "Matador" and he cold called me about a year before it was made and told me, "I've written a movie and the second main part was written specifically for you." I don't know who we'll get for the main guy but if it ever gets financed or made, would you consider doing it. So I read it and said yes. Then a year later he came back and said Jeremy Thomas is producing, Jude Law is starring, are you still interested and in two seconds I said yes. It was flattering on the one hand to have someone who I've never met before and not from England, think about me for a part and then actually come through on his offer is something I didn't expect. Because I've had people tell me before that they have written a role for me but then they get someone else or they never get it financed.

What was it that Shepard tapped into that made the role so attractive to you?

RICHARD E. GRANT: I usually get cast, because my first role in "Withnail and I" 27 years ago was so extreme and manic that to play the sort of straight fall guy to Dom Hemingway, who is so out there and so extreme, was very attractive and also the fact that they come from completely opposite ends of the social spectrum I thought it was a great chance to do a dead pan double act if you like. I had met Jude socially but had never worked with him but admired him and we got along very well right from the beginning, which I think is crucial when you have an oddball buddy movie like this is in some sense. You've got to believe that these people like or get on or have some history together so that was extremely enjoyable to do.

I so much prefer Jude Law in a role like this rather that as a romantic lead.

RICHARD E. GRANT: That's unusual to hear because I'm so used to seeing the effect he has on women but I agree with you. I always imagine that his female following would rather see him taking a romantic lead rather than someone who is so down and out.

What was it like working with him and how did you develop that rapport and history that these two characters needed?

RICHARD E. GRANT: Richard Shepard took us out for dinner a lot, we rehearsed a lot in London before we went to the south of France, we talked in depth about the back story that the back story that these characters would have together that's not seen in the film, and I admired Jude and he said he had liked what I had done, and we knew the same people, and I worked in the theater and he had so all of those things combined and I'm not saying all that necessarily makes you have chemistry but he made me laugh and I made him laugh and I think that's essential and I think if you have that with another human being you are more than sort of halfway there. So it was very enjoyable and he's almost unique amongst actors I've worked with in that he never, ever complained. He could be covered in mud or half naked at five o'clock in the morning in rain machines and cold weather and I never heard him complain or get rattled and for that alone I have huge admiration and respect for him. The collective noun for actors is a moan of actors so he is certainly the exception to that rule.

Director Richard Shepard has a knack for tapping into aspects of an actor that audiences may not be familiar with. Was that something that was attractive to you?

RICHARD E. GRANT: Exactly, bullseye! As I said, having usually been cast as such extreme characters that to play the calm voice of reason to Dom Hemingway's extreme, near psychotic outlandishness was so in contrast to what I am normally asked to do that was an enormous bonus and a huge attraction to doing it and getting to see someone else having to fire off every gun in their arsenal.

This film doesn't neatly fit into any genre so how is it to try and describe it to someone and to try and find the right audience for it?

RICHARD E. GRANT: Wow, you nailed me there. Wow, how to describe it? I think what it reminded me most of was -- because I grew up in the 1970s before the big tentpole movies that took over after about 1975 -- independent, character driven movie that was made between "Easy Rider" in 1969 and "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," that sort of seven year window that to me is where this is pitched but I am speaking to you as an almost 57-year-old man. So as moviegoers are younger than my daughter, pitching the golden years of the 70s is not a selling point. But to have something that isn't a franchise, that isn't a comic book spin off, or a sequel or a prequel to something, that hopefully makes it something for a moviegoer to seek out hopefully but whether it will find an audience in America we'll have to see.

Oh why because it's something original?

RICHARD E. GRANT: Oh Beth you sound so cynical, goodness me you've taken the word out of my mouth. But movies cost a lot of money and marketing costs a fortune so I understand that people want to go for the safer bets, the known products so yes I guess it is original.

When I first saw trailers for it I felt they were trying to push the Guy Ritchie feel but underneath I could see something a little grittier and maybe more like films such as "Get Carter" and "Sitting Target."

RICHARD E. GRANT: Yes I think you hit it on the head. But I never thought of it as Guy Ritchie-like.

But I felt that's the way they were advertising it. And yes I am cynical about advertising too but so should you considering your fabulous film, "How to Get Ahead in Advertising."

RICHARD E. GRANT: Oh thank you, that was from the last century.

Have you seen it with an audience yet?

RICHARD E. GRANT: Yes at Toronto and the audience had a fabulous response and that's where Fox Searchlight bought it. We really made a connection with that audience and you always wonder when you make something so specific to South London will it travel.

But sometimes just making something that is so precisely detailed ends up becoming universal.

RICHARD E. GRANT: Yes because it is authentic to itself.

Do you have a favorite scene?

RICHARD E. GRANT: There is one sort of verbal spat that is sort of like a long term marriage that happens in a pub where I say, "F-ck you," and he says, "F-ck you, f-ck you, f-ck you!" And it jumps backwards and forwards. Dom has lost everything and blown all his chances and Dickie Black is saying for god's sake pull yourself together. I loved doing the scene because I thought that in a sense you feel that underneath it all these people have great affection, maybe even love for each other. But what you are hearing is the verbal fuselage of attack and counterattack but underneath that these two people are bound together in some form of a dysfunctional marriage.