It takes a special kind of performer to steal scenes without hogging the spotlight altogether. Richard E. Grant, whose zeal for living life powers one of the most wholesome of Twitter accounts, is one such actor who’s able to add immeasurable value to a film with relatively limited screen time. In the three decades since his film debut as the lead in Withnail & I, Grant has settled into a position as one of cinema’s great character actors.
Grant’s latest turn in Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, though, gives the actor significantly more to work with. As Jack Hock, the sidekick and occasional enabler of literary forger Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), he creates an indelible cinematic grifter whose every appearance jolts the film with a burst of madcap energy. When given the chance to develop his character in full rather than merely supporting the leading actors, Grant gets to shine in his own right rather than merely reflecting that light back on others.
At a roundtable interview prior to the opening of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Grant talked about the strange contradiction of portraying a real-life figure while having to create the character essentially from scratch as well as how he collaborated with Heller and McCarthy.
What did you have to do to get into character for the film?
What I found peculiar about the book that Lee Israel wrote is that there was very little description of or information about Jack. I thought it’d be the Wikipedia of information about him. Of course, being the egocentric person that she was, Lee wrote about herself. So, essentially, he died at the age of 47 in 1994 of AIDS, was from Portland, blond, tall, had been in jail for two years because he’d held up a taxi driver with a knife to his throat—as you do—over the fare. He had one of those small, stubby cigarette holders because he was a chain smoker, and he thought it would stop him from getting cancer. That was as much as I knew about him. Also, once she’d been rumbled by the F.B.I. and couldn’t go out and sell these letters, he was fetching them for her, and he was obviously so good at it. Because if she thought he’d only get 600 bucks for it, he’d come back with two grand. And I thought, that tells you this guy might not know who Fanny Brice was, but he could go out there and convince people to fleece them with a smile on his face.
Was there anything about Can You Ever Forgive Me? that actually surprised you or that you found difficult?
I think there’s always a worry, having never met Melissa before, about the chemistry of forming this platonic love-hate relationship. It was important to get that right. If you don’t believe it, one of the foundations of the film falls apart. I’ve been on jobs before where you meet people on the first day and you have to do a love scene. Take all your clothes off in front of a crew of 80 people in Anoraks. You go, “Hi, how do you do, I’m just going to kiss you now, excuse me!” Tongues or no tongues, you know, the stuff you go through as an actor. Well, I’m too old for that now. So, I’d been told that there would maybe be a few days of rehearsal, so I got to New York on a Wednesday. I said, “Where’s Melissa McCarthy?” They said, “Oh, she’s only flying in on Friday.” And I said, “Will I meet her?” And they said, “Yeah, you’ll meet her on Monday, the first day of shoot!” And I said, “I’m so paranoid, I won’t sleep for 72 hours over the weekend, can I please meet her just to discuss something or have a look at the script?” So Marielle Heller, the director, asked Melissa, and it turned out Melissa felt the exact same way. I thought, “Phew, that’s great.” So, we met at a hotel downtown, went through the script, and it was pretty clear within five nanoseconds that we got on. And that’s how it stayed.
What was the collaboration process like with Marielle?
I had the same feeling I had when I worked with Lena Dunham on Girls. You absolutely know that she’s in charge of everything. But she also wears her authority very lightly. She’s collaborative, nurturing, open, but also very clear about how she saw the movie and these characters. She’s open to what the actors had to contribute, which from my point of view is the ideal. You feel that if you make an ass of yourself, she’s either going to cut it out or be your emotional safety net. I loved working with her. The producers were women, the main character is a woman (a very difficult one), the lead actress is a woman (a very easy one), it was completely female-centric. It felt, in the making of it, very “detestosterized” and collaborative compared to the movie I just finished, which was Logan, a crew of 300 and about four women. All the guys were built like brick shithouses, excuse my language! They had muscles thicker than my thighs. It was like, “Roarrr, trucks and guns!” The contrast couldn’t be more [striking], and I fit into this world much better than I did into the former.
How much did you study up on Lee Israel? Like when she was in Esquire?
Yeah, I read her books and the biographies she’d written. And the book Can You Ever Forgive Me? I got the impression that she was very difficult, very antisocial, like a porcupine, really prickly and private. But her wit, and the fact that she could pull off this extraordinary act of literary ventriloquism by impersonating the greatest writers of the 20th century and convincing experts that they were real work, was an extraordinary thing to have pulled off. I just wish I could have met her, although she would have dismissed me completely. There’s that attraction where you think, “Can you possibly charm somebody who’s as impossible as she obviously was?”
Do you think the title of the film applies to Jack as well? Is he wondering if he’s doing things that are unforgivable, or is he just blithely unaware of the consequences of his actions?
I think he has no morals. If he could take money off all of you, he would do it. And you’d probably feel good about it at the end. You’d think, “Oh well.” I was at theater training with someone who still owes me money 40 years later. I knew at the time if I lent him some money, I’d never get it back. But I liked him so much. He was such a good egg that I thought, “Well, why not?” I think we’ve all known people like that in our lives. You just don’t want to leave them the keys to your apartment or car because you’ll never get them back.
What would you ask Lee if you got the chance to meet her?
I would want to know much more in detail about Jack Hock. Just be able to talk about him because I found it very touching that all his friends had died of AIDS. There’s a moment in the film when Lee Israel says to him in the restaurant, “Can I trust you with this forgery scam I’m involved in?” He said, “Oh yeah, you can, because I don’t have any friends to tell—they’re all dead.” He says it flippantly, but it was true. There are no photographs of him, nobody alive I could find that knew him. I would like to know more about him because I had such an amazing response to playing him.
What did it mean for you to film at Julius’, New York City’s oldest gay bar?
More than anything, when you’re playing a real person—even though they’re both gone—you feel a responsibility to be as authentic and true to that person as possible. Hence, I asked the costume designer if I could have that cigarette holder. And the fact that we shot in real bookshops—there was no studio on this entire shoot—where Lee and Jack had operated and pulled off their scams, and that she was a regular at Julius’. There’s that feeling I know from doing historical drama in England where you walk inside a castle and go, you know, “Henry VIII walked here on the same flagstones I’m on now.” To have that experience in Greenwich Village of walking into the bar and seeing what they saw and sitting where they sat, it’s like you’re honoring them for being in the real places and not a studio version of it.
Since there was so little to go on for your character, did you ad-lib to bring him to life?
Thank you, but there was no ad-libbing. The only thing I remember ad-libbing was the first time I was in Julius’ and introduce myself to Lee, I say, “Jack Hock, big cock.” It just came out of my mouth, and I thought it would never be in the movie—and it is! I suppose it was just that thing of somebody who is self-confident and provocative going, here I am! I have two words of mine in the movie. Otherwise, the rest are all scripted.
Going off that a little bit—
You could say? Did the script make it pretty clear what attracted Jack to Lee as a person? If he’s not really in the book, is that something you had to do a lot of character work on?
He, more than anything, is an opportunist. He’s in the bar, he’s got no money, he sees Lee and recognizes that they’ve met before, and she’s a writer who’s got money. She can’t quite place him and goes, “Oh, I remember you, you’re that tall English guy who was drunk and peed all over those rich ladies’ fur coats.” That could have gone two ways. The majority of people might go, “I don’t want to be associated with anybody who does that.” Being an animal lover that she is, and anti-establishment that she was, she found that amusing. That was the chink in the window for him to think, “She finds it funny. I’m in here, I can get some drinks.” They go back to her apartment, and he clearly doesn’t have one of his own anymore and says, “Am I going to see you tomorrow?” And she said, “Maybe, this wasn’t a bad thing tonight.”
From there, he gets in with her, and they have a similar sense of humor. When she’s doing the prank phone calls to her agent [played by Jane Curtin] pretending to be Nora Ephron to get through so she can say, “You starfucker,” all that stuff, and they do the scam of the guy in the bookshop who’s been so rude to her and says, “Your apartment’s on fire and your dog is about to be barbecued,” all that’s like two 11-year-olds running around. And she also, when the exterminator won’t remove all the cat shit under her bad because he says [she] has to clean her apartment first, he [Jack], in an act of friendship says, “I’ll help you.” He does stick lavatory paper up his nostrils, but he does it. He shows willing where other people don’t.
Why do you think Lee chose Jack as her partner-in-crime?
She knew he’d been in jail. He’d lived on the street and was street-wise. She knew that because he could put on a front of being English, trying to charm people and sound educated, she tested to see whether he could sell these letters. Because he did successfully the first time, she then entrusted him out of necessity to do more. And then, of course, he was caught, she was caught.
Was it fascinating to play a character who was morally ambiguous?
Playing damaged people who have good and bad in them is always much more interesting than if somebody’s just heroic or too good to be true. The other thing I was so struck by is that [the film] goes through the A to Z of what friendship is and all its vicissitudes. You have the honeymoon period when you become friends with a person, the loyalty that follows, then almost inevitably the betrayal and followed, in this case, by reconciliation. It has all tenderness, love, betrayal, pain—all of that’s in there. If you’re married to somebody, you have a social contract with somebody to put up with them. If you’re blood-related, you think blood is thicker than water and put up with that. But the nature of friendship, it’s this invisible, unspoken contract that you’re friends with this person because you really want to be friends with this person. So, when it’s broken or betrayed, it’s very, very painful. I thought [the film] dealt with that very, very powerfully.
If I have the chronology right, you went right from playing Jack in Can You Ever Forgive Me? into playing Henry Higgins in a production of My Fair Lady. Did any of Jack make it into that character?
Yeah, I did My Fair Lady at the Chicago Opera House straight afterward. No, because Henry Higgins is an entitled, self-obsessed narcissist who’s a control freak. And Jack is the opposite of that.
Well, they’re both self-mythologizers.
Yeah, they are. Egocentric and self-mythologizing, exactly.
What do you think a modern LGBTQ audience can take away from your portrayal?
I honestly don’t know how to answer that. I just know that I had done a movie with Sandra Bernhard, we’d played husband and wife in a movie Hudson Hawk with Bruce Willis in 1990, and I went to visit Sandra in 1991 in the Meatpacking District. I was shocked by how on street corners—and I don’t mean just one street corner, but many of them—there were emaciated men dying of AIDS who were holding up placards that said, “I’m homeless, I’ve been abandoned by my family, I’m dying of AIDS, and I have no Medicare. Please help me.” You expect having seen that shocking news footage of Ethiopia, but to be in a city as rich as New York City and see people literally dying on the street was unbelievably shocking. That’s not in the film, but it’s a reminder when Jack comes in at the end [showing physical debilitation from AIDS], and Lee asks his permission to write this book, that’s the reality of what gay men were facing at the time. And that generation was wiped out.