It’s never good time for a son to tell his parents that he wants to be an actor, so when Richard E Grant informed his mother and father, they were “understandably worried”. This was because he grew up in a tiny country in southern Africa, where there was no prospect of earning a living on the stage, and no film industry. Yet it was one of the easier moments from what he calls his “dysfunctional childhood’.
His autobiographical film wah-wah shows how bitterly his parents fought each other, while young Richard was sent off to boarding school. His father, the head of education in the colonial government of Swaziland, was unstable. “My parents divorced acrimoniously when I was ten years old, prompting my father to become a violent alcoholic, culminating in him attempting to shoot me at point blank range when I emptied a crate of his whisky down the drain. He was very drunk and mercifully missed! So I was exposed to a brutally grim side of family life at an impressionable age, but have survived and thrived…”
Richard chose acting when he was sixteen, when it was clear he could not attain his goal in life – to be an astronaut. He failed his school mathematics exam, leaving him no option but to go for second best. A decade later he burst onto the scene in Withnail and I, delivering the performance of a lifetime. This classic British independent film was funded by Beatle George Harrison, who paid for it to be made after realising the genius of the script. Without Grant’s fiery, spiky acting it would have been a lesser film, and never become the cult that it is.
“I knew the moment I read the script that it was a life-changing role and still can't quite believe I was cast. It has opened every career door subsequently. However when it was made, it was thought to be unreleasable because as it had no plot, no women and no-one in it that anyone had ever heard of! It was only the popularity of home video that gave it a cult following, and it has grown in popularity ever since…”
He has done films as diverse as Spiceworld and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but most recently appeared in the global television blockbuster Downton Abbey. “I knew, and had worked with, many of the cast before so I was made to feel very welcome”, he declares. It has given his career a new momentum, and he’s delighted with the way it has gone. “When I was seven years old, I made toy theatres out of shoeboxes and cut out figures on lollipop sticks”, he tells me. “Then I progressed to glove puppets, then marionettes and was in school plays and amateur theatre club shows, so the line has been clear and consistent from the get-go. It's what I have always wanted to do and am profoundly grateful that I've been able to make a good living doing what I love.”
He says the secret to being a good actor is to enjoy it. “Every part has its own demands and I enjoy the comedy parts as much as the dramatic roles. It’s a profession of such extremes – wealth, poverty, aberrant behaviour, fame, failure, comebacks, personality clashes and intensely passionate on-set love affairs, that I've found that the only way to survive its highs and lows, is not to take it too seriously. Our job is to entertain, not to cure cancer!”
This man is content with where he is – respected and loved but not a prisoner of his success. “I never dreamt that fame would ever knock on my door, but I think now I have just the right amount of it. I am able to live a normal life without having to hide away like some of my more famous friends”, he explains. Richard has also been able to indulge hobbies such as making perfume, too; he has even released his own fragrance, Jack, which he says is “the realisation of a boyhood dream”.
“I fell madly in love when I was twelve years old and tried to make perfume out of rose and gardenia petals, as I could not afford to buy the real thing. Four decades later, with encouragement from handbag designer Anya Hindmarch, I finally created my 'signature' in scent combining all my favourite ingredients. Once I decide to do something, I relentlessly pursue it and that perseverance has paid off since the perfume became a best seller at Liberty, when it was launched a year ago. And now I have a second scent Jack Covent Garden exclusively at Selfridges, so I am very proud.”
Today he lives in London, in a house built in 1830 opposite Richmond Park. “I feel ninety-nine percent British,” he tells me, “and the variety of theatre, museums, music, art and fashion in London is utterly unique and there aren't enough days in the year to experience it all.” He loves China too, and looks forward to going back. “I have been to Hong Kong and Guangzhou and was astonished at the speed with which buildings rise up seemingly overnight, and the work ethic which enables that to happen. The variety of food is extraordinary, and it felt like visiting the future where everything is new!”