How finding peace with his past gave Withnail star a happier life
Movie actor Richard E Grant tells Madeleine Keane about overcoming the traumas of his childhood
Richard E Grant once said: "There is no life that is a gilded lily of gorgeousness." On first meeting the very gorgeous Mr Grant, one would be inclined to disagree. Happily married for over 30 years to voice coach Joan Washington, father to Olivia, stepdad to Tom, he has had a long, successful career in film, and moves in a rarified, glamorous world of thesps (as he calls them) and creatives. Fortune has also smiled on his forays outside celluloid. A lifelong obsession with scent led to the creation of 'Jack' in 2014; it swiftly became Liberty of London's third bestselling perfume. All this in addition to a slew of writing, innumerable TV and theatre projects and charity work.
But all has not been gorgeous for the man who still keeps a daily diary, started when he was a 10-year-old boy in Swaziland in an attempt to understand his mother's infidelity which he had witnessed as he lay, unobserved, in her car. His father hit the drink badly, dying of lung cancer at the age of 53.
After a stint studying drama at Cape Town University, Richard ultimately shipped out and headed to London where, despite Grant senior's view that theatre was "basically tights and b*****y and wearing make-up", he endured a few years of bedsit grimness in Notting Hill before hitting the big time with his exceptional portrayal of the titular character in the British cult film Withnail & I.
Much has been made of the irony that Grant's unforgettable performance as the wasted Withnail was achieved without the benefit of ever being drunk. Ever. He is famously teetotal, the result of an allergy caused by an inability to metabolise booze, though one suspects that his father's tragic descent into alcoholism has had a bearing too.
"I asked a doctor once is this psychosomatic? Why am I incapable of holding alcohol? Is it because my father's a drunk, he said I'll do a blood test - I can't argue with the science of that," he tells me.
His filmography suggests he became a workaholic. His many roles include Heseltine in The Iron Lady, Gosford Park, The Player, Downton Abbey, Dracula, Jack & Sarah, The Age of Innocence. This year Withnail & I turned 30 and Grant was 60.
"Yes! Bullseye!" he exclaims. Here to talk about style - and I can think of few men better qualified than the elegant figure who sits before me - at The Gloss Look The Business event at the RDS in Dublin (now in its 11th year with Vodafone as headline sponsors), he's still looking good, "given I'm now officially a pensioner".
What's his view on getting older?
"I worked with Sir John Gielgud just before he died - he was 96 - and said 'Sir John, what is your advice about being the age that you are' and he said 'it's very obvious: cultivate younger friends'."
Asked about his own counsel for life, he replies: "I have a three-quarter glass full attitude in the first place and just go for it because you only have one chance. Nobody, to my knowledge, has ever come back from the other side.
"My father absolutely inculcated in me from when I was a little boy that it is the here and now, there is no heaven and earth somewhere else, it is here, hell and heaven is here, the cruelty of the world and its ugliness cheek by jowl with its sublime beauty and its miraculeness." (He has an engaging penchant for making up words). "I believe in living your life to the fullest. I don't seek anything beyond that."
And life continues to be very full for REG; the 'E' stands for Esterhuysen. Last year he joined the cast of Game Of Thrones as Izembaro and appeared in films such as Hugh Jackman's Logan and Their Finest with Bill Nighy and Gemma Arterton. "I also played the interior designer in Jackie with Natalie Portman and I've also just done a film with Melissa McCarthy (of Bridesmaids) in New York."
But all has not been gilded. In addition to his dysfunctional childhood, Richard experienced other great sadnesses: his wife endured three miscarriages and the death of their daughter Tiffany who was born prematurely. At the age of 42, he was blindsided by depression.
"I couldn't move, I thought I was paralysed. My wife called Steve Martin, whom I'd been friends with since 1990 when we made LA Story, and he put me in touch with a wonderful man, Christopher Bolus, who made four connections - you are 42, your father was 42 when independence came, he was cuckolded and his wife went off with his best friend and he had a 10-year-old. I was 42 and had a 10-year-old.
"He said sometimes your subconscious just locks. As soon as he said it, it was like tonnage of weight just moved. He told me you have to make good with your mother.''
Grant worked through his trauma and finally: "I faxed her and didn't get a reply until two months later, she sent me an 18-page letter describing what it was like to be a young colonial wife in this incredibly closed set-up."
When they met, he says: "We were unbelievably, but non-aggressively honest with each other - and she said three very important words: please forgive me. And for a parent to say that to a child is more powerful than anything I can think of."
Making peace with his past enabled him to write and direct Wah-Wah, the acclaimed film about his childhood. Nicholas Hoult played the young Richard, Emily Watson his adulterous mother and Gabriel Byrne - cast as Grant's father - was nominated for an IFTA; the pair remain firm friends to this day.
Hollywood chat inevitably leads to Harvey Weinstein. What's his view of the damage inflicted by this abuse scandal on his industry?
"The damage has happened to the people that have suffered, but my instinct is to look on the positive side of it. I think it will be the Weinstein watershed moment ... in the same way you've had this collapse in belief or trust in the church here because of the abuse that has gone on, it means people are liberated from that, now it gives people a voice to say this is unacceptable."
Grant loves Ireland, calling himself an 'Irophile'. "The first time I ever came here I landed at Shannon Airport and within about 15 nanoseconds the guy who picked me up spoke more and revealed more about his life than you could on Wikipedia. And I thought 'Aah! A tribe of people who talk even more than I do and who love language and why use one sentence when you can use 60' - that's right up my street."
He walks the walk, too, and has made promotional short films extolling the pleasures of our island, among them Belfast ("I've been a Titanic obsessive since I was born") and an aerial shot captures his rangy silhouette as those mellifluous tones carry over the rugged Mayo coastline, while he extols the Wild Atlantic Way as "captivating, stimulating and spectacularly unique".
An encomium that could equally be ascribed to the divine Mr G.