The first thing I do when Richard E. Grant comes into view is thank him for graciously keeping our video appointment, under the circumstances. The Oscar-nominated British-Swazi actor had just got news that his 93-year-old mother had died. I know this because, as he is wont to do, Grant earlier processed his raw grief and thoughts of “complicated gratitude” about their fraught relationship in an Instagram video.
That eloquent candour is actually what led to A Pocketful of Happiness, his new memoir covering the time from wife Joan Washington’s diagnosis of terminal lung cancer to her death a scant nine months later, in September, 2021. Bereft on his first New Year’s without her, Grant shared on Instagram that she had exhorted him and their daughter Olivia to find a pocket full of happiness in every day.
“The response on social media was so astonishing,” the actor recalls of the viral post, that his literary agent was inundated.
Grant, 66, has assiduously kept a diary since he was 10. Even if it’s just writing something into his iPhone before going to sleep “the way someone else might do a meditation,” he says from his home in London, “it’s a way of a collecting the experience.”
“The diary form means that you get an immediate and I think more authentic day-to-day of what somebody’s life experience has been, in a way that is unmatched.”
Like his previous memoirs With Nails and The Wah-Wah Diaries, A Pocketful of Happiness is diaristic but not linear: he toggles back to Washington and his courtship while he was a struggling actor waiting tables in Covent Garden before his breakout in the 1987 cult classic Withnail and I. (To this day, Grant thanks Daniel Day-Lewis for passing on the role that launched his career.)
Entries grounded in the present reality of Washington’s illness hopscotch around the couple’s 38 year relationship with stories from their respective showbiz careers (Washington was a noted dialect coach) and personal life. The memoir boasts a range of boldface names of celebrities who make appearances in their life – or as Grant calls it, “lah-di-dah company.”
Elton John checks in on Washington. There are visits from Prime Suspect creator Lynda La Plante and a frail Vanessa Redgrave, tubs of ice cream in tow. Cate Blanchett sends gardenias; food writer Nigella Lawson cabs over homemade meals. Prince Charles drops by with mangoes and fragrant Highgrove roses – prompting the digression to a vividly mortifying but hilarious escapade during their stay at Sandringham House decades earlier.
The name-dropping might be insufferable, except that Grant meets every Hollywood moment with sincerity rather than cynicism. (That’s not to say he’s guileless: the memoir’s catalogue of snubs and industry hierarchies reveal him a canny judge of character.) And the abiding friendships with Melissa McCarthy, Steve Martin, Peter Capaldi and Gabriel Byrne are genuinely moving.
“I still feel wide-eyed in Babylon,” Grant says of never getting blasé, whether it’s enthusiasm for seeing a new play or joining an impromptu dinner with Julie Christie, Paul and Linda McCartney, and Twiggy. “Weird moment when you’re talking to people you’ve known remotely for years,” he writes, “trying to amalgamate the real person with all the memories of their movies and music in your mind.”
This propensity for pinch-me delight made headlines in 2019 when Grant earned an Academy Award nomination for Can You Ever Forgive Me? and shared the glamorous swirl of his awards season. Whether the thrill of winning the Indie Spirit award or chatting with his intense lifelong crush, Barbra Streisand, he allowed himself unabashed awe even as he pulled back the curtain.
Work has been steady for the past 40 years – Grant has worked alongside names such as Francis Ford Coppola, Jane Campion, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and the Spice Girls – but the character actor’s increased profile (like hosting the February BAFTA Awards) is relatively new. His late wife affectionately called it the “condiment-ary phase” of his career: where he pops up as a guest actor in cultural phenomena like Girls, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, and Logan to add some condiment-like flavour (Colman’s or Dijon, depending on the role).
His more recent experience of juggernaut franchises makes for diverting commentary – bonding with Owen Wilson on Marvel’s Loki or stepping onto the Star Wars set and discovering that space ship doors are opened the old-fashioned way: by unseen crew.
For all this, Grant still considers himself a jobbing actor. Unless you’re Tom Cruise-tier, he tells me, “you get levelled down to reality at every turn.”
Shooting an episode of comedy The Outlaws the previous week, for example, a suspicious location manager grilled him before finally letting him through to the set.
“You can’t get a grand ego,” he says, even in a career largely built on memorable juicy parts, like eccentric Dickie in Dom Hemingway or the patriarch in recent suspense thriller The Lesson. He’s also a posh patriarch in Saltburn, the upcoming “horror thriller social comedy” of an aristocratic family in circa-2006 Oxford from Promising Young Woman’s Emerald Fennell. “I’ve known her since she was 13 years old!” he marvels. (The filmmaker’s parents are old friends of Grant and make an appearance in the memoir.)
Illustrious career aside, Grant’s openness and vulnerability on social media while navigating bereavement have been a source of great consolation to his followers. “In dealing with the most personal private thing of your life,” he says, “it then prisms outwards and you realize that everybody at some point in their life is either going through it or will go through it.”
Grief and loss are a great equalizer – as is the fluorescent lighting of the underground parking garage after the Governors honorary Oscar ball where, as Grant writes, “all vanities are bonfired and facelifts cruelly exposed.”