How much do I love Richard E. Grant's voice? I want to knit it into a sweater and wear it, dissolve it in my bath and soak in it, spread it on the ground and roll in it like a dog. I wish he would do a relaxation tape so I could fall asleep to the silky, husky sound of it, but I'd probably stay awake just to listen to him.
The actor doesn't merely speak words, he forms them. He can dazzle you with a perfect string of them, or slay you with a single, exquisitely pronounced one. When I spoke to him on the phone last week from England, where he's shooting an arc on Downton Abbey (how great is that?), I couldn't stop laughing with delight, not only because of his amusing delivery, but also because simply hearing him speak is delightful.
So I wasn't surprised to learn that two of his latest roles were written for his voice. For season three of her HBO series Girls, Lena Dunham created Jasper, a rehab renegade, for Grant; he was supposed to appear in one episode and wound up doing four. And American writer/director Richard Shepard (The Matador) wrote Dickie Black, the posh sidekick of the title character in the new gangster film Dom Hemingway, with Grant in mind. (It opens in select cities April 11.)
Dom – played by Jude Law, beefed up and in a fury – is a safecracker from London's down-and-dirty East End, an undereducated ex-con with an overheated brain. He speaks in torrents, geysers, explosions of words; when his garrulousness isn't getting him into trouble, it's getting him out. (Dom's opening monologue, a three-minute ode to the gloriousness of his penis delivered directly to the camera, seems destined to become an audition piece for boldly aspiring thespians everywhere.) Only someone with Grant's facility for verbiage could hold his own against Dom, which means that only Grant could play the role.
"It so reminded me of the indie movies that Altman, Coppola and Scorsese were doing in the early seventies when I was growing up," says Grant, 56, of the script. (Interestingly, he worked with all three of those directors in the 1990s, on three films in a row: The Player, Bram Stoker's Dracula and The Age of Innocence.)
"Dom and Dickie are like Redford and Newman in The Sting," Grant continues. "They're two people who shouldn't really be friends, because they're from opposite ends of the social scale. But somehow, like a semi-functioning marriage, they wobble along together. It's the comedy of the interdependence that you have on somebody else. Perhaps you have a friend like this – I do – where someone says, 'That person is an absolute pain in the ass.' You go, 'Hold on, I've been friends with him for 35 years. Yes, I see he can be a complete asshole, but I love him.'"
Of course, Grant played that kind of character in his first film, 1987's Withnail and I, and his performance remains the gold standard of reprobate friendship. Withnail is drugged, drunken, heartsick, appalled, full of grandeur and self-loathing, and I and legions like me spent our youths quoting his lines to one another. ("I feel unusual" was a good one; so was the elegantly enunciated, "I feel like a pig shat in my head." And for years, whenever we spotted an accident site, we would declaim, "These aren't accidents! They're throwing themselves into the road gladly! Throwing themselves into the road to escape all this hideousness!")
Shepard was a fan, too. As a 21-year-old struggling writer in Los Angeles, he spent the dregs of his change jar renting a Withnail and I video from the (famous, now defunct) Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard, and never returned it. "That sounds Dickensian, I realize," Grant says. "But he told me he wrote my role [in Dom Hemingway] in homage to that time, which was very sweet of him."
Grant, Law and Demian Bichir, who plays Dom's gangland boss, spent three weeks lolling around the spectacular house of Bichir's character (which in real life belonged first to Jeanne Moreau, then to Bernard Ashley, husband of Laura Ashley). Their producer, Jeremy Thomas, wined and dined them nightly in old-school producer style.
"The collective noun for actors should be 'a moan of actors,'" Grant says, "but Jude never moaned. It didn't matter how cold it was in the middle of the night, with rain machines and him half-naked. I think his training as a stage actor and his playing Hamlet recently informed the ferocity with which he had to attack this role. You couldn't do Dom Hemingway at half-measure."
That may sound like an actor blowing smoke, but Grant is famously forthright; in his autobiography, With Nails, he lays bare some truths from a career that ranges from Gosford Park and Portrait of a Lady to Spiceworld: The Movie. "My intention is never to write a slash-fest to alienate people," he says. "I just want to be, within libel laws, as honest as possible about my experience. Nobody has punched me so far."
He also wrote and directed a semi-autobiographical film, 2005's Wah-Wah, about his experiences growing up in the British protectorate of Swaziland in the 1960s. (That's where his gorgeous vowels and charmingly archaic diction come from.) It was a wild time: Grant's father was a high-level government administrator and an epic alcoholic, and his mother embarked on a marriage-destroying affair right in front of him. In a bit of genetic irony, Grant is allergic to alcohol: Drinking makes him violently ill.
"I thought it was psychosomatic," he says, "and then when I was 18 I found out I literally have no enzyme in my bloodstream to process alcohol." He chuckles. "It's a great disappointment for people who are desperate to go drinking or drugging with me. Ah, well, what you don't know you don't miss. I like a bit of weed every now and again, so that at least gets me out of myself."
Grant admits he was nervous about entering the "hermetically sealed" worlds of Downton Abbey (he plays an art historian friend of the Granthams) and Girls, but the lure of each was too great. "I have never lost the excitement or the star-struck desire to work with talented people," he says. "When that goes, you shouldn't be doing it anymore."
Lena Dunham's style reminded him of Robert Altman's, Grant goes on: "She wears her authority so lightly. You have no sense that she's precious about the words or the work; it feels completely collaborative." In an experience he'd never had before, she handed him a sheet of "alts" – alternative lines – and asked him to try different ones on different takes, as well as to improvise his own.
"So even though I had a lot of anxiety going in, because I'm older than their parents, and I had to attempt to mount Jemima Kirk [who plays Jessa] in about five minutes, they said, 'Aw, you're one of the girls,'" Grant says, chuckling again. "What can I tell you – it was a love fest." I can see – and hear – why.