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Busy Making Other Plans: Richard E. Grant

Highlights from Issue 26: The U.K. Issue

Illustration by Annalisa Pagetti

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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

By The Editors

Richard E. Grant was born Richard Grant Esterhuysen in Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland, in 1957. After graduating from the University of Cape Town, where he studied drama during the height of apartheid, Grant formed a multiracial theater group. Following his father’s death at the age of 52 in 1981, Grant moved to London to begin his career as an actor. He made his television debut in 1985 appearing in Les Blair’s improvisational satire, Honest, Decent and True. Two years later, Grant moved into film, starring in Bruce Robinson’s cult classic, Withnail & I. Grant’s portrayal of the reprehensible lead character is so unforgettable that 20 years later people across the world still approach him on the street, quoting lines from the film. He has appeared in more than 50 films (including How to Get Ahead in Advertising, Henry & June, L.A. Story, The Player, The Age of Innocence, Portrait of a Lady, Gosford Park and Bright Young Things), dozens of TV programs (most recently reprising his role in “The Scarlet Pimpernel”) and has performed on the stage in The Importance of Being Earnest and, more recently, in the comedy Otherwise Engaged. Last May, he released his first film feature as writer/director, entitled Wah-Wah, an autobiographical story set in Grant’s native Swaziland. It will be released in select cities throughout the United States this summer.

Grant spoke to STOP SMILING from his home in London, where he lives with his wife, Joan Washington, a dialect coach, and their daughter, Olivia.

Stop Smiling: You used to wear one watch on each arm. One told you the time in Swaziland, where you grew up, the other the time in England. Do you still consider yourself an immigrant?

Richard E. Grant: My late father gave me his watch on his deathbed. I have worn it and kept it set to Swaziland time ever since. Practical and sentimental — I don’t call people in the middle of the night by accident. I do keep English time on my other watch. I have now spent half my life in England after the first half in Africa. Still, I feel like I have a schizoid immigrant identity, as I am a dual British and Swaziland citizen.

SS: Last year you released your first film as a writer-director, Wah-Wah, based almost solely on your family’s life in Swaziland. How many years did it take to get made, and was it a cathartic experience for you?

REG: It was totally cathartic to write and an epic to get made. I pitched the script to a producer in October 1999, and it had its world premiere at the Edinburgh Festival in August 2005. Every financial meltdown and restart threatened to prevent it ever getting made: I was a first time writer-director, it was filmed in Swaziland (where no film had ever been made before, so there was no infrastructure) and it’s an autobiographical story set at the tail end of the ’60s during the last gasp of the British Empire. No car chases, explosions or ultraviolence. So to me, it’s nothing short of a small miracle that we actually got it made, and that we had such a great cast. To work with Gabriel Byrne, Emily Watson, Julie Walters, Nicholas Hoult and Miranda Richardson was a 40-carat bling-bling privilege.

SS: What is the meaning of the film’s title?

REG: Emily Watson plays my American stepmother, who observes that colonial Brits spoke in a ridiculous, snobbish code of blah blah, wah-wah, la-di-dah bollocks. So the title is a two’s up to all things snobbish and self-important.

SS: You’ve stated that you wanted to become an actor at a very young age. What is your earliest memory that you wanted to perform? And what does it have to do with Barbra Streisand?

REG: I made shoebox theaters, glove puppets, progressed to marionettes, did amateur plays, made up radio plays with friends on a tape recorder, went to drama school and stuck to my dream. I remember seeing Donald Sutherland in Kelly’s Heroes when I was a teenager. Ditto Barbra Streisand. Both had long faces and unconventional looks and succeeded against the odds, which inspired me to dream that it was possible — even if you grew up in the middle of nowhere — to have a crack at the big dream.

SS: Had you not become an actor, what do you think you might be doing now?

REG: Writing, writing, writing.

SS: Your father was the minister of education in Swaziland. How did he influence you as a young man?

REG: He died at the age of 52, and instilled in me the belief that education is the best weapon we have to fight prejudice, racism, ignorance, fear and civil unrest.

SS: Apparently you have terrible stage fright when performing on a live stage.

REG: It’s unlike filming, where you have the chance to reshoot something or do more than one take. The theater is an unstoppable train ride once it starts. Though I have just completed a 160-performance run of a play in London, so I have pretty much conquered that fear, finally.

SS: Why can’t actors stand to watch their own work?

REG: To me, it’s like asking someone to listen to themselves on a tape recorder or watch yourself having sex on a video. It’s the act of doing it that is the pleasure, not the listening or watching. It’s actually very common amongst most actors.

SS: Your book With Nails, which came out almost a decade ago, was your first foray into publishing your film diary entries. How do you know what to publish and what to edit out?

REG: I published With Nails, which charted being cast in my first film to ending up working in L.A. with Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.

The Wah-Wah diaries are due for publication this spring, and they detail the five-year process of writing and directing a film for the first time. It’s the day-to-day, month-by-month, year-in and year-out highs, lows and treetop negotiations and financial yo-yoing required to get a film made.

The beauty of a diary is that it isn’t an old fart’s golden-eyed revisionist reminiscence, but the messy, chaotic day-to-day way in which, as the late, great John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.”


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