Richard E. Grant on ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ and His Very Clever Way of Dodging ‘Star Wars’ Spoilers
I can tell you the plot of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but it’s nowhere near as great as Richard E. Grant’s synopsis. So I’ll let the English actor and soon-to-be Star Wars star describe his new film for you: “It’s a kind of buddy road movie that goes from bar to bookshop to bar to courtroom, back to Julius’ bar.”
If you can’t tell, there’s lots of drinking in the new film from director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) and screenwriter Nicole Holofcener, which leads to some great bar banter between Grant and Melissa McCarthy. The two play a pair of broke, lonely queer New Yorkers who meet in an iconic gay bar, forge an unlikely friendship and scam local bookshops out of thousands of dollars. The crazy part is, it’s actually a true story.
Grant plays the charming Jack Hock, and in a rare dramatic role McCarthy portrays Lee Israel, a writer who became known for pretending to be other writers and celebrities. In the early 1990s, Israel forged and successfully sold hundreds of letters she claimed were written by the likes of Noël Coward, Dorothy Parker, and Eugene O’Neill, among others. Then she got caught by the FBI.
I sat down with Grant (now a Gotham Awards nominee) last week to talk about Can You Ever Forgive Me? He told me how his performance is an homage to his late friend and actor Ian Charleson, who, like Hock, died of AIDS in the ’90s, and wanting to hang with McCarthy on his days off. Grant also told me who he’s playing in Star Wars: Episode IX and the entire plot. OK, not exactly, but he does have the best and funniest way of dodging spoilery questions of any actor I’ve interviewed.
How much did you know about Lee Israel and her story before you got involved?
Nothing. I had read her biography of Tallulah Bankhead, the 1940s actress. I knew her name as a writer, but I didn’t know about this literary scam and her extraordinary literary ventriloquist act of impersonating all these great writers so successfully that people believed that they were the real McCoy. I thought, you couldn’t make it up.
I think what’s so good about it, what I was struck by, is you understand how – by her discovering this actual letter by Fanny Brice, she then tries to sell it and the book seller says, “Well if it had a bit more content” and that triggers her idea, maybe she could scam this. But it’s no great mastermind and nobody got killed. You know, all the writers’ reputations remain intact. Book sellers got fleeced for some money, but at the same time, it’s such a grand act of larceny that I think, at some level, in the world of fake news and Kavanaugh and everything else that’s going on, it doesn’t seem like such a bad crime after all.
In reading about her life beforehand, I just got an impression of a woman known for her crimes. But watching the film, I really understood what drove her to such desperate lengths. I found it so moving and compassionate.
And that she has this unlikely friendship with this scoundrel who’s grifting off the streets. For their friendship, he cleans up all her cat s— when the exterminator won’t even come through the door to the apartment. They look out for each other in a way that – it reminded me of Ratso and Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy. You’ve got two people from opposite ends of the social scale that couldn’t, wouldn’t theoretically, have anything in common, but they’re in a city so isolated, despite millions of people around them, by loneliness and a desperate need to make a buck. I love that about it. It’s very human.
You’d never expect these two to come together, but in a bar, where they’re both at rock bottom –
Yeah, she’s a lesbian in a gay bar where there are no other women. But somehow she finds refuge there. [She’s] not going to be harassed.
I love the scenes between you two in Julius’. I could watch you two toss witty insults back and forth for ages. What was it like to build that rapport with Melissa?
Oh as you can imagine, she’s a nightmare to work with. Very difficult, un-collaborative, never knew her lines, was late for work, hated me. [Laughs] No.
We met on a Friday before we started shooting because she has so many projects. Just in reading the scenes together, it was so clear – because I’d seen all the comedies she’s done where she’s gone from incredibly subtle to as broad as you could possibly get, physically as well. Complete abandonment in these parts. I thought, “Well, you could either get an enormous performance or one that was very pared down, insular, and tortoise-like contained.” And she was doing that, which then guided me about how far or not to go for somebody who is literally trying to get her head to pop out of a shell.
That was incredible helpful, and we got on just – that something chemical that happens with people. You hope that you’ll get on with somebody you’re playing with, but you have no advance idea whether you will or not. So we did and on the days I wasn’t working, which was quite a lot, we always had lunch together on set. That’s never happened to me on a movie before, where I’ve wanted to do that. Normally the days off you go, “Jesus, can’t wait to get away.” Grab whatever time you’ve got, especially in New York, to go do other stuff. We had a great time together.
It seems like there’s not much known about Jack beyond Lee’s memoir. Did you learn much about his life?
Very little. I know that he was from Portland, he was blonde, he was tall. He died of AIDS at the age of 47 in 1994. He had a short cigarette holder, which I asked if I could use. He was a chainsmoker who thought he could prevent getting cancer from that. There are no photographs of him at all. He was very promiscuous. He was really good at selling stuff, because once she’d been flushed out by the FBI, in order to sell these letters, she thought at most she’d get five, six hundred bucks for a letter. He’d come back with two grand. So I knew from that that he must have been really charming and convincing. I think – because he says in the story all his friends are dead, obviously from AIDS. Being a 47-year-old man in the early ’90s, I surmised from that – because there were no photographs and no living people that knew about him – that he was in all likelihood disowned by his family.
That’s as much as I knew about him, and because his friends had died of AIDS pre-social media, the people that may have had Polaroids or Kodak pictures, they had disappeared. Which is essentially what has happened to a whole generation of men that weren’t in the media or weren’t successful, like Keith Haring or Robert Mapplethorpe, whose lives were properly documented.
He’s at least being somewhat remembered through Lee’s story, and now your performance.
Yeah. I loved playing him. I was friends with an actor called Ian Charleson who was in a movie called Chariots of Fire. He played the runner who wouldn’t run on Sunday in the 1924 Olympics. He died of AIDS in 1990. And on the one side he was this incredibly promiscuous, decadent, louche-living man, and on the other he was incredibly witty, engaged, warm, and had a little boy lost quality to him. The last time I saw him he was wearing a bandana because he’d lost all his hair.
So [for Jack] I put baby powder on my face and sort of penciled in my cheeks and sent a picture to Marielle and the makeup people the night before we shot the scene at Julius’ bar. I said, “This is what Ian looked like, essentially. Can I go this extreme to do this tomorrow?” And they said, “We haven’t really thought of doing it quite like that.” But then they Googled images of men in that period and many had exactly what I was wearing, and they said, “Oh, yeah.” So I was grateful they allowed me to do that. It felt like, somehow it was a personal homage to my friendship with Ian that’s in this movie.
That’s really wonderful. I know we don’t have much time, but I’ve gotta say, I’m so excited to see you in a Star Wars movie.
Are you still filming now?
Yeah, I’ve still got some more.
Do you get to play a villain?
I’ll tell you the part that I’m playing: [Starts mouthing and dramatically miming]
And the plot is [More mouthing and waving his hands around like starships]
And so it’ll come out apparently on the 19th of December, 2019. So now you know everything, you don’t even need to see it. I’ve told you.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? hits theaters on October 19.
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