Playing the spirited yin to Melissa McCarthy’s uncharacteristically curmudgeonly yang is no easy task — except when you’re packing inherent charm that lets you get away with murder (or at least a few literary swindles). That’s exactly what British actor (and forthcoming Star Wars: Episode IX cast member) Richard E. Grant does in Can You Ever Forgive Me? (in theaters Friday) as Jack Hock, a boozy, bar-dwelling drifter who helped real-life biographer-turned-scammer Lee Israel (McCarthy) sell forged celebrity documents in 1991 Manhattan. Fondly recalling the flashy, penniless cad with a “’f— you’ sense of self-confidence” who gives Marielle Heller’s brilliant biographical Oscar bid a playfully devilish zest, Grant, 61, explains to EW how he cozied up to the oddest platonic couple of the year and flipped the “gay best friend” trope on its head as a man struggling to find sunlight on the edge of the AIDS crisis.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Lee is the very prickly heart of the film, but I feel like Jack is the soul Lee doesn’t realize she needs at first. And he’s a charming peacock of sorts; I mean he is a very graceful conman at the end of the day who holds Lee’s life together. Was that your interpretation of him and his importance to the story when you first read the script?
RICHARD E. GRANT: The moment she starts laughing about the fact that he’s the guy who peed all over some people’s coats at a party, which he thought might jeopardize his chances of getting a free drink off her… He’s like a Labrador to me… She’s a prickly, unsympathetic, unattractive person [but] Jack just motors in there and doesn’t take no for an answer. He understands loneliness and recognizes that in her, and keeps bulldozing until she begrudgingly accepts him… with terrible consequences.
In a sense, then, this movie is kind of an ode to being an a–hole. There’s an odd beauty in having both leads fall in platonic love because they’re both a–holes.
Somehow in real life, in Lee and Jack’s story, is somehow more [interesting] than fiction. Following these two people who are, on paper, completely unlikable, but what they have in common is the struggle we all have: You want to make friends, you want to make a go of your life, like John Lennon said just before he was murdered: Life is what happens in between your plans. Lee didn’t want to become a con artist and forger, and Jack likewise didn’t want to be a guy on the street doing nothing. They had bigger dreams of what they were going to achieve, but they fell through the cracks. And poverty forces people to do stuff as criminals. I think that’s something that’s unless you’re born with a gazillion dollars… identifying with that struggle and being lonely is pretty universal.
Where did you look within him to find humanity in his darkness, though?
On paper he’s a kleptomaniac, a drug dealer, a petty thief, a cad — all those things written down, you think, how can you possibly find anything likeable or attractive about this person? But as I’ve always found… once you start playing somebody, you empathize with the predicament they’re in when their survivor skills come in. The way Jack survives is he’s able to somehow charm and con people into stuff. There were no photographs of him I could go off, and I didn’t meet people who knew him… but the one thing I found is that he had a short cigarette holder. Somebody swanning around New York in the time period he did with a cigarette holder like that… he must have had some innate sense of f— you self confidence… Somebody who does that is harking back to the idea of a matinee idol from the 1930s… he certainly had a romantic idea of himself and his life. That’s identifiable, somebody who drams big. Like T.S. Eliot said: “Between the idea and the reality… falls the shadow,” and Jack absolutely fits that bill.
Marielle told me you immersed yourself in the role via scent?
I’ve been doing that way before I became an actor, since I was 7 years old. I find it weird that every human being doesn’t do that… Smelling and touching everything is your way into that person’s life, and certainly the brilliant costumes the designer gave me to wear! The clothes were the milieu he lived in, and [gave me] the strong idea of somebody who, whatever money he had, he invested in his clothing and drug-taking rather than an apartment… He didn’t live for having a lavish apartment; he was a people person. He wanted to be on the street and in bars, schmoozing people.
What scents are quintessentially Jack?
The clothes… hamburger joints, diners, bookstores. They have a scent that is so nostalgic… there’s something about the smell of fried food that’s inescapable in a big city, especially to [Jack’s] New York.
It’s also significant that these are two queer characters, and the film finds beauty in the shadows of people cinema didn’t consider worthy of telling their stories for a very long time. Jack is still sort of the “gay best friend,” but in a way that turns that trope on its head.
I’m friends with Rupert Everett and I know in his career he’s talked extensively about being the ‘gay best friend’ in My Best Friend’s Wedding with Julia Roberts, [and how] as long as it’s a glossy, surface vision of that lifestyle that’s presented, people are happy to accept and embrace it. Jack is kind of the underbelly of that… I went to New York in 1991… I remember going to Sandra Bernhard’s apartment in the Meatpacking District, and it was the first time I’d seen men who were dying of AIDS on street corners… I was so profoundly shocked by that and so certainly having seen that firsthand, how people were shunned… it certainly was present in my mind… what [might] lay ahead for Jack.
On that note and the fact that you’re allergic to alcohol, he’s an interesting match for you.
Yes, I’m allergic to it!
That’s quite a pairing of character: You and a boozy guy who’s primary haunt is a bar with a drink in his hand.
[Laughs] Yeah, I know! My father was an alcoholic. I come from a family of them, so it’s genetic luck or malfunction that I’ve ended up with no enzyme that processes it. I literally can’t drink…. The longest I’ve managed to keep anything down is nine minutes, then I’m violently ill for 24 hours. It doesn’t make me want to go break through the barrels. I certainly haven’t; I’ve been drunk once in my life, forced to for a part 30 years ago.
You were forced for a part?
The first movie I ever did in 1986 was called Withnail & I, in which I played an alcoholic drug addict, and the director was very insistent that I get drunk for the final day of rehearsals before we started shooting, so I knew what it felt like. I managed to stay up all night and get through a bottle of champagne, throwing up all the way through. By the time I got to rehearsals the next morning I was absolutely plunkered and passed out half an hour into rehearsals and woke up in my bed 24 hours later. The doctor said, “You could have died from what you’ve done!” But the director was convinced this was required method acting [Laughs].
I guess this means Jack wouldn’t be friends with you?
[Laughs] No! Exactly!
I asked Marielle if it felt like, in character, you guys were mischievous teens and she was the mom. Is that accurate?
I think she was absolutely right. She had to lasso us on various occasions because we could very easily get out of control, that’s absolutely true… I’m delighted to hear that [laughs].
I know Melissa is a huge fan of improv. Did you guys have to resist the urge and stick to script?
The stuff that happens on either side of the dialogue, you have to try stuff in those moments. You can’t mess with the script and dialogue, because it‘s a very tight schedule and wordy, so it would have been wrong to go off on an improvisation. The most important thing I was concerned about was having never met Melissa before. I was as huge admirer of her work, but there’s always a risk… trying to portray falling in love onscreen or a great friendship. You have to have some connection, empathy, or chemistry with the person you’re playing and playing with… she only came into New York on a Friday and we started shooting on Monday in January last year. I begged Mari, “Could we just have a morning together, literally just with you and Melissa going through every scene in the script and reading it out loud.” Because when you dive in on scenes not having any preparation, only what you do on your own, it’s [not good]. I looked at that… movie with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon called The Odd Couple, where they are the yin to each other’s yang, and I thought to get that familiarity and ease, we had to have met other than just on day one, Monday morning [and] we’re best friends… That proved incredibly helpful. Melissa had talked lots, as do I, and asked a lot of questions. It felt after we had that meeting downtown in Greenwich Village somewhere on a Friday, it made starting on Monday that much easier.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? opens Friday.