Though he plays a charming conman in Marielle Heller’s 1991-set Lee Israel biopic Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Swaziland-born British actor Richard E. Grant won his first Oscar nomination Tuesday morning fair and square: By giving one of the most moving performances of the year as Jack Hock, a devilishly charming queer drifter who helps his biographer-turned-forger companion sell fake documents written in the voice of dead celebrities.
Shortly after the Academy announced its annual list of honorees, EW caught up with the 61-year-old — who was still wiping away tears after an emotional phone call with McCarthy — to discuss his “virgin-first” Oscar experience, what McCarthy said to him in honor of his nod, and giving a voice to the gay men who, like Jack, ultimately had their lives cut short by the AIDS crisis. Read on for the full conversation (in which Grant also gives a playful tease for his upcoming Star Wars film) below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations Richard! I can tell you’re tickled. I just read your press statement where you said you’re levitating!?
RICHARD E. GRANT: I’m just absolutely astonished. I just spoke to Melissa and we were both crying, so I feel very emotional right now. It’s so beyond anything I could have ever imagined.
It’s a job so well done. Were you glued to the broadcast this morning or did you skip that suspense?
It’s lunchtime here in London, so I was sitting [with] my daughter at a restaurant…. She had the live feed on her iPhone. She had one earplug in and I had the other; That’s how we got the news!
How did you both immediately react?
We both burst into tears. I think people at the tables around us thought we had some tragic news. We got free lunch and drinks, so I’m grateful.
Oh, Jack would have loved that!
Definitely, absolutely right! I hadn’t thought of that! [Laughs].
Why is this such an emotional nomination for you?
Because we made this movie that took 26 days to shoot. It was all shot on location in Manhattan last winter on a relatively low budget. For a movie that is essentially about two people who are failures in life and very lonely and find a platonic, interdependent relationship, that doesn’t exactly sound like something that will have critics and [audiences] jumping up and down to go see it. And the fact that it has… and it’s been so brilliantly directed by Marielle Heller… it’s like, something that’s small-scale and then suddenly has this magnifying glass and awards accruing around it — it’s beyond anything that any of us could possibly have imagined. There was never a conversation at any point where we said, this is going to be that kind of movie. The fact that’s it’s touched people and moved them is absolutely amazing. We’re gobsmacked.
What did Melissa say to congratulate you?
We were both crying. She just said, “I can’t believe it, what have we done right?” She said she was woken up because it’s very early in the morning. She was fast asleep and thought some terrible news had come because her phone was ringing like crazy. She’s been through this before on Bridesmaids, but for me this is a virgin first for a 61-year-old man!
I think Jack as a character is such an interesting and complex and vital piece of the gay experience that we don’t often see in movies, and he represents so many of the men who were lost and silenced by the AIDS crisis for so long. Does it have added significance or validation to the gay men who lived Jack’s life but aren’t here to tell it that now that this character has been exposed and accepted into the mainstream?
Absolutely, 100 percent. The person who most inspired what I did because there was so little to go on research wise on Jack Hock was an actor who I was friends with and worked with called Ian Charleson who was in Chariots of Fire. He died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 40. The bandana I wore in the film was a request from me to Marielle Heller and the costume designer to say this is what Ian looked like the last time I saw him. That was as much a literal homage to our friendship that I could get into the movie. He had this amazing, loose, scalawag quality as well as a little boy lost. So all of those things were inspired by this man who was of a generation that were wiped out by that plague in the ’80s and ’90s, when it seemed like a cure was impossible to ever achieve.
Have you heard positive responses from the LGBT community about your portrayal?
Overwhelmingly so. The movie was also given the LGBT Movie of the Year award at the Dorian Awards last Saturday, and I was also given Best Supporting Actor. If that body of people is voting for this, that is the greatest approbation the performances could possibly have because it is honoring people and not sentimentalizing them in any way. This is who they are, this is their sexuality, no excuses are made and nothing is varnished up. It’s not issue-driven, either; this is just who they are, and that’s what I love about it.
What do you think Jack would say about this attention you’re getting if he were alive?
He’d think there were a lot of free goodie bags and a lot of free hotel rooms that he would get coming his way, and he’d get really well laid along the line. It’s the ultimate trip that he would’ve enjoyed.
What would he wear to the Oscars?
A big purple cape with a large brooch… and a bottle hidden in each pocket!
Lovely! We’re also seeing such a huge call for more stories about women and directed by women, and it’s great to see you, Melissa, Nicole, and Jeff get nominated for this, but I can’t help but think it feels weird that Marielle hasn’t been more a part of this awards season.
I think it’s obviously hugely disappointing, but she is such a generous person and she’s been so behind everyone’s nomination with incredible generosity. She sent me a video as she heard the news, and it’s a measure of how she directed as well: There’s a kind of self-effacement of what she does; there’s no grandstanding or big directorial flourishes, and I think that’s maybe that’s why she hasn’t been rewarded. But, look, she’s just directed Tom Hanks in the Mister Rogers story, so she’s on her way to the big, big, big time!
What did she say in the video?
She was so thrilled for [us]. She wasn’t singing the blues about her lack of a nomination at all. She was incredibly thrilled that this low-budget, small movie got this level of recognition.
I know you can’t drink to celebrate because you’re intolerant, so how do you plan to celebrate the nomination tonight?
Yes! I’m doing three Q&As after three screenings in London, so I’m on press duties!
So you’re just working the charm even more?
Yes! It’ll certainly make that ride even sweeter.
Do you have any dish on the next Star Wars?
Yes! It comes out on the 19th of December this year, and I play a character called [makes crackling noise] and the plot is [makes crackling noise], so there you have it! The scoop!
Thanks Richard! I wish the connection was better.
Yeah, if you just play this back you’ll decipher it! It’s like that Beatles record: If you play it backward, all will be revealed.
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