‘I’m kinder and more compassionate’: actor Greg Wise on men and grief

<span>‘Being with my sister made me the shape I am now’: Greg Wise on life after being a carer for Clare.</span><span>Photograph: Roo Lewis/The Observer</span>
‘Being with my sister made me the shape I am now’: Greg Wise on life after being a carer for Clare.Photograph: Roo Lewis/The Observer

Stepping inside Greg Wise’s home on a wet and windy day, he bursts into host mode. A cappuccino is made, pastries are served and – on noticing I’m a bit rain-lashed – a crackling fire is built. It’s incredibly homely, this place he shares with his wife, Emma Thompson. The kitchen is a riot of dangling pans, the living area is populated with fabric animals, and there’s a huge, inviting sofa to sink into – although Wise prefers not to use it (“I’ll take the floor,” he says, somewhat quirkily. “We really don’t need furniture in this house.”). Things couldn’t be more cosy, which perhaps makes it all the stranger that we’re about to embark on an hour-long chat about death.

Wise is best known as an actor. He met Thompson on the set of 1995’s Sense and Sensibility and has notched up more than 30 years in film and TV. But these days he has carved out a niche for himself as someone who wants to change the way we think, and talk, about the end of our lives. “Not having a proper relationship with one’s grief is one of the great ills of the world,” is how he puts it.

It comes from plentiful personal experience. His close friend Simon drowned when Wise was in his 20s, and he spent time with both of his parents in their final months. But the big one was that of his sister Clare, who died in 2016 aged 51 from breast cancer that developed into bone cancer. Greg was exceptionally close to his elder sibling – he lived nearby and would look after her odd jobs. For the final few months of her life when she refused to see anybody else, he became her sole carer, and moved into the flat so he could bathe her, reposition her and dose her up with strong opiates for the extreme pain she was suffering. Throughout her illness Clare kept a frank and funny blog, and when she became too sick to maintain it, Wise took over, offering his meditative thoughts on nature, life, the universe. The posts – unvarnished and unedited – became the book Not That Kind Of Love, and since then he has thought a lot about how we deal with death and how we might do better at it.

Wise describes how Clare had wanted all the treatment thrown at her – chemo, radiotherapy. But many oncologists have since told Wise that we should be better at knowing when to say stop. “A lot of doctors don’t have the treatment, they’re just not able to find the ability to have that conversation. If you’re an oncologist, a good percentage of people coming through your door will die on your watch – and yet no one’s able, or no one is trained, to talk about it.” It’s not just a problem for us repressed Brits. He points out that his wife won acclaim for her portrayal of a woman dying from ovarian cancer in 2001’s Wit – and how a few years ago an award came through the post from an American medical organisation saying that they were using it to train doctors how not to talk to their patients. As that film progresses we see Thompson’s character bombarded with unfathomable medical jargon at her diagnosis, and later left unaware of crucial information on her disease that might inform her decision-making.

Wise says there’s a certain logic in doctors finding conversations around death difficult. They’re trained to save lives, so it follows that death happens because they’ve somehow failed. “But that’s so childish, adolescent and stupid,” Wise says. “We have to be better at talking about this stuff.”

Wise talks with an infectious passion, his voice rising to crescendos and then dropping to a whisper, almost as if he’s playing a lead role on stage – albeit a rather sweary part liberally peppered with F words. I note how we dispensed with traditional ice-breakers and launched straight into the deep stuff today, to which he laughs and says: “We don’t need foreplay, Tim!” Death has become his specialist subject. Does he feel that, more than the acting, this line of work is what he’s about these days?

“Yeah,” he nods, revealing tentative plans for a book on grief. He’s read an awful lot of books on the subject, many of them excellent, but doesn’t feel that there are many written by men, for men. “This idea that men don’t grieve is rubbish. The problem is that guys are still brought up with the cultural tropes of, ‘Man up, don’t cry, stay strong.’ But without witnessing and accepting our own pain, we can’t have empathy – proper empathy. I don’t think we can see someone else’s suffering until we can see our own.”

When Simon died, Wise was still young enough to feel “immortal”. He says it took him four or five months to get over the shock. He made a decision – “at the grand old age of 26” – to retire from acting and decamped to the Australian outback, as far away from his former life as it was possible to get. It was there, on a desolate road after four hours of driving, that the grief suddenly walloped him and he broke down in tears.

He didn’t retire at 26, of course, but Wise has always seemed to have an ambivalent relationship with his chosen career. In the mid-90s, immediately after Sense And Sensibility saw his star peak, he “committed hara-kiri” in front of the head of Sony by saying that he never wanted to work in America.

“I’d just met Em, bought a house, and I wanted to do it up,” he says, as if this is a perfectly normal career move for an aspiring thespian. “So I spent the year after Sense and Sensibility working as a builder, which I loved.”

It’s quite refreshing, I say, for an actor to have this perspective on life. “Oh, I’m not really an actor,” he says.

“I’m going to get slapped by the wife for saying that.” He laughs, before leaning theatrically into my Dictaphone: “I’m still available for work.” The problem, he says, is that as much as he loves acting, he also loves “sawing down fucking trees and planting things and doing all of that… Life’s quite short, so I try to explore as many different things as possible.”

After what you’ve gone through, perhaps acting just doesn’t feel like the most important thing in the world, I suggest.

“It’s never been the most important. I’m so fucking lucky to have been able to make a living for 30-odd years. I think I’m all right. I’m not God’s fucking gift.” Thompson’s approach is more focused. “Em comes and goes. She’s been doing an awful lot of writing and she’s making a thriller in Finland at the moment. She earns a lot more than me, so God bless her. Let her work!”

Teamwork is key. When a big project comes in that one of them really fancies, he says they “sit down and work it out… It’s always been like that.”

This flexibility has been a godsend for Wise. “Being able to drop everything to go and be with my sister for that amount of time has absolutely made me the shape I am now. And I know, absolutely, that it has made me kinder and more compassionate and more loving and more grateful. We all have the idea that we’d run into the burning building to save the child, and we never know if we’re going to do it until we pass that burning building. In a way, I know I can do that, and you only know by doing it.”

Attending to Clare through the night – changing the bag on her catheter, answering her 3am calls – “nearly killed” him, he says. It was the charity Marie Curie that saved him. Wise lives near the local hospice, and admits he used to walk past it and think, “That’s a bit morbid for the high street, isn’t it? But they saved my life! They supported me, and the doctors would ask how I was doing, reminding me there was always a bed for Clare. It made me realise that having a hospice situated within a community is essential.”

It made me realise that having a hospice situated within a community is essential

Wise has since been working with Marie Curie on projects such as getting bereavement added to the national curriculum, “because kids are really open to talking about death. It’s only us who go, ‘Morbid! No, stop!’ Which is why you end up with the really fucked-up thing of children being taught CPR at school, but they’re not told that only 11% of them will survive afterwards. Kids will think it’s their fault, all because nobody told them.”

Wise is also keen on the need for more guides to navigating the end of life, from finances and farewells to how someone’s final minutes might look (Marie Curie’s Rough Guide to the End of Life was published last year)

. Far from the morbid building he’d envisaged, Wise says he’s never heard as much laughter as he does when he visits, “because everyone there couldn’t be more present”.

Before he became quite so acquainted with death, Wise used to have an idea of how he’d like to go himself: he’d take himself off into the hills with a bottle of whisky and go down what he calls “the hypothermic route”. But his experience with Clare changed all that. Yes, it was tough, but it was also one of the great privileges of his life. “And I would want to offer that to those who love me,” he says.

Wise has picked a willing partner today – I’d prefer a chat like this over hearing someone plug their new film any day of the week – but there’s undeniably something a touch surreal about the zeal with which Wise speaks about death. He admits he is always pestering his mates to talk about it down the pub. “I tell them, put together your death box: where’s the spare set of keys for that thing? What’s your password for this? Who’s your pension with? Because it’s a world of pain for those you love who are left behind to try and pick the bones out of the shit that most people leave.”

I haven’t run into that particular burning building yet

Is he less scared about death, the more he learns?

“I don’t know,” he admits. “I can talk beautifully about it, but fuck knows – I might be shitting myself and screaming. I haven’t run into that particular burning building yet.”

The weird thing about Wise being so likable is that he made his reputation playing characters who were, basically, wankers. “Thank you very much,” he says. “But yeah, I’ve always played fucking psychos and paedophiles and murderers and all sorts of things.

Has he ever thought about playing a role informed by his experience of grief?

“I think the written word is best for me,” he says. “And I’d like to make a documentary. Drama is really hard. And I’m not sure fiction is the best medium.” He whispers again: “It might be dance! Who knows?”

Actually, Wise has already embraced dance as a means of telling Clare’s story. In 2021, on the fifth anniversary of Clare’s death, he signed up for Strictly, with the full knowledge that his sister would have loved him doing it. “To be able to talk about such a difficult, emotional subject and then do a fucking disco dance… bliss!” he says. “Although I think Clare might have wanted to biff that judge in the face.” (Wise exited in the fourth round, after some less than encouraging scores from Craig Revel Horwood.)

There’s always been something a little free-wheeling, maybe gently unconventional about the life Wise and Thompson have made for themselves. In the early 2000s, Thompson befriended Tindyebwa Agaba, a former child soldier from Rwanda who had escaped to Britain but fallen into homelessness. After inviting him around for meals, then holidays, he became a permanent family member, adopted by Wise and Thompson the same year they got married. “It was all very organic,” Wise says.

The couple also have a daughter, 24-year-old Gaia, who recently moved out of the family home – albeit only down the road, into the flat in which Clare once lived. “She’s sleeping in the same room Clare died in,” says Wise. “Did a bit of woodwork, moved the bed around, put in a new kitchen. So [Clare’s] still front and centre in our lives, and we still have a strong relationship with her.”

It never goes away, the grief, says Wise. Last week he was sitting in a meeting about his idea for a book on grief with his publishers when suddenly he was unable to talk. “I thought, well that’s fucking interesting. But I’m the shape I am as a result of the life I’ve had and the losses and the breaks, and the big really fucking jagged hole ripped out of me that was Clare’s death will always be there. But it has been softened. I don’t cut myself when I touch it any more – but then sometimes I do and it’s quite surprising, right? We are the sum of our experiences. We are the sum of our loves and our losses and our successes and our failures so let’s fucking celebrate that.”

We are the sum of our loves and our losses and our successes and our failures

It turns out an hour is barely enough time to get Wise started on his favourite topic – we could probably speak all afternoon, but he has places to be so he reluctantly gets up off the floor to see me off. A few days later, I get a message from Marie Curie saying that Greg wanted to pass something on to me. The email attachment contains instructions for me to make my own Death Box – a container stuffed with information that might help a partner or sibling navigate through things should the worst happen: a copy of my will; the location of my passport; my NHS number; passwords; how to fix odd niggles in the house that nobody else knows about.

It’s a brilliant and bonkers thing to receive from a well-known actor, but after meeting him it’s clear that Wise is so passionate about death because he’s so passionate about life. And I think back to what he said, that if we are able to lean into the bad things, and garner the love around us, we can morph them into something completely other. “Because this isn’t a fucking dress rehearsal… this is it!”

To donate and support Marie Curie’s Great Daffodil Appeal this March, visit mariecurie.org.uk/daffodil