Richard E Grant: ‘Playing a drag queen gave me sleepless nights’

Richard E. Grant - Andrew Woffinden
Richard E. Grant - Andrew Woffinden

This interview was conducted before the sad news about the death of Richard E Grant’s wife, Joan Washington, who died on 2 September

‘Once I put the boobs on,’ Richard E Grant says, regarding me with those pale, intense eyes, ‘and the false hips, and the wig and the make-up, someone came out of me I didn’t expect…’ He pauses. ‘A kind of sass and self-confidence… I found that very enjoyable. It’s armour.’

We are in a hotel lounge in Richmond, west London, a five-minute stroll from the home Grant shares with Joan Washington, his wife of 35 years. He’s in a salmon-pink shirt, navy collarless jacket, blue jeans, Adidas trainers, a black face mask that he wears only over his nose, making him look a little bit like Gromit, and – as he always has – two wristwatches, one set for GMT, the other for his native Eswatini (formerly Swaziland).

The cross-dressing, I should say, was for a part. A couple of years ago, Grant was in his early 60s – he’s now 64 – and looking for a way to scare himself. He had just had the greatest, giddiest 12 months of his life after receiving his first Oscar (and Bafta, and Golden Globe) nomination, for the biographical caper Can You Ever Forgive Me?.

‘Extraordinary, unrepeatable, a once-in-a-lifetime ride, I loved it,’ he says, with the breathless joy that made him the belle of the 2019 awards season.

He had also starred as a villain in the finale of the biggest sci-fi franchise of all time, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and had lived a life far richer than he ever hoped for. There was the cult classic, Withnail and I, that not only launched his career 34 years ago but became many people’s favourite film. (Even Boris Johnson chose to watch it while recovering from Covid last year.)

He had been directed by everyone from Martin Scorsese to Robert Altman. He’d done Shakespeare and superheroes, arthouse and blockbuster, and acted opposite those two modern greats, Daniel Day-Lewis and Geri Halliwell.

He’d played John the Baptist, Michael Heseltine, Franz Kafka and a cartoon parrot. He’d survived a childhood riven with trauma, lost loved ones, become a father, had a breakdown, and commissioned a two-foot sculpture of Barbra Streisand’s face for his back garden. He’d done the lot. So, he thought, ‘what haven’t I done that’s going to be really frightening?’

And then he found the answer: play a 6ft 8in drag queen from Sheffield who sings and dances. Yeah, that did it.

richard e grant - Splash News
richard e grant - Splash News

The drag queen in question is Loco Chanelle, and the film is Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, a biographical musical based on the hit West End show of the same name. Grant concedes, ‘It’s not climbing the Himalayas or going down a coal mine, so I know it’s actor-speak when I say it’s terrifying… but it did give me sleepless nights.’

Long and spare, Grant runs four miles every morning, and while he hates chocolate and is allergic to alcohol, he finds a vice in eating at least one Christmas pudding a month. Reclining in his armchair, he has the genial air of a particularly attentive maître d’, and asks more questions than I do. He appears entirely at ease – precisely the opposite of how he felt when he was asked to play Loco Chanelle.

Inspired by the true story of Jamie Campbell, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is about a 16-year-old growing up on a Sheffield council estate who dreams of becoming a drag queen. Supported by his mother (Sarah Lancashire) but dismissed by his teacher (Sharon Horgan), his peers and his estranged father (Ralph Ineson), he decides to go to his high school prom in drag, and potters into a local costume shop, Victor’s Secret, run by Grant’s Hugo Battersby, who used to perform as the legendary Loco Chanelle. Jamie gets a mentor; Loco a protégé.

It’s a feel-good, northern-set, what-you-acting-like-a-sissy-for flick in the tradition of Billy Elliot. Grant was offered the part by the film’s director, Jonathan Butterell, and instantly did all he could to wriggle out of it.

‘Essentially it’s the reverse of what I normally do,’ he says, nodding. First among his suggestions was that Butterell, who directed the original stage show, give the job to someone who played Loco in the West End. ‘No, we want you,’ came the response. (Grant has still never seen the musical, just in case it makes him feel inadequate.)

Next came the very real concern that he’d get in trouble for not actually being a drag queen. He had faced questions about appropriating before, when promoting Can You Ever Forgive Me?, given both he and Melissa McCarthy are heterosexual but played gay characters, in the literary forger Lee Israel and her drinking buddy, Jack Hock. In fact, ‘straightwashing’ became the talk of that year’s Oscars.

‘It was the conversation, and seeing Russell T Davies be so prescriptive [in Channel 4’s It’s a Sin], only employing gay actors for gay roles… I told Jonathan Butterell he would have to defend this, on some level.’

He asked Butterell if he’d offered it to a drag artist yet. Butterell said no, insisting that plenty of the production crew were gay and nobody minded. ‘I thought, well if they collectively have taken this decision, who am I to say no?’

But he still felt nervous. Whenever he chooses a part these days that’s essentially not a straight, white, 64-year-old man, at the front of his mind is whether it’ll cause a fuss.

‘How can it not be? Somebody said to me yesterday, “Could you have an able-bodied actor do My Left Foot [in which Daniel Day-Lewis played a man with cerebral palsy] now?” And you couldn’t. People’s sensitivities are high, and I understand it,’ he says.

‘If I was a disabled actor and a good role came along and an able-bodied actor was playing it, I’d completely understand why people were taking umbrage. And social media has meant that people are kangaroo-courted. Overnight, people’s reputations or lives are made and broken. It’s something that has never existed before.’

But he was out of excuses. He would go to the ball, but not before a ton of research, months of practice, and a hell of a glow-up.

‘I felt like one of those Formula 1 cars that comes into the pit stop and in 60 seconds they change the tyres, the oil, there’s a complete makeover. Only mine happened over about two and a half months…’

A crack squad was assembled. His wife is a voice coach, so she helped with the Sheffield accent. Another coach worked on his singing. A former backing dancer for Kylie Minogue ‘gave me endless sessions on how to walk in heels, and appropriate the kind of sass drag artists have’.

Gowns were made, corsets commissioned, wigs woven, a 36DD bra scaffolded, and vertiginous Jimmy Choos cobbled, all of which made him 6ft 8in. He practised walking in heels at home, to ‘the endless amusement’ of Washington and their 32-year-old daughter Olivia, and Grant shadowed his drag mentor, the veteran performance artist David Hoyle.

He also ‘binge-watched 11 series of RuPaul’s Drag Race over three weeks’. He found the queens hilarious, their ‘bravery and chutzpah really inspiring’, and the lingo infectious.

Throwing shade? ‘Throwing shade,’ he repeats, miming tossing something aside.

Sashay away? ‘Oh God, yeah.’

He knew he could do the failed, washed-up side of Loco, ‘That wouldn’t be the challenge, it would be playing the drag queen who had been successful – it was the most fearful I’ve been of any part I’ve taken on.’

But after 10 intense weeks, it all came together. The armour, as he says, gave him a new-found joie de vivre. Predictably, he makes an outstanding queen.

richard e grant - Andrew Woffinden
richard e grant - Andrew Woffinden

Born Richard Grant Esterhuysen, Grant was raised in Swaziland (now Eswatini), the son of Henrik, Swazi minister for education, and Leonne, a ballet teacher. It was a loving household, but not exactly harmonious: at 10, Grant witnessed his mother commit adultery with his father’s best friend from the back seat of the family car – they thought he was asleep.

His parents divorced shortly afterwards. Leonne moved away. Grant and his younger brother, Stuart, moved in with Henrik and his new wife. Grant ‘had a really good, strong relationship’ with his father by day, but he was an abusive alcoholic by night. ‘The Damocles of addiction really dominated my adolescence,’ he says.

I have read that Henrik once tried to shoot him in the head. ‘He did. But he missed, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. Then he tried to kill himself and missed that, too. But I did provoke him – I emptied 12 bottles of Johnnie Walker down the sink. I didn’t realise he was down the hall, banging a door down trying to get to where my stepmother was hiding. Then I had a revolver to my head.’

It’s a remarkable start in life. ‘Mmm. And it’s difficult to understand now, when people are Oprah Winfrey-ing in all directions, telling every addiction or family crisis they’ve ever had. In the late ’60s, in Swaziland, that was verboten. The social stigma of divorce and alcoholism was literally in a different time and century.’

You’d think this was a poor environment to grow up a repressed thespian, but while Henrik did say, ‘You really want to spend your entire adult life in tights and make-up?’ he also encouraged Grant’s love of play, including the full-scale puppet theatre he built in his garage.

Other kids teased him about that. He was reminded of it when he researched drag queens. ‘I understand that thing of having to defend yourself and not give a damn,’ he says. ‘People would say, “Oh you’re playing with dolls!” I’d say, “No, they’re puppets.” And once you don’t give a f—k about that, that sets you on the right path.’

I ask how in touch with his feminine side he feels. Some are surprised he’s not gay – not least Google. When I typed in ‘Is Richard E Grant’, auto-complete suggestions included ‘Is Richard E Grant related to Hugh Grant?’ (no), ‘Is Richard E Grant still alive?’ (a rumour circulated that he died in 1993), or ‘Is Richard E Grant straight?’

He doesn’t bat an eyelid, and instead sets off on a story about being at a party with Susan Sarandon in 1990, at which she told him a pop-psychology theory about how everybody is either fully masculine, fully feminine or a mix of both. A successful relationship contains a balance.

‘She said if you take Prince Charles as an example of a feminine-masculine man, Diana is feminine-feminine, but Camilla is masculine-feminine. She asked if I knew what I was, and I said absolutely, I’m feminine-masculine. She said, “And your wife?” I said masculine-feminine.’

He has used this system to evaluate everybody – directors, co-stars, politicians – since. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are masculine-masculine, he says, but Barack Obama and Bill Clinton feminine-masculine.

‘When I worked with Madonna [on 2008’s Filth and Wisdom], I said “Well, Madge, you’re triple masculine. And Guy Ritchie is probably double masculine. So the chances are that you’ll be two stags locking horns.” She said they were. Six months later, they were divorced.’

After an English and drama degree in Cape Town, Grant moved to Britain to become an actor in 1982. He met Washington in his first year, when he sought her out to add a Belfast accent to his repertoire. She was seven years his senior, had been married and had a son, but he was smitten. They’ve been together ever since.

Their secret? ‘Essentially, we began a conversation in January 1983, have never stopped talking, and have never stopped sleeping together in the same bed. So it seems as simple and as complex as that.’

His first film, of course, was Withnail and I, Bruce Robinson’s black comedy about two unemployed actors who take a disastrous holiday in the Lake District. Daniel Day-Lewis turned down the part (Grant has since ‘prostrated myself’ before him in thanks), and it wasn’t a hit at the time, but has become the film he’s most asked about.

‘It was such a slow burn, over decades, but it’s sort of a niche brand still, like a cult,’ he says. ‘People are fanatical about it, but in very small numbers.’

Olivia was born in 1989, after Grant and Washington had ‘many miscarriages’. Their first daughter, Tiffany, was born in 1986 at 27 weeks, and only lived for only half an hour.

‘Joan was so determined, she said, “I just know you are born to be a dad.” I thought what will be will be, but I’m very grateful now, because the love you have for a child is beyond anything you could ever imagine.’

Grant made peace with both his parents, but his father died of lung cancer aged 52; his mother followed a few years ago. Olivia also lives in Richmond, and works as a casting director. What kind of parent is he?

‘Well, sober and non-addictive for a start. And that just means that instead of having half a life with your child, I have a complete life. I see Olivia every day, we speak twice a day.’

The trauma of his own childhood caught up with him in middle age. After a thriving and impressively varied 1990s – including The Player, The Age of Innocence and Spice World, plus Gosford Park in 2001 – he adapted his own childhood journal for his directorial debut, Wah-Wah, in 2005, starring Gabriel Byrne and Emily Watson as his parents, and a young Nicholas Hoult as himself. It brought it all back, knocking him into severe depression.

‘I wasn’t able to function. My life was saved by 18 months of psychoanalysis, by a wonderful man called Christopher Bollas. I owe him my mental salvation entirely.’

We must all thank Bollas, then, since Grant’s later years – from guest spots in Downton Abbey and Girls to Star Wars, and his Oscar nomination – have seen him become one of the most enjoyable actors around.

‘I’ve done the reverse of most actors’ trajectories, in that I began playing the lead, in my first film, and then remained playing supporting parts. Which has enabled me to do a whole lot of different things. Very often leading actors can end up only playing one kind of part,’ he says. ‘Exceptions spring up, like Ralph Fiennes, but that is because of his talent, which I don’t have.’

What he does have is quite the handle on social media for a man of 64. To the delight of his 400,000-plus followers, few enjoy a backstage selfie more than Grant. An Instagram video he recently posted in a make-up trailer with Owen Wilson, whom he appears with in the Disney+ series Loki, went mildly viral.

‘I think it’s got over 500,000 views in a few days. That’s when you can identify that something has had an effect in a way that, prior to social media, you had no idea,’ he says. Olivia suggested he post it.

We should cover ‘the Babs head’ – the two-foot stone sculpture he commissioned last year in tribute to Barbra Streisand, whom he has adored ever since he wrote her a fan letter when he was 14, asking her if she could move to Swaziland and live with him.

When he spoke to her ‘for 22 minutes’ at an Oscars party, he was so excited that she thought he was on drugs. When he told her about the sculpture of her face, she still thought he was on drugs.

Was it expensive? ‘It was, but I didn’t care,’ he says, as if I am the insane one for questioning it. ‘It was worth every penny, because I get to see it every day!’

Grant is one of life’s enthusiasts – ‘by nature a glass-three-quarters-full person’. He recently presented a BBC4 series, Write Around the World, in which he was enthusiastic about writers while visiting the locations that inspired them. He ‘avoids the toxic’, so works only with people he likes, and has just finished a Netflix adaptation of Persuasion with Dakota Johnson, ‘the most kind, generous person to work with’.

After that he’s not sure what he’s doing, but something will come up. He thought he was too old for Hamlet, then saw Sir Ian McKellen is doing it at 84, so anything’s possible. Every year he’s lived beyond the age the age his father died, ‘has felt like a bonus’, meaning he’s happy to ‘just spin the wheel and see what comes along’.

So he looks squarely to the future, and will keep on frightening himself. Who knows? Maybe the boobs will get another go. Watch out, world – Richard E Grant’s found his sass.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie launches on Prime Video on Friday