One evening, in Cape Town, I stepped into the living room of a friend of mine, a very talented film director. It was, I think, a summer’s evening and the other guests had already arrived.
One of them was a tall thin young man of about 25 or so. He had startling blue eyes, I remember, and the air of someone who is shy, or very private and was, for an actor at least, quietly spoken. I had never met him before, but I had seen him on stage, giving breathtaking performances, many of them at the Space Theatre where, on a shoestring budget, the plays of internationally renowned playwright, Athol Fugard also made their debut. A few months later Richard E. Grant left for London.
I suppose I’d forgotten about him until a few years later when, walking past a movie poster, I saw Richard E. Grant staring back at me. His penetrating gaze was unmistakable. The poster was for the film that ‘made his name’ and reminded the world that the British Film Industry was not dead, not by a long shot. The film was Withnail and I. Almost overnight, Richard E. Grant had become famous.
I read, later on, that he was a teetotaller, and that the director made him drink a bottle of champagne and half a bottle of vodka during the course of a night. This was so that his ‘drunk’ scenes could be authentic. Withnail was of course perpetually drunk in the film. In the scene where he accidentally drinks lighter fluid, the crew substituted vinegar for lighter fluid. The director got the reaction that he wanted from Grant.
Grant made his directorial debut with his autobiographical film Wah-Wah. The making of the film was evidently a nightmare, although it did receive positive reviews. In an interview with Matthew Gwyther, he hilariously describes Swaziland, where he grew up, as a place where the days seemed to pass in a haze of Happy Hours and where a day “seemed to be divided up into The Happy Hour. The Cocktail Hour. The Pre-Lunch One.”
Grant has worked with some of the biggest names in the film world, including the legendary Bob Rafaelson and Philip Kaufmann as well as Madonna (in her directorial debut for the stage).
Let me not for a moment suggest I have powers of prescience but, years ago, in that living room, when he told me he was leaving for London, I had a feeling that he might ‘make it’ here as an actor. He did. I just had no idea he would make it this big.