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Richard E. Grant: I Owe My Career to Daniel Day Lewis

Richard E. Grant’s staggering career has covered film, television, documentaries and an iconic cult classic, but he tells us why his latest role is so personal

An aspiring actor must dream of having a career like Richard E. Grant’s. Comfortably in demand for three decades, the 59-year-old actor’s startling array of roles includes aristocrats and politicians, drug addicts and reprobates, pompous actors and science-fiction heroes. He’s popped up in everything from Downton Abbey to Game of Thrones, landed his own documentary – Hotel Secrets – for Sky Atlantic, been directed by Martin Scorsese in The Age of Innocence, acted alongside Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, and is synonymous with one of the most revered cult classics in modern cinema: Withnail and I.

The latter seminal dark comedy about two out-of-work, alcohol-dependent actors living in a squalid Camden flat celebrates the 30th anniversary of its release this year. It was Grant’s second-ever acting job, first film role and is categorically guaranteed to crop up in every interview he will ever do. 

“But I’ll never tire of answering questions about it because it gave me great friendships with the people that made it, and people have great affection for it still,” Grant says. 

His myriad memorable moments as Withnail include drinking lighter fluid and declaring, “I demand booze!” At the time, Grant was a struggling actor himself who had just lost an agent. “I owe my career entirely to Daniel Day-Lewis, who turned down Withnail for The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” he says. “He is the reason I am speaking to you today. I worked with [Day-Lewis] on The Age of Innocence and thanked him enormously for turning the role down. He was very gracious and funny about it.” 

"There’s an appeal in playing someone so completely unlike myself, but ultimately it’s always about the script."

Even though Grant is teetotal (he is allergic to alcohol and hasn’t drunk since he was 19), some of his most outstanding characters since Withnail have been damaged and drug-addled, such as Jasper in Lena Dunham’s Sky Atlantic comedy Girls, and cockney criminal Dickie Black in Dom Hemingway. Despite living in Swaziland until he was 24, his haughty demeanour and English upper-class twang have rendered Grant perfectly suited to Gosford Park, The Scarlet Pimpernel and even Doctor Who

“I completely understand all of that and embrace it,” Grant says. “The first movie I was ever in I was playing a drug-addicted alcoholic, so it was inevitable that subsequent parts would be influenced by that. There’s also an appeal in playing someone so completely unlike myself, but ultimately it’s always about the script.”

Grant’s latest supporting role is in Jackie, released this month and already awash with awards season buzz thanks to its subject matter and leading lady. Natalie Portman plays Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ Kennedy Onassis, but a straight biopic this is not. The film examines the four days after John F. Kennedy was assassinated; Jackie’s mourning and her struggle to retain his legacy while being quietly pushed out by the new heads of state. 

Grant plays real-life close friend and aide to the Kennedy’s, William Walton. “Jackie asked Bill to design the funeral and make it as statesman-like and minimalist as possible, rather than a Hollywood version of a state funeral,” explains Grant. “He was one of the few people on her side and she trusted him implicitly.” 

The film was shot in Washington, D.C. and Paris, with production in the latter taking place just days after the terrorist bombings. “We shot a few miles from the stadium that had been bombed, so the mood in Paris was very sombre and that affected people on set, as the crew was almost all French,” says Grant. Chilean director Pablo Larrain worked in near silence. “The crew barely spoke above a whisper,” he continues. “It was almost like going to church. Everything was quiet, controlled and intense. There was no small talk. But it suited the subject matter. If we were making a musical it wouldn’t have been appropriate.”

Though Grant was only six years old at the time of Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, one of his earliest memories is of his Dutch father, Henrik, returning home in tears after hearing the news. “I remember that day very clearly because I’d never seen my father cry before,” he says. Henrik died in 1981. “Playing Bill was quite personal to me because of that. Also, with the clothes and the hairstyle I was given, I looked exactly like my father.” 

“Swaziland was culturally very isolated – they only got television in 1980."

Grant’s English-German mother, Leonne, still lives in Swaziland and the actor returns to his family home every year. “I have a great fondness for Swaziland, but I couldn’t earn a living doing what I do there,” he says. “It was culturally very isolated – they only got television in 1980. My father had made it very clear since I was little that, as white people living there, we were guests in the country and to never forget that. So, there was a very strong pull to the UK.” 

Grant lives in Richmond with his wife of 30 years, Joan Washington, a voice coach, though admits he’s a Mayfair regular. “I’m always at The Wolseley or Scott’s. I love the shops on Old Bond Street too.” Thanks to two series of Hotel Secrets, he’s visited some of the world’s best hotels. His favourite is the five-star Ballyfin in Ireland. “It’s an extraordinary 18th-century aristocrat’s house that has been converted into suites.” 

Next up Grant plays a mad scientist in the blockbuster Logan, which hits cinemas in February, and a board member at the Ministry of Information in the exceptional 1940s English period film Their Finest in April – though anyone hoping for a third run of Hotel Secrets may be disappointed. “I get asked about it every single day but it’s not up to me, sadly,” he says. “Of course I would love to jump around more luxury hotels all over the world and eat five-star food. Absolutely.” It’s certainly a far cry from lighter fluid and squalid Camden flats, and it’s all thanks to Mr Day-Lewis.

Jackie is in cinemas from 20 January