In a small, private cinema in Soho, Richard E Grant is introducing Wah-Wah, the autobiographical film he has written, directed and, to all intents, produced (though that’s a long story). ‘The audiences we have tested it on so far have both laughed and cried,’ he says, baring his teeth in a smile that looks more like a grimace. ‘So no pressure.’ This might be a tougher audience than most: a dozen gnarled distributors who watch films every day. But the screening begins and they duly oblige with the odd chuckle and sniffle. Afterwards, in his intense way, Grant seems pleased, his pale blue eyes slightly mad and starey. We find a dimly lit corner and the 48-year-old actor sits forward, straight spined, as he talks and talks, earnestly and articulately, spooling out sentences like tickertape.
The film, set in Swaziland during the dying years of British colonial rule, tells the story of his parents’ divorce, as seen through his adolescent eyes. It opens with a scene in which Grant’s mother (played by Miranda Richardson) has sex with his father’s best friend in the front seat of a car. The 11-year-old Richard is pretending to be asleep in the back seat but sees everything. He is horrified. He tells no-one. Grant’s father (played by Gabriel Byrne) is the minister for education. Like all his peers in Swaziland he speaks ‘Wah-Wah’, Wodehousian English punctuated with phrases such as ‘toodle pip’. Confronted with his wife’s adultery, his cheerfulness disintegrates. He turns to drink and, over time, becomes an alcoholic.
One particularly affecting scene shows the young Richard E Grant sniffing a lipstick mark on his mother’s wine glass after she has abandoned him. ‘Oh yes, I am obsessed with smelling everything,’ he now says. ‘My food, clothes, cars, books. I’m only just retraining myself from sniffing this sofa.’ It is brothel red, the sofa, and velvet covered. Grant, with sweptback hair, paint-flecked old jeans and beads on his wrist, looks bohemian sitting on it. ‘The sniffing obsession is a legacy of my mother’s adultery and of her walking out on us. Another was a facial spasm I had. A compulsive disorder. I couldn’t stop myself.’ He shows me, suddenly opening his mouth wide and twisting his face. ‘It’s an involuntary spasm which was to do with having to keep a secret. It was as if the secret had to come out somehow. I was teased at school for it. When I am particularly nervous or anxious even now I can feel the ghost of that spasm hovering in my face, waiting.’
We talk about the time he tipped away a crate of his father’s whiskey in a bid to stop the drinking. His father, in a drunken rage, held a revolver close to Richard’s forehead, fired a shot and — obviously — missed. ‘He was provoked by me. He said, “I’m going to blow your brains out”, and chased me around the garden. I felt utterly helpless but I goaded him, saying, “Go on, get it over with”. I thought I was going to die. The bullet whistled past my head. The reality was that at that point there was nothing I could do about it. It was like a near death experience, a chemical in my brain made me accept that I was going to die. I thought: “He is going to shoot me now. This nightmare will end.” I felt very calm. The shock of it only hit me afterwards. Then I became frightened and ran away.’
I suggest that even Freud would have been stumped as to how to interpret such a nightmare. ‘Yes, a father trying to kill the son is against all nature, isn’t it? But then my father was very drunk at the time. When he was sober he was a gentle man who loved me.’
But to try and kill someone you must really have to hate them; surely that must make him doubt his father’s protestations of love when he was sober? ‘Yes but after my father tried to kill me he turned the gun on himself and tried to kill himself. He was full of self-pity and remorse.’
So that makes it all right? ‘Alcohol changed his character, like Jekyll and Hyde. He wasn’t himself when he was drunk.’
Didn’t it worry him that the ‘bad’ drunken father might be, as it were, his true father; the ‘good’ sober father, the impostor? He shakes his head. ‘I think if my father had had no friends then I would have thought he was is completely abnormal and a bad person. But he was incredibly popular and garrulous. You ask about the split between the things my father said when he was drunk and sober…’ He pauses. ‘Which reality has more credibility? Well, the vestige of that is that when I am feeling especially vulnerable, or have been turned down for a job I wanted, or panned by a critic, my father’s drunk voice squats in my brain and says: “You aren’t good enough. You are a shit. You are ugly. You are untalented.’ That comes back. But…’ Another pause. ‘I had psychoanalysis for 18 month when I was 42 and worked out that this was only the drunken voice talking, it wasn’t him. He couldn’t even remember saying the things in the morning. But because the abuse was so insistent and regular when he was drunk, when I am vulnerable it creeps up on me unawares. So as much as I know I should ignore it, if the world looks like it is saying it doesn’t want me, thinks me useless and untalented, doesn’t like me, doesn’t want to give me a job, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. It saps my confidence and I don’t get the job. Despite the fact that I have worked regularly throughout my career, there is still that marshy bit in my brain that says: ‘Yep, your dad was right.’
In his career there have been many hits and misses — and those toecurling ads for Argos. The hits have included Martin Scorsese’s Age of Innocence and Robert Altman’s The Player and Gosford Park. The misses have included Hudson Hawk with Bruce Willis, a film Grant himself describes as ‘excruciating’. But all can be forgiven for the film for which he is still best known, his first, the sublime, transcendent black comedy Withnail & I (1986). As the acerbic, drunken out-of-work actor Withnail, Grant created one of the most obnoxious yet likeable characters in cinema history. ‘Some people tell me they have watched it 200 times,’ he says.
Do they still confuse him with that character? ‘Yeah, people think if you play a drunk convincingly you must have first hand experience of it. But actually from being around my father I had first hand experience of drunk behaviour. I had a fast track on how to act drunk.’
Was it his father who put him off drinking? ‘Yes and no. I have an allergy to drink, I get a terrible rash and get ill for about 24 hours and, at first, I thought this might be psychosomatic. But I went to a doctor when I was 19 and he said I had no enzyme in my blood that processes alcohol. He asked if I had Japanese blood. Or Inuit. Or Native American, because they have none of this enzyme. The French as a tribe have the most of it. It wasn’t for lack of wanting to do it, it was just I am unable to, which is ironic because when I say I don’t drink people say, “Oh, are you in the programme?”’
Richard E Grant lives by the Thames in London with his wife Joan, a voice coach. ‘We married in 1986,’ he says. ‘I’m a very loyal person. I think I put a higher value on monogamy because I witnessed the emotional cost of my father’s cuckolding.’ The couple have a teenage daughter, Olivia, who has a cameo in the film. How did his strained relationship with his parents affect his relationship with his daughter? ‘Well there was a generational difference so I’m not passing judgement here. My parents were very non tactile. Stiff upper lip. You didn’t wallow around feeling sorry for yourself. With my daughter I tend to be the other extreme — over tactile and talking about everything.’
Given that Grant sees himself as a contradictory mixture of low self-esteem and large ego, I ask him if he has ever really come to terms with feeling rejected by his mother. ‘I suppose it is telling that I became an actor, a profession where I would have to replay the rejection scene for the rest of my life. Repeating the pattern of rejection. We are drawn to that which hurts us. It’s like a masochism, because part of me believes they are right to reject me.’
The film led to a reunion with his mother, now 77 and living in South Africa. ‘It’s been amazing. I’ve seen her and we have reconciled and written long letters and opened up to each other. I have finally heard her point of view of what happened 35 years ago. It had never been explained to me. Pain has no sense of time. If something was painful then it will be painful now, but you get used to living with it. You accommodate it.’
There has been no reconciliation with his younger brother, Stuart, though. ‘No, none at all. He hasn’t read the script or seen the film, though he claims to have done both, apparently. I feel pity for him that he is so troubled and unresolved about what has happened.’ Stuart, an accountant living in South Africa, once sold a story to a newspaper describing Richard as ‘a pansy who played with dolls’ as a child. Richard took his revenge by writing Stuart out of the film, portraying himself as an only child. The last time the brothers met was at their father’s funeral in 1981. Stuart subsequently accused Richard of arriving at the funeral with dyed blond hair and theatrical self-obsession. ‘He said I was being disrespectful,’ Richard says. ‘Well I only dyed my hair blond because I was in a play at the time that required me to dye my hair. I was playing a Nazi. Stuart has projected his own failings and shortcomings onto me and blamed me because he feels guilty. There is nothing I can do about it. I accept it. And we never had anything in common so it’s not as if we had a relationship that went rotten and can be salvaged through mutual understanding. I’ve been so estranged from him for so long, if he walked down the street I wouldn’t recognise him, quite frankly. He has never met my wife and children [he also has a stepson, Tom], but I have heard from other people that he has said appalling thing about them in the press. He can attack me all he likes. But them? He doesn’t do himself any favours by doing that.’
In the mid-90s, Grant published a wonderfully waspish memoir of his years in Hollywood. Though the comedian Steve Martin is still a close friend, the book alienated many of his contemporaries. As Bruce Robinson, who wrote and directed Withnail & I, has warned: ‘Richard is a terrible gossip – tell him nothing. I’m convinced that when he’s on his own he gossips about himself. It is part of his bitter-charm.’ Grant has confided in a daily diary since the day he witnessed his mother’s adultery at the age of 11. He finds it a consolation. He is about to publish a journal — also called Wah-Wah — about the making of this new film. It is a gripping account of the hell that is trying to get a movie financed and made. It chronicles the way he would yo-yo from jubilation and despair on a daily basis: ‘My nerves are so shredded that I lie face down and blub like a bitter baby.’ It covers his battles with banks, lawyers, the Swazi government and, most of all ,with his producer, a French woman whose name he pretends he can’t pronounce. When I suggest that his book is unlikely to affect a reconciliation with her he laughs grimly. Has she read it? A solemn shake of the head. Does he have a helmet and bullet proof vest ready? ‘Libel lawyers have been through it and I have proved everything I’ve claimed about her. The catalogue of incompetence. The failure to reply to important emails. If I thought it was only a personality clash between her and me I wouldn’t have dwelt on it, but she has managed to alienate almost everyone she has come across.’
I suggest that from her perspective she might consider him to an obsessive; an anal retentive even? ‘She would no doubt say I was pig headed and intransigent, all those things you need to be.’