It was an early November morning at a West Hollywood screening room, and the woman with the vegan-leather handbag was determined to speak to Richard E. Grant.
“Sorry, I just wanted to ask you something,” she said, weaving her way through a crowd of British expatriates who had gathered to honor their countryman’s performance in the Oscar contender “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
[Read our review of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”]
In that fact-based dramedy, the 61-year-old Grant plays a disarming and dissolute gadfly named Jack Hock, and the way the young woman approached Grant reminded me of the way Jack Hock sidles up to the author Lee Israel (played by Melissa McCarthy) and quickly becomes her partner in a lucrative, larcenous forgery scheme.
At the screening room, the 6-foot-2 Grant, clad in a Union Jack vest, took note of his chic questioner and bent forward to greet her.
“Do you think you’re a golden retriever?” the woman asked him.
Grant blinked. As her query hung in the air, so did the handbag.
Grant with his wife, Joan Washington, at the Bafta event.CreditJake Michaels for The New York Times
I HAD MET GRANT for the first time earlier that morning, when the actor arrived at an hourlong question-and-answer session he was certain no one else would show up for. “I woke up at 5 this morning, jet-lagged,” he told me in his rich curlicue of a voice, “and I thought, ‘Who would want to come to a talk at 10 in the morning?’”
“People were here by 9,” a young publicist assured Grant.
The event was organized for Bafta members, who vote on the British equivalent of the Oscars, and it was the latest stop on a promotional tour meant to propel Grant into the award-season conversation as a contender for best supporting actor. In the weeks to come, Grant would find himself nominated for a Golden Globe and a SAG Award, but on the day I shadowed him, he still wondered if all these events would amount to something. This sort of press blitz was all very new for Grant, who got his first film role in the 1987 cult comedy “Withnail & I” because an up-and-comer named Daniel Day-Lewis turned it down.
While Day-Lewis has since become an above-the-title star and the only man to ever win three Oscars for best actor, Grant found himself shaped by an acting teacher who told him he was too “lantern-jawed, tombstone-faced, and sepulchral-featured” to ever make it as a lead. Not that it deterred Grant from acting: When critics of “Withnail” used the same pejoratives to describe him, “I thought, ‘Well, at least I got the part,’” Grant said.
He has continued to work steadily since, bringing his loopy comic brio to bear in guest appearances on shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Girls” and movies that run the gamut from “Gosford Park” to “Hudson Hawk.” Still, those supporting roles are the sort of thing an actor can do for a long time without being singled out for special recognition, which is what makes this moment so sweet for Grant.
A lifelong diarist with an eye for detail, he was in his element in front of the full-house Bafta crowd, unfurling career anecdotes like a seasoned raconteur. They asked Grant about playing an alcoholic in both “Withnail & I” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” despite the fact that he is a teetotaler, which is mentioned so prominently on his Wikipedia page that it comes up in every interview.
Grant answered gamely that he tried alcohol once and found himself allergic to it, and besides, he learned plenty about drinking from his father, an alcoholic minister of education in Swaziland who tried to shoot Grant when the boy was 15. “He missed,” Grant said, “because he was too pissed.”
That’s the sort of life that inspires eccentric questions, but after the Bafta panel, even Grant found himself at a loss when the woman with the vegan-leather purse asked whether he thought of himself as a golden retriever. “Because I do,” she added. “I have a golden retriever and I think they’re so super friendly with everyone.”
“I’ll take that,” said Grant, though he would later muse to me that he was far too much of a character actor to play the part of a golden retriever. “I’ve always physically felt like I’m a flamingo,” he said. “Putting my beak into other people’s stories and lives is what galvanizes me.”
JACK HOCK IS one of those people, and the character is far closer to being a hound than the man who portrays him: Jack is so delighted by good gossip that as he runs his mouth, he might as well be wagging a tail. Jack also has a nose for trouble and proves to be a disastrous house sitter, yet remains so endearing that Lee can’t quite shake him as her friend.
At a post-Bafta lunch, Grant told me he had a ball making the movie but didn’t expect it to pay dividends. When he first screened a rough cut last year, “I was completely nonplused by it,” he said. “I thought it would go straight to DVD.”
A subsequent viewing, with an audience and a finished soundtrack, convinced Grant that there was more to the story: As his funny scenes became more bittersweet toward the end of the film, people cried. In September, Fox Searchlight flew Grant and McCarthy to the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado and the reaction was even more rapturous. As great reviews came in from the trades, studio executives asked Grant whether he would be free from November to January.
“I said I was up for a play,” he recalled. “And they said, ‘Well, we hope you don’t get it.’”
Instead, the studio wanted Grant to keep his schedule clear for the monthslong gantlet of parties, interviews and screenings that encompass an Oscar campaign. “I was like a dog going down a sand dune with his legs up,” Grant said with a big smile. It’s still early, but he has taken to the circuit with gusto, bouncing between ceremonies and events in New York and Los Angeles. “For the time that it lasts, I am savoring every moment of it,” he said, “because I know that soon, somebody else will be on a shortlist.”
Later that day, I met Grant in his dressing room for “The Late Late Show With James Corden,” where a segment producer was giving him the run of show. “So you play an alcoholic in this movie,” said the producer, “but you’re a teetotaler in real life?” Grant nodded dutifully.
He was there with McCarthy to promote “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” but he knew that next to a box office star like her, he’d have to play the supporting role in real life. When they took the stage, Corden asked McCarthy, “Tell us mere mortals, how does it feels to be an icon?” When he turned to Grant, his first question was about playing the manager in “Spice World.”
After their segments were over, and McCarthy and Grant had been made to play a game modeled after “The Price Is Right,” Grant returned to the dressing room and sprawled out on a chair, exhausted. “James knows who I am in England, but the audience here has no idea what movies he’s talking about,” Grant fretted.
Still, he found himself amazed by the host, who projected the boundless energy of … well, a golden retriever. “He has innate confidence, and that’s an amazing thing to see in an actor,” Grant said. “He’s just so untrammeled by doubt.”
You could tell Grant was taking notes. When Corden asked how he was so good at playing an alcoholic despite decades of sobriety, Grant met his host’s enthusiasm with the zeal of someone hearing the question for the first time. I noted that Grant would probably spend the next three months delivering variations on the same answer, and only a consummate character actor could find new line readings to last that long.
“Three months?” he asked. That would take him to February and the Oscars. Grant did the mental math and smiled.
“Three months,” he said again, readying himself for the task. “I’m going to hold you to it.”