English actor Richard E. Grant tackled his first musical ever with the role of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady first at the Opera Australia; now, he is in the sam production at the Civic Opera House. He began his career in his native South Africa, where he founded the multiethnic Troupe Theater Company.
His first film, Withnail & I, was a study of eccentric actors of the '60s. With more than 80 movies on his resume, some standouts include The Player, L.A. Story, Henry & June, Penelope, Gosford Park, The Player and Bram Stoker's Dracula. His television credits range from portraying Doctor Who to being on Downton Abbey.
Grant's writing and directing debut came with the autobiographical piece Wah-Wah, which is about growing up in Swaziland in the time of independence.
At 60, he shows no signs of slowing down, with several new projects in the works.
Windy City Times: Your fellow actor Eugenio Derbez told me to tell you, "Hi!" How was the experience working on The Nutcracker and the Four Realms together?
Richard E. Grant: It was amazing. Since it was Disney, it was done on an incredibly lavish scale. Lasse Hallstrom is the director. I played the regent of winter and he played the Flower Realm King. He was very effervescent while I was covered in icicles. We were the opposite of each other. We were the comic relief!
WCT: Do you prefer comedy or dramatic roles?
REG: It doesn't matter. If the script is good then I am swayed by that, even though I have done Spice World the movie. My daughter was eight when I was offered that and told me I had to do that more than anything in the world. I got to be in HBO's Girls as a result because Lena Dunham knew me from Spice World. She loved the movie. Who knew? So did Adele, the singer…
WCT: You met her?
REG: Yes. I got tickets to go see her show in London. We share the same birthday. She just turned 29 and I turned 60. I was really amused by the fact she knows me from Spice World.
WCT: Do you have a favorite Spice Girl?
REG: I can't possibly tell you because I would be in trouble. I would have one of their platform boots up my backside!
They were all so ebullient. I had just turned 40 and they were around 21. They were an absolute scream!
WCT: Have you spent much time in Chicago?
REG: I have never been to Chicago in my life. I have been everywhere since I have arrived. On the first night I was here, I went to the Steppenwolf Theatre to see Tracy Letts' play. I saw Hamilton, I went to the Art Institute, an architectural tour on a boat and every restaurant people have recommended to me.
WCT: How were you cast in My Fair Lady?
REG: You would have to ask the opera company that, but possibly since I had done it 10 years before in Australia. Lisa O'Hare had done it in Chicago before. She had done a tour of America and England with it 10 years ago, when she was 20.
I think they needed people who had done it before, because the rehearsal time was only three weeks. For a three hour show that is highly pressurized.
WCT: Were you nervous about this being your first musical?
REG: I was because I am not a trained singer. I knew it was written for Rex Harrison's very limited speak-singing range. I really only think he should sing during "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" at the end. It is when his emotion is exposed for her. The rest of the time he is speaking.
I have seen productions where the person has sung all of the songs and it just doesn't sit right. It was odd.
I let people that have got brilliant voices do the singing.
WCT: Had you worked with Lisa before?
REG: I had not worked with any of the people before. Lisa and I had instant chemistry. The person she had played it with before was more than double her age. He played it as a very old, upper-crust bullymuch like Rex Harrison did. That is not how the character is described in the play or Alan Jay Lerner's adaptation. It was certainly not how Leslie Howard played it in the Pygmalion film version, which Shaw had seen and done the screenplay for.
The choice is to do a poor man's imitation of Rex Harrison or what is written down. I went for the latter.
WCT: The show is long. Did they cut any of it?
REG: They cut about 15 minutes of the text. Some of the things that were misogynistic or verbally abusive have to be rationed in. They cut it down to keep it in the limit that the Opera has required.
I think they could have cut more. They certainly could have cut the song "Hymn to Him." I think we already know all of that so just take it right out. That would cut 10 minutes of the show.
We have a week to go, so what do I know? [Both laugh.]
WCT: It ends so abruptly, with her coming back to him. I wanted her to wrestle with the decision more.
REG: That is what Shaw wanted, also. Shaw wanted her to marry Freddy. It was Robert Carson's idea for her to come back.
It ends with a line, "Where the devil are my slippers?" It makes one wonder why she comes back.
WCT: Are you exhausted after performing My Fair Lady?
REG: It is a big workout, but it is not like I work in a coal mine or on a hospital shift. I have a day to rest after a few double shows.
WCT: How was your Music Box Theater appearance, where they screened Withnail & I recently?
REG: It was amazing. It was packed. I had no idea that a film I made 30 years ago would have any kind of awareness or cult following in America at all. It did very well in England. On a daily basis people quote this movie at me wherever I am in public.
I never expected that turnout to be in Chicago. It was an out of body experience to see 900 people packed into a theater saying it line for line in a theater. It was surreal.
WCT: Any thoughts on the movie Logan?
REG: I loved working with Hugh Jackman. I had worked with Patrick Stewart before. Stephen Merchant is hilariously funny. Elizabeth Rodriguez was a great location companion to hang around with; she is so feisty. I know why she was cast as the character in Orange Is the New Black because she takes no prisoners!
WCT: How was the film Jackie?
REG: I loved working with Natalie Portman. She was so focused and dedicated, but also had an incredible sense of humor. In the midst of playing Jackie Kennedy, who is larger than life, that humor was needed because it was so serious and heavy duty in the way it was made.
WCT: How did you wind up on HBO's Game of Thrones?
REG: They had written a part for me because they were Withnail fans. They wanted to find a way to get me into the thing. They came up with a bitter and twisted actor touring in that time period.
It was irresistible; when someone writes a part for you, you can't say noit would be very rude!
WCT: I read that you exposed an AIDS scam in the past?
REG: A neighbor of mine in London contacted them to ask if I would be patron to an AIDS charity. They claimed to have discovered a cure for AIDS. Swaziland has the highest rate of HIV per capita than any country in the world. That is where I grew up and I am a citizen there. I think 65 percent of the population are HIV-positive.
When I started investigating, I discovered the guy running it was an ex-mercenary who had been involved in a failed coup in West Africa. He was a complete reprobate.
I got a hold of journalists that I knew at the BBC. They went undercover and exposed him. I then had a meeting with him face to face and it was secretly recorded. I challenged him on everything. He walked out. I found my tires slashed subsequently.
He tried to pull a $19-million scam with the Swaziland government. I stopped that.
I have many friends who have died from AIDS, so I felt strongly about it. Just the idea of someone trying to hijack the most vulnerable people in the world made me want to stop him.
WCT: Have you played gay in any past roles?
REG: In Pret-a-Porter, I played gay male version of a Vivienne Westwood designer for Robert Altman.
I just played a man who was HIV-positive in a true story called Can You Ever Forgive Me? The title might be changed to Lee. It is about a biographer named Lee Israel, played by Melissa McCarthy. I just finished shooting it in Manhattan before I came here.
Lee Israel was a lesbian writer who wrote the biography of Tallulah Bankhead and Estee Lauder and fell on hard times. She started forging famous dead people's signatures. She got so good at it that got facsimile typewriters and antique letter paper to pretend she was Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, and Lillian Helman. She wrote in collusion with her good friend Jack, who is my part. He's an ex con and kleptomaniac. They had a weird love/hate relationship. At the end of the story you know he is dying and she is caught by the FBI.
WCT: I want to see this movie. It sounds good!
REG: I hope it is. It is a dramedy. Melissa was wonderful to work with. It is directed by Marielle Heller, who wrote Diary of a Teenage Girl. The movie will be out the end of the year or early next year.
Don't grow too "accustomed to Grant's face" as My Fair Lady closes Sunday, May 21, at Lyric's Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr. Ticket information can be found at LyricOpera.org/myfairlady or 312-827-5600.