The actor Richard E Grant, who plays the villain in new Wolverine film Logan opposite our January cover star Sir Patrick Stewart, is a mischievous sensualist under a gracious mane, skin tanned with health and sea-blue eyes lit with the otherness of an English childhood abroad. Born Richard Grant Esterhuysen in Swaziland, he was brought up in a mountaintop house that overlooked the Valley of Heaven, Marxist Mozambique to one side, apartheid South Africa to the other.
Soon after he arrived in London with his commonwealth manners so immaculate, the director of Brideshead Revisited told him he spoke like someone from the fifties. From an early age, he prioritised good taste. According to the Evening Standard, when he worked as a waiter in Covent Garden and received a bonus “for not stealing or being drunk at work”, he spent the money on Penhaligon’s Blenheim Bouquet.
His first lead performance in Withnail and I, aged 30, would become the greatest rake in British cinema history. Having cut his teeth in Tartuffe opposite Leonard Rossiter, he modestly claims he only got the part because Daniel Day-Lewis turned it down; thank God he did. Withnail is an outrageous, grotesquely boozy, witty, erudite, duplicitous, irreverent, bon viveur thesp high on the drama of the everyday, lighter fluid and Camberwell carrots. Everyone has their favourite line (“We want the finest wines available to humanity!”; “Officer, we’ve only had a few ales”; “Grab its ring”), but the devastating end, when lonely Withnail delivers Hamlet’s “what a piece of work is man” soliloquy to a pack of wolves in the rain, remains Grant’s finest hour, tragedy layered upon comedy upon tragedy.
Unlike struggling actor Withnail, Grant himself became an auteur’s delight and an impish presence on any rung of the hierarchy, as waspish as a fashion designer in Pret-a-Porter as he is a butler in Gosford Park or a wannabe writer in The Player (ensemble master Robert Altman, who directed all three, clearly admired him). Grant told The Independent that, when he finally worked with Daniel Day-Lewis on Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, he prostrated himself in front of him in his trailer and said: “Thank you, Daniel”. Day-Lewis’ regal reply: “Arise, my boy”.
Grant has shone in classy period pieces (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady, TV series The Scarlet Pimpernel, Stephen Fry’s Evelyn Waugh adaptation Bright Young Things), but also as Franz Kafka in Peter Capaldi’s Oscar-winning short film, frothy villains (Spice World) and, his most underrated performance, a widower in romantic comedy drama Jack and Sarah, opposite Sir Ian McKellen as a tramp.