Richard E. Grant Remembers AIDS Epidemic for Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Richard E. Grant remembers AIDS in '90s New York for Can You Ever Forgive Me? Plus the whiplash of going from Logan to this.

Richard E. Grant has a unique approach to becoming a character on any film he boards. While other performers may try to understand a person’s initial gait or wardrobe—both also crucial aspects for the Withnail & I actor—the way into any of that for Grant is to imagine what kind of animal they would be in the wild. He credits this quirk to growing up in Swaziland during a youth that now gives a prescient vantage of his and Melissa McCarthy’s parts in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

In the film, both McCarthy and Grant turn in astonishing work as a pair of down and out loners in early ‘90s New York City. But whereas McCarthy’s Lee Israel prefers it that way, Grant’s English bon vivant and would-be man about town, Jack Hock, is always looking at the angles in order to claw his way back into wealth—or at least the next hustle that can put a steak on his plate.

“Because I grew up in Africa, I always see people, and try to understand characters, as what kind of animal they’d be,” Grant muses during a Manhattan sitdown. “And I thought, ‘[Lee] is essentially a porcupine.’ She’s prickly and private, and you’re going to get hurt if you go in there. And I thought Jack was like a Labrador in that he’ll just go up to anybody and lick them into submission trying to get petted, to try and get a jump on somebody, or steal their food.”

It’s an amusing take on an unlikely friendship. For while McCarthy’s Lee Israel is so awash in nostalgia for Vaudevillian star Fanny Brice that she first attempts to write a biography of her and then forges her letters instead, Jack, much to Grant’s chagrin, has no idea who Brice is. Still, their connection grows from more than a chance encounter where Jack notices Lee can afford a glass of Scotch and he cannot; it becomes something the actor compares to other electric opposites-attract polarities.

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“I thought that like Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple, and also like Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy, that you got two people who are on the fringes of society that are lonely and they’re in New York, and they’re struggling, despite all the wealth that you see around you and millions of people—they’re lonely and they’re struggling, and I thought that was the basis of their platonic friendship.”

Indeed, their friendship could be nothing except platonic given that both Lee and Jack are gay, with Lee having sworn off relationships long ago after her last girlfriend left her, and Jack, by Lee’s estimation, having “fucked his way through Manhattan.” It’s a sweet tribute to the man who becomes her partner in crime (he is much better at talking up the value of forged documents), but one underscored by the melancholy of the era of the film’s early ‘90s setting. For this is during the AIDS epidemic, a fact painfully underscored by Jack being discreetly HIV-positive throughout Can You Ever Forgive Me?

“I remember I did a movie where I was playing Sandra Bernhard’s husband, called Hudson Hawk,” Grant tells me while thinking of his own memories from that specific era of New York. “And I went to visit Sandra in the Meatpacking District in 1991 and, on the street corners, and not just one street corner, there were emaciated men dying of AIDS that had placards saying, ‘I have no Medicare, my family have abandoned me, I have no money, I am dying, please help me.’ And it was so shocking that I’ve never forgotten that.”

It is also in this context that McCarthy confided in a separate interview that she doesn’t think someone like Jack could have gone home in times of crisis.

“It was a difficult time, certainly the AIDS epidemic was, and people were not rushing out to acknowledge this group or help this group,” McCarthy says. “I think they both were people who probably couldn’t go back to their families. I think it was just one more kind of element why these two very unlikely people floating, colliding into each other, why it worked.”

For Grant, it was also the chance to honor a friend. Unlike McCarthy, Grant had little physical evidence to go on to create his interpretation of a real-person. Both the real Israel and Hock have passed away, but whereas Lee Israel lived until 2014, even writing a memoir about her and Jack’s short-lived forgery racket called Can You Ever Forgive Me?, there are no pictures of Jack Hock. Grant only has Lee’s description of her friend who died of AIDS complications in 1994, as well as amusing anecdotes like that he once was arrested for pulling a knife on a cab driver after disagreeing on the price of the fare. So in some ways, he made his version of Hock a tribute to a friend who died of AIDS in 1990: actor Ian Charleson. Charleson was a warm and boisterous Scottish personality, having most memorably appeared in Chariots of Fire (1981).

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“On the one hand, he had very incisive wit and a very debauched side of his life in the way he lived, and on the other, an incredibly boyish, engaging optimism,” Grant reminisces. Thus in one of Hock’s final scenes, where he is as vivacious as ever but beginning to fade away, Grant saw an opportunity to homage a lost friend. “[Ian] wore one of those bandanas the last time I saw him. So… I put baby powder on my face and penciled in my cheeks, and I said [to the production company], ‘Can I do this? Because this is what my experience was of a friend of mine who died.’ And it wasn’t what they had imagined but they agreed with it… So for me, that was a personal homage to somebody who I had direct personal experience of who died, and that, in conjunction with seeing these men while I went to visit Sandra, fixed in my head about what my experience of New York was in 1991.”

It was also a time he loved recreating on the set of Can You Ever Forgive Me? alongside McCarthy and director Marielle Heller. Indeed, he had never even met McCarthy until the weekend before they began shooting the film—but they of course got on fabulously.

“I thought we were having a week of rehearsal; that didn’t happen,” Grant says with a laugh. “So I begged Marielle Heller and I said, ‘Look, we start shooting on Monday—Melissa McCarthy’s only coming in to New York on Friday—I will not sleep if I’m so paranoid for 72 hours if I have to see her on Monday morning and pretend to be best friends with her.’” Luckily for Grant, Heller very much agreed and upon meeting McCarthy, he learned the warmth and vulnerability she projects in her comedies—and now drama—comes from a genuine place. “As you know, from meeting Melissa, within five nanoseconds I realized what kind of person she was and how difficult it was going to be.” He later adds with a smirk, “So I haven’t seen Melissa for a year, but it’s as though I saw her last night, and she’s pregnant with my twins, so it worked out.”

Together they crafted a cinematic pairing that is one of the year’s best teaming and has led to buzzing awards attention for both actors (Grant’s already been nominated for a Gotham award).

“I thought this was such a great combination,” Grant says. “He’ll just keep on coming up and going, ‘Come on, I’ve got a bit of money in my pocket, I’m not gonna’ leave it there for a rainy day. Let’s burn it, let’s go to a cabaret, or let’s go shopping, or let’s go to Zabar’s, or whatever,’ and I think that that is a very endearing thing to find in another human being.” With that said, he later adds with a bit of self-awareness, “I’ve known people like that all my life, and I’ve liked them and loved them, but I wouldn’t give them the keys to my apartment or my car.”

Creating this person on this set also led to one of Grant’s most intriguing insights. So often film sets are filled, top to bottom, with male talent and a token leading lady. Yet with Can You Ever Forgive Me?, from its director and star to one of its screenwriters, Nicole Holofcener, and much of its major cast, the project is primarily female-led. Considering the rarity of this, Grant thought it apt to specifically compare it to his last film—the grizzled superhero-Western hybrid, Logan.

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“It felt like the most de-testosterized, communal, nurturing, collaborative environment [ever], I think because it was such an intimate, female-centric story,” Grant says. “Whereas, the movie that I just come off before that, was called Logan, which had a crew of 300 men with arms thicker than my thighs. I’m not exactly Mr. Chunky, but it was guns and jeeps, and cars, and fucking cranes. I felt like a dandelion in the wind amongst all these macho sets. So the contrast was enormous, and you know it’s a different kind of movie, where people had blades coming out of their hands and people are being decapitated in all directions, and even the 12-year-old girl was karate killing people with her hands. So in some contrast to the world of Lee Israel and Jack Hock.”

It’s a world very much worth exploring.

This article originally published on Oct. 19, 2018.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.