Richard E. Grant is a man that needs no introduction. From Withnail And I to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and even Doctor Who, he’s a part of the cultural heritage in England, and recognizable throughout the world.
His latest project sees him play the role of Kaa the snake in an Audible audio drama production of The Jungle Book: The Mowgli Stories. The cast also includes Bill Bailey, Celia Imrie and Colin Salmon.
We met Richard E. Grant at Audible’s studios in London to discuss the process, and his remarkable career so far…
There’s not too many actors who can have Psychobitches and then Downton Abbey as consecutive lines on their CV. Or Jekyll & Hyde and then The Jungle Book. How do you go about choosing your projects?
Generally, take the best job that you’ve been offered. And if it’s different to what you’ve been offered before, and if you like the people involved and the writers… it’s a combination of all those things.
Is it important to you to try and choose different projects? Have you actively tried to avoid being typecast?
No, because every actor is typecast. And you have to accept that from the get-go, I think. Um, because there’s so many actors. So they, a casting director, can choose exactly, very specifically, what they want for a part. So, as much as actors like to believe that they’re chameleons and protean of talent, reality doesn’t allow for that.
So what appealed to you about this role, in The Jungle Book?
No make-up, no costume, and coming to a studio for a morning. So, quick in-and-out.
What do you think makes The Jungle Book so timeless? Why do we keep re-adapting it?
Yeah, um… why do you think it is?
I don’t know really, I suppose it’s a classic British story of exploration and the unknown?
That’s my answer!
You’re playing Kaa, the snake. There’s been different versions of this character – a bit of a mentor in the books, quite evil in the animated film. What’s your version like?
Er…. He doesn’t eat Mowgli, so that makes him less of a villain. But he likes to eat troops of monkeys, so… If you like monkeys, you won’t like Kaa.
Do you get to do any serpentine hypnosis?
No, just a lot of “s” sounds.
Kaa is probably most associated with Sterling Holloway’s fabulous hissing voice from the sixties film. Did you rewatch that at all, or look to it for inspiration?
No, but I remember it from when I was ten years old. And then, watched it subsequently when my daughter was growing up. So, I suppose that’s inevitably in the back of your mind.
And, how is your approach different when you take an audio role? How do you get into the mind of a snake from the confines of a recording studio?
It’s like a doing a radio play, and you – I don’t know how to answer that, really. You read the lines, and the character description, and hit all the ‘s’ sounds in every sentence. And hope for the best.
Was the charity angle of this, supporting the real animal kingdom, was that an important part of it for you?
I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Oh, apparently some of the sales are going to go to animal charities.
Oh, good! I didn’t know that until then. But yeah, all for that!
How did you get involved with this one? I know Bill Bailey came in quite late in the day, but you’ve been here from the start, is that correct?
I have no idea. I met him this morning, and, um, my agent said “do you want to play Kaa in The Jungle Book?” however long ago it was, and you turn up at the studio and just – bing, bang! – do it.
You obviously know more about this than I do.
What’s the recording process been like? Do you record your lines separately, or do you all record in a studio together?
You do it together, we just did it this morning. Um, with Colin Salmon and Bill Bailey and Lizzie, the actress who’s playing Mowgli when he’s young. And you stand around a microphone and read it, you don’t even have to learn it. You do three or four takes and then you’re done.
Is that a good process for you? If this were an animated film, you’d probably be in a room with a microphone and no one else…
Yeah, yeah it is. Working with other actors is always a bonus.
You’ve said before that your policy is to “wrestle as much out of something as possible,” is working in audio quite freeing in that sense? You don’t have to worry about hitting a mark or the lighting being right…
That’s true. It’s very very quick, in and out. And there’s no hanging around. You don’t have to go on location, the hours are very civilized.
As an actor you’ve worked in audio, TV and film – where do you think the best stories are being told at the moment?
Long-form TV. I think Netflix changed that. With House Of Cards you can download the whole thing in one day, that became the TV equivalent of reading something as long as Dickens.
The common denominator is stories, that’s the thing that still grips people, whichever way you put it. If something has a good story, people will watch or read it.
Are you the type to binge-watch something between jobs, then?
Not even between jobs, during jobs! I’m a TV addict.
Is that something you’d be interested to try, then? To step into a Netflix realm, or something similar?
Yeah, I’d love to. If I get offered one, I’ll tell you!
And what can you tell us about your role in the Jekyll & Hyde that’s coming to ITV?
I’m playing the head of the Secret Service. It’s about Jekyll’s grandson, and so it’s set in the 1930s. And so, Charlie Higson has taken licence to include monsters and vampires and all those genre horror elements.
That sounds really cool. And what else is on your slate at the moment?
Unemployed. As from now. I’m going on holiday.
We’re big fans of your books here at Den Of Geek, are you working on any more?
Oh, thank you! Um… no. I’m not.
We do a lot of Doctor Who articles, too, so I’ve got to ask – what was it like stepping into that great pantheon of Who villains?
Um, I loved working with Matt Smith. And Jenna Coleman. And I remember it being very very cold, in Cardiff, in a warehouse. And yeah, it was a Christmas episode. And I get killed off.
Have they told you that you’re definitely killed off? Is there no way back?
Well, I’ve never heard from them again. Long gone!
It’s a brilliant coincidence that Steven Moffat wrote for you as a villain and as the Doctor himself, many moons ago in The Curse Of The Fatal Death comedy skit. Did you two talk about that at all?
I said ‘how do you do?’, and that’s as much as I can remember…
Richard E Grant, thank you very much!
Thank you! Have a good summer, have a good holiday, have a good life.
The Jungle Book: The Mowgli Stories is available from Audible, here.