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Richard E. Grant on Working With Melissa McCarthy on ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’

Richard E. Grant Variety Facetime Interview
Martin de Boer for Variety

Richard E. Grant has been winning kudos for his supporting role in Fox Searchlight’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” The film, written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, was directed by Marielle Heller and stars Melissa McCarthy as real-life celebrity biography Lee Israel.

Was “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” a fast shoot?

Yes, 26 days and not easy: all on location in Manhattan and in rough weather of January. Marielle Heller is so kind and nurturing. No matter how complicated the day was, she always set aside time in the morning to rehearse just with the actors. You felt that you honored what the scenes required. That process speeded up the filming because that time paid off.

Do you have the self-doubt that most actors feel?

I always panic on the first day of work. You can do all the Stanislavsky-backstory homework, but when that moment arrives and you are in the clothes, hair and makeup of somebody else, and you’re saying the words created by somebody else — I never know how to do it. It’s a complete mystery to me. I don’t know where it comes from. But of course I love it.

You’ve authored two books about film experiences. How did they come about?

I’ve kept a diary since I was 11. It’s a way of taking stock, almost meditative, trying to make sense of stuff because life is chaotic. I went to the Academy’s Governors Awards, and there were Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood. I still feel completely star-struck. It should have gone away by my age, but it hasn’t.

You and Melissa McCarthy are both writers, so did you ad-lib?

No. The script was so smart and so deft, very witty in the first part to real emotional heft in the second part. I improvised two words in my first scene in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” That was it. Robert Altman, of course, encouraged improvisation. I worked with him on three films, and when I first asked him for clues about my character, he said, “I have no idea. Surprise me.”