After his wife died two years ago, Richard E. Grant began to film himself talking about his bereavement, creating a remarkable record of life after loss.
By Sophie Gilbert
On camera, the actor Richard E. Grant tends to emit an unknowable, tenebrous quality: No matter how much his characters express, you always sense something between the lines that can’t quite be calibrated. In his new memoir, A Pocketful of Happiness, Grant elegantly summarizes his career as several decades of “minimalist villainy.” His characters have run the gamut from hedonistic wastrel thespian (Withnail and I) to authoritarian girl-band manager (Spice World) to utterly charming criminal accomplice (his Oscar-nominated turn in Can You Ever Forgive Me?), but if they share an attribute, it’s that you wouldn’t be even a tiny bit surprised if they stole your wallet.
In life, though, Grant has turned honesty into an inventive, impossibly delicate art form. Almost two years ago, his wife of 35 years, the dialect coach Joan Washington, died from lung cancer, and in the immediate months after losing her, he turned to Instagram to record fragments of his bereavement. In a typical video, his face is slightly off-center, his gaze away from the camera. He looks disheveled. He looks haunted. “What’s so incomprehensible is that we can never touch or talk to one another ever again,” he says in one reel. In another, he films himself walking through a wood, saying simply, “One step at a time.”
In the midst of grief—the most isolating state of all—Grant rapidly built community. “I’ve found incredible comfort in these thoughtful videos you share with us; their beautiful honesty, their pain—but always the careful reframing of each piece within the greater mosaic of a life well lived,” one woman commented recently when Grant shared that his mother had died. Taken as a whole, the uploads can be disorienting, which is what makes them so revelatory as a record of life after loss. Grant posts videos from friends’ houses; he promotes his own projects; he re-creates scenes from Withnail to pass the time during 10 days in quarantine. But underlying everything is Joan’s absence—the feeling, as he remarked in one post, while walking on the beach in Australia, of being “like an old turtle without my shell.”
When I met with Grant at his home in southwest London earlier this spring, he seemed still dazed by the confluence of grief, productivity, and public response over the past few years. At the urging of his literary agent and his daughter, he wrote a memoir about the last months of Joan’s life, interspersed with stories from the past few years of his career. The resulting book, A Pocketful of Happiness—published this month in the U.S.—is named for the edict Joan gave him before she died, the assurance that he would be all right if he could try to find just a little to be grateful for every single day. “She’d never come up with this phrase before in our marriage,” Grant said, rangy at 66 in black corduroy trousers and a black shirt, holding his daughter’s cat on his lap. “I think if one of us had ever said it, we’d have concluded it sounded like something from a Hallmark card. But it’s proved to be a very profound mantra from which to live.”
His decision to form the book’s narrative jointly out of the most enchanting highs (the Oscars, karaoke with Olivia Colman in a house formerly owned by Bette Davis) and the bleakest lows (Joan’s diagnosis, her fury when Grant inadvertently used the word terminal one day to describe her illness) came, he said, out of his desire to accurately capture what most people’s lives are like. In 1986, the year he married Joan, Grant was a jobbing actor at best, cobbling together regional-theater credits and TV movies. After a miserable nine-month stint of unemployment, he was offered a role that Daniel Day-Lewis had turned down: the flamboyant, sozzled Withnail in Bruce Robinson’s semi-autobiographical feature film. The job was a huge break. At the end of the first week of rehearsal, Joan, who was 27 weeks pregnant, went into premature labor. Their first child, Tiffany, lived only half an hour, her lungs too undeveloped to let her breathe on her own. “I don’t think you get over it,” Grant said. “You navigate your way around it.”
A Pocketful of Happiness captures the ways in which disastrous news can be totally unmooring, even amid ongoing commitments and miscellaneous daily tasks. Grant writes of tidying up the garden while waiting for Joan’s radiation treatment to begin, of packing away boxes of Joan’s clothes for space and feeling stunned that she would likely never wear them again. Their relationship is the fascinating central pillar of the book—an unpredictably enduring love affair between a fiercely private Scottish dialect coach and a chronically overexcited, heart-on-his sleeve actor from Eswatini, in southern Africa, who was 10 years her junior. At the beginning of their relationship, Joan was well established in her career, and Grant was waiting tables. Over the course of their marriage, the balance of status shifted, and yet, he said to me, they never lost their connection: “A relationship that began in bed talking, in January 1983, ended in bed holding each other’s hands and me still talking to her, 38 years later.”
In Europe and Australia, where the book was first published last year, Grant has taken it on tour with a theatrical show incorporating videos and photographs of Joan; audiences have an opportunity, in the second act, to share their own grief. His willingness to perform an experience so typically understood as private—to so energetically upend our sense that the “right” way to get through it is stoically, and alone—is striking. He’s dismissive of the unspoken tradition of giving people space in the immediate aftermath of bereavement, the very “time that you need people to talk to.” And he’s audibly ferocious about the people who simply never acknowledged Joan’s death at all. Earlier this year, he posted a video about running into a couple in France, friends he’d known for 25 years, who very discernibly avoided him in the street rather than express regret for not having been in touch. “I felt as if I had been slapped,” he told me, vibrating with rage.
On Instagram, as his many commenters make clear, his dispatches have generated a powerful sense of recognition. And his willingness to make his mourning public urges questions: Why should grief be hidden, if sharing it feels cathartic? Why should people grieving spouses, parents, children do so quietly? Why is our innate response to people who are experiencing profound loss to duck and cover? “I think that it’s [people’s] fear that they’re either going to be intruding or that you’re going to fall apart like a jelly on the pavement,” Grant said. He still has, he confesses, days where he is so “poleaxed” by grief that the only thing to do is submit to it and wait for it to pass, but he also has good days, splendid days, days with happiness by the bucketload. He has a role in Saltburn, the highly anticipated second feature from the director Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman). He is also scheduled to appear in Sam Mendes and Armando Ianucci’s new HBO satire about a superhero franchise, and A24’s Death of a Unicorn, with Paul Rudd and Jenna Ortega. (The latter is one of a handful of independent projects given approval to film this summer amid the actors’ strike.)
So many of the things he’s doing now—the book tour, the live events—he thinks, would have been too intimidating in the past. “The recalibration of Joan’s death has made me realize that all these things that you’re fearing are just to do with ego,” he said. “It’s so cataclysmic dealing with death that it simplifies everything else.”