The Actor Who Documented His Grief—And Shared It With the World

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.”

Sophie Gilbert is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was a finalist for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Criticism.

Source: The Actor Who Documented His Grief—And Shared It With the World

Withnail And I: How a Beatle-funded comedy about alcoholic actors became a cult classic

By Nick Duerden

Two men stride through a quaint Cumbrian village on an overcast Saturday afternoon, long overcoats flapping behind them. Newly and unusually flush with cash, the pair have been gifted money from a relative. Said relative has ordered them to get better equipped for a weekend in the countryside by buying Wellington boots. The men, however, have other ideas. Specifically: pub. Here, they drink themselves drunk until closing time, and then decide belatedly to line their stomachs in a tea room next door.

Only… the quaint village is unused to bohemian types in advanced states of disrepair, and does not take kindly to their presence. They are asked to leave — but the pair prove resistant. They want cake, the taller one bellows, and — in a line that would go on to become immortal in the canon of British cinema — “the finest wines known to humanity. We want them here, and we want them now”.

This was Withnail and I  a small film largely overlooked upon its 1987 cinematic release but now widely considered among the most-loved British motion pictures of all time, and surely the funniest. It would prove an impressive calling card for its two leading men, Richard E Grant and Paul McGann, a film both of them could trade off forever. It wasn’t an instant, era-defining hit, but instead, took time to find its audience, becoming a cult hit before ultimately being bestowed with classic status.

“When it first came out, there was nothing else quite like it, and the distributors really didn’t know what to do with it,” says Murray Close, the film’s on-set photographer whose prints from it still sell regularly to collectors around the world. Close has shot many movies over his illustrious career — The Shining, Jurassic Park, Batman — but, he suggests, “People just want to talk to me about Withnail. It’s always Withnail.”

Richard E Grant and Paul McGann

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Richard E. Grant cheers fans with “isolations quotes” from Withnail and I

The actor, 62, has been uploading clips of himself uttering lines from the cult 1987 film, much to the delight of fans. The British star has named the sketch ‘Withnail and I isolation quotes’.

Richard E Grant has been delighting fans of his most famous role, in cult 1987 film Withnail and I, by quoting famous lines from it on a daily basis to help relieve the boredom of lock-down.

It’s been 33 years since Grant starred as the title character, aspiring actor Withnail, in Bruce Robinson’s hit black comedy, but the love for it remains strong.

Introducing his pick of his favourite lines as the ‘Withnail and I isolation quote for today’, Grant, 62, is seen in the short videos on Twitter uttering lines such as ‘We’re not from London, you know’ and ‘Are you the farmer?’.

Source: Richard E Grant quotes Withnail and I to cheer people up

It’s Withnail and her in Can You Ever Forgive Me? 

Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me?CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?

Directed by Marielle HellerCertificate 15☆☆☆☆

Melissa McCarthy and Richard e. Grant

LIKE a slimmer version of the great Uncle Monty, Richard E Grant sashays his way into this marvellous film with an unquenchable thirst for substances that make him feel skewwhiff, a vocabulary of gorgeously pronounced swear words (can anyone else give the f-word such depth and richness?), and a tragic backstory that feels so much like Richard Griffiths’ seminal outing in Withnail and I that it feels like Grant is paying homage to his co-star.Throw in a knockout performance by fellow lead Melissa McCarthy, and you could have had this these two characters doing absolutely nothing but sitting in a bar and I’d pay top dollar to watch it.

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‘I’ll show the lot of you!’ Richard E Grant’s Oscar nomination

Richard E Grant has captivated the internet. The actor greeted the news of his nomination for an Academy Award by returning to his first rental when no one had heard of him. There he whooped with childlike delight, and then shared the whole thing in an utterly disarming Instagram post. He also phoned up his co-star and co-nominee Melissa McCarthy, and together they cried. Perhaps now Grant will finally be umbilically linked in the public mind to his performance in Can You Ever Forgive Me? (pictured below), for which he has been nominated as Best Supporting Actor, as well as his career-igniting turn in Withnail and I. Continue reading