Kith and Tell

"With Nails" author Richard E. Grant on auteurs, actors and the importance of being overpaid in Hollywood.

Published October 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

On the phone from London, cult star Richard E. Grant asks, "How many times do you hear actors at a press conference say, 'I had a great time, I absolutely loved working with her, she is the greatest director, she is absolutely the best cinematographer, we just had the greatest time.' Meanwhile, all the people in the room are sitting with their faces on their knees and wondering, 'Why have we just seen one of the worst movies ever made?'"

When Grant was commissioned to render a public version of movie journals he'd been keeping privately, he resolved to maintain their frank spontaneity. The result is "With Nails: The Film Diaries of Richard E. Grant" (recently out in paperback from Overlook Press). It records the making of films ranging from "Hudson Hawk" (1991) to "The Age of Innocence" (1993) with the heightened clarity and giddiness of a man who apparently sees his life flash before his eyes every time he steps onto a set.

"I've always been frustrated by memoirs that are written up in P.R.-speak or some kind of politically correct language," says Grant. "At the same time, it was never my intention to write myself into an unemployable corner. I'm endlessly intrigued by how things that begin with the best intentions can either turn out to be great or complete dogs. Making a movie is tantamount to falling in love. Nobody begins thinking: I'm going to be divorced in six months' time, and hate this person, and never speak to him again, and be bankrupted by this union. You sign a contract thinking that a film is going to be the next best movie that's ever been made, it's going to take in a hundred zillion dollars and get 15 Oscars and every critic is going to put it on his top 10 list. Otherwise, no one would go and do it, it's too grueling."

Grant's torrential conversation jibes with his lunging on-screen image. He has brought a virtuoso hypersensitivity to classy English-language moviemaking for over a decade. He shambled like a debauched stork through Bruce Robinson's "Withnail and I" (1987). He was both wholesome and erotically aware as Anaos Nin's cuckolded husband in Philip Kaufman's "Henry and June" (1990). He "ponced" his way like a pro through the part of the effete ex-husband in Steve Martin and Mick Jackson's "L.A. Story" (1991). And he helped imbue Robert Altman's "The Player" (1992) with its mood of tempered hysteria. More recently he proved he could alternate between priss and swashbuckler in an ongoing series of British TV movies based on Baroness Orczy's classic novel of derring-do, "The Scarlet Pimpernel." The role of a daredevil who poses as a fop in order to rescue French aristocrats during the Reign of Terror is a perfect fit for Grant, calling on his mental dexterity, his all-out physicality and his weirdly heroic and good-humored vision of the world.

So is the role of engaged and amused recorder of the above big-screen opuses, as well as Francis Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula" (1992), Altman's "Prjt-`-Porter" (1994), Jane Campion's "Portrait of a Lady" (1996) and, yes, "Warlock" (1988) and "Spice World" (1997). The book gives us a privileged soundstage view of the moviemaking process and is equally revealing as an actor's survival guide. Grant is a staunch believer in the brotherhood of actors -- and the sisterhood, too, given the strong protective bond he formed with Sandra Bernhard on "Hudson Hawk."

The greatest gift he has is the sanity underneath his fidgetiness. He's like his good friend Steve Martin: His appetite for parodying show biz is inseparable from his fondness for it. (In one of the droller asides, Martin sends a fax to Grant after the $32 million weekend gross of "Bram Stoker's Dracula": "Although I haven't seen 'Dracula' yet, I just know that you're very special in it. I would love to sit with you and just listen to what's going on in your head.")

Martin's sense of balance comes from some mysterious inner irony. Grant's comes from a genuine feeling of luck. He grew up in the small southeast African nation of Swaziland -- his father had been minister of education during the English colonial jurisdiction. He never thought he'd go from sending a fan letter to Barbra Streisand recommending his dad's estate as a retreat to meeting her in Hollywood and suggesting that she had over-scored a crucial scene in "The Prince of Tides." Of course, Grant writes in his diary that he made an idiot of himself, but we don't believe him for an instant. Throughout this book, he resembles Ray Bolger's Scarecrow. He protests that he doesn't have a brain while demonstrating the opposite with every utterance.

In your journals you seem as sensitive as a seismograph to every possible creative or political temblor. Your awareness cuts against the myth that most directors hand down -- that they shield their actors from all the business and creative fights going on off the set.

The only protection an actor gets is a flatly endorsed contract giving you a Winnebago or a car or a minder or a phalanx of assistants that will keep trouble at bay -- and that's if you're powerful or lucky. As an actor, you're so connected to the actual muck and physical reality of the film, there's no way you're "shielded" from anything. If they can put Leonardo DiCaprio underwater or whatever they did to him for months on end in some godforsaken corner of Mexico, or wherever it was, for "Titanic," then no actor gets removed from the practical pressures of moviemaking. On the other hand, when actors are accused of being namby-pamby or over-indulged -- yeah, their salaries may be ridiculous in the extreme, but if the profit margin is a hundred times that, somebody is earning the bucks, and why not the actors?

In the book, you present yourself as a fan who is overjoyed about working with top directors. But you also spend a lot of time figuring out how they operate and what they want. Do they ever give you "auteur fatigue"?

The advantage of auteurs, if that's what you like to call them, is that, whether they're good or bad, they at least have a very strong "visional" idea of what their movie's going to be. Problems come when you're doing a film with people who are just doing it because that's what they've been offered, and they're just getting through. Then the thing becomes rudderless. It's better to have somebody who, even if it drives you insane, has one particular idea so that everybody is going in one direction. Otherwise it's a free-for-all and then a sheer nightmare.

The stories you write about making the movies often seem to jibe with how the movies came out -- there's a difference between the confident casualness of "The Player" and the more frantic air surrounding Altman's later "Prêt-à-Porter."

Yet the actual experience of making both those Altman films was a fantastically good time. You were surrounded by every movie star you might wish to meet, people you might only have seen on a postage stamp; on every corner there was someone you knew by name and legend. "The Player" was on very sure ground, based on a novel by an insider (Michael Tolkin), made by a movie director who had been working in and out of Hollywood for 40 years, peopled by the great community of actors in Hollywood. And suddenly, in "Prêt-à-Porter," you've got the same setup trying to do to the fashion industry what it did to the workings of Hollywood. Maybe it was a kind of naiveti to say that those same principles could apply to an easy target with such an obvious parallel to movies as the fashion industry. But "Prêt-à-Porter" wasn't based on a novel to begin with; there wasn't a similar spine or structure within which Altman could work his variations on fame, celebrity, Hollywood, whatever. But you can say that only in hindsight.

You also worked for Coppola in "Bram Stoker's Dracula"; you depict him as being, in certain ways, as open as Altman, but to an entirely different effect.

Absolutely right. Coppola had a very large budget, and it was a project that he had not initiated. Winona Ryder had come to him with it. And the pressure on Coppola to produce a commercially successful film at that point was much more dominant than for Altman. That affects how you operate. "Dracula" was being done in a studio. Everything past the rehearsals was precisely detailed and worked out; rehearsals were videotaped beforehand. We then had a break of three weeks before we came in and shot the revised version of the movie. That is in complete contrast to Altman, who is more like, "Let's shoot the rehearsals, and make a movie out of that." Altman accommodates or relishes the fact that things go wrong. When I asked Andy Garcia about Coppola in preparation for working with him, he said, "Francis works in an atmosphere of contained chaos, controlled chaos." Even if he's asking for something collaborative or extreme, something we haven't tried before -- it's still within a kind of controlled environment, which is not the same thing as Altman does, where he does quite literally go tangentially off and say, "What have we got to lose, we may find something here."

When you were acting for Scorsese, did you realize how much voice-over there would be in the finished version of "The Age of Innocence"? I ask because I thought there was too much voice-over in that movie; was Scorsese perhaps insecure in this material and using it as a crutch?

You knew there would be voice-over, but you forget about the voice-over when you're acting. The script really is kind of a blueprint. Nobody can know in advance how much information is going to need to be added in the voice-over, or cut out. And scenes that you thought were absolutely crucial and essential to the narrative can be short-circuited in a look or a glance, because something has happened between actors on the set. Ten pages of dialogue can become redundant. All this finally underlines the point that it's the directors' medium; it's their decision as to how much you need.

I suppose [voice-over] is a very seductive tool if you're working with a book that's recognized as a classic of literature. If, as you identify it, there's a potential insecurity, then ballasting that by having the actual words of the author could be some kind of insurance -- but that's speculation.

You describe a hush on the set, and Scorsese, aside from one outburst, being extremely courtly.

The man came to work every day shaved, tailored, in an immaculate suit; it was hard to reconcile him with the scruffbox image he had during the making of "Taxi Driver." He looked as if he came out of the barbershop every day.

Joel Silver, the producer of "Hudson Hawk," turns out to be as unforgettable as any of these directors.

He's amazing, unique. How can you not respond to somebody who's that passionate about what he does? It's fantastic.

So in retrospect what went wrong with "Hudson Hawk"?

It was the dream project of the star of the movie, Bruce Willis, who had written the story. He was flying on "Die Hard" I and II, which had just conquered the planet in terms of box office, and, aside from the director (Michael Lehmann), he was working with a team of people he had worked with before. He wanted to make a send-up of Bond caper-type movies, and I think it just spiraled out of control. Maybe if Bruce had directed it himself and followed his idea of what it should have been all the way through, it might have been more coherent. As it turned out there were maybe too many hands spoiling for the soup ladle.

You've tended to work closer to home and to do more British TV work in recent years.

That's partly because there's been a resurgence of the film industry in England subsequent to "Four Weddings and a Funeral," five or six years ago. I can work here rather than go out with my colonial begging-bowl, asking, "Please give me a job in America." And the thing of actors in England, going back and forth between doing plays, radio, TV and movies -- that comes of economic necessity and the smallness of the market. If you say I will exclusively do only radio, TV, the stage or movies, you'd be hard-pressed to make a living.

And in this resurgent British industry, do you have any cheerful rivalries going with mates like Hugh Grant?

I don't think anything is ever cheerful about rivalry. It's always lethal -- lethal and polite. The pecking order about how people stand, and how they're doing, is an ongoing yo-yo. The consolation is that if you consider any two great screen icons -- say, Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo -- you see that nobody's career goes on a constant upward trajectory, every single one has had very identifiable bombs, troughs and lows, as well as highs.

And the speed with which this seems to be happening is so fast now. Get the last 10 covers of "Vanity Fair." Look at the picture of their newest, hottest, most highly paid, barely-20-year-old God's gift to whatever. Six months later you're hard-pressed, despite the eight movies they have coming out, to know who they are or whether they're going to survive that long.

Did you have any qualms about taking on the memory of Leslie Howard with "The Scarlet Pimpernel"?

No, only because most of the people who knew him are dead! He was so absolutely brilliant and definitive in it. I just had to up and run with it. Luckily, nobody's old enough and staying up late enough to remember him in it.

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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