It should come as no surprise that when you pair Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy together, laughs are guaranteed. You’re also guaranteed undeniable chemistry. In their new film, Can You Ever Forgive Me? Melissa McCarthy plays Lee Israel who made a fortune from forging letters and her unlikely partner-in-crime is Jack Hock played by Richard E. Grant — her best friend, confidante, grifter, and charmer. It’s a one-of-a-kind on-screen duo that makes this film such a captivating and delightful watch.
I caught up with Grant while he was in LA to talk about how he had to make a rush decision to sign on to the project and why Jack Hock is indeed the perfect best friend who would plug his nose to clean up your filthy apartment. Read our chat below:
There’s one scene that stands out, the scene where you’re at Lee’s apartment for the first time. It was a true testament to their friendship and what it symbolized.
There’s one of the chapters in the book and she says she realized what a desperate place she was in. When she had the landlord and the exterminator to finally come and deal with the fly problem, the exterminator said to her that he wasn’t going to come in and clean it up. It was only then that she realized that it was cat shit that was underneath her own bed which tells you the kind of denial and squalor that she was living in. Or how institutional she got and how much time she spent living inside her place. The fact that Jack says, “It smells really bad” and she turns on him so violently. As you say, he bangs his way on the door and comes back in.
At one point, I stuck loo paper up each of my nostrils and I thought the director (Marielle Heller) would never go with that, but she went with it. I said, “This is what I would do in that situation.” It’s an act of friendship that somebody would actually do that. Who out of your real true friends is going to wipe your bum when you’re incapable?
I found that scene remarkable because it’s such a mark, a turn of their friendship.
What drew you to playing Jack?
I had an odd situation because I don’t know who had been tentatively cast. I got a call in November from my agent in London and he said, “You have 24 hours to read this script and make a decision.” I read it and asked who was playing Lee’s role, but they couldn’t tell me. All they said was, “It’s somebody who you admire.” I said, “I think the script is bang on. It’s this co-dependent, love-hate relationship, Odd Couple like, and Midnight Cowboy-ish. I said yes and then I found out it was Melissa McCarthy who I’d never worked with before. I asked them, “Who turned it down or dropped dead?” and they told me that wasn’t the question I should be asking. That’s how it came about.
I flew to New York for a costume fitting. I thought we were going to be shooting the following Monday. I thought we’d have at least four or five days of rehearsal, but because Melissa makes 75 films a year and is unavailable, she came in from LA on Friday morning and I said, “To play a friendship like this on screen, having never met the person before. I won’t sleep for the next 72 hours if we don’t at least meet or if we don’t have the opportunity to know at what level she was going to pitch it.” I’d seen her screen work and she plays everything from the most naturalistic to the most out there characters.
I thought there was a danger that Lee Israel could have been played as someone who is quite grotesque. I thought in order for me, as the more flamboyant opposite of that, I had to know what level to come in at.
Luckily for me, Melissa had exactly the same impulse so we spent the Friday morning together along with Marielle and we realized we were on the same page.
When we started shooting on the Monday, it was a much better place to begin than “Hi. How are you? This is who I am.” Having chemistry with someone on-screen as akin to in real life is a bit like internet dating. You go in with the best intentions, but you have no idea.
The other thing is you know within a few seconds whether you’re going to get on with someone or not. That can of course can. Your immediate instinct is very powerful and I’ve relied on that. Well, you can imagine with Melissa, it was right a nightmare from the get-go. [laughs].
On the note of fittings, we have to talk about Jack’s outfits.
Melissa wanted all of his clothes.
How was he modeled?
Arjen, our Mumbai-based costume designer, bought such great clothes so it was very easy to go back in time to the early 90s and be someone who dressed like a new romantic from the mid 80s but has fallen on hard times and is clinging on to what he had when he was younger. Arjen understood that perfectly and provided the clothes. I thought it immediately told me that this is someone who was sleeping on apartment floors having lost his own rental and that this was the last vestment of dignity that he had I suppose. His vanity was to spend what money he grifted from people on his wardrobe. That, in accommodation with the cigarette holder and the hat would assert a self-confidence and panache. What Lee said about him in her book was that she would predict that he could get $800 for a forged letter but then he’d come back with $2000. He obviously had the gift of the gab and a way of schmoozing people and that’s how he operated.
I was at university with someone who still owes me money but somehow the charm of this scalawag made me a sucker for it every time. I think everyone at some point in time has known someone like that.
What drives Jack to do what he does?
Because of where I grew up, I think of someone as what animal are they? Are they going to be a predator or someone I can get on with or someone I can pet? He strikes me as a Labrador. He would just go and lick his way into people’s favor no matter what and play whatever card of vulnerability to get whatever he wants, but essentially there is something kindhearted about him which makes what he does forgivable. He went to jail for two years because he wouldn’t pay a taxi driver and threatened him “allegedly” with a knife. He got out of that and did petty drug deals here, and kleptomania there. He was banned from Duane Reade but there’s no real big crime where you think he needs to be locked up in Sing Sing for the rest of his life. Lee Israel, in animal terms, you’re dealing with a porcupine/hedgehog. There’s a vulnerability there, but you’re also dealing with someone who is private and spiky. She’s like a human grenade. He just won’t take no for an answer.
From the moment he meets her in the bar, he’s like, “You might not want to talk to me, but I’m coming over anyway.” He gets a drink off her. She remembers that he peed all over rich women’s fur coats and he thinks am I going to lose the drink and be thrown to the bar, but she finds what he did really funny and that’s the beginning of this little flame of their friendship that then begins.
What did you think of Lee as you’re reading the script over the 24 hours you were given to read it?
I loved the fact that she was so authentically herself. I’ve written three books and a screenplay. I know the experience of writing compared to acting, it’s just so incredibly solitary. You do have to cocoon yourself from the rest of the world. You become institutionalized in the room that you work. My understanding of how she ended up in an apartment where she didn’t notice that the cat stench was so bad that people couldn’t even walk in there. I know that thing where you are literally living on your own, in your own head with the characters you’re writing.
I loved the fact that she didn’t compromise. She didn’t give a flying fuck what people thought about her and there’s something very un-PC about that where the social media world we live in and wanting what everyone else has, or living the dream. She didn’t subscribe to any of that and I found that very attractive as a character.
Melissa reveals her underbelly so poignantly. Also, all that childish stuff of saying, “Hey, this is Nora Ephron…” was hilarious. Her writing is a form of very sophisticated ventriloquism where she imitates these people so convincingly and such a cross-section of brilliant writers, that the experts believed that they were the real McCoy.
She was so fascinating.
I so wish she was alive that we could see her on a chat show just basking in the limelight of this and be a curmudgeon at the same time. It would be hilarious.
She didn’t sell out.
She didn’t at all.
This is a female-centric film with Melissa and Marielle. What was that environment like?
I had worked with Jane Campion in 1995 in Portrait of a Lady. Half of the crew was female, and the creative team were all women.
Was it that long ago?
As a fellow Brit, you would know we had Thatcher in charge. The Queen. We have May. Women being in the position of power, and I live in a household of two women, I’m used to taking orders which I enjoy hugely. I learned early on not to argue back.
I’ve just done a film with Rachel Ward in Australia. Working with Marielle and that crew and on a story that is about a woman, what I was working on and what I was aware of – which in contrast to Logan which had a 12-year-old girl who is so testosterone charged and half-mutant, and a crew of 300 men and stunt men, the level of testosterone was enormous. It felt like I was going to army boot camp.
This film, because all the scenes are between two people. It felt very intimate and collaborative. Marielle wears her authority very very lightly. Yet, at the same time, you know exactly who is in charge and what she wants. It doesn’t mean she’s prescriptive to a degree that you are not allowed to try things out. She provides an emotional safety net and whatever you do is going to be alright because she’s not going to let you make an ass of yourself. And that is the dream of any actor because you feel free to do whatever you want. I loved it.