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Richard E. Grant among many Melissa McCarthy worshipers

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Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant star in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Richard E. Grant is a great character actor with a long list of incredible movies under his belt.

His new film “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” could catapult him from “I recognize that guy” status to award-winner.

He plays Jack Hock, a penniless, dandyish fellow who becomes the only friend of acerbic, disheveled author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy). Israel, unable to get her latest book off the ground, begins forging celebrity letters and selling them to collectors; it’s the subject of a 2008 non-fiction book.

Grant, recently in town for the Mill Valley Film Festival, said Israel’s book had little information about his character.

“There’s almost nothing about him,” says Grant, “other than he was born in Portland, was dead at the age of 47 from AIDS, was a con man, had been in jail for two years, and that he was tall, blond and thin and had a cigarette holder.”

No one alive remembers Hock, so instead of extensive research, Grant depended on the screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty.

“They extrapolated from scant clues in the book and created this real A-to-Zed of what a platonic friendship is and can be,” he says.

Grant says costume designer Arjun Bhasin came up with the “Spandau Ballet-like, neo-romantic early ‘80s look that was frayed out and long past its sell-by date as this guy clung onto his youth.”

“It’s an innately romantic image of a guy who just can’t make the rent and can’t stick to a regular job,” he continues. “He owes people money but he lives in the moment. If there’s a bit of cream and cake to be had he’ll have it and enjoy it until it’s all gone. There’s never anything for a rainy day. Clearly he’s in complete freefall,” he laughs.

Grant, born and raised in Swaziland, moved to London in 1982, in his mid-20s. He landed his first movie role in Bruce Robinson’s 1987 comedy “Withnail & I,” which he says, “has a genuine ongoing cult life in colleges and schools in England, and especially drama school.”

He adds, “People play the drinking game and they quote lines from it. There’s not a day when somebody doesn’t come up to me and quote something from that movie, as if I’d done it yesterday!”

Subsequent movies included “L.A. Story,” “The Player,” “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and “Gosford Park,” as well as camp classics “Warlock” and “Spice World.” More recently, he appeared in “Dom Hemingway,” “Jackie,” “Their Finest” and “Logan,” and has a (secret) part in the next “Star Wars” film.

Asked about his co-star McCarthy, whom he hadn’t met before shooting began, he deadpans: “Difficult. Never knows her lines. She’s unkind. Grumpy. Always late. Hated me.”

Then, with a big grin, he adds, “I worshipped her! Just the best. We got on really well. She’s so open and collaborative and emotionally present, and uncompromising in the way she played this part.”

“People love her,” he continues. “I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find any actor that has worked with her that didn’t feel the same way.”

He describes bumping into Jude Law at the Toronto Film Festival, and upon learning what Grant’s newest film was, Law broke out in a “buckle-kneed glow” about her. “I thought, ‘oh… she’s had the exact same effect on him!’” he says. “How boring! I’m just one of many!”

Satisfyingly, Grant has spoken to viewers who have enjoyed the new film.

He smiles. “You feel you’ve done your job properly if you’ve made people care about these people that are, on paper, not the most attractive, worthy, morally upright citizens of the planet.”

IF YOU GO
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin, Anna Deavere Smith
Written by: Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty
Directed by: Marielle Heller
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes

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