Tongue firmly in cheek, ubiquitous actor Richard E. Grant describes his new LGBT film “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” as “a buddy movie that goes from bar to bookstore to bar to bookstore to bar to courtroom.”
Set in New York City in 1991, the movie stars Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel, a celebrity biographer whose books have gone out of fashion. Unable to get an advance on her planned biography of Fanny Brice, and desperate to pay the rent, the lesbian author stumbles into a lucrative new career. She becomes a literary forger, writing and selling fake letters from Brice, Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward and other witty luminaries.
Grant plays Jack Hock, Israel’s best (and only) friend who becomes her willing accomplice in the scheme, which ultimately collapses when Israel and Hock flood the memorabilia market.
Not surprisingly, the actor sees the unlikely friendship between Israel and Hock in classic Hollywood terms. When he first read the screenplay, he immediately thought of Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) and Joe Buck (Jon Voight) from “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), the gritty homoerotic buddy movie directed by openly gay filmmaker John Schlesinger.
Like the iconic buddies, Grant says Israel and Hock “are two people who shouldn’t have become friends. They’re in New York City, surrounded by incredible numbers of people, but they’re so isolated and lonely that they form this co-dependent relationship and they get involved in scams out of dire necessity.”
Once he finished the script, which is based on Israel’s memoir of the same name, Grant tried to find out more about Jack Hock.
“After I read the screenplay I hoped the memoir would provide incredible insight and detail about Jack Hock,” he says. “Well, being the ego-centric self-obsessed women that she was, there is scant detail about Jack in Lee’s book.”
Grant did get the basic outline of Hock’s life from the book (and from Wikipedia) — “He’s gay. He’s a grifter. He’s HIV-positive. His friends have died of AIDS. He was from Portland. He was blond, tall and died in 1994 at the age of 47. He went to jail for two years for holding up a taxi driver at knifepoint arguing over a fare.”
But, two key details helped the actor ground his approach to the character. Convinced that it would stop him from getting lung cancer, Hock used a short cigarette holder.
“I took that as a key to his affection and how he saw himself,” Grant says. “I could see him clutching the cigarette holder and holding forth at bars.”
Hock, it turns out, was quite successful at his work.
“When Lee thought a forged letter was worth five hundred bucks,” Grant notes, “Jack would come back with two grand. From that I deduced that he really knew how work a scam and seduce or fool people with some kind of charm, even if he didn’t know who Fanny Brice was.”
The final step in Grant’s artistic process was to find the right metaphor for the quirky relationship Hock and Israel.
“I always think of characters in animal terms,” Grant says. “Lee is essentially a porcupine. She’s prickly, antisocial, difficult and you don’t want to mess with her at any point. Whereas Jack is essentially a kind of Labrador Retriever. He just assumes that he might go up to anybody and they’ll like him. When Jack Hock falls in with Lee Israel, they develop this very unusual love-hate relationship which seemed to me to be the core of the story. I think Lee and Jack come to truly need each other. She has no one and he has no one and yet suddenly these two intensely lonely people have each other.”
Following his breakout performance in his first movie role as an unemployed and unemployable actor in “Withnail and I” (1987), Grant has enjoyed a long and distinguished career. Some of his famous film performances include “Ready to Wear,” where the straight ally also played gay; “Gosford Park;” “Twelfth Night;” and “Logan,” where he played Dr. Zander Rice. He also wrote and directed “Wah-Wah,” an autobiographical movie about his childhood in Swaziland.
On television, he has appeared in “Downton Abbey,” “Doctor Who” and “Girls” and starred as “The Scarlet Pimpernel.”
Later this month, he will be onscreen in Disney’s “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.”
Next year he can be seen in “Star Wars: Episode IX” and in the third and final season of “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” on Netflix with Neil Patrick Harris. Unfortunately, he is sworn to secrecy on his roles in both of those projects.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is in D.C.-area theaters now.