Richard E. Grant

The actor, director and author on the seven journeys that took him from a farm in Swaziland, southern Africa, to film stardom in London and Hollywood

Words: Richard E. Grant | Illustration: Tina Berning
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1. 1964, London


When I was seven, my father went to America for six months on a Carnegie grant to lecture about education in Africa, accompanied by my mother. I went to live on my uncle’s cotton and cattle farm in the south of Swaziland, and, at the end of it, they arranged for me to fly on my own to meet them in London. Never having been on a plane before, I was incredibly excited.


2. 1969, Europe


My twelfth birthday present from my father was a family “cultural injection trip” to Europe to make up for the isolation of living in the smallest country in the southern hemisphere. It was incredible: Aida in Rome, the ruins in Pompeii, The Sound of Music in Salzburg, and in London, Hair, Oliver, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mame, starring Ginger Rogers. I particularly remember in Piccadilly Circus, which was peopled by hippies smelling of patchouli oil, seeing a woman wearing a transparent blouse. As a little Swazi boy in shorts, my eyes were on stalks!


3. 1978, London


This trip was my twenty-first birthday present from my parents, when I was midway through my drama degree. In six weeks, I saw 72 plays and films, including Judi Dench and Ian McKellen in Macbeth – both of whom I would work with 15 years later in Jack & Sarah. I diarized everything I saw and knew in my bones that this was the city in which I wanted to spend my adult life.


4. 1982, London


After my father’s death at the age of 52, I emigrated to England with a couple of suitcases, a Sony Walkman and big dreams. I lived in a tiny bedsit in Notting Hill Gate and worked as a waiter. Having met my future wife, Joan Washington, who coached me to do an Irish accent, I got an agent and began to get work: Shakespeare in Regent’s Park, then an improvised TV film for the BBC with Gary Oldman, which led to me being cast in Withnail & I and ultimately gave me a film career.


5. 1987, Los Angeles


I was flown to the U.S.A. to film Warlock. The excitement of being in Hollywood was matched by the acute loneliness of landing in a city where I didn’t know anyone and where you had to drive everywhere. Julian Sands introduced me to Jodie Foster, while every agent I met told me they were “so excited!” – something I soon realized they said to everyone, about everything. Working in bright sunshine in the middle of the Californian winter was spectacularly seductive, as was going to the grocery store and seeing screen legends I’d grown up watching in the cinema.


6. 2004, Swaziland


After five years of script rewrites, financial hiccups and casting challenges, I called “action” on my autobiographical film Wah-Wah, all shot in locations where the key events had actually taken place. It was a journey back into my own lifetime, and both cathartic and surreal by turn. I was particularly struck by the symmetry of having made a shoe-box theatre with cut-out figures attached to lollipop sticks when I was a little boy and then watching – on a monitor the same size as a shoe box – the story of my life being filmed with great actors like Gabriel Byrne, Emily Watson and Julie Walters.


7. 2012, Grasse


Handbag supremo Anya Hindmarch saw me sniffing everything in sight on holiday in Mustique and suggested I create my own perfume. Visiting the olfactory nirvana of Grasse had been a lifelong dream, and the perfumed air when I arrived at the flower distilleries made me feel like Charlie stepping into the Chocolate Factory. I’d tried to make scent when I was 12, to impress an American girl, but my attempts at boiling gardenia and rose petals in sugar-watered jam jars failed. Fast-forward four and a half decades and choosing oils in Grasse to conjure up the scent I’d long dreamt of bottling was a Eureka moment. Jack ( launched in 2014, combining lime, marijuana and mandarin notes: my signature in scent.