Richard E Grant on Richmond life, reality TV and Petersham Nurseries

One of Britain's best-loved actors, Hollywood star Richard E Grant is about to return to the stage in his home town of Richmond. Here, he speaks exclusively to Debbie Ward about his latest role, his affection for Surrey and why he can't get enough of Petersham Nurseries

With more than 60 screen roles to his credit, as diverse as pretentious drunk, grieving parent, Scarlet Pimpernel, two-headed advertising executive and Spice Girls' manager, you could hardly accuse Richard E Grant of being a one-trick pony.

The latest appearance from the prolific actor is in the play God of Carnage, which comes to his home town of Richmond Theatre this month, and this time he is playing, in his own words, "an utter s**t".

The story revolves around the get-together of two sets of parents following a fight between their young sons. Richard plays one of the fathers, a lawyer, who it transpires is trying to help a drug company wriggle out of a side-effects scandal. His is not the only character with something to hide, either...

"What begins as a very PC, caring, sharing meeting then gets derailed and we find out the real nature of what these people are," says the 51-year-old. "It's a comedy of cruelty, really.

"The view of human beings is basically that underneath the surface we are all brutal and cold-hearted, and that everyone is motivated by their own selfishness."

Penned by acclaimed French writer Yasmina Reza, God of Carnage was a huge hit in the West End last year, with Ralph Fiennes playing the lawyer role. Having seen the show himself, Richard was already familiar with the storyline.

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"It's helpful in that you already know the geography of the play," he explains. "But, on the other hand, you've got to forget what another actor has done so you're not trying to do a pale imitation."


Reality television

For the benefit of those who don't know the play, Richard says it's not a million miles away from a certain reality TV show...

"During rehearsals, the director compared the play to the denouement of Wife Swap!" he laughs. "You know when the four people get together and one says, 'I think your wife's a bit of a slag', and the other responds, 'Your wife never cooks and cleans?' Well, that gives you a good clue to what the play is about."

So does he watch Wife Swap himself? "Oh, yeah," he replies, with some relish. And could he ever be tempted to take part in the celebrity version? "What do you think?!"

In fact, it's a safe bet that Richard will never be seen on our screens swapping his wife, bickering in the Big Brother house or munching kangaroo testicles in the jungle.

"Unless you see it as a last gasp trying to rescue your career, I can't see how you could possibly want to do that," he says. "I don't think it's a good move."

He admits Christopher Biggins is the notable exception to the more cringe-worthy star appearances on reality TV, having proved himself a thoroughly "good egg" in I'm a Celebrity... but shudders at the memory of Germaine Greer's dramatic self-eviction from the Big Brother house. "It's frightening really, how someone could be so reduced."


A varied career

Thankfully, Richard's career is far from needing any sort of revival. Ever since he got his big break playing a drunken out-of-work actor in the 1987 cult classic Withnail and I, he has been working pretty much non-stop.

Acting highlights have included films such as How to Get Ahead in Advertising, Jack & Sarah, Bram Stoker's Dracula and Gosford Park, as well as BBC TV series The Scarlet Pimpernel, while 2006 saw the release of Wah-Wah, a film based on his own childhood in post-colonial Swaziland, which he both wrote and directed.

While we're not likely to see Richard diving for plastic stars in a tub of snakes or tearfully unburdening himself in the Big Brother diary room, we might just, it seems, get to hear him sing.

Last year, he played Professor Henry Higgins in an Australian stage production of My Fair Lady and found working with a live orchestra "a wonderful experience". It's something he says he would do again if the right part came along.

"I'd never done a musical before," he says. "But I had singing lessons and made sure before I went that I wasn't going to be a professional embarrassment!"

In fact, he only proceeded after getting his raw ability assessed by not just one but two singing instructors. "They said, 'we'll tell you before you start out whether you can do this or not!'"

It wasn't only singing that was a departure for Richard. Playing the professor of phonetics, who famously teaches cockney flower-seller Eliza Doolittle to pass as an aristocrat, was something of a role reversal for him. His wife Joan Washington, with whom he has a daughter Olivia and stepson Tom, is a professional voice coach who helped him with the part, as she has with many previous roles.

"The irony was not lost on me or my wife," laughs Richard. "It was odd being coached by her and going to Australia to play the part of someone coaching someone else!"

While he was doing the show, Richard spent four months living on Sydney's Bondi Beach, "which is no shabby place to be", but he was more than happy to return to his home in Petersham, near Richmond.


Home comforts

So what, apart from family and friends, does he miss when he's away?

"I run in Richmond Park every day, so I miss that," (though he admits swapping his route for Bondi Beach was no hardship!) "...and eating out at Petersham Nurseries and just walking along the river; it's a great pleasure of mine."

He says he is looking forward to when God of Carnage comes to Richmond Theatre because, he explains, he'll be able to walk to work and dine at Petersham Nurseries. I'm starting to realise he's quite a fan of the award-winning restaurant within a garden centre...

When the play finishes its run, like any actor, Richard will be waiting for the next project to come along. He's also looking forward to getting back to writing his second script.

"Out of everything, writing and directing my own film is the thing that I've enjoyed the most," he says.

The new script is about the making of a disaster movie, and to some extent will again borrow from personal experience - he appeared alongside Bruce Willis in the Hollywood action film, Hudson Hawk. A satire? "I hope so." And might there be some veiled references to Hollywood stars? "You'll just have to see." It could be some wait, he admits. Wah-Wah took five years from script to screen.

In the meantime, he says his career ambitions are: "More of the same, really. I enjoy what I do."

The ramshackle Cumbrian farmhouse where Withnail and I was filmed was up for auction last month with, at the time of going to press, Kate Moss rumoured to be among bidders.


Petersham and I

I wonder if he had himself been tempted to buy this substantial piece of memorabilia from the film that launched the career he so enjoys. Not at all, it seems...

"There's no electricity or running water; you'd have to spend a fortune!" he says.

And, of course, the other thing is, it's just that little bit too far from Petersham Nurseries...


My Favourite Surrey

Shop: The bookshop that's next to the fish and chip shop in Richmond (The Open Book)

Restaurant: Petersham Nurseries - have I mentioned that? View: From the top of Richmond Hill

Place to chill: Walking along the towpath from Richmond to Kew

Place to visit: Hampton Court Palace