This year marks 30 years since the release of Withnail and I.
While you were filming, did you have any idea that, 30 years later, fans would still be quoting entire sequences of your dialogue and watching the film at special themed screenings?
If only! The producer threatened to pull the plug half way through the first day of filming, saying we were already behind schedule and declared that he’d ripped the Bull scene from the script. All grand standing hogwash, and Bruce Robinson called his bluff and said he’d resign there and then. After which the stupid cunt left us alone. Man called Denis O’Brien, who embezzled piles of George Harrison’s money and is still ‘on the run’. Without any stars, car chases, explosions and an unfathomable title, there were rumours that it would ever get released, so the bonus of its subsequent cult status is beyond all imagining.
“Playing Withnail, wearing a long turn-of-the-20th Century Coachman’s coat, I’ve had my fair share of frock coats”
Was there any ad-libbing during filming, or was every line scripted from the start?
Everything was scripted and adhered to, including every comma and full stop. Bruce declared that he hadn’t bust a gut writing a screenplay, to be improvised or messed around with.
Did you ever discover anything about Vivian Mackerell, upon whom Withnail was apparently based? Or was the character a pure fictional creation by Bruce Robinson?
Bruce Robinson told me that Withnail & I was his homage to Vivian, who sadly died before he reached fifty. He eked out his days in a hospice, with a voice box due to his throat cancer, and a pipe attached to his stomach that he poured Scotch directly into. I never met the man, but everyone who knew him vouched for his scabrous wit and supreme sense of entitlement.
Was your perception of the role at all sympathetic, or did you play Withnail as an unlovable character despite the fact that audiences went on to adore him?
I loved the character from his first line to his last. He is so utterly selfish, rude, caustic, entitled and convinced of his own worth, underpinned by enormous self-loathing, so unapologetically ‘himself’, that it was a ‘gift’ to play him.
Was Withnail and I as much fun to film as it is to watch, or just very hard work?
The crew told us that we should value every moment of the shoot, as very few movies, in their experience, were as good to make as this one was. Having never made one before, I took their word for it. Peter Frampton and Sue Love, the make-up and hair team were a non stop laughter riot. Shamelessly politically incorrect, with a running commentary on proceedings that kept as laughing every day.
Kevin Jackson wrote in a tribute to Withnail and I for the BFI: “To pronounce oneself immune to the charms of Withnail & I is to declare oneself a philistine, a Puritan and a snob.” Do you agree?
Indeed! Although its always interesting to meet people who make a point of letting me know just how much they either hated or ‘didn’t get’ the film, like I could give a continental flying fuck! Haha. However, a friend of mine with OCD found it impossible to watch, as he was so traumatised by the state of the Camden Town squat kitchen sink that he had to leave.
“Madonna gave me the suit I wore in her directorial debut Filth and Wisdom, which was a 1930s Herringbone three-piece tweed suit”
How soon during filming was the original ending, where Withnail shoots himself, changed?
That suicidal ending was never in the screenplay, but was how the novella concluded which Bruce originally wrote in 1969.
Did you know anything about the lifestyle depicted in the film, having recently arrived from Swaziland when you began filming? I recall people still living like that in the 1980s.
Social life in Colonial Swaziland was dictated by three ‘B’s – bonking, booze and boredom. So yes, I was well ‘educated’ in the arts of debauchery. The state of my living conditions at University and Drama school were not a million miles away from Withnail’s squat, as my flatmates will testify.
Have you ever met anyone quite as eccentric as Uncle Monty?
I knew an amateur play director, growing up, who was a real-life Monty, given to florid explosions of temperament and grandiose gestures and pronouncements. He also made a habit of using his shirt or jacket pockets as ashtrays and spoke in conspiratorial tones as if the world might end at any minute.
As the oldest actor in the cast, what did Richard Griffiths make of the film’s success and its acquisition of cult status?
Richard loved the script, but loathed the fact that none of the cast benefited from any residuals from video/dvd sales or the endless showings on cable and terrestrial TV. So he was resistant to contributing to documentaries or anniversary screenings, as other people, unconnected with the production, were coining the proceeds.
Withnail made heavy drinking, having a posh background and wearing Savile Row suits fashionable, even cool. Are you as pleased as this as we at the Chap are?
Indubitably, indefatigably and unequivocally, yes!
You are fortunate enough to have worn some fabulous outfits for many of your roles, including the famous Withnail coat. Which was the closest to how you really like to dress?
As I began my film career 30 years ago playing Withnail, wearing a long turn-of-the-20th Century Coachman’s coat, I’ve had my fair share of frock coats, ranging from the 18th Century in The Scarlet Pimpernel to Victorian suits in Dracula and Portrait of a Lady. Plus Fours in Twelfth Night, Formal gear in The Age of Innocence and Downton Abbey, with some slim-line shiny 90s suits in Spiceworld and a variety of sleaze-ball ‘70s outfits for Dom Hemmingway.
One of the bonuses of being an actor is that you get to dress in character clothes that you’d never wear in real life, so nothing that I’ve been in has much resembled my everyday clothing.
As Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying you wore lots of tweed. Did the habit remain once you’d finished filming?
Indeed! The Withnail coat was Harris Tweed. Madonna gave me the suit I wore in her directorial debut Filth and Wisdom, which was a 1930s Herringbone three-piece tweed suit, which the Sydney Opera Company then used as a template for my suits in My Fair Lady, which I did in 2008. It’s a quintessentially English look and very practical in the country. Love the smell of it when rained on!
There is no question that you look excellent in White Tie, as seen in many of your film roles. Are you as comfortable in full evening dress outside work and do you get many opportunities to don the Marcella bow tie?
I think that full evening dress and white tie makes any man look elegant and stylish, no matter what his size or height. The stiff collars and starched board shirts of yore are a pain to deal with and am grateful that we no longer have to negotiate those, but award ceremonies and formal ‘dos’ offer the opportunity to get spruced, booted and bow tied up.
We have found very few, if any, photographs of you wearing a hat of any description, outside a film role. Is this because you are one of those men who simply doesn’t need a hat, or is it perhaps a phobia of some sort?
Ha ha. Rumbled! My wife declared that as I have such an elongated head, with four acres of forehead, most hats sit atop my tombstone features with comical results. However, on a recent trip to Bath, I found a brilliant vintage shop that sells those Baker Boy caps that everyone wore in Peaky Blinders.
The producers of Can You Ever Forgive Me gifted me a Borsalino hat, as I wore a similar one in the film, and I’ve taken to wearing it. And will do more regularly as my hairline recedes off into the Ether!
Can you tell us something about the film you are working on at the moment, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
It stars Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel, the biographer of Estee Lauder and Tallulah Bankhead, who fell on hard times and began forging famous writer’s signatures, then letters, which she sold for a tidy sum, until rumbled by the FBI. Working in collusion with a coke dealing, kleptomaniac ex-con called Jack Horton, whom I play. It’s about two loners who form an unlikely symbiotic friendship that is both hilarious and finally heartbreaking. All shot on location in Manhattan. Working with Melissa proved to be the happiest experience I’ve ever had making a movie. Ever!
Is the costume designer making you wear polyester suits for your role as Jack Horton?
The costume designer, Arjun Bhassin, (Life of Pi) sourced clothes from the early 80s, even though the film is set in 1992, to dress me, as that was the era that was ‘Jack’s’ heyday. So, long coats, high waisted trousers, skinny ties and New Romantic shirts.
Your allergy to alcohol is well documented. You must spend a lot of time around people who are getting drunk. Do you feel you are missing out, or more relief that you are not behaving like them?
Osmosis takes place, so much so that people assume I am drunk, simply because you instinctively adapt to how hammered people are whom you’re in the company of.
Has the age of the “Hellraiser” actor passed? Is there still any room for the Oliver Reed/Richard Harris type of behaviour on movie sets? Do you think there is too much glamour attached to such behaviour?
Long gone. Movies cost way too much money for production to be held up by drink or drugs. Plus getting the actor insured is increasingly stringent. The working hours are very long, so it’s not conducive to being off your face. I’ve only worked with one actor who drank through the shooting day and his career went AWOL very quickly. Digital HD film is also very unforgiving – if you’re ‘bombed’, it will be cruelly magnified on screen.
Instead of alcohol, do you have any other way of getting pleasurably out of control?
Let me put it this way, if there’s a ‘Camberwell Carrot’ on the go, I’ll be the first to partake thereof!
Have you ever truly enjoyed the pleasures of Lady Nicotine outside of a film role?
I tried a Lucky Strike once in 1971, stood up and fell over. Every time I’ve had to smoke in a movie, which has been a pretty regular requirement, the Props team has always given me Honey Rose ciggies, which have no nicotine. I got to use a cigarette holder in the Melissa McCarthy movie, which was hardly camp at all.
You launched your own scent collection, Jack. Does the name come from the roles named “Jack” you have played – including in the film you’re working on at the moment?
As the scent bottle is ‘sleeved’ inside a vintage style Union Jack calico bag, I called it JACK. I chose a quintessentially British name in tandem with the Post box red packaging.
“Scent is incredibly powerful and part of someone’s invisible identity. Anything worn to excess is pretty repellent”
I only got interested in men’s scent in the last few years and was happy to discover yet another thing into which to delve deeply and compare the traditional with the contemporary. Please tell us where on earth one starts when creating a brand-new scent?
I’ve been led by my nose all my life and compulsively sniffed everything in sight. When I was 12 years old, I had a big crush on an American girl called Betsy Clapp, newly arrived in Swaziland. She chewed gum, spoke at bullet speed and taught me to French kiss. Couldn’t afford to buy her scent for her birthday, so tried to make my own by boiling gardenia and rose petals in sugared jam jars, which I buried in the ground hoping for some magical osmosis.
Four decades later, I finally took the plunge and started my ‘one man brand’ mixing perfume oils in my kitchen and then working with professional ‘Nose’ Alienor Massenet, who converted my amateur experiments into a professional product that became an instant best seller when JACK launched three years ago. The success of which has enabled me to produce JACK – COVENT GARDEN and recently JACK – PICCADILLY ’69 – which has notes of petrol, amber, bergamot and leather.
Do you find yourself reacting quite severely to the choice of scent worn by both men and women?
Scent is incredibly powerful and part of someone’s invisible identity. Anything worn to excess is pretty repellent, and those Duty Free perfume aisles in airports are overwhelming and I always detour my way around them.
Is it true you wear two watches, one with the time zone of wherever you are, the other with Swaziland time? If so, what’s the reason?
My father gave me his watch when he was dying, which I subsequently lost. My wife bought me a replacement. Then found his watch in a sock drawer and decided to wear both, keeping Swaziland time on his and London time on the other. Sentimental and practical, so that I don’t call people too early or too late.
Are you in Swaziland often enough for the two watches ever to be synchronized, or do you simply ditch the other watch while you’re there?
I just swap wrists, so that I then have London time on the other one. As I failed all my Maths exams throughout school, it’s foolproof, as I don’t have to rely on counting forwards or backwards.
You’ve played the Doctor, Kafka, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Withnail and Sherlock Holmes. Are there any iconic roles left that you still would like to play?
King Lear – when I’m really ancient and crotchety.
I hear they are looking for a new Bond – has the role ever appealed to you?
Absolutely. However there is the very small problem that I don’t have large muscles, wide shoulders or a bottomless supply of Testosterone to fill those Bond shoes.