African Boyhood: Richard E. Grant

Photo: Fernando Leon/Retna

The British actor Richard E. Grant is best known for his comic roles, like the self-pitying, lighter-fluid-swilling mooch Withnail in the cult film Withnail and I, or the simpering, effete ex-husband in L.A. Story. So it’s surprising to discover that his maiden directorial effort, Wah-Wah, is a sincere and painful coming-of-age tale about a boy in Swaziland whose youth is scarred by his mother’s infidelity and his father’s alcoholism. It happens to be Grant’s own story—and he wrote the script himself. Liesl Schillinger spoke with him.

Do you know that the first sentence in your Wikipedia biography says you witnessed your mother’s adultery as a child.
What?! Well, I am surprised by that, but I suppose it’s because I’ve been married for 24 years and haven’t been arrested yet. I guess people want to try to find something to nail on you.

So, unlike the characters you play, you’re completely normal?
Well, I don’t think it’s odd, but other people have pointed out that I smell absolutely everything—from car bonnets to leather, new books, iPods, and mostly food, before I eat it. I have a keen sense of smell.

I take it the personal history in the movie is true: I mean, the boy’s father tries to shoot him. Did your father try to shoot you?
Well, I did provoke him by pouring out a case of his Scotch whiskey. I was 14. It’s called semi-autobiographical for legal reasons, and my father didn’t die when I was 15. I was 23. But, yes, basically, everything in it happened. I just concertinaed down everything to make it into a cohesive narrative.

In the film, Swaziland seems trapped in time—it’s the sixties, when the country was getting its independence from Britain, but everyone’s listening to music from the thirties. What was it like to go back?
I’ve gone back every year since I left—in 1982—for a holiday. But I’d always wanted to write about this period of my history, as well as the last gasp of empire, and the subterranean pecking order that was about to come to an end.

You open with the boy watching his mother have sex with a man other than his father. Is your mother still alive, and what does she think about this?
She still lives in Africa. We’ve had an estranged relationship for 35 years, but in the last eight years, since I confronted her about what went on, she’s been writing me letters about what it was like being a bored colonial wife, then hearing my side of the story—what it was like living with my father’s alcoholism. It’s brought about a great rapprochement.

You’ve said, “Actors are lousy writers.” So how did you get people like Miranda Richardson and Gabriel Byrne onboard?
Once they got past the stumbling block of thinking, Here’s another actor who’s written a script while he’s unemployed, they read it.

Do you want to write more screenplays? And might they be funny?
Yeah, I want to write a story about the making of a disaster movie called Zeitgeist—basically a Fitzcarraldo in outer space.

Will you act in it?
Never. I loathe seeing myself onscreen. It’s much better to be a director.

African Boyhood: Richard E. Grant