Daniel Parry of The Foxley Docket meets actor turn perfumer Richard E Grant to discuss all things film and fragrance.
The Foxley Docket: As an esteemed actor, what inspired you to turn your aspirations to the fragrance industry?
Richard E Grant: When I was 11 and three quarters, I had a mad crush on an American girl, and they were very few and far between in Swaziland where I grew up, who taught me to French kiss, which I thought was revelatory! I tried to buy her perfume at a local pharmacy, but it was too expensive, because the pocket money that I had at the time and my savings didn’t stretch to that. I then tried to make perfume out of Gardenia and rose petals by putting them in jam jars with sugar water and unfortunately, they used to turn into stink bombs. So anyway, all these years later, I was on holiday and a fellow house guest was Anya Hindmarch, the handbag designer, and she saw me sniffing and smelling everything in sight, and she said ‘Are you going to do something about that?’ So I said ‘Yep, okay. What, psychiatrically?’ and she said ‘No, are you going to make a perfume?’, I said ‘It’s been my secret dream’, so she put me in touch with some people in London, all of whom advised me, in the same way I’d been advised as an actor starting out, ‘You will lose your shirt, you will never make a living doing this, there are 1100 released every year, and if you self finance it, it’s suicide’. Anyway, one thing led to another, I’m very, very stubborn and stick at stuff once I’ve decided to do it, obstinately. I then met an extraordinary woman called Katherine Mitchell, who I’d been introduced to by perfumer Roja Dove, who sells [at Selfridges]. We then had a meeting at Liberty two years ago, and they were looking for a bespoke British unisex scent. It was like Dragon’s Den meets The Apprentice because we went in for a meeting, I had drawings of what my packaging would look like, and that it should look quintessentially pillar box London bus red, and I said ‘But I don’t even have a sample to show them.’ Katherine said ‘No, we’ll go into the meeting and just, y’know, we’ll wing it.’ They asked me what the ingredients would be, and I said ‘Lime, marijuana, mandarin, pepper, nutmeg, clove, frankincense, vetiver, musk and tobacco’ and they said ‘Wow, that’s a big hit! Can you make all that work in a bottle?’ so I then started mixing oils together and I worked with a ‘nose’ called Alienor Massenet in Paris. I said ‘I need something that’s like a ‘[makes sexual growl] sexy thing in the bottom of the perfume!’ She said ‘What do you mean [imitates sexual growl]?’ and I said ‘A sort of … [makes deeper sexual growl]’ and she said ‘Okay, I know what that is. It’s called Oud’, the ‘va va voom’ factor! So she added Oud which is an old Middle Eastern perfume, and that absolutely did the trick. It was launched exclusively at Liberty a year ago and became their third best seller, it got a Power Perfume award from Cosmopolitan magazine last year, and has now been nominated for three awards in the perfume oscars, called ‘The Fifis’ which are The Fragrance Foundation. The award ceremony is on the 14th of May, so that was a great honour. Because it went into profit, I then started developing a second one under the ‘Jack’ brand, and it’s called ‘Jack’ because it comes in a Union Jack faded little bag, as you can see there, with a luggage label so that you can personalize it once the bag is opened to somebody that you like and keep tampons, condoms, money, your phone, whatever in the bag once the bottle’s out of the box. So that was the idea, and I’m just absolutely amazed and flabbergasted that it’s been such a success and that I’ve been able to do a second one, so that’s the story!
TFD: You were born in Swaziland and moved to London in 1982. How did you find the transition from South Africa to the United Kingdom? How do you think this change in culture affected your career path?
REG: Swaziland was a British protectorate, so I’d grown up in a completely colonial hothouse bubble in South East Africa. My father worked for the colonial service as the Director of Education, so all my schooling was O and A Level Cambridge board English system, so I think the biggest culture shock was moving from a country where as a white person, you were in the acute minority of being one white person to every five hundred Swazis, and then coming to England and finding that you were with a tribe of people that’s essentially white, so that was a big, big culture change, and I think the fact that there’s so much you can do in London on any day of the week, any night of the year, was like an Aladdin’s Cave to me, and it remains so! I’ve never quite got over the tourist ‘Wow!’ factor of just what you can do, see and experience in London at any time of the year. There’s a Rudyard Kipling poem in which he says ‘What do they know of England who only England know?’ and I think that having grown up in a version of England in Swaziland if you like, with a very strict colonial pecking order in the society before independence, that was good preparation for coming here, in terms of understanding the class system, I think that having grown up there and only coming to England when I was 25 means that you’ve inevitably got a third eye on a culture, to some extent. I feel completely part of it and incredibly and intensely patriotic, but at the same time, there’s also a third eye of “y’see stuff ” because you are, or you have been an outsider, so I think that does influence you, but how you measure that, I don’t know. It’s a big cultural readjustment.
TFD: There are so many men and women’s established fragrance brands all over the world, so why should people wear your brand? What sets your fragrance apart from other companies, and how is it different from your first ‘Jack’ fragrance?
REG: The story behind it, and also the ingredients. The only two ingredients that are in the first original Jack are lime and musk, and because Covent Garden is essentially based around the idea that I have of actors and singers being given fruit and flowers on an opening night, and opera singers and actors very often use ginger to clear their throats. Nell Gwynne was the first female legal actress because she was the mistress of King Charles II and she had been an orange seller, and she was a lady of the night in Covent Garden, and I thought ‘Well, she was a great inspiration’ so the oranges, ginger and roses would be a good starting combination to mix, and then added carrot oil, musk and lime, as well as the root of an Iris flower, which is called orris; a very expensive ingredient because it takes so long to produce. I got all these miniature oils from Grasse, the perfume centre town in the south of France on the French Riviera, and then mixed them with alcohol until I got what I had imagined in my head. I then worked with Alienot Massinet again in Paris, who did this scientific formula and made it into the rounded, complete perfume that it now is. It’s all produced in Swallowfield in Wellington in Somerset, at the Swallowfield factory.
TFD: You’re married to Joan Washington, who’s an acclaimed vocal coach, having worked on films such as Titanic, Cinderella and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Has she contributed to the creation of your fragrances at all? What does she think of it?
REG: She said that with the amount of money that I was prepared to invest in starting up the company two years ago, she outlined what we could spend that money on instead. I spoke to my accountant and he was also very sceptical, he asked ‘Are you really prepared to do it?’ and I said ‘I’ve paid for my daughter’s university education and she’s set up in her life, so if I can afford to take the risk of doing this, I’m going to do it, because if I don’t, I’d hate to end up being one of those ‘Should’ve, could’ve, would’ve people’ so I did, and mercifully, it’s paid off.
TFD: This is your second fragrance, after the release of ‘Jack’ in April of 2014. What were your thoughts prior to the release, now you know what to expect?
REG: Jack Covent Garden has just got it’s first online reviews. I think there’s always the risk of your being known somewhat means that the door of interest is ajar, so people will give you the benefit of their doubt, and I suppose there’s the risk of was the original Jack just a one off, a one hit wonder? and ‘Do you have a second novel, second album, second whatever to follow it up with, will that succeed?’ The first one has done so well, so I’ve already seen the reviews and I know the response that I’ve got from this one, that the people seem to really like it.
TFD: How is a fragrance made? How do you know your ingredients of choice are going to blend well together?
REG: You don’t! I’m a cook, so I like, y’know, when I go to a market, I look at stuff, and think ‘How am I going to combine those ingredients together?’ and I feel that way about scent, so if I see or think of something, I’m always thinking ‘How would that go with something else?’ so that’s how I arrived at it. It’s completely for the love of in an amateur sense, rather than being a professional nose going ‘Well I know that that’s going to go, parma ham and melon, in the scent world, are going to go together’, I’ve just gone by my heart and by my nose, really.
TFD: When and where did you realise you wanted to be an actor, and what was the film that ignited the spark for you?
REG: I saw Pinocchio when I was a little boy, and The Sound of Music, and they both have puppets in them, and Pinocchio was a puppet. I started making theatres out of shoe boxes with cut out figures from magazines and stuck them to lollypop sticks, then I made glove puppets, marionettes, got given pennant puppets, which were popular at the time, and had a full size marionette theatre in my parents’ garage. I did amateur plays and school plays, and I went to drama school at university, so there was a very clear line from a very early age, and I can’t remember thinking ‘Oh, I could make a living doing this’, it was just a passionate interest that I had, and I was told over and over again, ‘You can never make a living out of this’, so the fact that I have managed to has been, yeah. It’s been the same thing with fragrance, people said ‘You’ll never be able to, nobody’s going to buy it, you’ll never get it made, you’ll lose your money’, so I think that being an actor prepared me for that amount of nay-saying that you put up with. So those two films really inspired me when I was a boy.
TFD: What’s been your favourite role to play and why?
REG: Two things, and they both begin with ‘W’. The first one was ‘Withnail & I’, because I’d never been in a film before. It completely transformed my professional life when Daniel Day Lewis turned it down, thank God, otherwise I know that I wouldn’t be sitting talking to you today! And the other one was writing and directing my autobiographic film ‘Wah-Wah’ twelve years ago, because the experience of doing that, being in control of it and being answerable for 120 people on a daily basis was incredibly challenging, but also more creatively satisfying than anything I’ve ever done before, or since.
TFD: You voiced the villainous Lord Barkis Bittern in 2005’s The Corpse Bride. How was working with the trio of Tim Burton, Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp?
REG: What’s so weird about doing a voice in an animated film is that I knew Helena before, as I’d worked with her before in two other films (A Merry War, Keep The Aspidistra Flying) and I’d met Johnny Depp way back when he was still going out with Winona Ryder, when I was on Dracula which is the last century, but what you do on the voice thing is there’s no costume, there’s no makeup, you don’t meet the other actors, you go into a voice studio, so I was in there with the director and with Tim Burton and the producers, and they film you while you’re reading the script, and you record and then you go and do more recording. I think it took over three years – it was three different voice sessions. Then they animate according to what they’ve seen of you and of course, here I’m built like a wire coat hanger, and then I saw Barkiss, who is this ‘[does Barkis voice] WELL, VERY Y’KNOW’ huge gutted, big nosed, big chinned guy, so I was delighted to see that. It’s almost like doing the radio – in that they give you direction but you’re not acting with anybody else, so it’s a very isolated thing, you feel fraudulent because everybody else is, stop animation is so painstakingly slow and precise, which you come in there as the voice person and you record all your stuff in a very short space of time then they have to go and animate, y’know, just moving your arm or just blinking, which takes a couple of days so they gave me little models of my character and the bed and the stuff afterwards, so that’s what I had of it. The animation that you see on the screen when they’re showing you what the scene is that you’re recording, it’s outlines of drawings, it’s not even completed stuff.
TFD: After this, what can we expect from you? More films or fragrances?
REG: I’m doing a series called ‘Dig’ for Universal Studios, which is going out in America at the moment which is about the search for The Ark of The Covenant in modern day Jerusalem, and I’m filming a ten part series for ITV of ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ at the moment, playing the Head of the Secret Service and like Sherlock Holmes which has been rebooted in the 21st Century, this one is set in the 1930’s and has espionage and monsters and vampires and all stuff. Extraordinary! And it centers around the grandson of Jekyll who’s played by a brilliant young actor who is only 25, called Tom Bateman.
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