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Girls’ Richard E. Grant on Doing Drugs With Jessa and His Spice Girls Memories

Photo: Mark Schafer/HBO

Veteran actor Richard E. Grant was working on the film Dom Hemingway when its writer-director Richard Shepard, who directed several episodes of Girls, including “One Man’s Trash,” asked him if he’d heard of Lena Dunham. “My knees buckled,” Grant told Vulture in an interview last week. Dunham had written a role for him and wanted to get in touch. She’d been a fan of his dating back to his first film Withnail and I, and Grant had seen every episode of Girls — more than once thanks to his 25-year-old daughter. (“I can’t see how Lena had seen a film that I made before she was born,” Grant laughed. “It’s so particularly English, I’m always amazed when anybody outside of England’s seen it.”) When Dunham emailed soon after to ask if he’d consider playing Jasper — a.k.a. older, world-weary Jessa — it took the actor “a quarter of a nanosecond” to say yes. While on a break from filming his four-episode arc on the next season of Downton Abbey, Grant took some time to talk about making Girls’ latest episode, in which Jasper got super-duper high and tried to out-fast-talk Shoshanna. Plus, some colorful words about his soon-to-be-released perfume line, Jack.

Girls has already done two memorable cocaine episodes (“Welcome to Bushwick, aka The Crackcident” and “Bad Friend”). You’re part of a grand tradition now.
[Laughs.] Oh, sure. I hadn’t thought about that, but now that you’ve pointed it out, I’m delighted to be part of it. Listen, ever since I can remember, people have said, “You’re like an overwound clock,” so going into hyper coke mode is not the biggest stretch for me to do. Playing someone calm and very controlled, that’s a big challenge for me.

I had to rewatch Jasper’s conversation with Shosh because you both are such speedy talkers and I thought I was missing things. But he seems to go well with both girls.
Oh my gosh, Zosia is the fastest talker in the wild west. I remember Lena’s stage directions in the script were: You have to speak really fast. I thought, Oh fuck. What am I going to do? Zosia Mamet speaks at the speed of rockets. I actually spent a few nights trying to go as fast as I could while remaining comprehensible. So, I’m glad to hear you didn’t understand anything at all.

I like that Jessa is having to deal with someone like herself who’s been the bullshitter (and still sort of is), and I so loved when he called out her truth-telling in the season premiere (“You have to learn when honesty is righteous, and when honesty is nothing more than a party trick”).
How smart is that? Lena wrote that, and it’s like, How does she know that? I’m 56 and 3/4 and I’d have to think hard about coming up with a line like that. But as you know, she speaks in fully formed thoughts and paragraphs already. Smart as a whip, and wise beyond her years, that one.

And there was chemistry between you and Jemima instantly.
Well, the way that [executive producer] Jenni Konner and Lena work is that they give you a page of what they call “alts,” or alternate lines. I’d never had that experience before. They also encourage you to improvise on top of that. So, I think what you’re seeing is a result of all that. The other thing was they were all so friendly and immediate and open that I think within five minutes — because I’m a pretty nosy parker — they said, “Oh, you’re one of the girls.” Sent all my estrogen levels right up. I just got on with them, and they were very sweet because I’m older than Methuselah. I’d loved them before I even got to the set because I was so familiar with their onscreen personas, which are weirdly quite close to who they are in real life. The big delineation is that in real life they all have very healthy, sorted-out love lives.

I’d read that Lena asked you to go topless at one point and that you refused. How did that go over?
It was for the scene where Jessa and I are taking coke and I try and grab her. I said, “Please, can you give me one of those undershirt things to wear? I don’t think the viewers should be subjected to what I look like.” And they agreed. I didn’t refuse outright, but I asked for clemency. For my own peace of mind. For the viewers not to go, “Aaaaah! My God!”

You’ve said having your own perfume fragrance, Jack, is realizing a boyhood dream. Really?  
I’ve obsessively smelt, put my nose down like a missile, to everything in sight, and everyone who knows me will attest to that. I don’t understand why everybody doesn’t do it. Plates of food, necks, flowers, linens, leather, cars, anything. When I was 9 years old, we had gardenias and roses in our garden. I loved the smell of them so much that I thought if I boiled sugar water and put them in jam jars with gardenia and rose petals, squished them up and buried them in the garden for a week, they’d transmute into perfume. Of course, they were just stink bombs. But I’ve always had this obsession, all my life.

Lena gave it a shout-out.
Yeah! I gave them all sample bottles. Lena’s boyfriend is named Jack, and she straight-up told me, “I thought this was a prank. I thought you weren’t being serious. But you are serious, and I have noticed you smelling everything in sight.” And she loved the smell.

At the New Yorker Festival, Lena mentioned that her favorite Spice Girl was Sporty Spice. You were the group’s manager in the movie Spice World. Did she ask you for any Spice Girls stories?
Lena asked what they were like and what it was like to be around them, because we did the movie right at the absolute acme of their global fame. She’s in an acme of her own, so talking about the Spice Girls must have felt like history to her. It’s a very curious thing for me. When my daughter was 9, I got offered the part in Spice World, and she said I had to do it. “But my acting credibility …” And she’d say, “No, no, you have to. You have to because I want to meet them.” So I did, and she was so thrilled. I had school playground credibility for about two semesters and then of course you dip into the other side when they go, “No, I was never a Spice Girls fan!” Now that generation has all come back around again going, “Yeah, we love the Spice Girls!” In essence, a similar thing happened when I got called to be in one episode of Girls. My daughter literally levitated. She’s a creative writing degree student, and she said, “You have no idea what it would mean if I could meet or be in the same room or breathe the same air as Lena Dunham.” I feel as a father if I’ve done anything right at all, I’ve done both the Spice Girls movie and Girls.

You’re on a break from filming the next season of Downton Abbey. Having appeared in Gosford Park, did Julian Fellowes finally just decide to call you up with a role?
Of all the Gosford cast, only Dame Maggie Smith was cast in Downton Abbey. I thought there was kind of, for want of a better term, a creative embargo there. That Julian didn’t want any overlap. But journalists over the years have said to me, “Are you going to be in Downton? Why aren’t you in Downton?” I didn’t feel like I could email Julian to say, “Oy! Can you please write me a part?” He knows who everyone is. He was an actor. I would imagine if I had done that it might have had the reverse effect. So nothing happened, and I thought, Ah well, I’ve missed out on the Harry Potter franchise, and I’ll miss out on the Downton phenomenon. Then a month ago, I got an email asking if I’d do four episodes, and instead of playing someone downstairs, like I did in Gosford years ago, would I play someone upstairs? I said yes fast. But it’s possible someone else turned it down or dropped dead. Who knows?

What are the benefits so far of being upstairs?
Better costumes. To be honest, I’ve only done one day so far. I can’t really tell you very much.

What can you say about your character besides that he’s a guest of Lord Grantham?
I’m allowed to tell you his name is Simon Bricker and that he is an art historian. I’m told if I say anything more my knees will be taken off.

Girls’ Richard E. Grant on Jessa and Drugs