role call

Richard E. Grant Answers Every Question We Have About Spice World

“I have some actor friends who took themselves very seriously and were very disdainful of my participation in Spice World.” Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Columbia Pictures

You could describe 1997’s Spice World as a movie about five young pop stars fighting to assert their autonomy in the face of a music industry that treats them like plastic playthings and a tabloid press that’s determined to tear them apart. Or you could more accurately describe it as a movie about the sheer absurdity of trying to make a Spice Girls movie in the first place — a cameo-studded, self-referential adventure that careens through dream sequences, sight gags, musical performances, an alien encounter, a haunted mansion, and a string of action-movie parodies that climaxes with Victoria “Posh Spice” Beckham delivering an unhinged Speed homage.

Crucial to pulling all this off is Richard E. Grant’s Clifford, the group’s rageaholic manager, complete with Nike-swoosh sideburns and a collection of jewel-tone power suits that resemble Professor Plum gone Hollywood. When he’s not cracking the whip as the girls prepare for their high-stakes gig at London’s famed Royal Albert Hall — the closest thing the movie has to a central storyline — Clifford endures a stream of increasingly ridiculous movie pitches from a pair of Hollywood producers (led by Cheers’ George Wendt) trying to shamelessly cash in on the Spice Girls phenomenon. (Justice for Spice Force Five!) With blatant references to merchandise potential, formulaic studio filmmaking, and the irrelevant question of whether anybody in the band can actually act, director Bob Spiers and screenwriter Kim Fuller — brother of the group’s then-manager, Simon Fuller, and future writer of less-beloved pop-star vehicles like From Justin to Kelly and S Club 7’s Seeing Double — made it clear that even if satisfying critics was never in the cards, Spice World at least was in on the joke.

The Spice Girls themselves, who this year are celebrating the 25th anniversary of their debut single, “Wannabe,” have had varied and changing opinions of the movie — Melanie “Sporty Spice” Chisholm has said she was only really able to appreciate it after revisiting it through her daughter’s eyes. But Grant has always been happy to talk about it and the many ways the role has continued to pay off for him years later: Lena Dunham’s affection for Spice World led her to give him a part in Girls, and that role in turn partly inspired Marielle Heller to cast Grant opposite Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which earned him an Oscar nod for best supporting actor in 2019.

Over Zoom, Grant — who plays drag-queen mentor Loco Chanelle in the film adaption of the West End musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (premiering on Amazon Prime Video on September 17) — frequently broke into full-jaw, show-all-your-teeth laughter as he recalls the delightfully chaotic summer of 1997. To him, it’s the cult favorite he never saw coming. “I had no idea there are nights where people dress up as the Spice Girls and go to screenings like it’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” he said during our conversation in August. “I have some actor friends who took themselves very seriously and were very disdainful of my participation in Spice World. They said, ‘How can you consider yourself a legitimate, proper actor if you go and be in that kind of movie?’ And I said, ‘Because it was just one of the most fantastically enjoyable jobs to do — and it was a hit!’ There’s nothing I can complain about.”

Maybe it’s because Sporty Spice has joked that performing with the group is not unlike performing with a bunch of drag queens, but there was something about seeing you in a campy, music-driven movie like Everybody’s Talking About Jamie that made me want to revisit you in Spice World, and I wonder if you felt that at all.
[Grins nervously.] It’s that weird thing — I’m aware of other people’s careers, but in your own, like a pit pony, you’re looking forward. So I didn’t look back until you asked me to.

You had a young daughter when you signed on to do this movie. What was your relationship to Spice Mania at the time? 
Well, because my daughter had been listening to them solidly from the age of 7, that’s all I heard in the car, all I heard in the bedroom. So I knew every song of the Spice Girls before I got to work with them. I was fully educated in all things Spice.

The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night is frequently referenced as the precursor to a movie like Spice World. The former came out when you were roughly the same age your daughter was when the latter came out. Did that help you understand the group’s popularity and a movie project like this?
Having been a lifelong Beatles fan, I was absolutely astonished to be in a public situation where that Spice Mania paralleled what I’d seen on newsreels or read about happening to the Beatles. But what I was so struck by is that even though they were the epicenter of this global whirlwind, they seemed as surprised as I was walking into this. They kept saying over and over again, “We can’t believe this has happened to us.” So that was very touching and vulnerable.

The five of them together can be an unstoppable force — in old TV interviews, they often bulldoze the host in a way that seems quite intimidating. What were your impressions of meeting them and acting across from them?
I had just turned 40, and they were about half my age. And Scary Spice, Mel B, pinched my bum on the first day and said, “You’re not bad for an old guy.” [Laughs.] I thought, If that’s a seal of approval from the rowdiest of the Spice Girls, then I was A for away. They just seemed able to talk about anything. They were so uninhibited, and so thrilled with the success that they had, that it was hard not to be taken up by all that energy.

And the producers were absolutely thrilled because, on the first day, each of us had huge Winnebagos with a living room and just about every modern thing that a Tom Cruise Winnebago could have. And they said, “We feel lonely in here; we want to be with each other.” I certainly didn’t give mine up — it’s the biggest one I’d ever had in my career — but they all insisted on joining up. So, to the producers’ delight, they got rid of four Winnebagos that they no longer needed to pay exorbitant rentals on because they all wanted to be together all the time.

You were one of the first people cast in this movie. How did Kim Fuller pitch the movie to you?
This was so long ago, and in those days, we had answering machines. Do you even know what that is?

I do!
It’s a machine with a cassette in it, a little light that beeps and flashes red. And when my daughter came back from school, she went into my study and pressed the button because the light was flashing. And she heard this message saying, “Hi, it’s Kim Fuller. I called your agent, and I want you to be the Spice Girls’ manager in the Spice World movie.” And my daughter was absolutely hysterical. She said, “I don’t care if Disney offers you a lifelong contract — you have to work for the Spice Girls so that I can come and meet them.” And so that’s basically how it happened.

In the film’s end-credits scene, a fake look at life on set, you’re on the phone with an agent wondering aloud if this role will hurt your career. What did your actual agent think at the time?
My agent was, and remains, very money-focused. And when he saw what they were offering, he was very, very happy, as was I. So smiles all around the table.

What did you think of the script? There’s not a lot of plot; there are so many weird tonal shifts and spoofs. Believing that it would all add up onscreen seems like it would have been an act of blind faith.
I knew that my role in it was to basically be somebody trying to herd cats, trying to maintain control where control was the last thing on anybody’s mind. So that was my overriding impression. Because of the A Hard Day’s Night film, I knew that narrative wasn’t the strongest point of it. It was almost like a series of sketches all woven together in order to pitch the Spice Girls into whatever extreme situation they could, whether it was seeing aliens or Meat Loaf [who plays the group’s bus driver]. It was that slightly improvisatory, anything-goes style.

When Roger Moore accepted the part [as the Chief, the band’s enigmatic label head], sending himself up as James Bond, stroking the cat like Blofeld, I thought, Well, that is a measure of just how random a lot of it seemed to be. So that was really enjoyable. And, of course, we knew the critics were going to have a field day and say, “This is not cinema in the true sense.” But we’ve had the last laugh, because people have still carried on watching it almost 25 years down the line, which is astonishing.

The Chief communicates with Clifford entirely through cryptic phone calls. I know phone calls are not always filmed live between actors — did you get to interact with him much while he was filming?
Oh, completely; we did everything within that whole day. In the studio when we were working, everybody went very quiet [when Moore showed up]. I hadn’t experienced that before, but it was Roger Moore — a legend. And in this total silence, he just said, “Do I owe anybody any money in here?” And that broke the ice. He was really, really charming and very nice. When he introduced himself, I’d said to him that a girlfriend I’d had nicknamed my dick Roger Moore because it only has two expressions: one eyebrow up or down! [Laughs.] I told him this, and he thought that was funny.

Oh my God.
So that’s a measure of this man’s great humor.

The movie is filled with so many cameos, from famous musicians to iconic character actors and TV personalities. Did you have any favorites?
Elton John came in Storm Troopering. He’s born with the IMPATIENT button pressed firmly down, so you have to get Sir Elton very quickly or he’s gone before you can blink. I’m trying to think who else …

Elvis Costello is your bartender when you’re drinking after a fight with the band.
Yes! And Meat Loaf on the bus. Meat Loaf was so friendly. I thought he was going to be in another dimension of … I don’t know what I expected, really, but I didn’t expect this really friendly guy to be there.

Was Clifford fully formed when you took the role or did you have room to make him your own?
They just said, “Be as bossy and extreme and manic as you like. The more and more you do that, it’s more for the Spice Girls to bounce off.” So I went for it. And they gave me great clothes, all these tight-fitting colored suits with fancy shoulder pads and big collars. I got to keep all of the costumes. I don’t think I’d fit into any of them right now, but they’re all in my loft.

And the facial hair — those insane sideburns, that soul patch. You had to maintain that for, what, about two months?
It’s just glue, just a bit of glue.

This is like finding out the Spice Bus isn’t real! I imagine that Clifford, who’s basically on the verge of a breakdown the entire movie and has these fits of eye-bulging rage, must have been really fun to play. Nothing seemed like too big of a swing.
It was license to thrill, license to kill. There’s also something about the fact that you know you’re making a movie that is entirely for fans of this band. They’re not people who are going to be reading Sight & Sound magazine and following the inner workings of [Andrei] Konchalovsky’s career. It’s popcorn, pop culture, unequivocally and unapologetically. I think its great celebratory quality is what comes across in the movie and why it’s such a global success.

There’s a winking reference in the film to whether the girls can even act, but as I’ve revisited Spice World over the years, I’ve developed such appreciation for their comedic timing and over-the-top line readings. What did you make of their performances?
There would be things that were scripted and then there would be a free-for-all atmosphere: “Do I have to say that line again? Do I have to do exactly what’s been written down?” There was a lot of improvisation, which made it more lively. None of them pretended to be trained actors, so having to do something ten times over for technical reasons, they just had no patience with it. So there was just a feeling that you said “Action!” and whatever happened, they grabbed.

Is that stressful?
Oh, it was fun. I’ve never had an experience like that, before or since.

The group reportedly rejected a script with more fictionalized versions of themselves prior to the one Kim wrote, and Geri “Ginger Spice” Halliwell wrote in the movie’s official companion book that she spent a lot of time fine-tuning it with him. They did not seem like women you could just feed lines to.   
They didn’t ask, “Could the line be like this?” They’d just do it. They’d just say, “Oh no, what we’re going to talk about is much better than this.” And they’d go for it.

What were your favorite memories of shooting?
The stuff in Albert Hall, where they’re performing and where Clifford has a big argument with them on stage. That’s the day I remember more than any other. It’s such an iconic venue for Londoners, and to be there with my daughter and all her friends plus her many new friends that summer — that was an amazing feeling. [The kids] didn’t mind how long they had to wait watching the endless replays or the miming of the songs. Sometimes with extras, by the tenth take, the assistant director’s got to go, “Okay, come on, get your energy back.” But the moment [the band] finished a number or did a scene, all these young female fans of theirs went absolutely bananas. You could feel their energy. It was extraordinary.

You and Geri reunited just before the pandemic and posted a heartwarming photo on Twitter. How often do you run into the band members?
I see Geri every now and again. Victoria sent me a Spice Girls T-shirt for Pride two months ago. I was on a radio show that Emma [“Baby Spice” Bunton] was DJ-ing on. I saw Mel C recently — she asked me to do an interview with her for something. And then I was filming a Christmas special a few weeks ago that will come out later this year, and Scary was on that. I hadn’t seen her for a while. From them having been 20 or 21 or whatever Geri’s age was, and then now seeing them with kids and ongoing lives, it’s fairly sweet. And they always ask after my daughter. It feels like a win-win having met and worked with them.

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By this time, Grant had appeared in movies like Withnail and I (1987), How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989), Hudson Hawk (1991), The Player (1992), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), and The Age of Innocence (1993). Among the famous actors, musicians and personalities with small parts and cameos: Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Bill Paterson, Dominic West, Bob Geldof, Peter Sissons, Jools Holland, Alan Cumming, Kevin McNally, and Michael Barrymore.
Richard E. Grant Answers Every Spice World Question