Tall, gangly, and possessed of a frenetic intensity that lends itself to the highly eccentric and often borderline insane characters he plays, British actor Richard E. Grant is nothing if not one of the more distinctive performers to have gained celluloid immortality. His wild eyes and high-strung demeanor occasionally giving him an uncanny resemblance to a meerkat on speed, Grant has been delighting and shocking observers with both his on- and off-screen persona since his 1987 breakthrough in Withnail & I.
Born Richard Grant Esterhuysen on May 5, 1957, in Mbabane, Swaziland, Grant had a somewhat distinctive upbringing, thanks in part to his father's job as the Swazi Minister of Education. His parents' divorce when the actor was 11, for example, was the source of a fair amount of scandal in South Africa. For his part, Grant knew early on that he wanted to be an actor, something that was fueled by an infatuation with Barbra Streisand and a steady diet of movies. He followed the career of Donald Sutherland with particularly rapt attention, as, like Grant, Sutherland was tall, thin, long-faced, and hailed from the middle of nowhere.
After studying English and Drama at Cape Town University, where he co-founded the multi-racial, avant garde Troupe Theatre Company, Grant headed for London in 1982. He was greeted by a period of unemployment and frustration that lasted for almost five years. The actor eventually began finding work on the stage, and in 1984 was dubbed by Plays and Players magazine as "most promising newcomer" for his performance in Tramway Road at Hammersmith's Lyric Theatre. Ironically enough, given his years of struggle, it was Grant's portrayal of a bitter, pill-popping, unemployed actor in Bruce Robinson's black comedy Withnail & I that finally put him on the map. The film was a genuine cult classic, and Hollywood soon came sniffing around, if only to cast Grant in the 1988 demons-on-the-loose flop Warlock. The following year, the actor again tapped into his reserves of unpleasantness for Robinson, starring as a toxic advertising executive who develops a talking boil in the satirical How to Get Ahead in Advertising. Grant's hilariously vile characterization was considered by many to be the highlight of the film, and further paved the way for greater industry appreciation.
Grant subsequently earned recognition on both sides of the Atlantic, thanks to a number of diverse and often peculiar roles in films of widely varying quality. Particularly memorable during the early to mid-'90s were portrayals Anais Nin's well-intentioned but dull husband in Henry & June (1990), the evil billionaire Darwin Mayflower in the spectacularly disappointing Hudson Hawk (1991), an overly insistent screenwriter in Robert Altman's The Player (1992), high society lounge lizard Larry Lefferts in Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (1993), and an outrageous fashion designer that Grant described as a "male Vivienne Westwood" in Altman's disastrous Pret-A-Porter (1994).
Despite his eccentric persona, Grant has time and again proven himself more than capable of essaying straight man roles, as he demonstrated in such films as Jack and Sarah (1995), in which he played a grieving widower; The Portrait of a Lady (1996), in which he had a small but memorable role as one of Isabel Archer's most ardent suitors; and the made-for-TV The Scarlet Pimpernel (1999), which cast him as its titular hero. He has also continued to shine in films that impress upon his comedic abilities, as evidenced by his role as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night (1996) and his portrayal of a disgruntled advertising man in A Merry War (1997) (otherwise known as Keep the Aspidistra Flying), a satirical comedy based upon a novel by George Orwell.
Enlisted again by Altman, Grant showed up alongside a star-studded ensemble cast in 2001's critically-acclaimed Gosford Park. Supporting roles continued to suit him well as he would later take on parts in Steven Fry's Bright Young Things and the 2004 John Malkovich-starrer Colour Me Kubrick.