Jack Hock, as played by British thesp Richard E. Grant, storms into Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? with every ounce of bluster he can conjure. It’s hard, on the surface, to see how he could strike up a friendship with Melissa McCarthy’s quiet, introverted Lee Isreal, the author and literary forger who tried to pass off her copies of famous dead celebrities’ letters as the real thing when she struggled for cash. And yet, as their fiery friendship blossoms, and truths about Jack’s dark past emerge, Israel and Hock become inseparable. It’s a prime part for the 61-year-old actor, enjoying a career renaissance despite his expectation that he’d be put out to pasture by now.
The film was a surprise hit at the Fall Festivals; how have these last few months been for you?
It has been an absolutely astonishing ride because none of us had any idea what response it was going to get. Melissa and I watched the film for the first time with an audience at Telluride, and we heard people laughing really loudly at the beginning and thought, Oh God, are they going to get what this film really is? By the end we could hear people crying, which you know is not press fakery or people being planted in the audience. From there, it just snowballed, through Toronto and press in LA, San Francisco and New York. I said this to Melissa on the plane yesterday, that there’s an element where we’re almost waiting for when the bad news is going to come, because it hasn’t. You make a movie in a six week shoot, in the middle of New York, about, on paper, very complicated, difficult people, and she’s a lead character that is uncompromisingly prickly, and you just don’t know. But somehow people root for her.
Lee Israel wrote a book on which the film is based, telling her own story. But were you able to find much out about the real Jack Hock?
Precious little. I thought that there would be a Wikipedia level of information. But the screenplay really had much more than I was able to find out, other than all that she’d put in the book. The book really just says that he was very good at fencing her letters once she’d been run out and the F.B.I. were on her tail. Where she thought that she might get $600 for a letter, he’d come back with $2000. So he was obviously really good at schmoozing people and fleecing them.
He’d been in jail for two years, for holding up a cab driver at knife point, arguing about a cab fare. Obviously. And then he had this cigarette holder, because he was a chain smoker and he thought that it would stop him getting cancer. So I asked when we started shooting, if it was possible to have that as a prop, because it seemed the one thing that I knew about him.
He died at the age of 47—which is way younger than me—in 1994. And that he was blonde and from Portland. But Marielle Heller said right up front, when I said, “Do I play this an American, is he an American?” She said, “No, you should play him English.”
How quickly did you find the relationship with Melissa?
Well it was an extraordinary thing, because I turned up in Manhattan in the middle of January last year, for the costume fitting, and I said, “When do I start rehearsing, or meet Melissa?” They said, “Oh, no, you won’t meet her. She’s coming in on Friday from LA and she’s got wig, make-up and costume fittings all weekend, so you’ll start shooting on Monday.”
My world turned upside down. I said, “No, I’m too paranoid, I can’t, I won’t sleep for 72 hours.” I had to meet her, if only to find out what level she was pitching for the part. Naturally, she felt the same, so we met for a couple of hours and read through the scenes, talked about the characters and had lunch together, and it was apparent within about five and-a-half nanoseconds that we really got on.
That has so informed everything we did, and even the days when I wasn’t working, I’d go and have lunch with her or hang around. I can’t think of any other movie I’ve done that on, apart from L.A. Story, with Steve Martin, where the days I wasn’t working I’d go in and play Boggle with him every day. We’ve remained great friends for the last 30 years.
It was important to be there with Melissa because, in the film, we go through the A to Z of their friendship, from their initial meeting and the honeymoon phase, then loyalty, inevitable betrayal and begrudging reconciliation. It does all of that in a very short space of time. And it was an incredible privilege to work with her and Marielle on this. We just had the best time on this set.
It was a largely female crew, in fact. Did that change the atmosphere?
Completely. It feels de-testosterized. Considering that I’d been on Logan right before that, with 300 men, basically, and men with arms thicker than my thighs, and stunt guys and cars and trucks and guns and hardware and cranes and all that stuff going on. To be in something in which all the scenes were essentially two-handers between people talking and expressing their feelings, that shift of emphasis and the feeling of collaboration and nurture and all those things, that was very apparent.
Did you come away with the feeling that what Lee and Jack did was, largely, a victimless crime?
Nobody died. You understand very clearly, because it charts that so accurately in the film, how and why they end up doing what they did. I’m not for one minute condoning it—that you should go to archives and steal famous dead writers’ letters and pass off forgeries. But Judge Judy was at the premiere in New York—it was surreal meeting her—and I said, “What would you do if Lee Israel were in your court?” She said, “I would have given her a light fine, because nobody died, nobody really got hurt, and I admired the fact that she managed to scam people that might have been scammers to begin with.” Autograph dealers, and that whole world, has a very shady element to it to begin with. I thought, well, if Judge Judy gives it the stamp of approval, it can’t be so bad.
What I just find extraordinary is that Lee Israel pulled off this act of literary ventriloquism by impersonating such a variety of great writers so convincingly that people who are experts believed these letters were the real McCoy. It was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, except there were no guns and nobody died.
I’d rather own a Lee Israel fake than the real thing.
Melissa is actually trying to get hold of some, but we think the F.B.I. has them all. I’d love to own one too. Marielle Heller gave all of us a fake Lee Israel letter that she had conjured up with our names in the body of the text as wrap gifts.
Since your breakthrough in Withnail & I, more than 30 years ago, you’ve worked consistently. How often do you find great roles to play?
I’m having a ball, honestly. You know, I’m about to turn 62. I remember I was researching a novel that I wrote 16 ago, and I met with Roddy McDowall shortly before he died, to interview him about what very old people in Hollywood do on a day-to-day basis. He said, “How old are you going to be?” And this was 20 years ago. I said, “I’ve just turned 40.” “How do you see your old age?” I said, “Well, I hadn’t really thought about it.” He said, “Well, do, because from now onwards, whatever roles you have, whatever money you’ve got and whatever recognition you’ve garnered will be diminishing returns. And you’ve got to either choose the bitter and twisted route, which is 98% of our profession, or go, ‘I cannot believe who I’ve worked with, where I’ve been and the opportunities I’ve had.’”
I’ve never forgotten that. It made an indelible impression on me. When I hit my mid-50s, I thought it was probably all over bar the shouting. So the fact that I’ve since had roles like this, and I’m currently in Star Wars, and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is about to open, is not at all what I’d been expecting. It really fits with what John Lennon said, which is that life is what happens in between your plans. I expected to be retired and sent out to the field with the other donkeys to graze on the daisies. And then all this other stuff happens. I’m very grateful for it, I don’t take it for granted.
It seems like retirement and artists don’t mix.
No. I mean, I worked with John Gielgud on Portrait of a Lady in 1995, and he was in his early 90s. I said, “What keeps you going?” He said, “It’s endlessly interesting.” I asked his advice and he said, “Cultivate younger friends. When you go to your phone book, and you find you can’t call anybody anymore because they’re all dead, you need the younger ones to supplement the ones that have fallen off the twigs.” I’ve remembered that as well.
You’re safe as long as you can double your age believably. Double 62 and you’re boxed, burnt and gone, you know, so you just think you better grab it while it’s still around. The problem is you don’t feel any different. I know everybody says that, but you literally don’t feel different. Even 31 sounds quite old to me, because my brain is probably still in a state of adolescent delinquency.
You posted a video to social media to express your glee at being cast in Star Wars. What does it mean to you?
It’s utterly surreal to walk into Pinewood Studios and see all the stuff you’ve been watching since 1977. No blue screen or green screen or whatever. It’s the real thing, and it’s all around you. J.J. Abrams, who is 10 years younger than me, is directing it, and he seems as wide-eyed as I am. I couldn’t have imagined he’d still be like that after all this time. I thought he might be cynical or immune to it all. But every day I’ve worked, I’ve said, “OK, J.J., you’ve got to pinch me on the shoulder to let me know I’m actually here.” And he has done. I don’t even need to say his name. When I see him, he comes up and pinches me on the shoulder and I know we’re on the same page about that.