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After losing his wife, Richard E. Grant has found a daily 'Pocketful of Happiness'


Back in the early days of Richard E. Grant's acting career - that would be the early '80s - a lot of movies were being made about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Well, Grant is not Northern Irish, but his agent told him he could maybe land some roles if he got coaching on his accent. To that end, Grant contracted the services of dialect coach Joan Washington. Grant and Washington fell in love. They married. And they spent 38 years together until Washington died of lung cancer. That was in 2021. A few days before she died, she told Grant, and I quote, "you're going to be all right. Try to find a pocketful of happiness in every single day." "A Pocketful Of Happiness" became the title of Grant's new memoir. Richard E. Grant, welcome.

RICHARD E GRANT: Thank you very, very much indeed, Mary Louise. Thank you.

KELLY: I guess just a very basic open question to kick us off. What would you want people to know about your wife, about Joan?

GRANT: That she was - my life has been very public, being an actor on screen and in the theater. She was behind the scenes, coaching actors to do accents. And she had an A-list clientele that stretched from LA to London and back again and was incredibly celebrated behind the scenes for what she did. So it was - she understood exactly what my professional needs were, and I hopefully tried to match them to hers.

KELLY: Yeah. It comes across so clearly in the book what a very public life you led. And the book is exceedingly private. It reads almost like your diary, from the period that Joan was diagnosed to what would have been your 35th wedding anniversary, right before she died.

GRANT: You're dead accurate. It is a diary.

KELLY: Joan's instinct when she was first diagnosed was she didn't want to talk about it. She didn't want to tell anyone. She didn't want to put it out there - and you and your daughter really did. Talk us through that decision and what difference it made to how both of you were able to cope.

GRANT: She was Aberdonian, Scottish and Calvinist and very private. She didn't want anybody to know about her diagnosis. And we counter-argued and said, by not telling people, we are then forced into lying. And the strain of that is enormous. I've always thought that secrets in families are toxic for the families. So I said to Joan, we are going to tell the 30 people closest to us because, you know, we've been to so many memorials and funerals because the age we are, and we've always said, God, if the person who was in the box could only hear what everybody was saying about them, they'd be absolutely thrilled. So Olivia and I went ahead and told people, and within nanoseconds, we were deluged with gifts and calls and emails and visits and flowers. And Joan had the grace 24 hours later after this happened to say, you're both absolutely right. People's love and support has buoyed me up and really has given me a hovercraft of hope that I didn't allow myself to think I could have.

KELLY: A lot of those people dropping flowers and gifts and notes and calling you are marquee names. Nigella Lawson, the cookbook writer, was sending you cakes and soup. And Gabriel Byrne, the actor, was coming by to keep you company. And the Prince of Wales, now King Charles, brought you mangoes from his garden. I was reading and thinking, would I want a parade of celebs stopping by when I was at my absolute lowest? But it sounds like it gave you and Joan life.

GRANT: Well, because they were the people that, you know, you've namedropped like I have done in my book...

KELLY: (Laughter).

GRANT: ...These three particular people, because she has worked with so many of these big names for the last 40 years. And likewise, I have, too.

KELLY: Yeah.

GRANT: When those people cross over from being people that you know as marquee names, as you put it, to being your personal friends, then they just happen to be the people that are turning up. And in the final count, when it comes down to it, you find out who of those marquee name friends are your real friends or not. And 99% of people came through beyond all measure with their compassion and kindness. And it really helped us, my daughter and I, and certainly Joan enormously. And she was - she felt so revived by that. And I'm indebted to those people for their generosity and kindness because they all had to travel a distance to get to where we were living, that cottage in the countryside.

KELLY: Yeah. You're making the point you and Joan knew and worked with so many of the same people, even though you had very different jobs. You're an actor, obviously. Joan was coaching all the actors to help them sound better.

GRANT: Yeah. Yeah.

KELLY: Do you miss being able to talk shop with her?

GRANT: Oh, my goodness. It's what I call the steering wheel moment of life, where, at the end of the day, if you're driving back from somewhere or you're on the subway or whatever and you say, well, you know, what did Mary Louise - what did her voice sound like? What was her accent like? Do you know what she looks like? And what kind of questions did you ask? All that minutia of the day that we constantly back and forth banter between us, when you only hear the sound of your own footsteps and only your own voice in your house, you are unequivocally aware that you are totally alone. But I then got my head around that after about four months and thought, well, after 38 years together, I have a pretty 99% sure idea of what Joan's response would be to everything. So I have an ongoing silent conversation with her in my head, and I found that has been the best way to cope with it.

KELLY: At one point, when she was very sick, you suggest to Joan that the two of you do a "Thelma And Louise" meeting. For those who haven't seen the movie, let's get in a car. Let's just drive off a cliff together. Make it end.

GRANT: Absolutely. Yeah.

KELLY: How much of that was you joking? How much were you kind of serious?

GRANT: Oh, this was something that we discussed once a month. And I was very serious about it. And she said, we can't do that because we've got a daughter. I said, our daughter is grown up. She would understand that we are so yin and yang of this relationship that we've been so intensely in for the last 38 years and have been absolutely faithful to each other. I said we would leave the right notes or we'll explain it to her and we just go ahead and do it. And she said, well, we can't do that. She was adamant that we wouldn't, but I was absolutely 5,000% committed to doing that because I couldn't imagine a life without her.

KELLY: Yeah. I began by quoting what your wife said to you right before she died, that line - you're going to be all right. Try to find a pocketful of happiness in every single day. And I want to end by asking you about both those things. First of all, are you all right?

GRANT: You know, I think navigating the abyss of grief, it's on a daily basis. You don't get over it. You go around it. So I follow her mantra every single day, as does my daughter, of trying to find something, even if it's the simplest thing like the weather's great today or, you know, the train was on time - to be mindful of those things rather than thinking you've got to win the Nobel Prize or win an Oscar on a daily basis or the lottery. So that's been really helpful.

KELLY: What is today's pocketful of happiness?

GRANT: (Laughter) I have just spent three days with Helena Bonham Carter and her partner in Florence in wonderful heat, being fed wonderful Italian food and lazing by poolside. You know, that is the gift of friendship that somebody has reached out. And again, you have dropped her name. But I've known Helena for 35 years, and I've worked with her three times. So, you know, it's a proper, deep friendship.

KELLY: May I say I'm sitting here with a huge smile on my face that you have that three days of absolute joy, it sounds like, after everything you've been through. I'm glad.

GRANT: Thank you. Thank you very much. I'm so grateful to you.

KELLY: Richard E. Grant is an actor. His new memoir is "A Pocketful Of Happiness." Thank you. I wish you well.

GRANT: Thank you, Mary Louise. Bye-bye.

KELLY: Bye-bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUSTIN TEBBUTT SONG, "(IN.) FADING LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Elena Burnett
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.