Can You Ever Forgive Me? Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock (LGBTQ, Gay)

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is also a story of two lost souls coming together, a rather unlikely friendship of a flamboyant rebel and a surly loner that is transformative in subtle yet emotionally profound ways.

That friendship begins when Israel runs into Jack Hock, a large-hearted petty criminal who, sharing Israel’s insubordinate disposition, became her accomplice for a period of time.

Taking on the role is an actor who loves to sink his teeth into colorful characters: Richard E. Grant, known for his many indelible performances in Withnail and I, Gosford Park, and Twelfth Night.

“Casting Richard as Jack was such a dream come true,” says Anne Carey. “Withnail and I remains one of my favorite movies of all time, so the idea of having him play Jack to me was just perfection.”

Adds Marielle Heller: “Richard is such a good foil to Melissa as Jack.  They’re an odd couple because Jack is not literary at all. Yet they get along because both have a defiant, slightly criminal sensibility to them where they giggle at the many ways in which they can say ‘F you’ to society.  It’s that attitude that I think makes you want to root for them.  They’re both such misfits, they never really judge one another. Jack never takes offense at Lee’s crankiness.  It just doesn’t ruffle his feathers.  And Lee has spent so many years not letting anybody in, yet something about Jack’s personality works for her.”

The closeness that unexpectedly unfolds between the two was mirrored Melissa McCarthy and Grant’s relationship.  “Melissa and Richard had so much fun together, running around the city causing havoc and mischief, it was just delightful to watch that develop,” Heller continues.  “They really liked each other to the point that I said to one of the producers, ‘If they become any better friends we’re going to have a hard time shooting because they’re just having such a great time chatting before we even call roll.’ The other thing is that both of them are able to go from jovial, dynamic scenes to really serious moments that take us into the inner world of these two people who are also lonely and in pain.”

McCarthy says she was instantly smitten with Grant. “It took about 3½ minutes for us to feel like we’d known each other for years.  I think maybe everybody feels like that with Richard,” she muses. “There’s a warmth, a humor and a kindness to how he played Jack that was just dreamy.  He makes him a true bon vivant, and at the same time Richard plays moments so vulnerable they were heartbreaking.”

Two Gay Characters in Same Film

That both characters are gay was also unusual. “This was an interesting time for two gay characters to come together in New York,” notes Heller.

“A friend of mind told me that historically the lesbian community and the gay community in the city were pretty separate, but when AIDS happened they kind of connected.  A lot of gay women ended up becoming caretakers for a lot of gay men and the communities came together in a new kind of way.  Lee is someone who often drank at a male gay bar and I think gay culture is part of their story in a lot of ways.”

Grant was drawn to the humanity in Hock.  “Jack seems to me to have the personality of a Labrador Retriever.  He just assumes that he might go up to anybody and they’ll like him, but he’s also sometimes kicked-about and he’s lonely.  He was a coke dealer and probably a kleptomaniac, banned from Duane Reade drugstore for shoplifting. But when he falls in with Lee Israel, they develop this very unusual love-hate relationship, which seemed to me to be the core of the story,” he explains.  “Despite Lee’s curmudgeonly ways, they actually get on together, partly because he just insists on it.”

As for what draws Israel to Hock, Grant offers an insight: “Jack treats Lee in a very courtly way, with a respect and courtesy that I think is unusual in her experience.  He’s also completely comfortable in his skin, happy to be flamboyant, while she’s so introverted and reticent, which can be a combination that works.  Of course, he oversteps the mark with her, but that is also what she likes about him most.  He doesn’t have any boundaries or believe in any rules and he’s willing to live outside of acceptable society and take her into what becomes a kind of Boho, borderless country of their own.”

Adds McCarthy: “I think Lee and Jack come to truly need each other. She has no one and he has no one, and yet suddenly these two intensely lonely people have each other.

Grant enjoyed Hock’s free spirit, but he also had to open himself up to the character’s flaws, which he admits are not few.  “He may be non-judgmental but he’s also completely unreliable,” Grant laughs.  “He’s an absolute flake, always on the make, and very little in his life works out.  I think we all know people like that.  They can be very attractive and magnetic, yet also always scamming for something, always with a plan to do something fantastic, yet it never quite happens for them.”

There was little information that Grant could find on Hock’s life.  “I found out one thing on Wikipedia: that he had a very short cigarette holder because he believed he wouldn’t get cancer if he smoked through that,” Grant recalls.  “That was all I could find–and that he’d been to jail.  I had no picture.  But when I started using the cigarette holder it suggested to me somebody with a certain élan and self-confidence and that influenced my idea of someone who would just take on the city in his own way.”

Most thrilling of all for Grant was building this one-of-a-kind friendship with McCarthy.  “She’s a comic genius, but she is also very truthful,” he comments. “Of course, chemistry is a weird thing. You have no idea if it’s going to work with somebody or not until you meet.  It felt like a big risk to put us together in the beginning, but the minute I met Melissa, I found her to be so open and there was no game playing or status-pulling whatsoever.  She made me laugh, and I made her laugh.  And our friendship has turned out to be a real gift.”

Playing Jack Hock has been among favorite movie experiences for Grant, he confesses. “The chance to be so out there and exuberant and willing just to say and do whatever you want is something that I never get to do in my real life. There’s also something beautifully sleazy about Jack, too, which I really like, because I lead a much more sort of moral, upright life.  But there is also enormous pathos and poignancy in how things end up for him and his story is quite moving.”