How We Met: Richard E Grant and Joan Washington

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The Independent Culture
Actor Richard E Grant, 37, was born in Swaziland. He has appeared in such films as Withnail and I and The Player, and in numerous stage and television roles - the latest in a BBC production of Hard Times. He married Joan Washington in 1986; they live in Middlesex with their daughter, Olivia.

Joan Washington, 45, is dialect coach at the Royal National Theatre. Born in Aberdeen, she trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama. She worked on Angels in America; her film credits include Yentl and A World Apart. One recent project involved coaching William Hurt in border Welsh.

RICHARD E GRANT: I met her at the Actors' Centre in London. She was wearing a boiler suit and had fairly short, cropped hair and Kicker shoes, and was chain-smoking, which I thought was insane. She was teaching an accent session with a bunch of actors, and I thought she had the most wonderful voice and huge, sort of monkey eyes. She seemed fairly frenetic. I thought that she was really cute and all that. It was December 1982.

I went to learn a Belfast accent from her and I then met her in this house, but she was still married to someone else. She was doing a play at the Royal Shakespeare Company and needed a black African accent. She told me that I was the only person she knew in London who could do this, and that I should come and make some tapes for her. I didn't go home that night. We found that we had a fair amount in common, and that we liked speaking a huge amount. She seemed very un-English in that way. We just got on instantly.

I'd been in England for four years, and I went back to Africa for Christmas for six weeks. It was the first time that I'd been apart from her. I'd never really thought about getting married, didn't think it was necessary. Joan had been married, and she had staunchly said to me that she didn't want to get married again, and so we'd never talked about it.

When I was away I spoke to her on the phone a lot and wrote every day, and I thought, well, you know, they've been doing it like this for . . . how many thousands of years? - and I couldn't think of a better way of making some kind of commitment. So I came back and went on bended knee with my trolley at 6.30am at Heathrow Airport - and, luckily for me, she said yes.

We didn't have a big church wedding or anything: it was in a register office. There is something about when you say all that stuff, when you feel that you've met the right person. Before I got married, I didn't hold any store by it. My parents were divorced when I was 11 and it made such a profound impression on my life that I suppose I thought that by not getting married, you could avoid your life being carved in two. But that changed.

Nothing is fixed or foolproof, I have no delusion about that. We know four couples that we had assumed had really good marriages, and each of them fell last year. We both had this feeling that we'd been stabbed, because it shatters all your illusions. It's very depressing to see what happens, though I understand that if you're incompatible then you shouldn't stay with someone.

Our worst time was the loss of our first child. You get around it; you don't get over it. I was working at Shepperton, and I got a call to say that she was in an ambulance. Your world goes upside down. Joan's father had died during the time that we'd been together, and mine died just before. I think that sort of thing either splits a couple up, because the person doesn't come up with the compassion or the support that you need, or it binds you in a way that nothing else can.

I was in the States for 10 months in 1992. I found that really hard. Initially you go away and think, oh yes, you have the freedom to lead a bachelor life without any sense of responsibility. But after about a week, it palls.

We've only worked together once, on Suddenly Last Summer, and that was strange because it took me back to how I first met her. You see someone and their skill and it is rather awe-inspiring. She's a brilliant teacher.

Joan says I'm very difficult to live with and very moody. I think what gets her down is that with an actor there's a good deal of self-obsession that goes with the job, and she's dealing with actors all day. So it's a busman's holiday at home, having to hear my drivellings. She has a very short fuse with that - and I have a very short fuse when she comes home waffling on about how brilliant someone is that she's just worked with.

I think it's for someone else to say if I'm romantic or not. I think I have a romantic idea of life; I certainly have a romantic outlook. I think. I hope.

JOAN WASHINGTON: We met 11 or 12 years ago at the Actors' Centre. I used to teach there, and Richard came to learn some British dialect. I think he'd been over from Swaziland for about three months.

I used to take a class of about 20 people and I actually used to find him quite annoying because he'd get the giggles at quite the wrong moment and I was a strict teacher. He was hyper-energetic, very enthusiastic, incredibly open. I thought he was very talented - when I see somebody read and practise dialect, I have a good idea if they've got talent as an actor. I thought his hairy arms were fabulous. I found him good-looking, and very funny.

Then he came to me for private lessons to learn a Belfast accent. I was married at the time to somebody else, but I think the second time I taught him - it sounds ridiculous to say this - I looked at him and thought: 'I'm madly in love.'

My previous marriage was extremely bad at the time; my ex-husband was working elsewhere, and living elsewhere. I said to him: 'I've met the man I'm going to marry.'

Soon afterwards, I was doing a South African play at the RSC and some of my clients had to speak some Zulu. Richard speaks Zulu, with all the clicks and so on, so he came round to dinner one night to run through a few things for me, and that was when we started to get together. I do believe that there's one person on the globe that's meant for you.

We both believe in fidelity. I don't think we talked about marriage that much, but just after my father had died, Richard went home to Swaziland for Christmas. When he came back he went down on one knee at the airport and produced a diamond ring. It sounds a bit show-offy, but he came running up to me at the passenger gate, and went straight on to his knees.

We have been married eight years. I suppose we've both changed quite a lot since. I used to chain-smoke and he'd never smoked and detested it, so I stopped to please him. We're both very nesting animals - that's why the house is full of clutter and things.

Richard works away quite a lot, so we have very big phone bills. In 1992 he was away for at least half of the year. It is miserable, but wherever he is we speak on the phone every day.

It does make a difference, having Olivia. It means that we can't do what we want to do. I've got another child, a son who's 17. When Richard and I met, Tom was seven, so we've actually always had a child. We've never been free agents, able go to the cinema or eat or whatever at the last minute.

The worst thing we ever had to go through was having a premature baby that died. It was terrible. It brought us very close together. I wanted to go straight back to work and just plunge in and not really face up to it. Richard sorted out all the funeral arrangements and everything like that. And he taught me to get the emotion out, because I'm someone who tends to bottle things up, like a Scottish Calvinist.

It's a difficult thing to promise to love and forsake all others for all your days, but every wedding anniversary we say to each other, sort of reviewing our vows, that we would get married again. I'm not religious, so I don't believe in the sacred institution of marriage, but I do like the kind of package that marriage brings.

Richard is incredibly romantic, which was one of the things I liked about him. I've always been very career-oriented, I suppose, but when he came to dinner to discuss the Zulu, he brought me a big bunch of tulips. He said he thought 'God, she'll probably throw them on the path,' because I came over like the aggressive career woman.

He'd never arrive anywhere without flowers. He buys me huge bunches all the time, he buys me surprise presents all the time. When I go out to work, he'll decorate a whole room, so I'll come back and discover it's a completely different colour - I don't know if that's romantic or just an actor fiddling.-

(Photograph omitted)

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