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7 Questions with… Richard E. Grant: Withnail and I star talks Dispatches From Elsewhere, cults and working with Sally Field
BT TV talks to the Withnail and I legend about his mesmerising and mysterious new TV series Dispatches From Elsewhere, which also stars Jason Segel, Sally Field and André 3000.
Dispatches From Elsewhere is unlike any TV show you’ll watch this year. In fact, it’s unlike any TV show you’ll watch almost any year.
Created by and starring Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother, The Muppets), the series is loosely inspired by real events from a decade ago when thousands of people were recruited for a series of strange treasure hunts and curious challenges in San Francisco by the mysterious Jejune Institute.
Those events were covered in 2013 documentary The Institute, which gave Segel a starting point for this drama series about four people searching for something missing in their lives.
Segel, Andre Benjamin, Sally Field and Eve Lindley play the four leads and represent a diverse foursome brought together by chance – or is it by design? – to play the puzzles and games that lead them down a mysterious path towards a world of magic and new possibilities.
Pulling the strings and orchestrating the games is the mysterious and enigmatic Octavio Coleman, Esq, played by the incomparable Richard E. Grant.
BT TV caught up with Grant to find out a little more about the dazzling and mysterious new series from AMC.
1. Dispatches From Elsewhere is unlike any TV show I’ve seen. How would you describe it?
Describe it… if you don’t know how to, I certainly don’t know how to!
Oh, god. It’s an anthology series. And there are four main characters who are overseen by a mental guru called Octavio, who I play.
The four people at the centre of the show are on the search for the answers to life. And that’s the quest they go on. And nothing is what it seems.
It was inspired by a cult that started in San Francisco a decade ago. They made a documentary about it called The Institute. The guy at the centre of it was a guy called Octavio. He controls people through various media.
2. Is it true you had no idea what the series was about when you signed up?
When I first met Jason Segel, he had the first four scripts, which I read, but that was it. Sally Field said the same thing. All he could tell us was the premise. It took a leap of faith and I dived in.
Jason is incredibly articulate. A very, very smart guy. It was unlike any pitch I’ve had from a writer or director before, probably because he is an actor himself. He understands what you have to do to get there.
And he mentioned the two magical words - Sally Field.
3. Had you worked with Sally Field before?
If Sally Field was going to be in it, I’d be very honoured and privileged to be in the same company. So I jumped into it.
I had never met her before. She’s very petite, as I’m sure you can imagine. She’s about 5 foot 3 and she’s been working professionally since she was 16 years old. She’s now 73 or 74. She’s won every award going. She’s seen and done everything. She is someone you do not mess with.
She’s incredibly amenable and generous, but don’t mess with Sally because you’ll have your head snapped off, in the best possible way. And I like that.
4. The very first scene is of you making a speech down the camera lens. Was that challenging to film?
It’s just exactly as Jason gave it to me. He said to me, look down the barrel of the camera, imagine you are talking to somebody directly and don’t waver. Try not to blink. Keep it absolutely steady. Because I’m very gregarious by nature, I found it a very odd thing to have no people to react off other than literally the mechanical lens looking at me.
Again, that is a leap of faith I had to take. Jason did say, can you hold a look without moving or speaking at all for 30-60 seconds. I don’t know if he’s used that or not, or whether he used part of it. I haven’t seen it.
But the idea was that I would be willing people to sit back, and wait, and hear what they were going to be told.
5. Did you base your character on anyone?
I watched the scientology documentary and The Institute documentary. And I watched some evangelical preachers, Tammy Faye Bakker and her husband. People who make a living by trying to mesmerise other people. And just see what they do. That self-belief and focus is certainly not something I have in my life. So it’s interesting to dive in and try pull that off.
I’m always astonished [by cults]. Like the Waco Texas massacre. Or the guy that got all the people to follow him in South America and then poisoned them all in his commune. Anybody who manages to pull that off, I find it astonishing.
People try to sell me stuff in the street and I’ve never fallen for any of that, so it amazes me that people are willing to give up their lives, their salaries or donate 10-20% of their salaries to a cult. I’m a Darwinian rationalist, so I don’t believe in any of that stuff.
6. Eve Lindley’s character Simone immediately hooked me into the series. What was Eve like?
I’d never seen or heard of Eve before this. She’s an incredibly driven and delightful person. Out of everybody, she was probably half the age of everyone else. She was our mascot.
She was so enthusiastic about everything. She was so un-jaded, uncynical. And it was very refreshing. And she’s a really, really good actress.
7. The show doesn’t have a traditional structure. Did that appeal to you?
Yes. Definitely. Before I see a movie or a play, I try to read as little as I can about it. But it’s getting harder and harder with social media. You can sometimes end up finding out every bit of information about something before you’ve even seen it. And suddenly you’re watching it through the filter you’ve already downloaded.
Not knowing how something is going to turn out and not having the answers in every episode is very refreshing. It’s a great pull for this show. It’s one of it’s great strengths.
Dispatches From Elsewhere premieres on Wednesday, April 29 with a double-bill on AMC.
Watch on BT TV channel 333/381 HD, the BT Player and BT TV App.
AMC is exclusive to BT TV customers.