'Dispatches From Elsewhere’ interview: Richard E Grant took inspiration from Scientology for his enigmatic new role

Dispatches from Elsewhere airs on Wednesdays at 9pm on AMC UK, exclusively to BT TV. (AMC UK)

New drama Dispatches From Elsewhere has exactly what we need right now: enthralling mystery, characters you want to get lost in (and with) and surreal escapism. 

The show, created by and starring Jason Segel, follows a group of four, ordinary people thrown together when they stumble on a mystery hiding just below the surface of their everyday lives. Academy Award-winner Sally Field, Outkast’s André Benjamin, and standout newcomer Eve Lindley complete the group, while BAFTA-winner Richard E. Grant joins as the enigmatic head of the mysterious ‘Jejune Institute’, on which our heroes find themselves on the trail.

Joining the lead foursome in their Philadelphia-set adventure to unravel its unpredictable, intertwining mysteries is the perfect antidote to lockdown life and Richard E. Grant’s Octavio Coleman, Esq. is a captivating and cryptic figurehead. As preparation for the enigmatic role, 62-year-old Grant tells Yahoo he studied Scientology videos and evangelical preachers for inspiration.

Read more: Gareth Evans reveals pitch for Deathstroke

“Basically anybody that is so charismatic on the one hand, but so single-minded and focused on believing that what they are spouting is the gospel or the truth. So I tried to basically crib what they were doing: look down the lens, hardly blink and try to be as persuasive as possible.”

Yahoo Movies UK spoke to Richard E. Grant the show, the possibility of a second season, his desire to return to Star Wars and the secrets of filming Spice World.

Dispatches From Elsewhere is quite an unusual drama. How would you describe it? 

Dispatches from Elsewhere airs on Wednesdays at 9pm on AMC UK, exclusively to BT TV. (AMC UK)

Richard E Grant: Jason Segel pitched it like this: it's four characters in search of something, for their identity, for their place in the world. He said, it's a bit like The Wizard of Oz, in that you've got four people finding themselves. He told me that the guy I was playing is the narrator-stroke-guru, who is like the Wizard.

But what happens when you pull the curtains back and you find out that it's just a guy with a microphone? He said, I can't tell you how it's going to end - because when he pitched the story to me, he only had the first four scripts, and he didn’t know how it was going to end. But he did tell me Sally Field is attached, and I said, ‘OK, those are two magic words to my ears’.

You signed on having only seen the first four scripts, but when you were filming did you know how it was going to end?

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 27: (L-R) Jason Segel, Eve Lindley and Richard E. Grant attend IFC "Dispatches From Elsewhere" screening In NYC on February 27, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for IFC)

No, we were given the scripts of the tenth and final episode while we were shooting the ninth episode. That was revelatory and eye opening.

I love that it's the kind of show that audiences can have their own fan theories about. Considering you didn't know the ending while filming, did you have your own theories as well?

Oh yeah, every actor did. They obviously worked together much more than I did because I was always generally in isolation. But every time we worked together, we were always asking, do you think this is what's happening? Or, no I think it's going to be this! Amongst the crew as well, it was a constant point of discussion - of, ‘What is going on?!’ - you just have to go with it. 

Being able to have those kinds of theories and discussions about a show is so much fun, is there another show that you've been a fan like that of, which you've had your own theories about as a viewer? 

Dispatches from Elsewhere airs on Wednesdays at 9pm on AMC UK, exclusively to BT TV. (AMC UK)

No, I’ve never had this experience before which was part of the attraction. Usually everything is so predictable, or, in the script you just turn to the last page and see what happens. Whereas in this, we had no idea. I like that. Hopefully that translates to a viewer having the exact same experience and thinking, ‘What the hell is going on here?’

What was your favourite moment while filming that made you say, ‘What the hell is going on here?’

The majority of what I did in it is literally looking down the barrel of the camera and talking as though I'm talking to the viewer. That was odd. It was very isolating in that there was nobody to react off. 

What were your inspirations for those down-the-lens scenes? 

Dispatches from Elsewhere airs on Wednesdays at 9pm on AMC UK, exclusively to BT TV. (AMC UK)

I watched The Institute, the documentary that Dispatches From Elsewhere was based on, and studied the character of Octavio in that. I also watched Scientology documentaries, and the ones about evangelical preachers – Tammy Faye Baker and her husband, and the Waco, Texas, cult.

Basically anybody that is so charismatic on the one hand, but so single-minded and focused on believing that what they are spouting is the gospel or the truth. So I tried to basically crib what they were doing: look down the lens, hardly blink and try to be as persuasive as possible.

It feels like there are so many stories you could delve into with the characters crafted in Dispatches From Elsewhere. Would you be up for a second season and what would you want to explore more of? 

Dispatches from Elsewhere airs on Wednesdays at 9pm on AMC UK, exclusively to BT TV. (AMC UK)

I think that what made it unusual, is that they didn't require a pilot to be filmed and tested. Jason Segel said that it was already fully-financed by AMC when he pitched the series to me, and the other thing he said to me is that you don't have to sign up, like most actors have to, to a five or seven year contract, of playing the same character in perpetuity. I know many actors who've gone bats*** crazy because they have done those things. So the fact that this essentially had a beginning, middle and end, and was an anthology that's completed itself - that was also attractive, that it wasn't something that was going to have spinoffs. If they have plans for doing more, I've certainly not heard anything like that so far.

Have you been working on any other projects while being at home in lockdown?

Oh yeah, I'm working on a script. I’m going to direct it next year, hopefully. 

What can you tell us about the film you’re directing? 

It's historical, and fast-paced and satirical.

You famously did not get on with the producer of the last film you wrote and directed, Wah-Wah. What lessons from making that movie are you bringing to your new film?

I told the producers that asked me to direct this one to read my book, The Wah-Wah Diaries, so they know exactly what they're in for, and they both did. So far, so good. But I think if you deal directly, and you don't try and pull a scam on somebody, then you'll get a good result. But if somebody is incompetent and a liar, then that's pretty unforgivable in my book. But the movie got made, so that was the most important thing.

Speaking of lockdown, you’ve been posting your Withnail & Isolation videos on Instagram and Twitter.  A lot of actors try and distance themselves from their breakout role, what is it about that film that makes you happy to still embrace it, 33 years later? 

Because the script was so well written, and so funny. And it's the only script that I've ever remembered. And because it's had this ongoing, cumulative, slow-burn cult life. Even in lockdown, at a distance, I've had people shout ‘Scrubbers!' at me. I'm so grateful that it happened.

Bruce Robinson, who wrote and directed it, is still consistently the funniest man in my life. His outlook on life is in such contrast to my more upbeat one. I spoke to him yesterday on FaceTime. He's on a farm in Herefordshire, and he was hilarious about the Coronavirus.

What was Bruce Robinson saying about Coronavirus?

(L-R): South African actor Richard E. Grant, English actor, screenwriter and director Bruce Robinson, and English actor Paul McGann on the set of Robinson's film Withnail & I. (Photo by Murray Close/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

He suffers from a self-proclaimed paranoia that the world is literally going to fall apart. When avian flu was spreading, some years ago, he had fifty doves in a dovecote on his farm and he took a shotgun and massacred the lot of them, because he thought that his family were going to be wiped out. Of course, bird flu never hit at all. But that's how he sees things, that we're all going to be taken away by this plague.

He said to me yesterday, ‘What are you going to do, Granty? All your hair's going to fall out and you're going to be coughing and choking your last gasp!’ He likes to talk himself into a world of cataclysmic disaster and he knows it's funny. 

On a different note we saw you in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker recently as Allegiant General Pryde. Would you be up for a The Mandalorian-style Disney Plus spinoff prequel series of your character?  

Richard E Grant in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. (Disney)

Yes, yes, yes! But as I got blown up rather spectacularly, I would have to be reconstituted from various atoms, or cloned, which I suppose is possible. Yes, I'd be up for coming back. In a shot.

You have such a huge back catalogue of different roles, if you could return to any of them, what would it be?

I think being fondled by the five Spice Girls every morning was a great moment for a 40 year old man. Of course that’s not entirely true! But I loved working with them, they were hilarious - they improvised a lot. I had great playground status for about a term, because my daughter and all her friends wanted to come to the set to meet the Spice Girls. It was hilarious.

What’s something people probably don’t know about making Spice World? 

Grant in Spice World

Roger Moore walked into Twickenham Studios - the Spice Girls weren't there that day - and he was stroking a cat like Blofeld in the Bond films. All the crew were very quiet, and humbled by him being there, and in that inimitable voice of his, he called out, ‘Do I owe anybody any money?!’ Which just broke the ice. Everybody loved him. 

Dispatches from Elsewhere airs on Wednesdays at 9pm on AMC UK, exclusively to BT TV (channel 332)