Dressed in a brown suede jacket and blue collared shirt, Rupert Everett sits in an oversized armchair, his back to the window overlooking Wilshire Blvd in Los Angeles. Soft-spoken, he has all the manners of the kind of proper handsome English gentleman he’s known for portraying on screen, combined with the handsome charm of a Hollywood leading man.
Everett’s career flirted with mega-stardom for years. A breakout performance in My Best Friend’s Wedding earned him rave reviews, though a series of flops like Inspector Gadget and The Next Best Thing stalled out his momentum on the A-List. Everett also blamed homophobia for his predicament: never hiding his sexuality as a gay man, Everett later said that being out limited his film roles.
Now Everett headlines his most personal project to date: a biopic of gay author Oscar Wilde, The Happy Prince. Everett wrote and directed the film, which also stars Oscar-winner Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson, and Emily Watson. He also takes on the role of Wilde, giving the performance of his life in the part.
We caught up with Everett just as The Happy Prince opens this week in cinemas near you.
Oscar Wilde has played a huge part in your career—more, I dare say, than any other actor I can think of. Between doing projects by Wilde, or starring in them, the man has helped you work. What is the nature of your connection to him?
I think my connection to him really comes from trying to chart a course through showbusiness as a gay man and all the travails that has entailed over the years. Obviously, for me, Oscar Wilde is a kind of patron saint of all that. He’s another showbusiness character who charted a gay course. And so, he’s a source of inspiration to me I suppose. And when I was thinking of writing a film—I was 50 years old, so it was kind of going to be the film of my life—I think I wanted to do something that I put the whole of myself into. So he seemed like the obvious person to try and make a film of.
I read somewhere that it took about 10 years to get it made.
Yeah. And in the course of that time, I played Oscar Wilde on stage. I did the play because, at first, I couldn’t get any money to make the movie. So, I figured, I’ll put the play on and see if I can get some interest that way. So that happened. And I became sort of linked.
But then when it comes to doing the role—this is the first film you’ve directed. And you wrote it as well of course. It’s a huge undertaking for an actor to take on a role and direct a film. In this case, you’re on screen in virtually every scene of the film. What were your anxieties about directing yourself?
I didn’t have any.
My anxieties were all about other things, but not directing the film at all. My anxieties were things like rooms and furniture and things like that.
The authenticity you mean?
Yeah. The directing of it I didn’t ever—I didn’t want to direct the film myself. However, all the directors I offered it to didn’t want to do it. Then, at that point, if you have a screenplay without being made it’s dead meat. But directing myself as an actor, being in the scenes, I found I loved. I understood where everything was, I didn’t go into making the movie wondering if I could make it. I knew what I was going to try and achieve. And a lot of the director’s job is done before the film starts because if he chooses the other [cast and crew] wrong, the film’s never going to work anyway. And one thing I did well was in the choice of people around me, because they were all amazing. They knew how to produce the fantasy I had for the film.
You’ve played Wilde before, on stage in The Judas Kiss, David Hare’s play. How does your view, and indeed, the view of The Happy Prince, differ from that previous interpretation of Oscar Wilde?
I don’t think it did. The character is a theatrical character. So…I don’t think it changed really. I had the same idea for Wilde all the way through. And my view of him hasn’t changed really.
I was particularly interested in the way the film portrays Bosie—Lord Douglas [Wilde’s boyfriend, who ended up getting him arrested for sodomy and thrown in prison]. In other portrayals, he’s played as a spoiled, almost villainous brat. In yours, he’s not like that. He is spoiled and he is very vain, but I got the impression watching it that he had genuine love for Oscar. Do you think the Lord Douglas of history was actually in love with Oscar? What kept drawing these people together.
I think he adored Oscar. For me, that’s not the question. For me, the question is why did someone as clever as Oscar Wilde—obviously, someone who should have been mature—give himself away completely to this unbalanced person? There’s nothing wrong with being unbalanced. Put your whole life in that hands of an unbalanced person—that’s your fault. So I think Bosie is…he’s partly a villain, but he’s also the man who made Oscar Wilde immortal. Because without [Wilde’s trial], we wouldn’t be talking about that.
Certainly not in the way we are, as this martyr, as a tragic figure.
And without a doubt, Wilde is one of the great punctuation points between the 19th and 20th century. In other words, all the debates of the 20th century came up in the last 10 years of the 19th century. Modernism, suffrage, warfare on a mass scale, homosexuality—and [Wilde’s] right in there, because homosexuality started with him. The word did, because the word didn’t exist until that time, and it wasn’t a subject that was talked about. So he opened that up, and he knew that the road to liberation would start with him. He knew it was going to be long—he said at one point it was going to be “long and smeared with the blood of martyrs.” And it has been, and it’s still going on. But without Bosie, that wouldn’t have happened. The writing itself isn’t enough—it’s the whole of him, which is the intriguing and incredible thing.
What was it about Bosie that so fixated Wilde?
Partly snobbery. You know, Oscar was Irish, and the Irish to the English were the bottom of the bottom. And Oscar already came to England and changed everything about himself in 10 days to accommodate the English. Then meeting Bosie, meeting an aristocrat, an English aristocrat and becoming on intimate terms with the family of an aristocrat, at the same time as having one successful play, another successful play, another successful play, making friends with royalty—the whole thing just came together in this incredibly snobbish moment of victory. Yes, Bosie was great and funny and clever. And young; obviously at age 20 he was a really interesting character. So I think the love affair from Wilde’s view was snobbish.
The real love affair, I think, for Wilde, is between Oscar and Robbie Ross.
And that’s an even more tragic affair. Do you think Oscar actually loved Robbie?
Yes, he realized. He realized he did in the end, but he didn’t at first because Robbie wasn’t glamorous enough, or grand enough. The unconditional love that Robbie showed Oscar was somehow unattractive to him.
Wilde’s also somebody, at least in your interpretation, who needed attention and adulation all the time. Sometimes that audience is Bosie, sometimes it’s Robbie, and sometimes it’s a literal audience. What is it about some of us that we need that audience?
He’s a star. He’s a classical star. He’s the second celebrity, really, after Lord Byron: an author famous for being famous, and all that entails right through the Kardashians. He loved being a star. When he toured America, he toured in his own train and all decorated and laid out like J-Lo. He had all the problems of stardom. He thought the whole world revolved around him.
You mentioned the way he’s a sort of patron saint of gayness, of queer people, certainly in show business that’s true. People still do his works all the time—Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Earnest. And you’ve done both of those as well. The tragedy of the film, of course, is that he falls in love with the wrong person, and he suffers for that when it becomes public. It costs him. I know, in the past, you’ve also expressed some frustration with the way the business treated you after coming out. Do you still feel that way? Has the business changed?
Attitudes are definitely changing. Everything’s changing now. So who knows what the next step will be? I think it’s definitely not taboo to be gay in front of the camera anymore in the same way that it was. You know, when I came out and started in showbiz to play a gay part was frowned upon to start with. I think that’s certainly not true because at a certain point, all the straight actors wanted to play gay parts. And this has been difficult for [gay actors] because we, at least traditionally, could at least get to play the gay parts.
And now the straights have taken the gay’s parts, and it’s not going the other way. It’s still not going the other way. What we’ve got to get to the point of…there was a drama in the last few weeks about a Disney film [Jungle Cruise] that cast a straight actor in a gay role. Which, of course, for the young, gay actors in the UK has to be very frustrating. But, more than getting to play the gay part, I don’t see why they’re not getting to play the fucking straight parts! That is where, I think, phobia still exists. And it’s not a phobia in terms of a hatred or violence, it’s a kind of straight man’s phobia.
They can’t imagine that a gay man would know how to fuck a woman.
I’m sorry to put it bluntly…
That is a really, really irritating thing.
Now, do you think that attitude about the gay man doesn’t know how to fuck a woman, or that the audience won’t take a gay man seriously as a straight character?
Forget the audience. They have nothing to do with it. I don’t believe they mind at all.
But does that attitude prevail more with the studio bosses? With the agents? With the casting directors?
I think it’s, historically—I don’t know about now, because I’m not very involved in the business. But historically it was just this “boys club” of show business. And I think it’s this boys club, in a way, that eventually inspired the #MeToo movement. It’s a boys club feeling—what they accept, or what they don’t accept. And historically it was just impossible to accept the idea that it would be possible for a gay man to be convincing making love to a woman. I found that all through my career too. I remember my second film, where I managed to sort of squeeze through the door and play a straight role. But the director kept insisting on rehearsing me and rehearsing me through these love scenes because I could tell he thought that there was no way I would be able to do it. And he was this big fat blob. And I had actually had affairs with some of the most beautiful women in the world at that point. And I just thought, What the Hell is going on here? That, for me, is the frustrating side of the phobia, because you might even be quite a camp person in real life, but you could probably act perfectly well straight.
Well that’s the point of professional acting, right? Pretending to do something else…
And what makes the straight guys so brilliant at playing gays? They’re not getting [email protected] all the time, are they?
In Hollywood, you never know.
But these are the facts we have to deal with. That’s the thing I find frustrating.
The Happy Prince opens October 5 in theatres.