Rupert Everett: ‘Lots of my friends got sick. I got famous’
The ‘Happy Prince’ star on being gay, playing Oscar Wilde, and surviving the film world
“I didn’t know this was going to be . . . In the Psychiatrist’s Chair,” Rupert Everett says with the slightest of flinches. He doesn’t clam up. He doesn’t take a huff. But I get the sense that Everett doesn’t want to talk much about himself.
Perhaps he has already done enough of that. Over two memoirs the actor has pondered his rise, in the early 1980s, as the achingly good-looking star of such films as Another Country. He has pondered the challenges of being gay in a very heterosexual industry. He has talked about slow periods and comebacks. He has remained immune to self-pity. “I don’t think there is any point in regretting,” he says.
Everett remains enviably chiselled above a beard that boasts more pepper than salt. His Wilde is bloated, tortured, but still ready with a barbed phrase
Then again, Everett may just be eager to promote his first feature as director. In The Happy Prince, which he also wrote and directed, Everett plays Oscar Wilde in his declining years. Released from prison after serving two years for “gross indecency”, the author slumps about Paris as ill health and unforgiving debtors hound him. The Everett who sits before me, now 59, remains enviably chiselled above a beard that boasts more pepper than salt. His Wilde is bloated, tortured, but still ready with a barbed phrase.
“I think you have to be careful with those characters like Tennyson and Wilde,” he says. “All that, ‘Being in the presence of Tennyson was so amazing.’ I feel more like Byron, when he was talking about Wordsworth, calling him ‘Turdsworth’. You read people saying that being in Wilde’s presence was electric. I don’t know if this particular side of him was his most electric.”
Everett has had a lengthy relationship with Wilde. He excelled in the plays as a young actor. In 2012 he played the author in a successful revival of David Hare’s The Judas Kiss. Over the decades, he feels, he has mastered the rhythms of the prose and found a route into the author’s own voice. There is, interestingly, no hint of Irish in his latest version of Wilde.
“He is recorded as losing everything Irish about himself in the first 18 days at the English university,” Everett says. “This is a thing that’s so tragic about his relationship with the English. He changed everything to fit in and then eventually was rejected by that society. That makes it doubly hurtful. He discovered the new Wilde within days of arriving at Oxford.”
The film has much to say about the hypocrisy of English society. Establishment figures were prepared to applaud the genius until his barely concealed secret was kicked into the public domain. Then he became a pariah. We like to think that contemporary society is so much more tolerant of homosexuality, but Everett himself, in a remark he made, in 2009, that will follow him to his grave, advised gay actors not to come out in public. Some read this as an expression of regret that he had himself made no secret of his sexuality.
“No. I never said that. I never said I half-wished I hadn’t come out,” he says. “There was no real choice. I was taking part in a gay scene. I was going to clubs and bars. There was no question of me taking up that idea of a double life. What I was saying was that it is not the ideal scenario to be batting for world domination – which all young actors have in their heads – and to be gay. It is an aggressively heterosexual world. It is a boy’s club where gays have their uses, but not in the number-one, star position.”
He goes on to point out that, whereas straight actors are often asked to play gay roles, producers rarely invite gay actors to make the return journey. Has the situation not changed at all? “That maybe has changed. We have an action star. We have a Hollywood gay action star,” he says.
Who does he mean? I can’t think right now. “If you don’t know I am not going to tell you. There is one – openly gay. If you don’t know that’s great. But if you go to Germany there is barely one openly gay actor. These countries, the UK and Ireland, might be the most likely places to have them. I don’t think it’s common in America.”
(On reflection, my bet on his “gay action star” is the busy Welsh actor Luke Evans.)
Cheap biographical analysis would conclude that all the majors and admirals in his family pushed him towards rebellion
Anyway, let’s ponder Everett’s upbringing. He was raised in a Roman Catholic “military family” in posh bits of Norfolk. Dad was an army officer. One grandfather was an admiral. Secondary schooling was with the Benedictines at Ampleforth College, in North Yorkshire, an institution that also educated Julian Fellowes and Lawrence Dallaglio. Cheap biographical analysis would conclude that all those majors and admirals pushed him towards rebellion.
“Maybe. When I got to 15 or 16 I wanted to get away,” he says. “But I think everyone thinks that. It drove me to the women in my family. I was scared of the men. They did all these things I didn’t really enjoy. I was driven into the women’s camp.”
He resists the temptation to moan about his time at Ampleforth. He remembers fashioning escape via “a parallel existence” in the school’s well-equipped theatre. One or two of his friends also became professional actors. Nonetheless, Everett did indeed flee for London when he was just 16. He has, in the past, been frank about drug use and sexual adventure in these years. Does he look back with any regret?
“Meh! What’s the point of saying that? I don’t really think about it that much,” he says.
He spent a while at Central School of Speech and Drama and then made for Glasgow Citizens Theatre. Life really swung around when he was cast as the public schoolboy Guy Bennett, a character modelled on the Cambridge spy Guy Burgess, in Julian Mitchell’s play Another Country. In 1984 he appeared opposite Colin Firth in the excellent film version.
Startlingly handsome, better spoken than the queen, elegantly catty in interviews, Everett rapidly became a face of the era. He had another hit with Dance with a Stranger, in 1985. A few years later, under the watchful eye of Wham!’s manager, Simon Napier-Bell, he launched a brief career as a pop singer. How did he cope with that first surge of fame?
“Eugh! I can’t really remember it all,” he says. “ ‘My first surge of fame?’ It happened at the same time as Aids. So it was an anxious time. Lots of my friends got sick. I got quite famous. It was exciting. But it was also clouded.”
There must have been a feeling of awful uncertainty. “Not uncertainty – terror. You couldn’t test until 1987. So you were in a sort of limbo,” he says.
There have been periods when Everett has not been much in the public eye. In 1989 he went to Paris and wrote a decently reviewed novel entitled Hello, Darling, Are You Working? He made a few films in Europe, but, nonetheless, his sparkling turn opposite Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding was, in 1997, sold as a sort of comeback. It didn’t seem to me as if he’d really been away.
“Well, that’s every kind of you,” he says. “But it was a kind of comeback. And then a go-back. It didn’t last that long.”
Everett hasn’t done badly, but it is, perhaps, surprising that he has had such lengthy periods away from the really big time. He has a good face (one that has aged well). He occupies the screen as few other contemporaries can manage. His comic timing is always immaculate.
“Slow periods can be good and bad,” he says. “They force you into a sort of creative movement. I don’t think I’d ever have started writing if I hadn’t had a slow period. One of the reasons I started writing this film was that I wasn’t getting any jobs. I had to make a good job for myself.”
He makes his latest foray as the industry is tearing itself apart over responses to the Harvey Weinstein controversy. What does he make of all that?
“I don’t know. I want to talk about my film. Very selfishly,” he says with no hint of unpleasantness.
So we do that a bit more. It’s a good film. Corners of Wilde’s life that have been hitherto overlooked get vigorously probed. Paris is conjured up. The sense of a wasted middle age is poignantly evoked. There’s not much of Everett in Wilde’s doomed aesthete. Despite his occasional complaints about slow periods, Everett, now quietly resident in the West Country, seems fresh, busy and engaged.
“All actors are concerned about where it might drift,” he says philosophically. “If you are a performer you will be staggering to the bus stop at 90 for the next audition at the National Theatre.”
WHO HAS PLAYED OSCAR WILDE ON SCREEN?
Peter Finch (The Trials of Oscar Wilde, 1960)
Based on a play by John Furnell, this decent study of Wilde’s downfall has the stuffy look of a Hammer film without the horror. Finch is very good.
Robert Morley (Oscar Wilde, 1960)
Released in the same year as The Trials of Oscar Wilde, Gregory Ratoff’s film featured Morley as a statelier Wilde. The lesser of the two.
Michael Gambon (Wilde, 1985)
Efficient, if stagy, BBC series focusing on the trial and imprisonment. Gambon famously told an interviewer at the time that he’d been a homosexual but had to give it up because it “made my eyes water”.
Rupert Everett (The Happy Prince, 2018)
Everett brings focus and seriousness to his depiction of the writer’s messy final days in Europe. Has a real whiff of decay.
- The Happy Prince is released today