Rupert Everett: ‘I became very promiscuous at about 16½’
Everett and Simon Callow were in conversation at the Borris Festival of Writing & Ideas
Rupert Everett, pictured in 2019. Photograph: David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Eco-Age
Acting has become a tough business, Rupert Everett and Simon Callow agree.
It’s the first conversation of Borris Festival of Writing & Ideas’ online spring season, produced by Hugo Jellett and Vivienne Guinness, and on screens we eavesdrop on reminiscences and thoughts of two friends of over 30 years, both acclaimed actors and directors, who are also writers.
Callow is 70, Everett a decade younger, and their chat is thoughtful, gossipy, sophisticated, revealing. It’s a sort of Look Back in Mellow Anger at working in British theatre and onscreen, life as gay men, and how changed are the worlds they knew and bounded through, floating on talent and pleasure, with doors opening to them and life ever thrilling.
Callow agrees actors need to be tough. And back then they were trained for it. “That was the principle of the Drama Centre”, where he trained. “Theatre is a very harsh environment and you have to be incredibly strong to survive it. So they put one through it. And people were dropped. They said, you’ve got to develop a capacity to withstand years and years of rejection, and disappointment, and doing nothing at all for long periods. You’ve got to really man up, as they felt.”
These days it’s different. “Now, the sensitivity with which students are handled will be no use to them at all in the real world. Because even if people aren’t allowed to shout at you any more, they still have the power of life and death over your career, so you really have to find the strength within yourself.”
Everett says “it’s difficult to know how to engage with today’s world in terms of showbusiness. In the film I’m doing at the moment there’s quite a lot of sex. And now you have to have an intimacy director! And I said to another actor at one stage, isn’t the point, that your character is being led around by his cock? The intimacy director stopped proceedings, and there had to be a vote about what words we were allowed to use in rehearsal. It just felt to me so wrong.”
Rupert Everett and Simon Callow are close friends since they met in 1981, when Everett auditionined for Total Eclipse, written by Christopher Hampton, directed by David Hare, and about the passionate and violent relationship between 19th-century French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine.
“Christopher, as they say, doesn’t identify as gay,” says Callow, “but for those of us who did, and do, it’s still one of the most potent accounts of an affair which is ultimately desperately destructive, but is absolutely unavoidable. It’s just utterly compelling.”
They agree that Everett should have got the part of Verlaine, that he was perfect for it. He was devastated. But then, says Callow, “in about 10 minutes something entirely different came your way which you made absolutely your own”. (Everett played a gay schoolboy opposite Kenneth Branagh in the West End production of Another Country.)
Callow had been “earning my spurs for years” in theatre, “and you somehow skipped all that”. After their first meeting, “We clicked very well together and were swanning around the West End, in some debauched style” says Callow. “With Martin Sherman, and Helen Mirren,” says Everett. “Do you remember that night, with Helen Mirren, ending up at 6 o’clock in the morning at your house? I can’t remember myself being that person any more.”
Callow remembers it. “I have an increasingly strong sense of the past, and an increasingly tenuous sense of the present.”
Lockdown has confirmed that for him, and life has “that strange feeling” of being – he quotes the Ancient Mariner – “like a painted ship upon a painted ocean. I often feel at the moment that my life is like that. Life doesn’t move like in the way I remember from those days, when everything was to be found. It was a great garden of delights. And miseries of course... There was a sense of an ever expanding world. I suppose that’s just age, isn’t it?”
Callow always wanted to be a writer. “Acting was a very Johnny come lately thing.” Everett had early writing success, starting with two novels from his mid-20s, “just after our period really”.
Callow’s first book, Being an Actor, grew out of a lecture he gave to younger actors. “It came easily and naturally, and people found it very readable.” Deliciously, he recounts David Hare commenting recently. “He said ‘of course, the thing about Being an Actor is that it’s a very good book by someone who doesn’t know how to write’. Which may indeed have been the case. But it has been in print since 1984.”
Everett has moved to Ireland, and is now away from city life. He talks about enjoying nature, and a quiet life. “Since I stopped being sexually promiscuous I don’t really see much point in the town.”
Later, Callow relays an audience question to Everett: do you miss your promiscuity? “No not at all. I was always terrified I was going to keel over and die. We both did. I became very promiscuous at about 16½. Until the dreaded big disease with the little name. And from then on really, I just lived, in my own head, so dangerously...
“Writing, really, came me when I first stopped worrying about sex. Rewinding all my sexual experiences and thinking, Oh Christ, did I really do that?” Callow guffaws. “because I wasn’t as attractive as you, I didn’t have quite so many opportunities!”
They chat on remote screens from their respective homes, as old friends do, about the glory old days. They regale with elaborate and amusing tales about interactions with the larger-than-life Orson Welles (both of them separately do booming impressions of him). Everett talks about how intimidated he was meeting Welles about a film that never came to pass. He was cheeky and cheerful initially. But later felt “all I had left was my squeaky voice and bony body”.
They discuss the “unendingly fascinating” of Oscar Wilde. Everett says: “The thing about him that was so amazing, was what a f**k-up he was, what a snob. He really lost bedtime, and we all managed to skim through. And his silliness I adore... For me he’s the Christ figure of the gay movement.”
They discuss drama school, how acting has changed utterly, and Everett’s times in the renowned Glasgow Citizen’s Theatre.
An older generation of actors had a kind of stamina, and were able for years-long runs on stage, he says. “And now no one can do more than six weeks.”
Callow talks about going onstage nightly, “this dogged feeling as I go in night after night. That I might get it, if not right, then a lot better. And that sustains me quite well. I rather enjoy the familiarity of it. I don’t so much need the sense of incandesce. I prefer a slow burn.”
Coronavirus stopped Everett playing George in Virginia Woolf. “I think it was a lucky escape for me. I think I would have had a stroke. It’s a very big piece. I don’t think I have the energy.”
Among their current projects, Everett is writing a memoir of 2020-21, a sort of travel book he says. “I want to see the world. I’ve a feeling the world is over, at least my world is over, and I want to see it.” Observes Callow: “A farewell tour of the world.”
The weekly Spring Series continues next Tuesday with Laurie Anderson and Brian Eno, Sculpting Sounds and Embracing the Unconventional