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Wilde at heart: Rupert Everett on playing the original gay celebrity

Rupert Everett. Photo/Alamy

For Rupert Everett, playing Oscar Wilde in a film he wrote and directed about the tragic final years of the playwright’s life was both an act of worship and a dream come true.

Mercurial? A journalist once compared interviewing Rupert Everett to “trying to nail a blancmange to paper”. Difficult? Let him count the ways. “Snappiness, nastiness, vileness, total silence, freezing out, manipulations – everything,” Everett once told the New York Times. He famously fell out with Madonna and, when the promise of success after his scene-stealing turn with Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding evaporated, America. As he has said, “After a couple of gay best friends what can you do?”

When I get my 15 minutes of his fame to talk about The Happy Prince, the touching, funny, tortured Oscar Wilde movie he wrote, directed and was born to star in, Everett has nothing to declare but his geniality. “Well, it’s just amazing, really, just to be talking to you now at 8 o’clock in the morning,” he proclaims. “It’s just incredible, The Happy Prince is being seen everywhere, going to New Zealand and opening on Boxing Day,” he continues with implacable charm, giving the film a quick plug on the fly. “So I have to pinch myself to keep awake,” he concludes grandly. Realising that expressing difficulty in remaining conscious during a promotional interview might be suboptimal PR, he smoothly autocorrects: “I mean, to make sure I’m not dreaming.”

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Everett has the sort of British thespian locution that ensures that even on a phone call from the UK, you can hear it in his voice when he’s smiling. He’s smiling. His performance has already been nominated for the European Film Awards. “It has, yes. It’s very exciting.”

And, true to the Wildean dictum that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, Everett managed to grab a few headlines here when an interviewer asked him about the ruction around the Auckland Pride Parade. “Oh, yes, someone told me this whole drama has built up about uniforms and the police and stuff.” The parade has banned police in uniform. “Division is the worst thing in the human brain. We’re constantly dividing ourselves one from the other. What’s the point?” Everett told the journalist. “We’ve all had irritating experiences with the police but I think we have to put all of that behind us and move forward.”

Oscar Wilde. Photo/Alamy

He’s speaking from hard experience. He’s 59. “When I came to London, aged 16, and went out on the gay scene, it had only been legal to be gay for seven years. The police were very behind the law and they made the most of the ambiguity, because the law was to do with public displays of homosexuality and private displays of homosexuality. So clubs and bars of that gay scene, which was tiny, were constantly being raided and people were being herded into paddy wagons for a couple of hours of useless humiliation at the police station.”

Useless humiliation: The Happy Prince traverses Wilde’s experience of that and worse during his last days. He was imprisoned for “gross indecency”, was sentenced to two years with hard labour, then lived in exile until his death, age 46, in 1900. There are also sumptuous scenes of Wilde the voracious hedonist and self-destructive egotist. When the irate Marquess of Queensberry, father of his lover Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, left a note at Wilde’s club addressed, “For Oscar Wilde, posing as a sodomite”, Wilde could have ignored the odd missive. “In fact, [Queensberry] wrote ‘somdomite’,” says Everett. “Posing is an interesting word to use, because the whole of Wilde’s plays are about poses. The Importance of Being Earnest is a pose.” Instead, Wilde took Queensberry to court. It ended badly. “When he took the card to a very famous lawyer after the second trial had collapsed, that lawyer said to him, ‘God, if you’d brought me this card I’d have told you to tear it up and just keep quiet.’ It was an act of amazing self-destructiveness inspired by God knows what. Snobbery?”

Vanity, possibly. Wilde was a star. “This idea of celebrity on the skids – at one point he said, ‘Don’t worry, everyone, the working classes are behind me to a boy.’ A typical example of celebrity snow blindness, really. He had three consecutive hits in the West End. He was the friend of royalty. The Café Royal buzzed when he came in. He thought he was above the law. The whole row between Queensberry and him was almost like the payoff to a long career of social climbing. So it’s doubly tragic, in a way.”

Wife Constance with the couple’s first son Cyril. Photo/Alamy

A parable, perhaps, for our celebrity-driven times. Everett’s early career took on a Wildean aspect. “I had great fun and success in a couple of Wilde plays and then I did a couple of Wilde films.” There was his experience of being an out gay actor. “My whole sexuality had become so intertwined with my career. That was a challenge in the 80s, 90s and the beginning of this century, trying to negotiate a bid for world domination on the screen and be gay. The two don’t really go together. So at that point it just seemed like Wilde is the patron saint, he’s the Christ figure for me.”

His relationship with Wilde had less fraught beginnings. “My mum read me The Happy Prince as a child in bed at night when I was about six. That I remember very well. I was quite conservatively brought up and this story about love and suffering and the price paid for love was quite overwhelming. It was a wonderful period in my life, also, because one’s life is so uncomplicated and one’s relationship with one’s mother is so wonderfully uncomplicated at that point,” he says a little wistfully.

So when he came to thinking of writing a project for himself, who else but Wilde? His fall from grace is made literal early in the film. Drunk, he falls off a table after defusing a bar brawl with an affecting performance of The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery. His torments continue in prison, where his head is shaved and he is forced into a decontamination bath. “I thought to write the passion of this Christ, my Christ, would be a great challenge,” says Everett. The film was 10 years in the making, an experience not without its own agonies. “It was a long, long road of, yes, frustration. One step forward and two steps back and start dates that evaporated and jobs that had been cancelled because I thought the film was going to go and then it didn’t. I was in my mid fifties and everything seemed to be disappearing around it.”

Attracting such friends as Emily Watson, as Wilde’s long-suffering wife Constance, and Colin Firth, as his friend Reggie Turner, helped green-light the project. The 10 years of trials, a sort of creative Stations of the Cross, were, in the end, a gift. “If it had been handed to me on a plate right at the beginning I wouldn’t have known it as well. I knew it backwards by the end and I knew exactly how I wanted to make it.”

Wilde and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas in 1893. Photo/Alamy

Everett’s résumé includes an early attempt at rock stardom, success as a novelist and memoirist and a turn in the 90s as the face, and languidly pyjama-ed body, of the cologne Opium Pour Homme. All of this informs his Wilde, who is poet and storyteller but also 100% pure showbiz. Everett doesn’t let him off the hook. His fallen Wilde solicits cash from former fans. He’s a gleeful grifter: “I’ve sold the play to three different individuals and haven’t written a word!” Needs must. “I spent all my ready cash,” he declares, “on youth and beauty.”

He is not father of the year. There’s Wilde spending the last of his ready cash on youth and beauty in Naples after his release from prison. Cut to his small sons singing carols with their mother at their sad little Christmas back home.

Wilde toys with the idea of trying to return to his family, to redeem himself in the narrow gaze of society. His refusal, in the end, to be other than he is, whatever the price, is moving. Any way you cut it, it’s the eternal tragedy of a life destroyed by ignorance and intolerance.

Everett has talked about the difficulties, still, of being gay in his industry. I ask him if there’s any bitterness. “There’s no point looking back at things with bitterness and regrets. I managed to score occasionally and then I was put back in my box for many years before I could find another way of scrambling out of it. Yes,” he says, reconsidering on the hop, “it has been embittering, actually.” The world has changed but limitations remain. “You get only exclusively to play gay roles whereas a hetero actor is called brave for playing a gay role or scores amazingly for doing it. It’s boring if the straights just play the straights and the gays just play the gays. I wouldn’t have missed Michael Douglas in Behind the Candelabra for anything. As a gay person, I was very touched and moved at the detail of his and Matt Damon’s attention to their performances. And I want, obviously, transgender women to play a woman and not just a transgender woman. I think that must be the aim eventually.” Indeed. It’s called acting. And there’s more than work at stake. “It’s still a life-and-death challenge, being gay, lesbian or transgender, and we can’t forget that. Even in our world.”
Walking in his footprints: Colin Morgan  and Everett in The Happy Prince.

Everett came out in 1990, one of the first openly gay celebrities. Wilde filled that role in his day. “He really gave homosexuality its first image. Before him it really wasn’t a thing that existed in people’s minds. In fact, when Queen Victoria approved the Labouchere Amendment, the law by which Oscar Wilde was imprisoned, her ministers asked her to make a law about lesbians, too, and she said, ‘Oh, for God’s sake, don’t tell me women do these things as well.’”

If Wilde’s notoriety brought tragedy, it also made an oppressive silence visible. “You could be walking down a street in Paris and see him and say, ‘That is a homosexual.’ It was a new thing. So he really is the beginning of the road to gay liberation.”

As Wilde, Everett certainly looks the part. Prosthetics? “No, no. That was just me with a very clever kind of mouth piece and a lot of drinks.” He gets the silhouette that graces so many iconic images just right. “That was the most important thing for me, in a way, getting that elephantine, gigantic silhouette together and not making it into a pastiche. His Wilde, fat suit aside, could scarcely be more flesh, more blood, more fully inhabited by his creator. As Wilde once said, “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.”

When Rupert Everett, 16, former Catholic boarding-school boy, discovered the tiny Soho gay scene, he found that the writer of The Happy Prince of his childhood was still a star. “Everybody knew the name Oscar Wilde. Not just the educated people, everybody, because it was close,” he recalls. “We were still walking in his footprints. We still are.”

The Happy Prince is in cinemas from Boxing Day.

This article was first published in the December 22, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.