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Rupert Everett: ‘The road to liberation for all gay people began with Oscar Wilde’

The English actor talks about how his latest memoir — soaked in glamour, humour and gossip — came to fruition

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Rupert Everett

Rupert Everett

Rupert Everett

The problem with being known as a modern-day wit is that people like me want to frequently know your take on everything from cancel culture to Brexit, in the hopes that you’ll fire out an immortal, delightful zinger. Rupert Everett certainly has form in that regard, although the actor’s grasp of the outré quip is a gift that has landed him in hot water on occasion. He famously referred to his former BFF Madonna as a “whiny old barmaid”, reckons that Elton John “has lost it entirely”, and once famously declared: “I’m a sex machine to both genders. It’s all very exhausting. I need a lot of sleep.”

It’s important to be honest if people ask you a question,” Everett notes, in a phonecall from his home in Wiltshire, which he shares with his Brazilian partner Henrique and an 18-month-old labrador, Pluto. “It’s been kind of my raison d’etre.”

Just last week, Everett was quoted in an interview as saying that the trans movement has ‘overshadowed’ gay rights and that he was now “the wrong type of queen”. Did he come under fire for that? He is decidedly more circumspect on it all this morning. “It’s a discussion I’d have to do when you and I are face to face — I find it gets lost in translation over the phone,” he says.

Everett is decidedly more forthcoming, not to mention lyrical, in his third book, To The End Of The World: Travels With Oscar Wilde. Much like his first two memoirs, 2002’s Vanished Years and 2006’s Red Carpets & Other Banana Skins, the book is positively soaked in glamour, riotously bone-dry humour and gossip. There’s barely a page where the reader doesn’t think of Everett — often described as Hollywood’s quintessential gay best friend — as consummate, indiscreet company.

He finds writing solitary and difficult, but is still working on two writing projects right now. The first is D For Dog, a film of his formative years that, following the example of his erstwhile pal Madonna, he is hoping to direct himself next year. “It’s based mostly on my own experiences of when I was 17,” he says. “It takes place in Paris in the late Seventies, and there’s disco, fashion, sex, everything in it.” Another book, 20:20 Vision, is the “story of this year and everything that’s happened in it”.

“I think it’s been challenging,” he says of his 2020. “I started off doing a play on Broadway (Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?) and we performed eight shows before that was taken off. Then I spent a few months isolating in the Catskill Mountains, and I came back to live with my mum.”

His mother, Sara, is 86 and “at the end of a busy, hardworking life”. “She doesn’t like it if I try to do anything different with the garden. It’s nice to be able to help her out and be close to her.”

Everett is a truly gifted writer, even when recounting the protracted and occasionally pained labour of getting his passion project, 2018’s Oscar Wilde biopic The Happy Prince, to fruition.

He first encountered Wilde as a child, when his mother would read the Irish writer’s fairy stories to him (“I didn’t have much of a picture of him, but the stories, I found incredible”).

“Getting to know him happened much later,” Everett says. “When we were at drama school, I don’t think I particularly enjoyed him because most of us wanted to do more modern things at that time, but my love of Wilde started when I began to do the plays.”

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A stint doing The Picture of Dorian Gray in Glasgow and The Importance of Being Earnest on the Paris stage sealed his appreciation, little by little. In 1999, he received his second Golden Globe nomination for his role of Lord Arthur in An Ideal Husband, and fizzed in the 2002 screen adaptation of The Importance Of Being Earnest. In 2012, Everett took the doomed and damned version of Wilde (at the point in his life when his lover Bosie publicly betrays him) to the stage of the Gaiety Theatre in The Judas Kiss.

“The other films go up to the moment when Wilde went to prison, and then stopped,” Everett explains. “The moment after that is the one I find the most interesting.

“I started to read more and more about him — only then did I become truly obsessed. And then, after I’d written my script for The Happy Prince, I was pretty much stalking him.”

Everett loves that Wilde is, in his words, “the patron saint of anyone who made a mess of their life”.

“I think it’s his humanity that I love, really,” he says. “His failures, as much as his talent — all of it is him. He was a terrible snob, and he blew everything. Most of us get away with it, but Oscar Wilde, very dramatically, didn’t. He’s a very moving and inspiring character in that sense.”

Everett wanted to get the project off the ground mainly as an act of professional self-preservation: “I thought it would be great to write a screenplay and create work for myself as it was a way to keep going as an actor,” he explains. “The parts I was getting were slowly becoming smaller and less substantial, and I had a vanity about myself, not being able to give up on that [career]. So I thought Oscar Wilde would be the perfect character to try and play.”

He has made no secret of the fact that his acting career, with its many successes, has also been pockmarked with disappointment and waning fame.

“I think I never had constant success,” he reflects. “I dealt with it rather in the same way you dealt with the financial crisis in Ireland. You kind of got on with it, unlike the rest of us who complained.

“Not that that’s how you deal with an acting career — sometimes they go down and never go back up, and you have to ride with it. If you’ve got the energy to rebuild yourself, it forces you back into yourself and to go over what you’re really doing. I think the bad periods in my career have probably been the most fertilising.”

Everett has noted that his sexuality had an effect on his career prospects; in To The End Of The World, he writes of ‘acting butch’ in meetings with Hollywood executives.

Of course, it’s a different time now; proudly gay actors like Andrew Scott are playing hot (heterosexual) priests and creating a huge swell of lusting female admirers in the process.

“I think it’s great — it’s fantastic,” Everett says. “It’s very well deserved. He’s an amazing actor and it’s great that things are on the move.

“When I started out, the landscape was very different. It was definitely complicated, but there’s no real point on looking back on these things. If you want to achieve world domination, as most actors do when they start out, you realise quickly that it was impossible in the Eighties and Nineties if you were gay. But I still managed to make things work, and I’m still going.”

Amid the ebbs and flows of his own career, Oscar’s final years, lived in relative quietude in Paris, loomed large in Everett’s mind.

“As the years went on, I became very attached to Oscar, and watched the other [movies] of Oscar, and I felt that the portraits of him weren’t very accurate,” he says.

In the last few years of his life, Wilde was living a life of infamy in Paris. “He was the first ‘out’ homosexual man in modern thinking, and people recognised him on the street as in, ‘that is a homosexual man’,” Everett says. “Homosexuality had only been whispered until then. The road to liberation for all gay people in many ways began with him.”

Despite the thrilling and intriguing subject matter, moving The Happy Prince into production wasn’t easy, and well over a decade in incubation. Once it did get going, it was besieged by hiccups, both financial and logistical.

“This is how long it takes to get films made,” he says. “You need a lot of tenacity in indie cinema to make it work. And a lot of people work and work and work, and after ten years nothing happens.

“By year six, I got to thinking, ‘If I fail, I’ve failed completely in my life’. So that wound up being an added motivation.”

The film was finally released in 2018: was there a single moment where he realised that he had managed to get it over the line?

“There was a moment where you realised you can’t ever touch it again,” he recalls. “It’s a relief in the end — up until then it’s a very anxious life. Everything’s a fond memory in retrospect, but I was in a constant state of hysteria during it. It’s like giving birth — straight away, you want to be pregnant again.”

Kildare-born cinematographer John Conroy was a huge force within the project.

“Without John, the film would never have worked,” Everett says. “He carried the film with me, and carried me, too — he’s an amazing life force and an incredible man.”

In his memoir, Everett also recounts how Colin Firth, who plays Reggie Turner in The Happy Prince, ‘came through’ for him. The two had a 20-year feud, after Everett called his Another Country co-star “a ghastly guitar-playing redbrick socialist” (Firth in turn called him a ‘monster’). Somewhat appropriately, they reconciled on the set of 2002’s The Importance Of Being Earnest.

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Helping hand: Rupert Everett and Colin Firth in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’

Helping hand: Rupert Everett and Colin Firth in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’

Helping hand: Rupert Everett and Colin Firth in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’

“In the ten-year period that the film was being made, Colin’s star rose considerably, and his involvement became more and more important to financiers,” Everett says. “At one point the money ran out on the production: Colin, who had already halved his fee to appear in the project, eventually agreed to waive his fee outright, as did several other cast and crew members (at one raucous point in the production, Everett pukes Guinness all over Colin).

“Had he not been involved, all the money would have gone,” Everett admits. “And that was a big responsibility for him. It’s not like we’re family, or the closest friends, but I couldn’t have made the movie without him. He’s such a brilliant actor.”

Everett hits our screens in Channel 4’s Adult Material this month in which he plays Carroll Quinn, a small-time, ageing pornographer trying to stay relevant in a new era of free adult content.

At 61, Everett finally has no such concerns. In addition to his myriad writing projects, he has a steady stream of acting roles on the slate. Among them are The Liar, an adaptation of Stephen Fry’s novel, alongside Charles Dance and Asa Butterfield.

“I feel happier in [my 60s] than I felt before,” he surmises. “60 is still okay, even if you’re falling apart a little physically. I sometimes worry about my brain, although I suppose everyone in their 60s has that worry. I guess I have started valuing it a bit more. I certainly hope it keeps going a little longer.”

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'To the End of the World: Travels with Oscar Wilde', by Rupert Everett

'To the End of the World: Travels with Oscar Wilde', by Rupert Everett

'To the End of the World: Travels with Oscar Wilde', by Rupert Everett

‘To the End of the World’ by Rupert Everett is out now via Little Brown


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