Ten years ago Rupert Everett wrote a film, The Happy Prince, about Oscar Wilde in order to revive his acting career. But then, as he describes to Radio Times, his project became an obsession…
In January, a national newspaper wrote that I was born to play Oscar Wilde. I’ll let you be the judge of that, but I truly believe that if there’s a great figure of history you absolutely adore, as you find out more about them, you begin to commune with them – and I am in communion with Oscar Wilde.
My relationship with Wilde began over half a century ago, when I was read his fairy stories by my mother when I was six. Years later, as an actor, I found that when I did Wilde in the theatre it was a good fit for me, because I am – that dirty word – a light comedian. If I have any talent as an actor, that’s what it is. And Wilde is, in his own way, light comedy. Which is how my professional relationship with him started.
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I am now fully immersed in his life and work. I have read most of what he’s written, as well as 30 or 40 books about him. I have starred in the film and a play of The Importance of Being Earnest, in French at the Chaillot Theatre in Paris; in The Picture of Dorian Gray in Glasgow with Philip Prowse, which will return next year; and I have played Oscar on stage in David Hare’s play The Judas Kiss, both in London and New York. So when I was looking around for a film project of my own, the next logical step was to write about him.
After I wrote my first autobiography in 2006, my plan had been to write a screenplay for myself as an actor. I was approaching 50 and it coincided with a period where I wasn’t being offered very good parts, and the ones I was being offered were getting smaller and smaller. At that point in your career, you have to create opportunities for yourself. I remember thinking, “No one is going to offer me any more jobs, so I’m either going to be a has-been, or I need to do something about it.” I’m too wildly vain and egocentric and needy and ambitious to let that happen, so I took charge.
Having realised that all the films about Wilde end at the moment where his story gets really interesting, I decided to write a film about Wilde in exile, after he had fled London in 1897 following his imprisonment in Reading gaol, where he served two years for “gross indecency”. He spent the next – and final – three years of his life in Naples and Paris, which is where we find him in my film The Happy Prince. As it turns out, it’s actually Wilde in bed dying, with flashbacks.
But by the time I’d written my script, I really had entered the Dark Ages of my own career and I couldn’t raise any money to have it made. It was very difficult to get anyone interested, which is why I ended up playing Oscar on stage in the The Judas Kiss, to prove to anyone who would take notice that I could be Wilde. Funnily enough, after I’d done that I got the deals to fund the film. Fortunately, I had the actors in place right from the beginning; you have to have the names in order to get the money. I’d had a reading early on with the whole cast – Colin Firth, Emily Watson – and I made them sign a piece of paper saying, “I will do it.” It wasn’t worth the paper it was written on but I did flap it at them as the years went by.
Of course, in those intervening years, Colin became more famous – this was around the time of The King’s Speech – which was lucky for me, because I could go to meetings and say: “Colin’s really keen on the project!” “He absolutely adores the script!” All bare-faced lies… But he was a man of his word, luckily. As were Emily and Tom Wilkinson.
People often mistakenly think of Wilde as an English writer but he’s Irish and as foreign to England as the French or the Spanish, which is what really gives his plays their unique outsider-ness. The amusement he has in dissecting the English, their value systems and ways of communicating – he looks at everything we do from his own, looser, more rubycoloured, exotic perspective. That’s how he captures the gorgeousness of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest.
And yet, despite looking into this aristocratic world from outside, he’s also an intrinsic part of it; no London party in late Victorian England is complete without him. The Café Royale anticipates his arrival; the royal family grace his first nights. He makes himself into the most famous person in Britain when Britain is the most important country in the world.
But fame puts you into a bubble. You become surrounded by a group of your own goons, all of whom are saying “Yes” to your every whim because they become afraid of you. In my own career, every time I felt I was becoming famous the bubble would burst and I would fall flat on my face. Frankly, I’d much rather stay in the bubble, because I’m spoilt and I can have a very short fuse and on a bad day I can be an absolute tyrant. But one thing I am not is vain. People talk about the way I look in the film [wearing a fat suit and bad teeth to look like Wilde] but I never felt beautiful when I was younger. Looking back now I think, “Oh, you were amazing!” But at the time, I always thought I could be more beautiful. It’s not hard to look ugly as Oscar; the difficulty is trying to look good at my age.
I believe an actor’s time can come again – if you can be bothered to keep going. But the keeping going becomes more stressful with every year that passes. You need nerves of steel. My film career may one day recover but I don’t think that I will. Struggle is great but I feel I’ve burnt my brain to a cinder with all the worry and anxiety. A lot of strain later on in life tells on you.
But The Happy Prince was an important film for me to make and I hope worth the ten years it has aged me in the process. Wilde’s story is one that every homosexual man or woman can relate to in some way. I don’t mean to paint us as victims, but we’ve all known what it’s like to be part of the minority in a majority. And no matter how changed the world is in which we now live, there ’s always a moment where you brush against it. That’s what’s so important about Oscar – he really is the beginning of the gay movement and he still matters. Here in the UK we live a wonderful, comfortable, protected life but go to Russia, to Jamaica or anywhere in the Arab world and people can be killed for being gay. Our world can change in an instant. Which is why I think the story of Wilde is more relevant than ever now.
The funny thing is, it’s a story that may have taken me years to bring to the screen but despite all the frustrations and delays I sometimes felt Oscar was helping me. At one point, when it didn’t look like the film was going to happen, I was sitting at home in despair thinking, “I’ve reached the end.” Then my telephone rang and a voice said, “Hello Rupert, it’s Merlin Holland.” Honestly, every hair on my body stood up.
Merlin is Wilde’s grandson, a writer and a holder of the flame. He asked me to join him at his grandfather’s graveside in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, to inaugurate the glass wall they were putting around the grave to stop people kissing it. Not many people inspire such dedication, but Wilde’s tomb had been kissed so many times it was being worn away. And in that dark moment I thought, “Well, this is a sign from Oscar to keep going.” It was as though he was talking to me, and when I got to know his grandson I felt he was talking to me through him. That gave me the courage to go on.
The Happy Prince is in cinemas now