Rupert Everett has been an actor for more than 35 years. He’s spent ten of them trying to make The Happy Prince, his portrait of poet and playwright Oscar Wilde during the period at the end of his life spent in exile in Europe. After years of toil, it’s finally set for release in cinemas. For its creator, it’s the sort of achievement that gives you “dreams again”.
“It feels amazing to have got through ten years and to have achieved something in that old fashioned way,” says Everett, reflecting on the best part of a decade spent convincing financial backers to support his passion project which follows Wilde after his release from imprisonment for “gross indecency”. The ‘crime’, as it was deemed in the late 19th century, was his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas – or “Bosie”, as he was known – portrayed in The Happy Prince by Merlin star Colin Morgan.
Now 59, Everett has retained the sharp cheekbones of his youth so used a fat suit and extra weight in his face to recreate his character’s careworn final years. “I shaved my head and had these thin, straggly wigs.” The result is a ravaged, rotund shadow of the brilliant performer who once lit up the London stage – an achievement Everett relished.
“After a certain age it’s easier to try and be haggard than to try and be good looking – that really takes a lot of work – and so the haggardness really didn’t take much effort… Getting that together is more fun, really, than trying to excavate the remains of my youthful looks because that’s a very tough job to do.”
Rather than worrying about wrinkles, ageing seems to have come as a relief. “From the point where my career went more into character acting, it was definitely more happy because I think when you’re a young leading actor, or trying to be one, it’s such a paranoid world because you’re looking over your shoulder at everyone else who’s going to be. And there are always a ton of people who are better and funnier or whatever it is than you and it’s very competitive at that point. I think vanity is not feeling good looking enough rather than feeling too good looking. Vanity is needing to try and make yourself more.”
When I suggest being judged purely by your looks might be stressful, Everett cuts me off: “That was heaven – I loved that – but it’s much nicer to be dribbly and bed-wettish”.
Over the course of his career, he’s proven to be adept at both. As a young actor, his stock soared in the 1990s thanks to Hollywood films My Best Friend’s Wedding and An Ideal Husband, but in more recent years he’s memorably donned floral skirts, tweed and plastic breasts to play Headmistress Camilla Fritton in the St Trinians films. He’s also made no secret of the lulls his career has suffered – a turbulence he once ascribed to his decision to come out as gay over 30 years ago.
“The fact is that you could not be, and still cannot be, a 25-year-old homosexual trying to make it in the British film business or the American film business,” he told the Guardian in 2009. “It just doesn’t work and you’re going to hit a brick wall at some point.” At the time his quotes made headlines. But nine years on, does he still believe those words hold true?
“I think things are changing – things change a lot. There’s a gay action star now, for example, so things are on the move. But in general it’s not an ideal thing. Certainly when I started it was not really on.
“Things are on the move but equally we’re still very hung up on sex and sexuality – it’s unbelievable. If you look at sports or if you look at other countries – I’ve been going with this movie around lots of countries and in Germany there aren’t any gay actors out and they wouldn’t dream of it and it’s a very forward looking country so it’s quite surprising. It’s definitely an issue. We make such a problem out of sexuality and sex in general – it’s amazing.”
We may have come a long way since the late 19th century but, says Everett, for “any performer who is gay, I suppose Oscar Wilde is running a parallel course in some shape or form.” Perhaps that goes some way to explaining his tenacity for The Happy Prince which sees his first foray into writing and directing.
His creative oversight ranged from casting (calling on friends Colin Firth and Emily Watson) to scouting locations in Bavaria, Germany, where all the buildings looked more like “manicured fingernails” than 19th century France. He also chose to round off Wilde’s story with some sobering end credits, reminding that the playwright was pardoned as late as January 2017 – one of 50,000 gay men whose convictions for crimes which no longer exist fell under a new ‘Turing’s Law’ named after codebreaker and computer scientist Alan Turing.
Everett seethes at the choice of vocabulary. “What a word is ‘pardon’? ‘Pardon’ is not the right word – ‘apologise to’ I would have thought would be a better one.”
He is also adamant about the importance of history and its continuing relevance in our “new virtual world”: “so much seems to be happening in such a short period that no one has got any context of ourselves before two or three years ago. It’s vital that we have it.”
He adds: “We feel quite angry and furious about what we have to achieve now, whereas if we had more historical context in all the movements that are so bitter at the moment, we’d feel there would be a little bit of a breath of” – he mimics relief – “because we have come an enormously long way from Oscar Wilde to now.
“Historical context is great for everyone – it’s great for the women’s movement. Where women have come from in the last 150 years in our two million year trajectory is so fast if you look at it – it’s like in the last millisecond, everything’s changed. So sometimes the fury that one feels, I think if one had more of a historical context, it would be more of a victorious fury rather than an angry one.
The “virtual world” is a phrase Everett uses over and over. He feels “very at odds with this Facebook, Instagram world, I think it’s anti-human… It feels like it breeds extremism, partly because the people who really use it are people with very extreme opinions. We’re living in such a cruel world, everyone wants to get their word in and it’s mostly critical.”
For now, he has won those critics over – at least the ones who write reviews for a living; with praise pouring in for The Happy Prince, and even talk of awards buzz, Everett’s “latest reinvention” is complete. But failure is something he still anticipates. “Normally what happens after [success] is something less successful. Going from one success to a bigger success to a bigger success is unusual so I’m used to that up-and-down-ness of things. The success is a nice moment but the down moment is also a good one because it’s normally what picks you up and makes you think, ‘f***, I’d better try something else’. It pushes you on to stretch yourself.”
As an interviewee, Everett is refreshingly eloquent. But he’s also got a reputation for a good quote – as any reader of his salacious autobiography, Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins can attest – and as our time draws to a close, he leaves me with a flourish:
“I was watching the Soap Awards [which aired on 2nd June] and they were such fun… I was thinking, god, the Oscars are so up their own arses by comparison and we’ve got to get, in the movie world, the same joie de vivre that’s going on in the Soap Awards because they were such fun and they were having such a good time and they weren’t up themselves, really. And I thought god, if you have to watch another dreary old Olivier Awards, you know, and everyone looks half like they’ve just got bell’s palsy or something – and there are those Soap Awards, such fun! So I’m more into Soap Awards and RuPaul’s Drag Race. I want to have fun in show business.”
Would he ever do soap himself? “Yes, definitely. You have to be pretty clever to do soap. One of the reasons we have such good quality actors is because in soap you might have a week where in the morning you get married, in the afternoon you commit a murder, the next morning you turn gay and in the next evening you rob a bank. And you have to get your head around that really fast in acting terms and it makes you a very malleable type of actor.
“They’re better training for young actors, the soaps, than any type of drama school because you have to make acting decisions very fast and our soaps are the best soaps in the world, too. The quality of acting on all of them is astonishing.”
From Oscar Wilde to Albert Square? Look out Soap Awards, Rupert Everett may be joining the party next year.
The Happy Prince is released in UK cinemas on Friday 15th June
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