Forget being a queen, Rupert Everett – who was once the only gay (yeah, right) in the village of Hollywood – wants to be the Queen. “I am very into the Queen,” he says, several times. “I adore her because she’s me.” We will return, as we often do in our encounter, to Her Maj anon.
We meet in a cheerful, un-swanky Italian restaurant – full of families and American tourists – near Coram’s Fields, close to his London pad. The noise levels are intense despite the early-evening hour and get louder, so by the end of our time together we are shouting, which is rather awkward given the increasingly graphic nature of our conversation.
He arrives promptly and passes through the restaurant unnoticed. Six foot four tall, the bobble on his woolly hat scrapes the ceiling of the basement to which we retreat after he has done a recce – even walking round the pub next door – for the quietest table.
Very thin, with a face made more beautiful, if crumpled, by its lines and creases, the actor says it’s ages since he’s intervened with nature, and he looks the better for it. His brown eyes have a sorrowful look of kindly concern, which is not what I expected. The entertainingly monstrous diva seems to have been replaced by a considerate, well-meaning chap – reasonable and almost sensible. He orders a half bottle of cheap red wine, fills our glasses and off we go.
It’s no wonder that he is so drawn to Oscar Wilde – whom he played on stage to critical acclaim in the David Hare play, The Judas Kiss, and whom he’ll bring to life again on screen in The Happy Prince, a film he has written and directed – because Everett is a keen wit himself.
He has just finished touring the country interviewing gay people – gathering stories of “cottaging” (sex in public toilets) from the olden days to lesbian couples living in actual cottages today, for 50 Shades of Gay, part of a series commissioned by Channel 4 to mark the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK (men over 21 were allowed to engage in “acts” in private). Is the programme very much through the prism of Rupert Everett?
“I am rather bored of that musty peephole that is my 58-year-old English actor view,” he says. “In this documentary I wanted to access more of [the] Queen mentality.” He laughs a little. “Because I like that whole thing of being dispassionate and just observing and watching. It’s a series of portraits that I hope will tell the story of 50 years.”
He loved going to Liverpool and Manchester “because they are so chic now – my memory of Liverpool, for instance, was of something very dark, misty and caked in coal smoke and now it’s really amazing with fantastic buildings.”
A particular revelation for him was Hebden Bridge, which has a large lesbian community, with couples’ children going to the local school “and intermingling seamlessly with the real world, which is – after all – Yorkshire, which is notoriously cold and intransigent.
“I couldn’t have believed it – all those lines of miners’ cottages and every other house is a lesbian couple. I had such a nice time there. The families were amazing – really nice with fabulous children. Going to the school and waiting with two mums for their kids was just unbelievable. Everything about it as the story unfolded was very beautiful.”
His partner of ten years is a Brazilian accountant, Henrique. When he keeps looking at his phone at a certain point, I ask him why and he says, quaintly, “I’m just checking in with my boyfriend.” Might they get married at some point? “I’ve no idea,” he shrugs. “I can’t think beyond this month. I don’t like being invited to dinner beyond next week.”
While gay people are free to marry in the UK, elsewhere in the world they are being killed for whom they love. What can be done? “We can just make sure that we act responsibly now that we are in a global environment where, let’s face it, two guys are whipped 82 times in Indonesia for being caught in bed together. And elsewhere someone’s being chucked off a roof.
“We are living in very, very dangerous, horrible times. Also, nothing is quite comprehensible. It’s like being in Alice in Wonderland, because nothing makes sense in the old way.”
I ask him how he copes with Donald Trump being in power. “Well, I think that’s a rather victim-y question,” is his reply, which makes me burst out laughing. “I mean, why should we have to cope with it all? We’ve just got to keep going. I like hardly any politicians – and, actually, I’ve decided for now I’m not going to vote.”
Are you resolutely un-bourgeois? “No, I’m very bourgeois, so bourgeois.” What are the most bourgeois things about you? “I like to be comfortable. I like the garden. I used to live in London but I really live in the country [in Pewsey, Wiltshire, where his parents lived].”
I was about to refer to your London pied-à-terre, but you probably have a stonking great mansion here… “No, I haven’t, darling – I’m an old has-been, remember.” Oh, rubbish – everyone’s still terribly interested in you. “Yeah, but that’s not money in the bank, baby,” he says, with a melting, almost tender, look. “I’m not complaining about anything. I love the birds and the trees.” Do you go birdwatching? With binoculars and everything? He looks aghast. “No! Much too common! You just look at them through your eyes.”
Do you think you might be an aristocrat of the intellect, I try out for size. (He is a fantastic writer, brilliant with words generally, and interested in big topics, like history.) “I don’t think I am,” he says, thoughtfully, “because although I am quite bright, I’m also a bit of a floozy.”
We move onto gender fluidity – the reluctance for some young people to be defined as male or female, and on television in shows such as Billions, which has the first gender non-binary TV character, who asks to be called “they”. “That’s just my point about not looking through your own croaky old peephole,” Everett says, “because then you’re looking through an old, dead world. Not that there’s anything wrong with a dead world but you are looking at it through dead eyes. Boring old fruity me.
“What is amazing is that families are so much more open. Children now are able to develop in ways you would never have dared earlier on. They’re giving themselves permission. This must be some huge movement in humanity towards something completely new.” As a boy, he used to like wearing dresses and always wanted to play female roles. But it was just a phase, he has said, and if it was happening now he could have been on hormones and becoming a woman, which he wouldn’t want to be. Has he revised his opinions at all? “I’ve decided not to have any more opinions. Views are so over. I really want to be like the Queen.
“What is lovely about the Queen is that you look at her and you can see every single facet of your own life. If you look at a picture of the Queen in 1979, you can see the fashion in the face and the lipstick – and you think, ‘I can remember exactly what I was doing then.’ So you are looking at yourself when you look at her. And that’s lovely. And as she gets older, you get older – it’s like having a dog that doesn’t die.”
Whaaat? “The awful thing about loving a dog is that it starts off very young and then it becomes much older than you and you’re trying to drag it out and then it dies. Hopeless relationship. Whereas the Queen – well, when she dies something in me will die, too. Absolutely. It will be a huge, huge... God, she’d better not die this year of Brexit. That would just be the end. It’s not bound for much success, anyway, but the Queen dying would be a disaster.”
Rupert, I have to prepare you, she will die one day. “And then Prince George might transition and become Queen Georgina!”
He appears to feel that he has lost his looks. “Darling, I’m a blob,” and says, in any case, he’s too old now to play romantic leads. “I’ve got to wait until the next broomstick drops out of the sky and I can clamber aboard and dig my heels in,” he says – a sly dig, surely, at Ian McKellen, with whom he once had a fling. “Next stop is Dumbledore… Next stop is Middle-earth.”
Have you adjusted to getting older? “I’ve very much enjoyed my life since I settled down,” he says. “At a certain point, taking drugs is not very good for your brain. Once you get to a more extended age, you start thinking about all those things that you never think about when you’re young. Like dementia – well, how can you not think about it, because it’s in the papers every day?”
We take a detour into less familiar territory, the noise in the restaurant now deafening, as he tells me about the “brain drops” that his doctor gives him to ward off forgetfulness. Ah, so you’re an alternative health person. “Always have been. I’m going to drink your wine now since you’re desperately trying to remain sober. Have you had vaginal steaming?” WHAAAT? “I cannot recommend it too highly.” You’re just trying to shock me because you think I’ve done nothing, but [for an article] I’ve had a month of… “Colonics? Wasn’t it heaven!”
He thought a great deal about death in his youth, when catastrophic numbers of gay men were dying of Aids. “It’s been a major part of the fabric of my life since my 20s. My most vivacious time was a great deal around death. How it was during the First World War, probably.”
Everett has written movingly about his military father, Anthony – a major turned businessman – and his old-school stoicism. “He was brave, but I’m a coward,” he says. “I remember watching him once having a blood test and they couldn’t find the vein. I’ll never forget it. He was in such agony and that’s the only time I’d seen him like that – it had gone on and on with the needle in his arm.” He flinches. He says he is fearful of everything. “The future of the planet, my future. The whole future.” Would you say you’re neurotic? “Yes, very. Not all the time. Maybe not now. But quite often. I am normally quite neurotic. I have no brakepads left.”
And with that, he has to go to meet his boyfriend. The next day he will be travelling to Brussels and thence to Berlin to work on his film. One of my favourite text messages from him – we exchange a flurry of them after our interview and I’m sure he won’t mind me repeating it – reads, “If you saw me now u would see the true hysterical me. Have nearly killed three people. xxx.” Missing him already.
50 Shades of Gay is on Monday at 10pm on Channel 4