Interview: Rupert Everett on his Oscar Wilde film and homophobia stifling his career

Rupert Everett. Picture: PA
Rupert Everett. Picture: PA
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There was a time when Rupert Everett was a frequent presence on the big screen.

There was a comforting familiarity to the roles he played – most often the gay pal and confidant of a leading lady, most notably in My Best Friend’s Wedding, opposite Julia Roberts, and The Next Best Thing, opposite Madonna.

But we have seen less of the openly gay actor in recent years, which makes his return, as the star, director, writer and producer of The Happy Prince, all the more welcome.

The film tells the story of Oscar Wilde’s life in disgraced exile after he was released from jail following his conviction for “gross indecency”, a result of his indiscreet affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie.

Flashbacks show Wilde as the toast of London, delighting crowds with verbal dexterity and showmanship, then his humiliation at the mercy of a jeering crowd as he waits, as a prisoner, on the station platform for the train that will take him to serve his sentence.

The brutality of acclaim and then rejection might well be a notion that is familiar to Everett.

“My position of working in this aggressively heterosexual milieu of showbusiness has definitely made me feel kind of parallel (to Wilde),” he says.

“Of course I haven’t been put in prison and subjected to hard labour and I haven’t died from it but I have been constantly on the back foot really in my career as a gay actor.

“I obviously went into this business applying for world domination and that is an impossible thing to really achieve, certainly in the Eighties and Nineties.

“Maybe things are changing a bit now, things are loosening up and I hope they go further.

“I think in that sense Oscar Wilde is my Christ figure and I saw this film as a kind of Passion, in a way.”

Everett, now 59 and undeniably as handsome as he ever was, is leaning forward earnestly in his seat.

“I think Hollywood is a business that is made and for...” he briefly tails off. “It is just very hetero, it is very clubby and it is very male, or historically it is, so you need to fit into that to really benefit.

“This is what the women have been going on about, how compromising it feels to them to just have to fit into it.

“I think that is the centrum, the bottom of the Me Too argument really.

“It is a subtle thing, taking part in a boys’ club – a straight boys’ club – and if you are a woman in it, you have to bend yourself towards that world and if you are a gay in it, you are a second-class citizen really and subjected, at a certain point, to a brick wall, in terms of getting on.

“So it’s like being an Indian soldier in one of the British regiments in the Indian army, you can’t really get beyond captain.”

Everett says he was incredibly lucky to get his first break in Julian Mitchell’s play Another Country, which was later made into a film, also starring Everett and Colin Firth.

“It was a successful film, it was at Cannes, it was widely praised and I got really into that film at the top level.

“People asked me who else should be in it, I was asked about who should direct it, but I have kind of got in through a back door.

“Moving on from there was, in a way, a problem, and then is when I hit the brick wall in a way.”

He thinks gay actors still exist for a “certain function”, namely the roles that made him famous in the first place.

“My function was as a gay best friend, a confidant, a kind of hairdresser, constantly there with the curling tongs, which is fair enough, but as a performer there is not very far you can go with that before you bore everyone s***less.

“The point is, for gay performers there is no, or very little, back and forth.

“In other words, the straights can play all the gay characters they want but the gays don’t get much of a chance to play any straight characters because, as far as this status quo is concerned, we are still gay and no matter how macho you are, they will just still think of you probably as a gay.”

He is certain he lost out on roles because of this – “tonnes of them,” he says.

“I don’t like the idea of myself as a victim, to be honest. There’s tonnes of roles that I haven’t got for lots of different reasons, some of them probably for not being a good enough actor or doing a lousy audition, all that counts.

“But there were three or four big films, when I was successful, that the director and the other actors wanted me to be in and that I was absolutely blocked from by a studio, just for the fact of being gay.

“That does absolutely happen. But at the same time, it has been the making of me as well.

“The struggle that has forced me to have, has been great in a way.

“I think it has forced me always to try and be creative, to try and make something up.

“I think my career as a writer would not have happened if I had been heterosexual, active, working non-stop.

“I certainly wouldn’t have made this film if I had lots of work all the time.”

But making The Happy Prince was far from plain sailing, and took 10 long years to come together.

“There was just no interest in me and my film. Showbusiness is one of those things that you put something out there and you get an immediate litmus test result.

“You know exactly where you stand in showbusiness all the time and that is one of the toughest things about it.

“When I threw this out there, it just landed with a resounding and empty thump.

“Nobody was – particularly at the beginning – excited about getting into what they call the Rupert Everett business.

“What was amazing is that it ever happened, really.”

But happen it did, and he recruited pals including Firth, Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson and Anna Chancellor to join the cast.

He has found directing himself to be particularly satisfying, and wishes he had found a director when he was younger who would have given him roles that would have offered him a chance to show his depth.

“All I needed was some director, in the same way that Scorsese loves De Niro, that would have loved me and put me in anything.

“Any actor can do anything, what you need is a director who loves you.

“I found that out working with myself, which I loved, because I edited my performance to be 60 per cent better than it was.

“Most directors went off me after three days,” he laughs.

The Happy Prince is released in London on Friday and nationwide on 22 June.