By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Rupert Everett’s fascination with lauded 19th century poet and playwright Oscar Wilde began at a young age. The British actor remembers his mother reading to him Wilde’s “The Happy Prince,” and the story of love and suffering stuck with him ever since.
Flash forward to 2007, and the openly gay actor, having appeared in various stagings and big screen adaptations of some of his works including 1999’s “An Ideal Husband,” and 2003’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” decided it was time to try his hand at writing and directing a film about one of his favorite gay icons. Little did he realize that it would take the better part of the next decade to accomplish that goal.
Like Wilde, Everett has enjoyed a remarkable life along with a satisfying career, associating with luminaries in the art and pop culture world, including Andy Warhol and Madonna.
The 59-year-old returned here after a long absence to discuss his new film, “The Happy Prince,” in which Everett not only plays Wilde in the final chapter of his life but also wrote and directed the film. The dramedy follows Wilde, destitute, homeless and sickly with just a small cluster of supportive friends, after serving a two-year sentence in prison doing hard labor after being found guilty of gross indecency. Homosexuality was against the law in England at that time and punishable with severe sentences.
Q: How did you immerse yourself in Oscar Wilde?
Everett: Immersing myself in Oscar Wilde was really exciting. When you set off writing a script, especially about a subject like this, you can really know what that character was doing every day because they all wrote so many letters in the 19th century. So, you could sleuth a character in a very good way. You can go to the places and find the street corners and the houses. You can find the clothes, all sorts of things, if you want to. That’s one of the parts of writing a historical story that’s really exciting. Tons of books I read. Contemporary ones and ones written now. And that’s how it all came about.
Q: Before Wilde went to prison, he was the toast of society. But when he got it, it was another story. Why did you choose to focus on this period of his life?
Everett: Because all the other stories about him shy away from the responsibility of looking at what society actually did to this man for the “crime” of being homosexual. It wasn’t just the horror of a prison sentence with hard labor. It also was the weird type of horror of a so-called liberty which ended up being another type of prison. For me, the story that was interesting to tell, is almost like the story of Christ’s passion—the Passion of Oscar Wilde—going through prison and this so-called liberty which ended up constraining him more and more. For me, it’s a very inspiring story for that.
Q: How did you create the persona of Wilde for this film—the mannerisms, the voice?
Everett: That’s the job of being an actor. You get a picture of the character for yourself. It’s quite easy in a way because there are several roles in his writing that are very much him.
One of the important things about him is that he’s an outsider looking in at British culture. He’s not English; he’s Irish. For the English at the time, it’s a different thing. So, he’s looking at that as a very particular outsider, so you get a picture of his humor, and you can read so much about him and what happened to him and how he became such a huge star, and what happened to him when he became a big star. He became kind of blinded to the structure of society.
Plus, you can see pictures of him painted by Toulouse Lautrec and (William) Rothenstein, so little by little you get an idea of a character—kind of an elegant vagabond tramp, not in the sexual way but in the homeless person way. (He chuckles.)
Q: You were able to assemble a remarkable cast even before you had the financing. You went to your old friends Colin Firth, Emily Watson and Tom Wilkinson. Had they seen the script?
Everett: Yes. They came in when we had the first reading of the film so they knew the script and were very supportive as friends because they all went beyond the call of duty. The financing was all based on them being in it. If Colin had fallen out, the movie would have fallen apart. So, I’m very beholden to him.
Q: It was 10 years from the time you wrote the script to the time you went into production? What keep you motivated all that time?
Everett: I’m not sure, to be honest. By tradition, I’m quite flaky as a person. This was the first time in my life I held onto something. What often happens in these things is a film starts to collapse and something happens and you think it’s a sign to go on. Partly, because our business is built on enthusiasm and optimism. People are very optimistic and that’s why things often go wrong. Optimism kind of blinds you quite often. You think, “That was a good sign. I must keep going.” You’re just about to pack it in and then you get going again. That happened to me a few times.
Also, it happened in an important period of my life. I wrote it when I was about 48 and I made it when I was about 58. In my mid-50s my career was like the light at the end of a train tunnel that was receding, because I’d canceled any work I got when I thought (the film) was happening, and then it would collapse, and then my career would recede a little more. At a certain point, I thought, “God, if I don’t make this movie now after six or seven years, who am I? I will no longer exist.” It’s not a very nice feeling and that drove me on too.
Q: Do you think you’ll continue directing?
Everett: When I was making the film, I thought “never again,” because the strain is quite intense. But it’s like childbirth—once you get over the pain and you have the little baby in your arms, you start bristling with ideas for new kids. So, I would like to direct some more. But at the same time, I would like to stay engaged in my business. Going into a job like acting, it’s difficult to describe, especially for people of my generation. It really is a lifetime choice so when it dries up on you, it’s extremely difficult to deal with. This is a very exciting time to be in show business. The world is so insane that this, potentially, should be a great time. What I would like to do, more than anything, is to stay engaged, to stay a part of it, rather than it drive past me.
Q: You give such an ego-less performance, especially since it takes place during his final days and he’s not in the best of health. Wilde’s out of shape and unwell. What was it like getting into the makeup and costume of the character?
Everett: It was nice, really, but it’s the worst, really, to try to be good-looking when you’re getting older because it’s such a strain. (He laughs.) You can get hemorrhoids from trying. Going the other way is, obviously, easier, and really fun. Getting jowly for Oscar Wilde, I had these amazing things built into my cheeks—dental things. I had this amazing (fat) suit made but this artist called Rob in London. He makes all of the fat suits for Hollywood. They’re not just fat suits. They all have different textures so you have these fabulous low-hanging boobs and you have a lovely, low-hanging a** that feels just like an a**, and these different layers for the stomach so it moves properly. I developed that with him when I did a play playing Oscar to try and drum up some money. That was exciting and so was getting the clothes and the hair.
I’m one of those actors who’s old-fashioned in that sense that I go from the outside in. So, the look of it was very important to me. I had to get that bedraggled look and so I shaved my head and had thin wigs so you could see a little bit of scalp beneath my hair. I imagined him being like a comic clown in a way. He is like a tragic-comic character. There’s something about him that’s slightly Charlie Chaplin-esque. He’s got all the tragedy of a clown in him as well.
Q: When did you get picked up by Sony Pictures Classics?
Everett: We got picked up at Sundance. (SPC’s co-founders) Tom (Bernard) and Michael (Barker) did my first-ever film, “Another Country.” When I was make “The Happy Prince” I was thinking, “That’s it. This is my last film. I’ve got to get Tom and Sony Classics to do it.” Today it’s so unusual to have any kind of relationship with anyone in show business beyond five minutes because everyone changes but they have been there since my first film, and I was keen for them to do my last one. They came to see my film at Sundance and agreed to bring it onboard.
That’s one of the nice things in show business about getting older is longevity and knowing people for a very long time. You don’t get that feeling very much in this business otherwise.
Q: Has completing this film made you have a change of heart? Do you want to continue to act?
Everett: Definitely, it’s rejuvenated my fascination with the business and doing things. I hope it’s not going to be the end of the road for me. At the same time, it’s a very challenging business. If it takes me another 10 years to make a film then I’ll be 70 years old, and I don’t think I’ll be able to do that. So, I need to be lucky and keep going. I think it’s an exciting time and I want to keep doing things even though the younger generation is fairly ageist. It’s an important time, also, to be an older person telling stories because there are some stories that no one’s going to know how to tell soon because the ‘70s and even the ‘80s have become ancient history now. In the virtual world, only six weeks ago counts. So, I think there’s a place for the older person. I’m hoping.
Q: How do you think Oscar Wilde would react to the world we’re living in today?
Everett: It’s a difficult question because he’s so wrapped up in that period. It’s a pre-Freudian period. What’s so exciting about him to me is during that period, 1890-1910, all of the debates of the 20th century were born (including) the women’s movement and Modernism. The homosexual movement really started from Wilde. That whole period was a huge catalyst and we’re still living the reverberation of it: general warfare, world warfare started winding up at that point. So, for me, Wilde is a really important punctuation point in the 20th century’s great debate, which is sexuality. The fascinating thing about him and what’s important to me is that he really is the beginning of the gay liberation road. It starts with him. Homosexuality wasn’t really a word before Oscar Wilde.
Suddenly, sexuality wasn’t a debate that was had between men and woman before Wilde opened it up. So, he’s a really important character for then. It’s impossible to say what he’d make of today’s (social issues) because whatever he would make of it, it wouldn’t be him. There’s not one issue he’d have a relation to. I think he’d love the idea of (gay) men being able to get married but our notion of marriage is so different from their notion of marriage, which was an everlasting, lifelong contract, which we don’t really have today. None of the issues we have are the same. I don’t know what he’d think about now; I don’t know what I think about now, even.
Q: What were some of your memories of New York in the ‘80s with Andy Warhol and Madonna, if you can remember?
Everett: I can remember. And the ‘70s. Funnily enough there was a book written by Andrew Halloran called “Dancer from the Dance.” It’s being re-published and I’ve been asked by the publishers to write the foreword. It was a one-off. He wrote two other books. This is about queens and disco in the 1970s and it’s a portrait of New York as a bankrupt and dangerous but extraordinarily artistic and incredibly creative city, and it’s amazing. Coming back here (to Los Angeles), I feel a bit like Louise Brooks slightly because I haven’t been in L.A. since 2003. Everything has completely changed.
Q: You were probably here at the Beverly Wilshire at that time promoting “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
Everett: Probably. This hotel’s changed. I went to the lobby and I didn’t even recognize it. And it’s so expensive here in the U.S. now. Everything, especially compared to England. You used to go to the grocery store and it was a quarter of the price. But now it’s up around the same prices. Everything. It’s extraordinary.
Q: Do you live in London?
Everett: In Wiltshire, London and the West Country of England. We’re having a very bad time at the moment.
“The Happy Prince” opens in New York and Los Angeles theaters Wednesday Oct. 10.