Rupert Everett on love, death and the internet

Anna Walker

The actor-turned-director speaks to us about The Happy Prince , his most ambitious project to date.

It’s a perfect summer day in Rome and I’m sat beneath the leafy shade of Hotel Locarno’s botanical courtyard. The sun creeps through gaps in the wisteria, warming my skin. There’s hardly a sound besides the chirping of birds, the rumbling of passing traffic and the clink of ice cubes slowly losing their battle against the Roman sun.

“Look at that bird! It’s trying to f**k the other one!” Rupert breaks the silence. 


Rupert stars as Oscar Wilde in The Happy Prince

Rome has been Rupert’s home since January. He’s here filming an upcoming TV adaptation of The Name of the Rose, and there’s still another month until they wrap. But today we’re talking about a bigger project—one that’s been ten years in the making. 

Several critics have described Rupert’s turn as the Irish playwright, poet and infamous wit Oscar Wilde in The Happy Prince (a film he also wrote, directed and produced) as the role he was “born to play.” But when I ask if he’s comfortable with that notion, he shifts in his chair uneasily. 

“Well, I always think it’s quite a dangerous thing to say. It has slightly reductive undertones…but that’s if you’re being paranoid and going over it asking, ‘what does that mean?’ ” He pulls an agonised face, disarmingly goofy as he contorts his handsome features. 

“No, I think Wilde is a great role for me, so I agree. What I loved most though,” he grins deviously, “was working with me as a director.”

"A screenplay is dead if it's not made. So I thought, f**k it, I'll make it myself"

I laugh, caught off guard. Would he say that he’s his favourite of all the directors he’s worked with?

“I aaam actually,” Rupert purrs, the corners of his mouth curling like the Cheshire cat, his voice like butter. “Because I made my own performance so much better in the edit. I managed to make it into much more of a world-class performance.” 

Although he would love to direct again—“God, I could do so many things with me as a director”—Rupert fears that he’s discovered this particular passion a little too late. “I’m quite old really. The trouble is, it’s a young person’s game.”

I protest that, at 58, he hardly counts as over the hill. 

“I am,” he fires back. “I can’t even do catch up on the TV.”

However happily he’s taken to directing, the journey here was hardly a smooth one. Having performed in several Wilde plays, and two successful films (An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest) it struck Rupert that he’d be rather well suited to playing Oscar himself. 

So, he wrote a script. Not about the adored Oscar, darling of Victorian high society, but the other Oscar. The Oscar who endured two years in prison charged with “gross indecency” when his homosexuality was made public. The Oscar who lived wildly beyond his means, almost as a vagabond, avoiding England, “the natural home of hypocrisy” and relying upon the generosity of his loyal friends until his untimely death, aged just 46.

Rupert finished the script in 2008. It’s sparklingly witty, desperately sad and perfectly Oscar. Scott Rudin—one of Hollywood’s most sought-after producers—read it and loved it. 

"When I came out during the mid-Seventies, being gay had only been legal for six or seven years"

“I just thought, kerching!” Rupert explains, snapping his fingers. “I’ve arrived!”

“Then Scott said, ‘But you’re not playing Wilde. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is.’ He probably didn’t think I was a good enough actor. I said no. 

And from then on things just got harder and harder.”

What followed were months of liaising with directors, during which time Rupert describes himself as “on the other side of the mirror, trying to get back in.” He’d been riding the crest of a Hollywood wave that began with My Best Friend’s Wedding and ended with the universally panned The Next Best Thing, co-starring his former best friend, Madonna. After two years, all six directors he’d approached had said no. 

“The trouble with a screenplay is that it’s dead if it’s not made. So I thought, F**k it. I’ll make it myself.”


Rupert and Colin in their younger years, starring in Another Country

“Show business is like being in the water, and now and then you get swept into a current. You can really feel that sometimes, the current taking you along.” Crucial to getting into that current was the early attachment of an all-star cast, including Colin Firth, Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson and Colin Morgan. Firth in particular, who Everett affectionately refers to as “Frothy”, provided emotional support as well as his star credentials. 

“If he’d dropped out of the film, it would have collapsed. The nice thing about our business as you get older is that if you can keep working, it becomes much more fun. When you’re young you’re so desperate to work and desperate to be handsome and desperate to be sexy. When you’re older you don’t really care so much and you’ve developed a whole lot of relationships along the way. Frothy is just very supportive and kind and generous with his time. So yes, he’s my best, best, best, best, best friend.” 

"I think dying is a great thing. It's the end and that's that"

Once our laughter has subsided, I wonder aloud if Rupert’s insistence on one particular aspect of casting—playing Oscar Wilde himself—had anything to do with what he describes as Hollywood’s “anti-gay” culture. Was there a sense that such an important figure in the history of LGBT rights—a man so significant that Rupert regularly describes him as Christ-like—should be played by a gay man?

“I wasn’t quite so unselfish,” he chuckles. “I really just wanted to make a good role for myself. I’m not against straight people playing gay roles but I think it should be a two-way thing and it just isn’t.”

Rupert has spoken openly about his sexuality for so long now, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when this wouldn’t have felt as effortless for him.

“It’s a difficult thing for people to grasp now, but when I came out as gay in London in the mid-Seventies, being gay had only been legal for six or seven years. When I used to go to gay bars at 16 or 17, I would go around the block so many times making sure nobody who knew my family was there before I would dip into the club.”

“The police, who were always very slow to pick up new liberal laws, decided that anything that happened in public, ie, me touching your leg, or having a snog, was still illegal. There were tons of raids, tons of arrests and tons of queens being herded into paddy wagons just to be humiliated.”

“What was amazing about the end of the Seventies was that the gay scene felt classless and ageless. Because the scene was so small, you could have a 70-year-old Duke talking to a 25-year-old plumber. It was a sort of masonic world, it was still secret, and you counted, in a way, just for getting there.”

A secret world no longer. “It’s only been a second since then, but everything’s changed. In the gay culture now, there aren’t even any clubs. They’ve given up on all that because everything is happening virtually, online. I really object to the virtual world and I think in 100 years’ time when we look back on the chaos that I [predict] is about to come, it will be because of the internet.”

And it’s not just the changes in gay culture that have Rupert concerned. 

“Somehow [the internet] turns everyone into an extremist. The voices that can be bothered to come out on all the subjects are normally the most extreme ones, and so you suddenly get a world where the extreme voice looks like the norm but actually it’s not.”

“No one can disagree with anyone anymore and it’s brutal. It’s a kind of fascism and it will lead us to revolution, I think. And personally, I don’t think there’s ever been a revolution that’s brought about anything good, so it’s really rather a strange moment.”

The internet age has also transformed the nature of fame. Has this ever made his own celebrity hard to handle?

“Well, everyone wants to be famous so it’s a waste of time thinking it’s too much. No, it’s never enough! What’s difficult is when fame disappears. What normally happens is that you become very successful when you’re 22 and everyone tells you about how fabulous you are and how you’re much more talented than your little raisin greedy eyes actually are. They say you’ve got lots of hidden depth, which you don’t.” 

Rupert laughs and it’s clear who we’re really talking about.

“You start to believe it all, and then the river moves away from you, but you’re still surrounded by a gang of your own goons. If you go on being that person then your life is going to be a disaster. You have to be the failure they want you to be, and then wait for another time when you can wooomf,” he makes a squeaky sound and mimes poking his head above the ground like a meerkat, “climb back up the ladder.”

Rupert first realised he had “made it” while starring in his debut West End play. “There were posters of me all over the underground and on all the buses. It was so wonderful that I couldn’t stop looking. I had a copy of the poster at home and I would look at it every night, going over every single corner. The sad thing is, you always want more.”

Oscar wilde’s legacy—the legacy that inspired The Happy Prince—extends far beyond plays and poetry. He began a discourse on the nature of love that many consider the beginning of the fight for gay rights. When I ask Rupert about his hopes for his own legacy, he clearly becomes uncomfortable.

“I don’t know…” He toys with his glass, that famous voice so quiet now that the clink of the ice in his orange juice threatens to drown it out. “I can’t really think about that stuff. I don’t think it will be anything.” There’s a long silence. “I don’t think I’ve done enough to have a legacy really. Maybe as a diarist, a Samuel Pepys-type character. I mean… I think dying is a great thing. It’s the end and that’s it. You don’t really have to think about anything after that.”

“The thing about Oscar was that even at the end he was a like a clown. He retained a sense of humour, even if it became a slightly gallows sense of humour by the end. Sure, he fell in the gutter, but I think my film is encapsulated by that quote of his, ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’ ”

Rupert has certainly endured his own fair share of gutters in his career but looking at him now, that striking face etched with lines that animate each time he talks about his life’s passion— “show business”—it’s obvious that the stars have never left his eyes.

The Happy Prince is in cinemas across the UK now