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Exclusive | Rupert Everett on Oscar Wilde, the Aids crisis and Hollywood’s gay problem

As the veteran screen star releases his third memoir, he admits he thought close friend Colin Firth landing 'A Single Man' spelt 'the end' for his career.

By Will Stroude

Words: Will Stroude

Rupert Everett is a man in exile. Always has been, if you’re asking him. “Right from school days”, in fact.

Like his idol, Oscar Wilde, who he brought to life in 2018’s The Happy Prince – his directorial debut –  Everett has seemingly found himself on the outside looking in at his old playgrounds as he’s got older: Be it Hollywood, which seemingly began to pull up the drawbridge on the former English screen darling as he approached 50, or perhaps the LGBTQ community, which has (rightly) criticised the famously forthright actor for querulous remarks about same-sex marriage or transgender issues in recent years.

His current isolated perch next door to his mother in the West Country – where he wound up after the global pandemic wrenched him from Broadway just eight performances into his starring turn in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – only adds to the image of artist in exile.

“You can do it, you just have to go through a kind of pain threshold”, says Everett, now 61, of the experience of moving back home to his mother.

“It’s interesting, you do totally regress straight away to the last time they knew you and you knew them. But then you can grow up, slowly but surely.”

Despite using the last six months to focus on writing, like all those in his industry, he considers the future of the arts in a post-coronavirus world “incredibly worrying”.

Photography: Leon Csernohlavek

“The whole thing is such a worry”, Everett sighs. “For us, there just doesn’t seem to be a proper starting point. Something’s going to have to be done, because otherwise that’ll be it.”

Of theatre specifically, he says: “The West End is the centre of our idea of London, and if it just becomes dark all over, I think we’re going to have a real problem.”

In the midst of this personal upheaval comes the release of Everett’s third memoir, To the End of the World: Travels with Oscar Wilde, which tells in characteristically raucous fashion the 10-year journey to making The Happy Prince.

Binding the memoir’s deliciously unguarded collection of industry anecdotes is the powerful spell Wilde has clearly cast over Everett for much of his life.

“For me, Oscar Wilde is the Christ figure”, he muses. “He died to save our souls in a way, and he’s a better religion than Christianity for a gay.

Rupert Everett’s third memoir, ‘To the End of the World: Travels with Oscar Wilde’ charts this screen star’s decade-long journey to producing 2018’s ‘The Happy Prince’

“I think the face of Oscar Wilde became the journey to liberation – and I think he thought that too, funnily enough.”

Charting Wilde’s twilight years in Paris following his imprisonment for gross indecency, The Happy Prince was born out of Everett’s desire to write himself the roles he was seemingly no longer being offered in Hollywood. It worked, becoming his biggest critical hit since the ‘90s – though Everett insists his big screen career “remains a battle”.

“But for me personally it feels that there’s some kind of weight off my shoulders”, he adds. “Up until then, the jobs I was getting were getting smaller and smaller, and certainly nobody apart from me was believing in me as the lead actor in a movie.

“If that’s the last thing I do, at least it said a lot of the things I wanted to say. And I feel very proud of that of it.”

The star of Dance with a Stranger and My Best Friend’s Wedding continues: “I guess all of us in our business, we start off with very high expectations: you think that world domination is at your fingertips somehow. And then little by little you discover that it’s not, and you have to make your contract with whatever happens.”

Everett, whose breakout role came opposite Colin Firth in 1984’s gay period drama Another Country, has spoken openly in the past about the barriers that exist for out gay actors in Hollywood, though he remains even-handed about the issue. Reflecting on the impact of his sexuality on his big screen career, he says: “It limited it and made it as well. Because I had that really great ‘gay’ career for a bit there. So I think it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other.

Rupert Everett and Colin Firth in 1984’s ‘Another Country’, which was loosely based on the life British gay public schoolboy-turned Soviet spy and double agent Guy Burgess

“I think the trouble for me was that there was only a certain number of gay best friends you can play before it becomes kind of like fingernails down a blackboard. My gripe is not straight people playing gay parts – because I wouldn’t have missed, for example, Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in Behind the Candelabra for anything – but I wish it went the other way.”

Everett is pragmatic about the pursuit of progress when it comes to LGBTQ representation, though he quickly wanders into particularly contentious territory as he points to the controversy surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s casting as ‘70s trans gangster Dante ‘Tex’ Gill in period drama Rub & Tug. Following the outcry over a cisgender woman playing a trans role, Johansson stepped back from the film in 2018. It has remained in production limbo ever since.

“I think it’s shooting yourself in the foot”, he argues. “Because there were tonnes of other trans roles in it, it was a huge Hollywood movie which you need a huge star to finance, and I think it would’ve definitely been a positive story about being transgender and would have incorporated a lot of other trans performances. So I find that kind of intransigence about things wrong.”

More than 35 years after Another Country, Everett and Firth remain firm friends – even reuniting onscreen in The Happy Prince. Firth, who won an Academy Award in 2011 for The King’s Speech, will soon be seen playing a high profile gay role opposite Stanley Tucci in Harry Macqueen’s Supernova. I ask whether their respective career trajectories in recent years is indicative of a glass ceiling for gay leading men.

“I do remember when Colin invited me to go and see A Single Man, and I thought ‘Oh God, this is the end for me, really’, because me and Colin are fairly similar”, reflects Everett. “I was quite successful and was on the way down, and he was on the way up. I thought if he’s going to get the role of A Single Man, that would have been the role I could have got before, and didn’t.

Photography: Leon Csernohlavek

“And that was a film made by Tom Ford as well – but you can’t question Tom Ford’s taste in actors.”

Everett, whose natural proclivity towards self-deprecation can sometimes overspill into self-flagellation, goes on: “Yes, I can be frustrated that I’m not getting those jobs that’s Colin’s getting, but that’s how it is. And Colin is a very good actor. It’s a difficult one, and it is frustrating. Also, I have to bear in mind I’m probably not Meryl Streep.”

He notes: “I knew what Tom Ford probably thought about me was that I was shrill and waspish and not the type of person he wanted to play the part.”

It’s this unfiltered candour which has set Everett’s pprevious two memoirs apart from standard celebrity book fare – though the reader’s pleasure has often come at personal cost: Madonna, who starred opposite Everett in 2000’s The Next Best Thing, reportedly cut ties after her inclusion in 2006’s Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins.

While admitting he’s perhaps been “too jokey” over the years compared to some of his contemporaries, Everett says he’s never felt the urge to self-censor. “You have to be careful about that, but at the same time I feel frustrated by people in our business who don’t really conjure up the truth about themselves”, he says.

Photography: Leon Csernohlavek

“I think we owe it to everyone else to be as informative about ourselves as we can. I don’t see the point of doing an interview otherwise, or doing anything. I mean, I would love to be in the old days of Hollywood when we didn’t have any profile apart from those amazing photographs, and being snapped in a restaurant, but we’ve passed that by. We’re endlessly in articles and magazines and if you’re just spouting bulls**t, it’s a bore I think.”

One regret Everett does proffer is what he describes as a failure to “work harder” during his ascendency in the ‘80s – though what he says next serves as an illustration of his tendency to be hard on himself, and perhaps how relatively underappreciated his decision to come out publicly in 1989, following years of rising homophobia, remains.

“When I was 22 and I was first in front of the camera was when HIV had exploded, and none of us knew anything about what was going on”, he recalls breathlessly. “And anyone who’d had a sexual career up until then – and I’d had a pretty voracious sexual career all through the late ’70s – it was like being one of those cartoon characters who goes over the edge of the cliff, hangs in the air and then falls down.

Rupert Everett appears on the cover of Attitude in 1999

“You didn’t know when or if it would strike, and it was striking people all around you in the most terrifying way. I was already in front of the camera making my first movie, and I never slept at night because I thought what will happen if someone stops the filming one day and says ‘What’s that on your face?’.”

The former Golden Globe nominee continues: “I remember once in a miniseries I was making I was bitten by something and got this lump on my arm. You can see in the scene in this movie, I just thought my life was over. I thought this was it.

“I think my early career was really spent in anxiety and terror, you know, trying to face your friends who had it – because looking at them was like looking at a mirror in a way – and trying to be a decent person to them and not run in the opposite direction because you were too afraid.

“And to try and negotiate a career in front of the camera, I think that took a lot of my energy.”

Everett recently returned to screens in Channel 4’s headline-grabbing new drama Adult Material; a dark, wickedly funny and timely exploration of the porn industry which tackles complex themes of power and consent.

Hayley Squires plays a famous adult star taking on the porn establishment in Channel 4’s ‘Adult Material’

“I really loved the script and [series star] Hayley Squires”, explains Everett, who plays an ageing playboy porn mogul with gleeful exuberance.

The star maintains he’s never witnessed physical or psychological abuse in Hollywood first-hand, but recognises that behind the middle-England-baiting explicitness of the show lie important universal lessons.

“It’s an interesting story and it’s just amazing it’s getting made, I felt,” he reflects. “What was interesting for me about that character was that he’s not a nasty man, he just let it slide to that point, and that is presumably what the #MeToo movement is on about half the time – things have slid or never moved forward and have been allowed to happen.”

Given that famous falling out with Madonna, I can’t help but close by asking who Everett would envision playing him should he make an appearance in the Queen of Pop’s recently announced self-directed biopic.

“Troye Sivan”, Everett responds instantly, before adding that he’s already pursuing the ‘Wild’ singer for his own biopic, which he’s been working on during lockdown and will chart his time in Paris as a teenager in the late ‘70s.

“I’m a huge Troye Sivan fan”, Everett enthuses. “When I saw his video with – what’s she called – Ariana Grande, I thought ‘He could play me’.

“I think he’s a very exciting talent. I saw him in concert last year in London and he’s a great performer, a very good actor, and he carries himself beautifully through it all.”

Shortly after our chat concludes, I get a message on my phone. It’s an unexpected addendum to our conversation from Everett – or ‘Rup’ as he signs off cheerfully. “Btw I do think I have had an amazing career”, he writes. “I don’t feel down about it in general – its problems have spurred me on. It’s been very lucky and continuous – if bumpy – for 40 years!”

One feels that whether Everett knows it or not, his career to date – and refusal to bow to Hollywood conformity – will have played a part in ensuring young gay stars like Sivan have a considerably less bumpy 40 years ahead…

Ruper Everett’s ‘To the End of the World: Travels with Oscar Wilde’ is out now via Little Brown. ‘Adult Material’ continues next Monday 12 October at 10pm on Channel 4.