Rupert Everett has basked in the glow of fame and recognition, and known the sudden shadow of obscurity. It is not surprising to find out that he is a great admirer of Oscar Wilde, an artist who produced work acclaimed in its day and beyond, yet the revelation of his sexual identity became the truth that began to set him back. Everett still believes it was his coming out that suddenly ended his streak of hits which includes The Madness of King George, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Shakespeare in Love and Shrek 2. Little wonder he felt connected to an artist from long ago, yet so contemporary.
To be great can mean to be haunted. Many have reached the highest peaks of fame and fortune, only to come crashing down like Icarus. But the brilliant work remains. Oscar Wilde’s life was as rowdy and conflicted as his beautiful work. The writer, critic and playwright who penned The Picture of Dorian Gray and one of my personal favorites, the play Salome, would be ensnared by ill-fated desire in a love affair that would destroy him. The Happy Prince, a new film written and directed by Everett, is a portrait of Wilde nearing the final act. Like a great but defeated raconteur, Wilde (played by Everett) entertains and drowns his sorrows in the cafes and nightspots of Paris, refusing to ever return to England. Having been imprisoned over his love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas (Colin Morgan), Wilde is left now old but still burning with words, with loyal friend Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) attempting to keep him centered. Another loyal friend, Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) also worries at the decline of the author. Yet even as he loses himself in memories, Wilde displays his sharp wit at every turn, biting and cutting into society even as he basks in its excesses. Yet Wilde cannot keep himself away from Douglas, and seeks him out like a moth seeking a final consumption in a flame. Fittingly, Everett has named the film after one of Wilde’s most cherished short stories, in which a swallow sits atop a statue, gazing at the world below.
Rodeo Drive, by the decadent luxury of Beverly Hills, is where Everett is sitting down with this writer to discuss The Happy Prince and his absorption of Wilde’s work and persona. A little grayer but still full of British wit and his own exuberance, Everett is eager to discuss what amounts to a sort of passion project. It took 10 years to write, finance and make the film.
“Immersing myself with Oscar Wilde was really exciting,” says Everett. “When you start off writing a script about something like this, you can almost know what these people were doing every day because they wrote so many letters in the 19thcentury. So you can sleuth a character in a very good way. You can go to the places, and find the street corners and clothes if you wanted to.” Everett read every book he could get his hands on about Wilde, both contemporary and recent. Yet his focus is on a specific period, when Wilde is released from hard labor and attempts to recover his life. “All the other stories shy away from the responsibility of what society did to this man for the crime of being homosexual. It wasn’t just the horror of a prison sentence with hard labor. It was also the weird sort of horror of another liberty that became another sort of prison. For me the story that was interesting to tell was like Christ’s passion, it’s the passion of Oscar Wilde.”
It is interesting that Everett mentions Christ because cinema is a form of resurrection for a deceased icon. But Wilde lived in a period before film, video and YouTube. To conjure the man takes the real craft of acting. “That’s the job of being an actor, really. You get a picture of the character for yourself. It’s quite easy in a way, because there’s several roles in Wilde’s writing that are very much him. For example the character of Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Grey is very much one side of Wilde, then the character of the painter in Dorian Grey is another side of Wilde. So you can read those two things. When you read the plays- remember he’s an outsider looking at British culture, he’s not English. He’s Irish, which for the English of the time was a very different thing. So he’s a very particular type of outsider.” Of course the other source of inspiration is the voluminous material on Wilde, who in his prime was deemed the most famous man in London. It was an era where writers were true celebrities. “He became kind of blinded to the structure of society. He was a kind of elephant vagabond.”
The cast of The Happy Prince is a rich assortment worthy of an Oscar Wilde posse. In addition to Colin Firth there is Emily Watson as Wilde’s wife Constance, who somehow manages to remain civil and kind despite the carnival environment Wilde lives. In an interesting mirror image to the film, it is thanks in large part to Everett’s close links to the actors, that the film was able to get made. “They were all very supportive as friends,” says Everett. “They went way beyond the call of duty. Much of the financing was based on them being in it. So if Colin had fallen out the funding would have as well. So I’m very beholden to him.”
“Traditionally I’m quite flakey,” admits Everett when discussing the decade-long journey to make the film. “This is the first time in my life that I held on to something. Because our business is built on enthusiasm, that’s why often things go wrong. Optimism blinds you. You think ‘oh that’s a good sign, it means I should keep going.’” The passage of time helped Everett craft the film in an even more personal manner. “It happened in a specific period in my life. I wrote it when I was about 48 and made it when I was 58. By my late 50s my career was like the light at the end of a train tunnel that was receding. At a certain point I thought, if I don’t make this movie now, who am I? I will no longer exist if I wait more.”
But how does an actor with a slightly bohemian reputation adapt to the solitude of the writing process? “I work in the mornings when I write. I think writing for an actor is quite a challenge, because we are used to doing things in a group. We spar off each other. A writer, as you know, is on their own. It’s a completely different world. For an actor approaching writing you need to do it in a very disciplined way. I can’t write for half an hour in an airport, for example. Maybe actual writers can. I really need to structure time. The idea of working alone is so alien to an actor.”
So devoted was Everett to the vision of the story that he barely tweaked the script itself. “It didn’t change. As the budget took shape obviously it would be constrained by budgetary issues and some things would have to go. Otherwise it more or less stayed the same.”
Yet the transition from actor to director brings its own crucibles. “I thought ‘never again,’ because the pressure is like childbirth. And then once you have the little baby in your arms you start bristling with ideas for more kids. I would like to direct some more. But at the same time I would like to stay engaged with my business. For people of my generation, acting really is a lifetime choice. So when it dries up on you, it’s hard to deal with. This is a very exciting time to be in show business. The world is so insane.”
To become Wilde Everett also underwent a physical metamorphoses which he recalls with much gusto. “The worst type of thing is to try and be good looking as you’re getting older. That is such a strain, you can get hemorrhoids from trying. Going the other way is much easier. It’s fun. I had these amazing things built into my cheeks, inside, some dental things. I had this amazing suit made by this artist in London. He makes all the big fat suits for Hollywood. And they’re not just fat suits, they have different textures. So you have a lovely, low-hanging ass, which really feels like an ass, and fabulous, low-hanging boobs. Different layers for the stomach. I developed that with him while doing a play playing Oscar to drum up money. The look of it was very important for me. I had thin wigs. I imagined him being like a comic clown. He is a tragic, comedic character.”
Wilde was both an author and critic, a commentator of his times akin to a pre-World War I Gore Vidal. One wonders how he would gaze upon this crazed moment we are living through. But Everett sees Wilde forever embedded in his own era while helping usher in later debates and movements. “It’s a difficult question. He is so wrapped up in that period. It’s a pre-Freudian period. The human being until 1910 must have been a different creature. That whole thing of wondering how we’re feeling hadn’t come across yet. For me what’s so exciting about him in that period, all of the debates of the 20thcentury were born. The women’s movement was born in the period, modernism, Wilde and the homosexual movement started. That whole period was a huge catalyst and we’re still living through the consequences. Europe was winding up for world war. For me Wilde is an important punctuation point for the great debate of our time, sexuality. What’s important to me is that he’s the beginning of the gay liberation road. Sexuality wasn’t a debate before Wilde opened it up. Marriage for example- I think he’d love the notion of men getting married, but our notion of marriage is so different from their notion of it.”
Everett himself still indulges in much movie watching to stay up with his own era but enjoys going back to cherished titles. “I go through phases. I watch a lot of documentaries. I have a favorite film by John Schlesinger, The Day of the Locusts, which no one else seems to like. The 70s is my period, really.”
While keenly aware we are in ageist times, Everett maintains this is an important to be older, as the shift in the industry into wider platforms on TV and streaming allows for more diverse content that appeals to various demographics. “There are certain stories no one will know how to tell soon, because the 70s and even the 80s have sort of become ancient history. In the virtual world only six weeks ago counts.”
Now that he mentions the 80s, it is required to ask Everett about his own colorful past in the New York of the 70s and 80s, when his exploits have an almost Wilde tinge. “Coming back here, I haven’t been in L.A. since 2003 and everything has changed. In New York everything is different as well.” What truly strikes Everett is the sense that we are all regressing into isolation. “That older world was based on interaction and community and going out. No one goes out anymore. What was extraordinary about the world of Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger and Madonna in the 80s, was that the whole of society, across the classes, across financial spectrum went out, together. This is an alien thought now. Everyone stays in.” Everett begins to go back in time, suddenly specific imagery and memories flood back. “That is something most striking about that period compared to now. Margaret Trudeau was there dancing with a plumber. That was reality. Someone else was sitting around talking to a drug dealer. There was a kind of melting pot. It was the pre-birth of political correctness, so everybody was just what they were. There as little apology for anyone. Nobody was particularly upset if you were having a dinner party with an embezzling criminal. It was all part of the picture of being in a cosmopolitan world.”
The Happy Prince opens Oct. 10 in New York and Los Angeles.
Alci Rengifo is Cinematics Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.