Film

Interview: What Oscar Wilde Means to Rupert Everett, and the Most Poignant Scene in The Happy Prince

Acting primarily in UK productions since the mid-1980s, actor Rupert Everett truly broke out to American audiences beginning in the mid-1990s, with supporting appearances in Robert Altman’s Ready to Wear and the film adaptation of the hit play The Madness of King George, both released in 1994. It should be noted that one of his early lead roles, in the severely underrated Italian horror film Cemetery Man, was also released that year. But it was his role as Julia Roberts’ gay best friend in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) that made him the object of desire for both men and women around the world.

Rupert Everett The Happy Prince

Image courtesy of Sony Classics

While he has worked steadily ever since, Everett has said that being an openly gay actor has often resulted in him getting shut out of consideration for many a part over the years. Still, he would often pop up unexpectedly in such works as Shakespeare in Love, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Inspector Gadget, The Next Best Thing (co-starring with his pal Madonna), a couple of Shrek movies (as Prince Charming, naturally), and more recently in Tim Burton’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Perhaps most pertinent to his current role, he also starred in two film adaptations of Oscar Wilde plays, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest.

Now in theaters is The Happy Prince, Everett’s writing/directing debut, in which he tells the largely unknown story of the last days of Oscar Wilde (Everett), recently released from prison for being gay and forced to live in exile in Italy while gathering funds and get his life back on track, all the while coping with poor health and opportunistic acquaintances looking to squeeze whatever money they can out of him.

The film co-stars Colin Firth, Emily Watson, Colin Morgan, Edwin Thoma, and Tom Wilkinson, and it’s partly told in fever-dreamed flashbacks as Wilde remembers better times prior to his arrest. I had a chance to sit down with Everett while he was visiting Chicago recently to discuss his connections to Wilde (both professionally and personally) as well as the many years it took him to get the film off the ground and the decision to direct it himself. Enjoy…

It occurred to me as I was putting my questions together that I have always associated you with Oscar Wilde.

You have?

Probably because the first time I ever heard his words spoken was in a film that you were in, based on one of his plays.

An Ideal Husband?

Right, and then Earnest later. But I guess I didn’t realize you’d never played him in a film before, which makes the fact that you selected this period in his life to portray him all the more interesting. Why did you choose the end of his life, when he’s at his lowest?

I supposed partly because the other films, as you say, focus on his glorious days—the success, the [Hotel] Café Royal, the plays performing to enraptured audiences, and they normally end at the moment he goes into prison. And I feel slightly that that’s a cop-out because it means we’re not really able to look at what society did to him, in terms of punishment, both in prison with hard labor, and after prison, in exile, which was another form of imprisonment. I find this, as a gay man and as a love of the genius of Oscar Wilde’s work, a very very moving and personal story. For me, the idea of this last great vagabond of the late 19th century, this rock star on the skids, is a very potent and poignant story to try and address.

Do you think the other films made about Wilde’s life stopped where they did because what happened to him at the time is looked at as a national embarrassment today, and they didn’t want to deal with that?

Partly that and partly because, remember, the first two films were made when it was still illegal to be homosexual. So they were quite brave to start with but they probably didn’t want to push it too far. And yes, I think they were afraid to show too much.

I understand that your physical transformation, which is quite remarkable, is so convincing that I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to see walking in here.

[laughs] Thank you. We used a body suit to look heavier, and I wore things inside my mouth to make my face a bit wider. I shaved my head off to have a thin wig, and that was it really.

What does looking and feeling that different do to you?

That way of going into a part, it’s the old-fashioned approach, which I like, finding a look and the silhouette and the shape of a character, particularly one that is not like you. He was quite a big-boned character in a way, quite elephantine. So it was important for me to get the whole look at the thing, and once I got that, looking in the mirror, it all became easier, in a way.

This feels like a passion project, but I understand this is something you’ve been trying to get made for a decade.

A decade is quite a long time. It took me ten years to get it off the ground, so I guess it does qualify as a passion project.

I also understand that part of the reason it took so long is that you couldn’t find a director, before you ultimately decided to direct it yourself. Why do you think you couldn’t lock someone down?

Everyone’s got their own projects, and the kind of director I wanted, I suppose they each had four or five things they were trying to get together themselves. Getting to these people is quite difficult sometimes; it takes quite a long time. And by the time I’d been passed over by say seven directors, two-and-a-half years had gone by, so I could have spent the rest of my life doing that. At that point, I’ve got this screenplay and it’s dead if it doesn’t get made. So I decided to make it myself.

Was there a bit of fear attached to that decision?

I didn’t really think about it, to be honest. What’s the point of being nerve-wracked. To be honest, it never even crossed my mind. When I decided to make it, I had no idea what it was going to entail—let alone the years it would take to put it together. It was just an idea in the sky. But no, it never really scared me, the idea of directing it.

Where did you shoot this, because some of these locations look downright enchanted?

It was shot in Germany, Belgium, France, and Italy. Most of the interiors were shot in Germany, in these three old tumbledown castles that I found in the north of Franconia. Some of the exteriors were shot in Naples, some were shot in the north of France. And we shot a lot in Brussels and just outside of Brussels as well.

Because Wilde is dying while he’s also remembering things in his past, it gives your flashbacks this fever-dream feel to them. What we’re seeing may not be accurate, but it’s how he remembers them. Why did you choose that more surrealistic way of using flashbacks?

Yeah, well, my initial inspiration was this idea of what happens when a brain starts collapsing and how it throws off images and ideas and starts playing with your spacial awareness. I was very inspired by my dad’s death, and watching quite closely and seeing how his brain was falling apart and it came up with bubbles of memory. That was how I initially thought of the whole thing, and it graduated from there. But when you say there’s a kind of feverish quality, that’s exactly the thing I was trying to get to.

Having just seen the recent stage version of Angels in America recently, there’s a character in that play that is going through something similar, brought on by being in the final stages of dying of AIDS. Is there a similar quality to what Wilde is going through?

It’s more just a dying person. I do think there are parallels to his deathbed to an AIDS deathbed scenario—that whole notion of a group of friends in a room for a long, extended period. But everybody dying, that’s what happens to their brain. It’s like a cliff, and it just starts falling off and a bit comes up through your optic nerve, and suddenly you’re there.

The Happy Prince

Image courtesy of Sony Classics

You don’t shy away from portraying him as someone who was a slave to his passions, in a self-destructive way sometimes.

For me, I don’t so much agree with the modern way that political correctness came in with this notion that the good person is good and the bad person is bad, and that’s it. For me, it’s quite claustrophobic as an idea. The enchantment of Oscar Wilde is his humanity. He has all the bad qualities that we all have, only he got caught out for it. Most people manage to wing it through life with the same qualities, even self destruction. We all have it, this desire to throw ourselves over the edge, but most of us have a natural constraint and natural borders before going that far, and we put ourselves back. And he, for some reason, didn’t. I don’t necessary think he is winging it; I think he just is it. He’s a victim of his own bad qualities, really.

I found it fascinating that he was so intent on fixing things with his wife when he got out of prison, which he doesn’t do. But for time, he views that as the thing that’s going to solve all of his problems, and he still can’t bring himself to stay out of trouble before he patches things up with her.

Right, because he’s a lazy, easily bored person. Once he gets to the north of France on his own, he’s incredibly bored and depressed, and then she writes him one letter, which is not the letter he wanted, and he disappears in the other direction.

Why is this an important time to tell this particular story?

I can only tell you why I think it’s important and hope for the best that other people are infected by my enthusiasm. The story of Wilde, on the spectrum of the global gay experience of today, is really only halfway across. For large parts of the world, it’s still a life or death challenge to be gay or lesbian or transgender. Even with the winds of populism blowing over all of our countries, who knows what happens to a minority once the majority gets nervous. I think history is always a fantastic thing to know about, and for me personally, he is the beginning of the road on which I’m still walking—the road to liberation. I think he’s as important to me as Jesus, in a way.

I saw you on a talk show the other day, and you mentioned this film festival that you’re taking this film to. Explain that, if you would.

Yes, it’s still going on. It’s the St. Petersburg Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, and it normally happens at the end of November. Putin has banned these things from happening as of November 10th, but they’ve moved it forward and now it’s going to be on November 1st. It’s dangerous still over there because the state sponsors an attitude toward gay, lesbian and transgender people that encourages a kind of aggression and violence. But it’s not illegal yet.

I want to talk about one scene in your film that is so difficult to watch, in the train station when Wilde is transferring trains on his way to prison and being yelled at and spit on by others on the platform. I’ve never seen a person look more defeated in my life.

It’s a true scene, when he was being transferred. The policeman escorting him was just reading the newspaper while this was all happening, while this crowd gathered around him. It was the rush hour, so there was a considerable amount of people. That’s what happened, and it is one of the most extraordinary scenes. There’s this man, who just recently was the most famous, lauded, wanted man in London, reduced to being spat on by a crowd of commuters. It’s an extraordinary idea, and it resembles a moment from the Passion of Jesus, this genius to be treated in this way was quite unbelievable to shoot. Shooting is shooting. We had all of these issues, for example, the consistency of the spittle, we got wrong at first, so you always have these practical issues that take you slightly out of the horror of the moment.

It’s one of the scenes that I considered really important in the story of Wilde, much more important than saying funny things in the Café Royal or bowing in a theater. This is the center of his story, in a way. And the rest of his story is incomplete without that as part of it. The whole package of him is the story, not the plays on their own because you could say they’re quite limited and brittle in one way. The whole thing becomes a walking art form.

Do you want to continue the writing and directing, or has telling this story gotten it out of your system?

Oh no, I’d like to continue if I could. I’ve written another film and I’d like to shoot it. I’d like to make a few more actually. On the other hand, I’m also happy to just keep being engaged with the business and keep going. I’ve been in this business a long time and it means a lot to me, and I hope to be able to up my game in terms of getting parts.

Speaking of being in the business a long time, I really would love to ask you about one of your older films. You have this one film that stands out to me, one of my favorites actually, called Cemetery Man. How did that ever happen and how did you get involved with it? What was that experience like for you to make it?

Oh, it was great. I think Michele Soavi is a genius film director. He used to work for Dario Argento, and he’s a major director. It came out of the fact that there’s this magazine, this comic book in Italy called Dylan Dog, which was based on me. So that’s how the lunacy of that experience happened. I think it’s a wonderful film—it’s artisanally made. It wasn’t before the age of digital effects, but they didn’t use any of that. They only used the old 1930s-era makeup and effects. I’m very proud of it.

Thank you so much. It was really wonderful to meet you. Best of luck with this.

Thank you very much, indeed.

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