Rupert Everett’s fascination with Oscar Wilde, the subject of his new film “The Happy Prince,” dates back to his childhood.
“I remember it very well,” the actor says. “My mother read it to me at night when I was in bed. I was enraptured by the story and inconsolable at the end. It was a real turning point for me.”
Since then, the life and works of Oscar Wilde have been an artistic and personal touchstone for Everett. He’s starred in stage productions of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “The Importance of Being Earnest” and in movie adaptations of “Earnest” and “An Ideal Husband.” He played Oscar Wilde in the 2012 revival of David Hare’s play “The Judas Kiss,” a performance for which he was nominated for an Olivier award.
Everett, who is fluent in French, even starred in a production of “Earnest” at the Theatre National de Chaillot in Paris.
The actor treasures his relationship with Wilde.
“Discovering Wilde as a playwright was a great moment for me as an actor,” Everett says during a Washington Blade interview. “When you have a good relationship with a writer it’s really quite magical. Something between me and the text just sparked. It was like riding a bike — something I could just do effortlessly.”
Everett also views Wilde as the great martyr, or even the patron saint, of the modern gay rights movement. As the opening title of “The Happy Prince” relates, in 1895, Oscar Wilde was the most famous man in London. His plays, essays and stories made him an international literary sensation and his witty quips were published in newspapers and periodicals around the globe. He was, Everett observes, “one of the prototypes of the modern celebrity.”
But, Wilde’s flamboyant mannerisms and his barely concealed homosexuality kept him in a constant swirl of scandal that finally erupted in a trial for “gross indecency.” Wilde was found guilty and served two years in prison. After his release, he spent the last years of his life as a penniless exile in Paris.
That’s the period of Wilde’s life that most fascinated Everett. Around 10 years ago, during a lull in his career, he decided to make it the subject of his first screenplay.
“At the point where work had really cooled down for me, I was thinking of trying to write a script. Wilde just seemed like the obvious person to write about and the period of his exile seemed like the most obvious frame.”
Everett says his experience with Wilde helped him write the script.
“I was very lucky to have performed so much Wilde,” he says. “Doing a play night after night, week after week, you really get to know the timbre and the rhythm and the phraseology of a writer. Having played Dorian Grey and Earnest on stage was very vital for me. Both characters are like Wilde and it gave me an opening in how to construct the dialogue.”
Like Wilde, Everett’s career has been impacted by his sexuality. In his first major role, he played gay schoolboy Guy Bennett in the stage and screen versions of “Another Country.” He is perhaps best known for his roles in “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and “The Next Best Thing” where he played the gay best friends of Julia Roberts and Madonna. Everett publicly came out in 1997, a move he says kept him from becoming a Hollywood leading man.
Also like Wilde, Everett has worked in a variety of art forms. He has written two novels (“Hello Darling, Are You Working?” and “The Hairdressers of St. Tropez”) and two memoirs (“Red Carpets and other Banana Skins” and “Vanished Years”). He also released two record albums, although neither achieved critical or popular success.
The out artist directed the television documentary “The Victorian Sex Explorer” about Sir Richard Burton, the infamous Victorian author, explorer and sexual adventurer. Everett has also worked on documentaries about Lord Byron, prostitution (“Love for Sale”) and the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in the United Kingdom (“Fifty Shades of Gay”).
Following the success of his work as writer, director and star of “The Happy Prince,” which opens Oct. 19 in D.C.-area theaters, Everett is working on a new film about fashion and disco in Paris in the 1970s. He’s also playing the Inquisitor Bernardo Gui in a new television adaptation of Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” and is slated to star in the spy comedy “The B Team.”