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Rupert Everett, having a Wilde time with 'The Happy Prince'
by Tim Nasson

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At the height of Rupert Everett's stardom, he was co-starring alongside Julia Roberts in My Best Friend's Wedding ( 1997 ) and opposite one of his best friends, Madonna, in The Next Best Thing ( 2000 ). He even voiced the character of Prince Charming in the Shrek movies.

But the most interesting thing on Everett's resume was not a movie role, but rather it was what he did in 1989: He was the first major actor to come out of the closet and not hide the fact that he was gay.

While talking about his latest effort, The Happy Prince—a movie based on the later years of Oscar Wilde's life that Everett wrote, directed and starred in—Everett said he had no regrets about coming out when he did.

He added, "There was never that question for me. … I loved the whole gay culture. So, for me, to even consider anything other than being out wasn't an option. And, also, if you're going to lie about yourself, it's a tough thing. It's a negation of yourself."

Everett's fascination with Wilde began when he was six, he recalled, when his mother would read The Happy Prince to him at bedtime.

"I was enraptured by the story and inconsolable at the end. Coming from a military family with a distinctly pre-Freudian world view—it was probably the first time I heard about love and suffering and that there was a terrible price to be paid for it. The Happy Prince was a turning point.

"In 1975, I moved to London. It is difficult to imagine now but it had only been legal to be gay for seven years and the police—making the most of the ambiguity in the 1967 law—continued to raid and arrest people for homosexual acts in public and so there was a palpable feeling that we were stepping in Oscar's freshly trodden footprints on those unlucky occasions when we were herded into paddy wagons and taken down to the police station for the night."

The actor later performed in The Picture of Dorian Gray, an event he described as "the beginning of a treasured relationship. Something between me and the text sparked."

The relationship with Wilde's material only intensified from there.

"A few years later I performed The Importance of Being Earnest in French at the Theatre National de Chaillot in Paris and then made two films from Wilde plays: An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest," Everett said. "At around this point my career dried up—literally evaporated overnight and I began to write. I decided to create a role for myself. If no one else would employ me, I would employ myself.

"Oscar Wilde seemed to be the ideal character. Not the Wilde of folk lore, the iconic family man, the life and soul of the café royal but a different Wilde, the fallen star, the last great vagabond of the nineteenth century—punished and crushed by society, yet somehow surviving. I would write the Passion of Wilde. After I had been turned down by almost every director of note I decided to make the film myself. If I had been in possession of a crystal ball, I would not have embarked on such a journey. It took 10 years to get to preproduction."

Based on all of that, Everett was asked why he immersed himself so fully in the world of Oscar Wilde, putting on three hats: director, writer and actor.

"I didn't think of immersing myself fully in the beginning, because I never wanted to be the director," he said. "I had written a couple of books [about Oscar Wilde] in 2000 and 2005, and I really wanted to write a script in which I could act and maybe resuscitate my career to a certain extent.

"So, Oscar Wilde seemed to be the perfect character in that he's a great inspiration to me, the patron saint figure in a way. After sending the screenplay to a number of directors, and seeing them all pass on the project, I realized if a screenplay is not directed it is nothing. You can't publish it in a magazine. It's nothing. And I thought, I'm going to do it myself. And that's what happened."

Everett focuses on the final years of Wilde's life, when he is recently released from jail, after having been sent there for engaging in homosexual acts, considered illegal in England until 1967. Much of the film features Wilde on his deathbed, recalling the horrible atrocities that befell him.

"I focused on the latter part of Wilde's life partly because the other three films about him focus on the successful part of his life, and I think that is a little bit of an easy get out for people to just look at the good part," Everett said. "What society did to him was this: They put him in prison and then they imprisoned him in liberty and it happened just for the fact of being a homosexual man. So, for me, as a homosexual man, this is the important part of the story."

When asked if he'd like to direct another film, Everett responded, "I would. It's kind of like childbirth when you're directing a movie. You think when you're in labor, 'Oh, god—I'm never doing this again.' But as soon as the baby is out of the bag, you think, 'I can't remember all that pain.' I'm now bristling with new ideas."

Everett turned down the role of Cecil in the 1986 smash Merchant/Ivory classic A Room With a View.

"At the time, I had made a couple of period pieces—Another Country and Dance with a Stranger," he recalled. "I didn't want to be typecast for the rest of my life. So, I turned down the film. I loved the Merchant/Ivory team. But turning down that role that Daniel Day-Lewis ended up with ruined my chances for ever working with them again. I burned that bridge, if you will. However, for Daniel Day-Lewis, it was a career-making performance, because the same year he had done My Beautiful Laundrette, and his roles in those two films couldn't have been more different. He turned into a star overnight. The same would not have happened to me."

Everett this past summer moved back in with his mother in England to help take care of her. "That is like going back in the closet. It's going okay. It's having its own birthing process. You go immediately back to the relationship you had when you were 14 and my mum doesn't realize that I'm 59 and she kind of orders me around. I have to close windows, open bottles and do everything, and that is quite difficult. But it's nice."

Next up for Everett is a TV miniseries remake of the 1986 Sean Connery movie The Name of the Rose.

The Happy Prince began in select Chicago venues Friday, Oct. 19.

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