Film

Sundance: Rupert Everett on “The Happy Prince,” and How Oscar Wilde Is His Christ Figure

“He’s an idiot and a genius. He makes terrible mistakes and fails abysmally. So, he is a kind of saint figure to me.”

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One of the most pleasant surprises of this year’s Sundance has been the chance to see Rupert Everett onscreen again in a major role. Of course, in order to get the part, he had to write and direct the film as well. In The Happy Prince, Everett uses the last days of Oscar Wilde as a way to explore the tragic, iconic gay playwright-poet-novelist’s life  intercutting between glimpses of his glory days as well as his several falls from grace. The result is a lush, dense dream narrative, anchored by a lead performance from Everett that is alternately vain, tender, boisterous, and melancholy. I had the chance to sit down with him at the festival and discuss how he came to write and direct this movie  about a decade in the making  and the importance of Oscar Wilde in his own life.

How do you think Oscar Wilde would have fared in a place like Sundance?

It’s hard to say, really. There is, on the way [to Park City] from the airport, a place called Ironville, and Wilde went to a town called Leadville. He’d been lampooned in an opera by Gilbert and Sullivan as a kind of fob, and instead of reacting badly, he went and promoted the opera around America. It was a brilliant PR move  to confront your negative press full-on. He became a huge star in America in about 1875, I think it was. And he traveled around America in a train with a special carriage with green leathered seats, and he ended up in a town called Leadville, where he was taken down a mine in a bucket where the miners had organized a dinner party, and he spoke to them on the need for beauty.

Is this the most personal part you’ve ever played?

Oscar Wilde is definitely my patron saint, if not my Christ figure. The notion of Christ is such a fascinating one which we never really look into  the idea of being half-god and half-man, which the Christ consciousness is, and which we all are, and which Oscar Wilde is a perfect example of, because he’s kind of a buffoon in some ways, an idiot and a genius. He’s headstrong and vain and he’s incredibly compassionate. He’s a lot of polar opposites, and he makes terrible mistakes and fails abysmally. So, he is a kind of saint figure to me, if I think of all the mistakes that I’ve made. And also having to live so much as a kind of publicly seen gay figure. Not that I’m in any sense a similar type of genius as he is, but definitely he is my saint.

In some senses, his story feels like one of the beginnings of the LGBTQ movement.

The relevance of the film is that the LGBTQ movement really did start with him. “Homosexuality” simply wasn’t a word, really, before Wilde, and certainly wasn’t a thing that was discussed openly. And he realized that. He said at one point before he died, “The road to freedom will be long and smeared with the blood of martyrs.” So, for the LGBTQ community, I think this is like seeing a nativity play. And I think very valuable for us all now, because we live in a culture where we’re constantly battling for everything to get better, which is right and correct, but at the same time sometimes it blinds us to how far we’ve actually come already. And this is 110 years or so; it’s a minuscule millisecond in human history, and we should sit and think of Wilde and where we are and feel absolutely thrilled and full-hearted going forward 

While you were just talking, Mike Pence was on the TV behind you.

Right, yes! [Laughs]

So, there’s still some road left to go.

Of course there is, but at the same time, how do we attack that road? I think, bearing Oscar in mind, one attacks it with a pride and a full-heartedness rather than an anger and a fury. We’ve done incredibly well already, and things have moved so much for us in the first world. You know, last week I was in Jamaica, where I’m involved with a safe house for gay people in Montego Bay. I was listening to the stories of gays and transgender people in Jamaica  where once your family discovers that you’re gay, they try and get a hit man to kill you, and the whole village turns their back on you and throws stones at you like a dog until you have to leave home and just go on the street. There are gays in Russia who don’t know what AIDS is still. They’re completely out on their own. I think this film is a great kind of battle cry, in a way, but in a full-hearted and positive sense.

You’ve been working on this film for some time.

Well, I originally wrote the screenplay in 2007, 2008. And since then it’s been on quite a journey. It started off terribly well, then kind of went downhill. When I first wrote it, my initial producer, Robert Fox, sent it to Scott Rudin, who’s a fantastic producer, and he loved the script. And the day I heard that I just thought, “God, show business is the easiest thing. It’s all just happens like that.” And I was walking on air. And then straight away afterwards [Rudin] came back saying that he liked the script but he wanted Philip Seymour Hoffman to play Oscar Wilde.

Had you always intended to play the part?

I’d only written it so that I could play the part. I didn’t really want to direct it, to be honest. I just wanted to keep going as an actor and find a fantastic vehicle for myself that I thought would fit in to how people perceive me. So, when he told me he wanted Philip Seymour Hoffman to play the role, I was a little bit knocked sideways. Actually, in one sense, I think I made a mistake because I should have let them do it; I would have been able to establish myself as a writer at a very good level, because Scott Rudin is a marvelous producer. Philip Seymour Hoffman would have been magnificent, actually.

I think you’re magnificent in this part. I’m also taken with your writing and direction of the film. Especially with the dream-narrative structure, which seems like a bold choice for a first-time writer-director.

My initial idea was to have Oscar Wilde on his deathbed, because obviously that hotel room to me is a kind of iconic room. For me, it’s one of the great nineteenth-century romances, you know, Oscar Wilde’s cheap hotel room smelling of drains, this great literary genius who once held the whole Café Royal in thrall is dying next to an overflowing latrine in a cheap hotel. And I’d originally thought about this deathbed room being a kind of expanding and shrinking room as he died. My dad had just died, and I’d been around my dad quite a lot dying, and it’s a riveting experience to see close-up a brain slowly turning off and crashing and bits falling off. Distance starts changing, you start seeing things that happened years ago. So, I wanted to try and make this idea about a room that shrank and expanded as he died  as the brain sorts out for the last time its memories. That was my initial thrust, and then it went on from there. I always loved the films of Sergio Leone  those amazing flashbacks in Once Upon a Time in America.

Funny that you mention Leone. The film felt quite Italian to me. I was also reminded structurally of The Conformist, and several other Italian films from the 1960s and 1970s.

As a kid, my best friend was the goddaughter of Franco Zeffirelli. So, my first real experience of cinema and making films was going on this mad, exotic queen’s film sets where churches would be hung with bits of glitter. I mean, you know, that old Italian school, with its [directors of photography] like Pasqualino De Santis, and costume designers Piero Tosi and Danilo Donati. The design of those films of Seventies and Eighties Italian cinema. And I think people aren’t really interested in that kind of design aesthetic anymore, I suppose. For me, it comes from the same thing that I suppose Visconti thought about: It’s really making the rooms and the places exact. And I think they are fairly exact, my environments for Oscar Wilde.

You wrote the script even before you appeared in The Judas Kiss, in which you played Wilde onstage?

I appeared in The Judas Kiss because the film just kept stalling. After this Scott Rudin debacle, he said, “OK, I will make the film with you, but give me a list of six directors.” And I did, fabulous ones.

Who was on the list?

Well, the one I really wanted was Alan Parker, because I adore his Irish films, and I love Mississippi Burning. And I love that aesthetic, too, the English aesthetic of those advertisers who turned to moviemaking. Again, part of my upbringing. I was brought up on seeing those films. Anyway, it took me about two years to get a “no” from all of them. We were then into year three, and I thought, “Fuck.” The thing about a screenplay is it simply doesn’t exist if it isn’t made. There’s no point in trying to publish a screenplay or something like that, so I thought, “I’m just not letting it go.” I decided to direct it myself — to a resounding lack of enthusiasm globally. [Laughs] Added to which, whatever stardom I had at that point was really on the wane, you know, flickering into obscurity. I went round everywhere, and everyone said no. People kept saying, “Why you as Wilde? I don’t understand how you’re going to do it.” And I’d remembered David Hare’s play The Judas Kiss. And we had a great success with it. Everything I thought I could do as an actor, I somehow managed. So, that was a real turning point.

You’ve talked about these contrasts in Oscar’s life. There’s also his yearning for domesticity, intercut with his sexual abandon in France.

Wilde definitely became a sexual animal in France. And Wilde and sex is a difficult thing to [approach]. If you believe what everyone says, he never had sex with a guy until Robbie Ross in 1885 or ’86. So all through university, Trinity College, Dublin, Oxford, no gay sex. And I think it’s possible; he was so hell-bent on becoming English. And yet, it’s so difficult for us to imagine because we live in a post-liberation world where being gay is a thing. Back then, it wasn’t a thing even. But definitely, by the time he got to Paris, he was a celebrity on the skids, a sex animal. I think he was fascinated by the vagrant world that became available to him.

You also depict what seems to be a very earnest desire on his part to be a Catholic.

Well, he had this flirtation with Catholicism all the way through. He was always going to Brompton Oratory, which is one of our big, grand churches in London. He loved the idea of Catholicism. And Robbie Ross was a Catholic. And Wilde must have also had a Christ complex of his own because his social suicide was quite possibly very measured and thought-out. He probably saw that the only way for his work to really survive would be if he did go to prison, because he had the opportunity obviously when he was in the Cadogan Hotel to run. But if he ran, he would be committed to obscurity. Because actually there were a lot of playwrights who wrote very good melodramatic potboilers in the theater, and it’s quite possible he’d have been lost if he hadn’t also become this Christ figure. Because he died and rose again, in a way, like Christ.

Oscar Wilde is one of the most quotable figures of all time. When you write that character and you have to put words in his mouth, I imagine that’s not easy. But you’ve got some good lines in there — like, “shrouded in the symphony of adjacent copulation.”

Oh, I wrote that, yeah. [Laughs] That was a good one, actually.

It must have been a challenge. “Oh, I’m going to write new Oscar Wilde–isms.”

Well, that’s the joy and glory of writing when it goes well. Because I remember writing that line and having this idea of them being in a knocking shop with this kind of Sensurround sex going on. The words just kind of came out, and when stuff like that comes out, it’s amazing. But that’s another area where I was very lucky because I had so much Wilde experience as an actor. Even if I didn’t know how to come up with something as glittering, I knew the cadence and the length of the sentences and how they felt to speak. And I think being the actor writing the lines was very lucky for me, because I always had an ear to imagining myself saying them.

Are you an easy actor to direct?

Well, it’s a very weird position because everyone’s around you, and you’re the director and you’re the actor, so you’re the center of energy. I was so keen to make the days because we had a really tough schedule, and any scene we lost on any day meant the scene was really basically lost. We didn’t have any room for doing an extra day or anything, so sometimes I would just be hurrying through the scenes to get them finished — I’d get up from chairs too fast, or move across rooms in a way that just wasn’t like Oscar would. There’s a scene where I climbed a hill to the church, and I was like Usain Bolt trying to get up it because I was so keen to get on to the next setup. So, sometimes my acting is inaccurate. Luckily everyone else’s was incredibly accurate all the way through. My philosophy always as an actor has been that directors who try and micromanage you are not necessarily the best directors. I think the best ones are ones who watch what you’re doing and try and capture it, and that’s how I thought with my actors. They were all so instinctively right.

Who’s the best director you’ve worked with?

Well, I loved working with P.J. Hogan [on My Best Friend’s Wedding and Unconditional Love]. But he was a micromanager as well. And he would make me do twenty takes of something, which was completely, in my opinion, unnecessary. And then he always chose the wrong one, for me. If you go to a screening with another actor, you always end up having the same conversation: “Can you believe the stuff they used? I mean, what about that stuff we did there?” And I must say, looking at the performances, I felt, as an actor-director, I understood what every actor was trying to do, even sometimes when it wasn’t quite achieved. Because you can see in other actors’ faces what beats they’re trying to make, what little kind of lulls and musical changes. Because we move so fast now, and there’s not time to do that old-fashioned thing of twenty-five takes; there’s time to do two. And so, I did like working with P.J. Hogan. I loved working with Roger Michell. I loved working with Paul Schrader. I loved working with a guy called Marek Kanievska who made Another Country, my first film. And then I did a film called Dellamorte Dellamore, an Italian film. [Director Michele Soavi] is a fantastically original thinker. He transformed that cartoon so brilliantly onto the screen. And the character was based on me to start with! That cartoon, which is called Dylan Dog, was a big Italian strip cartoon, and the guy who did it based it on me. So, it was a great thing for me to do. But [Soavi] was brilliant as the director, because that was not an expensive film, but the way all his special effects were kind of artisanal was stunning.

Who’s the worst director you’ve worked with?

Well, the director I got on worst with was the second director I ever worked with, Mike Newell. We fought and fought and fought. The film was great actually, Dance With a Stranger, but it was a defining film for me in that afterwards I really didn’t get any work because my relationship with him had gone so bad and so wrong.

 It is a great film, and Miranda Richardson is quite amazing in it.

She’s amazing, as is the look of that film. There’s hardly any films of that period that look so absolutely wonderful. No, he did an amazing job of it, I must say.

Do you want to direct more?

I would like to. In this day and age, I think one has to constantly reset one’s clock at zero, and I won’t be going into next week thinking I now have the right to be a director. Because I’m nearly approaching sixty. If it took me another ten years to make a film, I’d be seventysomething. [Laughs] But I think I’ve got something to say and lots of ideas that I would like to do. On the one hand, because the world is moving so fast, in five or six years I won’t understand how to use anything. Because if we’re at the very beginning still of this huge technological movement, I already can’t even do catch-up on my TV very well. And emotionally, morally, everything’s changing. The whole structure of humanity seems like it will be changing in the next five to ten years.

But that’s also why I think being an older person directing will be good. It’s a good thing to bring shades of the past, in terms of emotional makeup and moralistic makeup. And I think one of the things in the modern world where it’s not working for me is that history is now fifteen minutes ago. For example, as young aspiring actors, we knew the whole of the history of cinema from seeing it on television. We knew films of the Twenties in the Seventies and Eighties. We were intimately familiar with the 1930s, the 1940s, the 1950s — of course we were in love with the Fifties. That’s all gone. Now, one trip around the goldfish bowl. Things are moving so fast.

The Oscar Wilde story is also, in some senses, the beginnings of celebrity culture.

Absolutely. He was the second celebrity. Byron first, and then Wilde. Famous for being famous, as much as anything else.

And this notion that the people who applaud you will, in the very next moment, absolutely drive you into the ground.

Well, certainly in our world, you know, everything turns on a dime. One moment everyone’s listening to your ideas, gaping with excitement, and the next they’re looking over your shoulder to get away. So, yeah, I think that’s the nature of our world. And it also moves so fast now. That’s the other thing, you know. In a couple of days, you could be finished.

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