Rupert Everett on being gay in Hollywood and ‘talking’ with Madonna
‘I expected world domination,’ says Rupert Everett with a proud toss of the head. ‘It took me a long time to realise the world wasn’t made in quite the way I thought it was. I never thought of being anything else but Tom Cruise.’
For a while in the late Nineties it did look as if the tall, handsome, gregarious British actor would make that top grade of movie stardom. He seemed to have all the ingredients: looks, talent, credibility, connections – a glamorous life in Los Angeles with Madonna among his friends – and a massive hit with My Best Friend’s Wedding, in which he played Julia Roberts’s gay best mate. Everett was all set to take his place among Hollywood’s leading men, but it didn’t work out that way.
‘The thing about middle age is that there’s a lot of regret,’ says the actor, now 60 years old and living in the Wiltshire countryside with his mother – a long way from LA. ‘You can’t hide that. I’m not going to show it all to you now, because what’s the point in just being an angry queen? But, yes, I’m livid on a bad day.’
On a good day, though, he’s buzzing with ideas. Last year, Everett engineered a spectacular comeback with The Happy Prince, a movie about his hero Oscar Wilde that he produced, directed, wrote and starred in. The critics adored it. One said: ‘This is a part he was born to play.’
Now he is about to appear in two major television dramas – a female take on the porn industry for Channel 4 called Adult Material and an adaption of Umberto Eco’s novel The Name Of The Rose – as well as directing and starring in the title role of Chekhov’s classic play Uncle Vanya at the Theatre Royal in Bath. So he’s full of fight today. ‘It is tough. You need b**** of steel. In this world, where being older means you become less and less sellable, you think: “Am I going to just lie down and give up or shall I keep going?”’
At the height of his fame Everett was known for his waspish tongue – he once described George Clooney as ‘not the brightest spark in the boulevard’ and his Ocean’s Eleven films as a ‘cancer to world culture’ – but he never minded making fun of himself too. And right now he is frank enough to admit that he’s doing all these things because Hollywood isn’t calling any more. ‘Absolutely. If I was getting tons of work, I’m sure I would be doing the tons of work. But work has dried up on many occasions in my life, and certainly over the last ten years.’
That was around the time he was in drag as the headmistress in the second St Trinian’s movies, which the critics caned. ‘I would also love to be working at the National Theatre as an actor. It just hasn’t come up yet. So I’ve always been forced to create my own work.’
In his mid-20s he hung out with Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Collins and even Orson Welles in Hollywood, but Everett admits he didn’t have what it took to work the A-list circuit. ‘I was very brash to start with, publicly. Also, you really have to learn how to talk to the cameras and be on talk shows. For all my fantasy about being fabulous in front of paparazzi and being amusing like David Niven and Roger Moore on chat shows, I couldn’t do it. I was too shy. I was a bundle of nerves. My bubbliness just evaporated. So that’s another thing that stopped me.’
But the real problem was prejudice against his sexuality, he says. ‘Certainly back in the day it was more or less impossible [to be gay] if you wanted to aim for the top rank of showbusiness… I did get a certain amount of opportunities, I just never got second ones. You could say that was because I wasn’t good enough in the first ones, possibly.’
The look in his eyes suggests he doesn’t believe that for a moment. Was he ever tempted to hide his sexuality – as others did back then? Even as recently as 2012, one in four gay or lesbian actors said they hid their sexuality, while some have waited to become stars before coming out, such as Zachary Quinto, who played Spock in Star Trek before he made it public. ‘I couldn’t hide it because I love the gay culture and I wanted to be in it. That was as important to me as being an actor. So it wasn’t an option for me to go out to clubs and stuff like that, then try to pretend that I wasn’t.’
The prejudice came as a shock to him, because it was not what he had been led to expect during a childhood and teenage years spent looking enviously across the Atlantic. The son of a major in the Army, Everett was brought up in Norfolk but ran away to London at the age of 16 to try to make it as an actor. His first break came when he was cast as a gay schoolboy opposite Kenneth Branagh in the original play of Another Country. He then appeared in the film version with Colin Firth and later as a flamboyant Prince Regent in The Madness Of King George.
He was nominated for a Bafta and a Golden Globe for My Best Friend’s Wedding and another Golden Globe for the Oscar Wilde story An Ideal Husband, but he says that by then his identity was firmly fixed in the minds of casting directors. They had seen him play the gay best friend to Roberts, and then to Madonna in The Next Best Thing, and just couldn’t imagine him romancing a leading lady.
‘Showbusiness may have looked friendly on the outside, but it certainly wasn’t about to embrace that in reality. Even now, Hollywood has been forced to embrace gays, but mostly in gay roles.’
There are more openly gay actors than ever before now but they are very rarely cast as straight men, he says – even though straight actors are still called upon to play gay roles.
So how does Everett feel about the straight British comedian Jack Whitehall being cast as the first openly gay character in Disney’s upcoming Jungle Cruise? There have been protests. ‘It’s great him playing a gay character, but equally the gay actors of his stature should be getting more straight roles. Would you have missed out on the possibility of seeing Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in Behind The Candelabra [about Liberace and his lover]? No. It was a wonderful movie and deeply moving, as a gay man, to see how much attention those two actors had taken to being those two characters. I just would like there to be the same thing happening the other way round, more often.’
Everett went on to voice Prince Charming in two of the Shrek series and appear in movies like Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, but he is philosophical about how things turned out.
‘If you talk to any actor, we’re all a bundle of missed opportunities and trains that overshot the station. Throwing double-sixes from the age of 20 to 60? Some people have the luck of doing that and some people don’t.’
So Everett chose to take matters into his own hands and write, produce and direct his own movie, The Happy Prince, in which he was astonishingly good as the ageing, ailing Wilde in the last few years of his life. He wore a fat suit and plumped out his cheeks to play the overweight poet and wit; today he is startlingly tall and slender in his dark jeans and heavy navy sweater. His hair is long and dark but greying at the roots; the face is distinguished now, rather than beautiful, but he is still a very handsome man.
Everett with Julia Roberts at The Golden Globes in 1998. ‘For all my fantasy about being fabulous in front of paparazzi and being amusing like David Niven and Roger Moore on chat shows, I couldn’t do it. I was too shy’
‘I wrote my film because nothing else was happening and I thought: “I’ve got to do something.” I didn’t want to be a director. I wanted someone else to direct it for me. No one wanted to do it – but just getting them to say no took more than two years. When you’re on the wrong side of history, getting through to the agencies is like trying to storm an impregnable fortress. No responses whatsoever.’
He was out of fashion when he was trying to get the film made, hence the stony silence from the industry. ‘Someone should write a manners book for the new virtual world. The cut-off is complete once nobody needs anything from you any more. They just don’t answer.’
Everett is now working on a new film. ‘It’s about disco in Paris in the Seventies. Disco, transsexuals, drugs, prostitution, fashion.’
He has been entertainingly frank in a pair of very good memoirs, the first of which, Red Carpets And Other Banana Skins, revealed an affair with the French actress Béatrice Dalle of Betty Blue fame when he was living in Paris: ‘I was gay, but incompatibility is the agonising driving force behind many dangerous liaisons.’
Everett also wrote about his first meeting with Madonna: ‘She was mesmerising. She oozed sex and demanded a sexual response from everyone. It didn’t matter if you were gay. You were swept up all the same.’
Unfortunately, they fell out after he described her in the book as a ‘she-man’ and an ‘old whiny barmaid’. He has said in the past that she has stopped trusting him and won’t forgive, so what’s the state of their relationship now? He answers with one enigmatic word: ‘Talking.’ For once, that’s all he will say. Presumably he wants to keep it that way. Next Everett is heading to Bath to direct Katherine Parkinson of The IT Crowd and the French actor Clemence Poesy in Uncle Vanya. ‘I have a great love for this play. I’m fascinated by Russia as seen through the prism of now.’
The characters lead an aristocratic life in the wide-open, peaceful countryside of Russia a decade or two before the revolution that brought Lenin to power and changed everything. ‘The play is incredibly romantic to me because you know it’s all going to be swept aside. Their whole way of life is being so completely destroyed. That has a frisson for me, comparing it with how I feel about our life now. I feel it’s about to completely end.’
What does he mean? ‘The populism and extremism that has grown up is going to blow everything away. There’s insanity in the air. We’re in the middle of an act of such self-harm in Brexit. I live in the countryside with my mother and I do feel like we are in some kind of Chekhovian last moment before a revolution – or a cataclysmic change – occurs.’
We’re talking just after President Trump’s state visit. ‘Everyone’s behaviour was pathetic. Jeremy Corbyn at his rally [opposing the visit] looked like he’d burst a haemorrhoid. Theresa May looked like a kind of snaggle-tooth old Pekingese dog at her press conference.’
But later he sends me an email about the departing prime minister. ‘My thought about Theresa was unkind. Actually I admire her and feel very sorry for her. I cried at her Downing Street farewell. To my mind, her deal was perfectly good and the baffling thing in the present #MeToo climate is how women didn’t rise up as one against the cruel tearing to shreds of Theresa by the entire world. How she managed to stand up to it, God alone knows.’
He has a theory, of course. ‘Love perhaps. I watched her having dinner à deux with her husband once and it was very sweet, because they seemed to be very taken with one another – certainly still bonking in my opinion – which could account for the chunky chains and short skirts.’
He’s less charitable about the Brexit Party MEP and former Conservative minister Ann Widdecombe, who recently said science may one day ‘produce an answer’ to being gay. ‘She must have twisted her brain doing the splits in Strictly Come Dancing. She is now officially insane. I don’t even take her seriously enough to comment on that. She’s another mad chihuahua, in a way.’
The ageing process and the crazy politics right now have turned an actor who admits to being self-obsessed into someone who worries about the community he lives in. ‘It’s weird to finally realise at 60 how much you care about where we’re coming from in our country – and I do. You take so much for granted. Then something like this starts happening and the feelings take you by surprise.’
Soon Everett will appear in Adult Material on Channel 4. He’ll also play the inquisitor Bernardo Gui in the BBC’s The Name Of The Rose later this year.
‘I’m gradually dragging my career back on track. That’s my aim. For another few years. But I’d also like, eventually, to become Amish or something like that. I would love to give up my cellphone and email. I’m not on social media. I think it’s the most destructive thing that’s happened to humanity in the last 50 years.’
He can’t help himself, summoning quips and outrage from thin air as if still trying to audition for those long-lost chat-show slots; but when I point out that everyone’s doing the same on social media now, Everett smiles and flicks a hand as if to dismiss his younger, provocative self.
‘I’m bored with everyone’s opinions, especially my own. I shouldn’t be even saying half the things I’m saying to you.’
He reached the heights of fame once, but now his feet are back on solid ground. ‘I should be acting and trying to be better as an actor and a director. “Do something” is my new theory… so that’s what I’m going to do!’
‘Uncle Vanya’ is at the Theatre Royal Bath from July 18 to August 3, theatreroyal.org.uk