Rupert Everett is calling from Italy, and the call keeps dropping.
The back-and-forth makes for a small comedy of errors like something out of an Oscar Wilde play (if the telephone had been invented), and it’s fitting that Everett is calling from Naples — a site of Wilde’s life in exile for several key months in 1897 and a location where Everett filmed his upcoming biopic The Happy Prince.
Wilde and his attendant locales mean a great deal to Everett: He calls the poet and playwright his “patron saint,” has starred in productions of his work on stage and screen, and even portrayed Wilde in David Hare’s The Judas Kiss in London. For the past 10 years, Everett has been dedicated to making The Happy Prince, a project he wrote, stars in, and directed. Marking his debut behind the camera, the film explores the last three years of Wilde’s life, spent in exile as he struggles to maintain his finances, health, and romantic relationships.
Ahead of The Happy Prince’s theatrical debut Oct. 10, EW has an exclusive clip from the film depicting Wilde’s reunion with his friend Reggie Turner (played by Colin Firth); we also chatted with Everett about what Wilde means to him and why he wanted to focus on this more tragic portion of his life. Watch the clip below, and read on for more from the actor-turned-director.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your earliest memory of Oscar Wilde?
RUPERT EVERETT: I first discovered Oscar Wilde at about the age of 6 because my mother read me The Happy Prince in bed at night. I remember it really, really well. We weren’t talked to like people are today about love and suffering and all these kinds of things. [Wilde’s short stories were] my introduction to that. They’re quite vivid and tough for little children. It was a big turning point learning about this thing called love, and there was usually a terrible price to be paid for it. It was something I didn’t quite understand.
Why has he continued to hold such a fascination for you?
When I moved to London, which must have been about 1976, and started going out in the gay scene, it’s something that’s very difficult to imagine nowadays, but in the U.K. we’d only been legal for seven years. Our police force was always kind of two steps behind legislation because of the ambiguity in the law concerning homosexuality in public places. In that sense, Oscar Wilde always felt very close; that we [were] walking in his footsteps. History is very fascinating. It’s one of the things we miss in this virtual world, and history resolves a lot of things — it gives us a context for where we are now. For me, Wilde has always been a great inspiration, almost like a patron saint.
From working on his plays and films based on them to playing the man himself, how has your relationship to Wilde evolved over the years?
After that second story I told you about being young and coming out in London, I went off him slightly. In drama school you have a term in your second year where you study Wilde, and none of us were very excited to be doing Wilde. We wanted to be doing other more modern, urban things. Later I did a production of The Picture of Dorian Gray with a wonderful director, and it was a great, great success. An actor has a good fit with a writer and that good fit jumps across the footlights, and you enjoy a great relationship with an audience and that writer. Working in Wildean text and in those characters, it was a very good fit. I understood the humor, the irony, the casual elegance of the dialogue. It really sparked between me and audience. So I then repeated it. [Later,] my career stalled. I couldn’t get a job. I thought, “Well, I’ll just employ myself and write myself a job… the ideal character would be Oscar Wilde.”
The Judas Kiss in the West End fell in the middle of the 10 years you’ve been working on this. How did doing that show change, if at all, your approach to the film?
My feelings about Oscar didn’t really ever change. I always had a strong idea of the character I believe in, which is the last great vagabond of 19th-century Paris. This disheveled rock ’n’ roll ruin stumbling around the boulevards, holding forth with amusing stories, and living on the edge. This was a character I felt tremendously fascinated by, and an enormous affection for.
Most who know Wilde’s work think of him as this witty, well-dressed man. Instead we see Wilde at his lowest points here. Why was it important to you to show him in that way?
It’s important for us to know exactly what type of punishment was meted out to him, and all the other films about him stop at the moment it becomes unpalatable. For me, that’s the moment the story becomes fascinating and interesting. As a homosexual performer in a fairly aggressively heterosexual world like show business, you can’t fail to see the parallels with Oscar Wilde. It’s an incredibly important story, particularly since we still live in a world where being gay can be a life-or-death struggle. It’s a timeless story, in a way.
Does this close the chapter on Wilde for you?
It doesn’t close the chapter. It closes it for the time being. I want to do The Picture of Dorian Gray. I’m making my own theater season the year after next in the U.K., and I want to do that again. I’d also like to make a film of it. When I was making my film, I vowed never to make a film again, but making films is rather like having babies, I think: You forget the pain during, and afterwards you suddenly become bristling with ideas.
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The Happy Prince
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