Interview: Rupert Everett Talks Oscar Wilde and The Happy Prince

Everett discusses his passion for Wilde and bringing his labor of love to the screen.

Interview: Rupert Everett Talks Oscar Wilde and The Happy Prince
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

It’s been over three decades since Rupert Everett was hailed a rising star, after a breakthrough performance in Marek Kanievska’s film adaptation of playwright Julian Mitchell’s Another Country alongside Colin Firth. Now at age 59, the witty and articulate English actor has triumphed in a role he seems to have been destined to play, in a film that he also wrote and directed.

In The Happy Prince, Everett offers an empathetic and richly detailed portrait of the great 19th-century playwright, poet, and aesthete Oscar Wilde, who was felled by scandal at the height of his fame and success. Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labor in an English prison for the crime of homosexuality, and the film covers the last three years of the writer’s life, which he spent in near-penniless exile before dying in Paris at the age of 46.

Everett himself has experienced many ups and downs in his career after his leap into the limelight in 1984. He came out as a gay man in 1989, prior to the publication of his first novel, Hello, Darling, Are You Working? In the decade that followed he had a brief dalliance with Hollywood and fame: a supporting role in the Julia Roberts vehicle My Best Friend’s Wedding in 1997, and a much-publicized co-starring role opposite Madonna in the ill-fated The Next Best Thing in 2000. The two decades that followed, however, proved fallow, as movie stardom eluded him and only sporadic film offers came his way.

Last week, in New York to promote the U.S. release of The Happy Prince, Everett spoke to me at length about his passion for the great Oscar Wilde and bringing his labor of love to the screen.

How did The Happy Prince come about?

Basically, my acting career had taken a turn for the worse. I wasn’t getting any jobs. I’d written a couple of books and my plan always was to try and segue into writing scripts. So instead of just letting the whole caravan go on without me, I thought I should take up my pen and create a role for myself. I had kind of developed a career playing gay parts, so I thought I should probably try and play a gay part. And who better than the patron saint of the gay movement?

Did playing Wilde in the revival of David Hare’s The Judas Kiss, first in London and then in New York, help you with creating the role for the film?

It came the other way around. I did the play to try and get money to make my film—a kind of audition speech, in a way. And it worked. As soon as we did the play, that’s when everything started kind of happening for my film. I wrote the film in 2006 and I had a very clear image of Wilde. That’s another thing that drove me on. I really felt that my version of him was supported by all the historical references. It was quite radically different from the other portraits of Wilde. History is only what we make of it, in one sense. That’s the exciting thing about it. A woman finds Marie Antoinette to be a completely different character from a male historian, for example. I thought that my portrait of Oscar was quite compelling and interesting. I always felt strongly about that.

From your perspective, then, who was this man?

Who he wasn’t is probably easier. I always thought, in one sense, that he wasn’t this kind of saint figure that everyone else thought he was. He wasn’t the grave, serious family man who’s quiet and romantic. He was a vagabond—nearly a homeless person by the time we meet him—but, you know, a tremendous show-off, a big bon vivant, and fairly selfish. He’s a celebrity who is an energy eater of other people. He’s really the prototype of the modern celebrity in a way. He was blind, as celebrities get blind because, at a certain point, I think he thought the whole world revolved around how he saw things.

Unlike the previous films that have been made about Wilde, it does feel that yours has a particular gay sensibility. For one, there’s that scene where Wilde is seen checking out a waiter’s ass.

The scene is about him writing a letter to [his wife] Constance asking to go back—writing about how nothing will ever be as bad as what he’s done to her—but still, he can’t resist looking at a boy’s bottom. In the end, the power of nature over him is just unstoppable. What I loved about that scene was the combination of the flowery letter that Oscar is writing and the reality. I think this is a typical aspect of how the human brain is so divided within itself.

What do you think of his wife, Constance Wilde?

I think she’s an amazing character. She gave so much to Oscar and got so little in return. I suppose one of the things that’s surprising is that he could never see quite how cruel he had been to her, or how to deal with it. Her side of the story is incredibly tragic, too, because she died having an operation—and once she died, obviously, his opportunity to see his children was finished.

Did you base your script on the famous Richard Ellmann biography of Wilde?

Ellmann was my first source, particularly the last chapter, which is short because Ellman himself was very ill by the time he finished writing the book. Ever since reading the biography I had such a clear angle on the character all the way through. I read Ellman and Wilde, and the two of them together just presented an image for me of Paris. The city is really almost one of the characters in my film. I first discovered Paris when I was 16 and it really inspired me. In the same way as people of my generation adore James Dean and all those antiheroes, I really adored the idea of Wilde, you know, this suffering fallen star. For me there was something incredibly romantic about it.

Did you consult with Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland, who’s extensively researched and documented his grandfather’s life?

I became friends with Merlin and definitely consulted with him. He came to see the film about a month ago and enjoyed it. I was thrilled that he liked it.

Did Holland have any issues with the implication that Wilde died from syphilis? Hasn’t he rejected that diagnosis?

He’s very against the idea that Wilde died of tertiary syphilis. Ellman wrote about Wilde [contracting syphilis] from a prostitute when he was in Oxford. Merlin says that isn’t supported by truth, and [that Ellman] was just commercializing the book. But for me, the syphilis wasn’t necessarily in the tertiary stage. Oscar did have this mysterious skin, which he talked about. He thought it was from eating mussels. He said he got cured when he went to visit the Pope in Rome; he touched the Pope’s hand and the next day his skin problem disappeared. I think the mysterious skin was just as likely to have been the secondary stage of syphilis, when you quite often have a rash. Because, after all, by the time he got to Paris he was having a fairly promiscuous sex life. More than that, my point wasn’t that he did have syphilis, but that every gay man who had that kind of promiscuous life must have thought about syphilis, just as my generation of queens thought that they might have HIV. It really colored the whole of one’s life. So when he’s in bed dying, and he doesn’t quite understand why, he thinks that it might be syphilis that he’s got. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. I was nervous about Merlin seeing that part, but I had explained to him before what I thought about mysterious skin and he didn’t mind that as a premise.

The two street-wise brothers befriended by Wilde in Paris, who become a kind of family for him. Did you make them up?

I made up the fact that they were brothers. He did know, obviously, a lot of young men, and he also knew kids who sold flowers and things on the streets, who he looked after and told stories to. It just made sense, and it married neatly into the end of “The Happy Prince.” When the prince gives his last ruby—his eyes—to the little match boy in the street, it almost looks like the story was invented for [the younger brother]. I was thrilled, because having the parallel of Wilde’s two sons and the surrogate family was quite effective.

Did you always intend to weave the story of “The Happy Prince” into the narrative of the film?

Ever since I had the idea of having the two parallel children—the brothers [in Paris] and Oscar’s sons—I wanted to find some story that could somehow connect the whole story. “The Happy Prince” is a story that I love. It’s also a story that somehow reflects Oscar: this gilded jeweled character who gradually is stripped of everything and ends up being thrown on the rubbish heap. In one sense, Wilde was happy. In London, all his new friends probably were quite excited when they saw him coming. I’m sure they all made quite a fuss of him and I’m sure he enjoyed that: living so dangerously on the other side of the mirror, so to speak. [In exile] I think he definitely wasn’t all sad. I think he retained a sense of humor all the way through. But he was also the “happy prince” in the real sense [of the story], in that was stripped of everything.

What’s your take on Lord Alfred Douglas, who precipitated Wilde’s fall from grace and eventual exile? Do you think he had any real affection for Wilde?

Yes, I think definitely. I’m not against Lord Alfred. If you read his sonnet about Wilde’s death, the dream he has about Oscar being alive, I think he definitely loved Wilde. But he was a 22-year-old boy caught up in a huge scandal. It’s intoxicating and exciting. And he was a volatile, quite hysterical, and extremely spoiled boy. It’s Wilde’s fault, in a way, for putting everything into that boy’s hands, because he shouldn’t have done. But no matter how often he regretted it, I think Oscar’s sense of snobbery always stopped him from letting him go.

Falling in love with Bosie [Lord Alfred] was the culmination of everything for Oscar, really. He had three hits in the West End, and he was going out with this aristocrat and on intimate terms with a whole family of aristocrats. I mean, this was an Irishman, which, at that time, was worse than being from any other country to the English. Added to that, Oscar had gone down on all fours and changed everything about himself to suit the English. So the punishment [he received] is doubly vicious. But then, also, the extraordinary thing is that he brought it all down on himself. One of the lawyers said after the second case collapsed, “If you had brought me this card [from Lord Alfred’s father implicating Wilde as homosexual] I would have told you to tear it up and just calm down.” And that’s what he should have done. But stardom stopped him. It was snobbery and stardom, I think.

On the other hand, Robert Ross stayed faithful to him to the very end.

Robbie loved him. And I think Oscar loved Robbie without knowing it, really. I think as a person, Robbie was suited to Oscar. Whereas Robbie wasn’t suited to Oscar, as an ambitious showman who wanted to achieve world domination.

Do you think Wilde was hurling himself toward his own downfall?

It sounds like something you only read about in novels and can’t really be true. But with Wilde you do feel sometimes that he has the gutter in view and he’s just elbowing his way toward it, come what may. He wrote in a letter, which I put in a speech in the film, “Why does one run towards ruin, why does it hold such a fascination?” He wrote it when he was in France toward the end but obviously looking back on everything he’d done. I think it is such a revealing thing; he must have thought that he just pushed himself toward it.

Why do you think he was unable to write again?

I think he was very lazy. Bernard Shaw writes about his laziness quite a lot. It was very hard for him to gear himself up, and I think by the time he got into exile after [writing] “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” he just couldn’t be bothered to get it together somehow. And, all the things he wanted to write were biblical epics, which I don’t think would have been his best stuff anyway. I think his confidence was too broken to write again. He says, “I wrote when I knew nothing of life and now that I know it, there is nothing left to write.” Which means, I suppose, he maybe thought life is too bleak to write about. But he had written about the bleakness in life before, because all the fairy stories are fairly bleak in a way. I think he needed somebody to be a kind of pillar. I mean, Robbie was that pillar in a way, but not nonstop. He needed someone nonstop, really, to look after him and keep pushing him and getting him going when he felt down, as we all do.

How do you feel now, having made The Happy Prince?

I feel great that maybe I have done something artistic. I think if I never do anything else it’s great to have achieved this. Obviously, nothing is ever enough, so now I want to do something else.

Gerard Raymond

Gerard Raymond is a travel and arts writer based in New York City. His writing has appeared in Broadway Direct, TDF Stages, The New York Times, The Village Voice, and other publications.

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