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It’s taken Rupert Everett nearly a decade to bring The Happy Prince to the screen. In addition to starring as Oscar Wilde in the story of the writer’s final years, Everett wrote and, in his directorial debut, helmed the $13 million drama, which picks up where most Wilde biopics end: with the literary legend’s conviction to two years of hard labor for “sodomy and gross indecency,” followed by his self-imposed exile in bitter poverty to Italy and France. Everett — who has starred in adaptations of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (1999) and The Importance of Being Earnest (2002) and whose most recent feature role was in 2016’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children — has said his own homosexuality limited his opportunities in Hollywood, though he now demurs on the subject. He spoke to THR about the “romantic and tragic” appeal of Wilde’s tale, his own struggle to tell it and why he sees the writer as a “Christ-like figure” for today’s LGBTQ movement.
What attracted you to this story of the final, dark days in Oscar Wilde’s life?
It’s always been the side of his life that fascinated me the most. I was always less interested in the glorious side of his life and the success. I was always much more drawn to the fall of Oscar Wilde. I always found it a very romantic and tragic story. It’s one of the great stories of the end of the 19th century. It shows the tragedy of Wilde, his fall through pride. And his foolishness. That’s extremely human. And touching. And fascinating. I suppose another thing is that I find some of the [film] portraits of Wilde to be sanitized, and I wanted a more warts-and-all portrait of him.
Has Wilde always been a touchstone for you, in your life and career?
I have always been lucky with his plays. The kind of dialogue they have. I just happen to be able to do them quite well. I suppose it has to do with being a light comedian. I did a performance of Being Earnest in Paris in French, and that was a huge success for me. Then it just kept on going. I did An Ideal Husband, the movie and then another movie, The Importance of Being Earnest. They all just seemed to be good matches for me. It was after Importance of Being Earnest that I started thinking about making a film about him.
Why did it take so long to get the film made?
It did take an awfully long time — nine years. I wrote the script, and my producer, Robert Fox, sent it straight to Scott Rudin, and he loved it and said he wanted Philip Seymour Hoffman as Oscar Wilde. I, stupidly, said no. But Rudin still agreed to make it. He made a list of six or seven directors. Then, over about two or three years, I was turned down by all of them. I then decided I’d try to make it myself. And that was obviously a tough sell, I suppose. What turned it around was, four years into this, where I’d really had no luck at all, I decided to do David Hare’s play The Judas Kiss about Wilde. My hope in doing this play was to show people that I have a certain angle on the character. And as soon as that play was on, I managed to get my first deals in place. From then on it moved, but not that fast. That play was in 2014, and we made [the film] in 2016.
You touch on a lot of aspects of Wilde that I wasn’t aware of, such as his deep connections to Christianity and the Catholic Church in particular.
Before everything went wrong, he nearly converted to Catholicism. When he came out of prison, the first thing he wanted to do was to go on a Jesuit retreat. He wrote to a church and they refused him, in fact. I think he had definitely a fascination with Christ and a fascination with himself as a Christ-like figure.
Your portrayal shows Wilde as a very self-destructive figure, partly responsible for his own decline.
I think he is very self-destructive. In exile, there was the dramatic moment where he had the opportunity not to rekindle his destructive affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. He has a line: “Why does one run towards ruin? Why does it hold such fascination?” That’s partly where his Christ obsession comes in.
What was it like to reteam with Colin Firth, who starred with you in Importance of Being Earnest?
Colin and I have worked on a few other films since that, including the two St. Trinian’s movies. But one of the things that’s been amazing for me has been Colin’s support, because only when he came on board did the financing really come together.
What’s the film’s relevance for today?
Wilde is the beginning of the gay movement. Homosexuality wasn’t really something that was spoken about, it wasn’t really a word until after Oscar Wilde’s death. And the Oscar Wilde-ers. The LGBT movement very much starts with Wilde. I think it’s incredibly pertinent. And I think it can only give everybody, anyway it gives me, a lot of strength to see where we’ve come to compared to what happened to him.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Feb. 16 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.
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