Rupert Everett on 'The Happy Prince': An "Extremely Human" Fall of an LGBT Icon

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
'The Happy Prince'

He stars in his directorial debut, a "warts-and-all" biopic of Oscar Wilde’s tragic final years that Scott Rudin once championed and a string of helmers turned down before the Brit actor stepped behind the camera himself: "That was obviously a tough sell."

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’ 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 The 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 LGBT movement.

What attracted you to this story of the final, dark days in Oscar Wilde's life? 

Because 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. I think 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 has 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 [at the Theatre National de Chaillot in 1996] and that was a huge success for me. Then it just kept going on: I did The Ideal Husband [1999], the movie and then another movie, The Importance of Being Earnest [2002]. They all just seemed to be good matches for me. It was after The Importance of Being Earnest, that was when I started thinking about making a film about him.

Why did it take so long to get 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. I should have said yes, I would have managed to establish myself as a writer in a major way — but I 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. It looked like the project was gone. So 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. It stalled a few times. That play was in 2014 and we made it in 2016.

You touch on a lot of aspects of Wilde I wasn't aware of. Like his deep connections to Christianity and the Catholic Church in particular.

Well it's very well documented: his long flirtation with Catholicism. 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.

This is a period piece that stretches back to the beginning of the last century. What's its 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.

What do you think Wilde would think if he could see the movement today? 

I'd think he'd be amazed. I mean gay marriage. He used to go to this flat where the guy who ran it organized weddings, pretend weddings, between young men. I think he'd be amazed and thrilled at the freedom people have to express themselves, compared to what he didn't have.