Rupert Everett has made a name starring in Oscar Wilde plays and films. Now, he's set to make his directorial debut with a film about the Irish playwright's life, as he tells Tom Augustine.
What is it about Wilde that keeps you coming back?
For me, he's kind of a Christ figure really, or a patron saint. He's always been a source of inspiration. I've made great progress in my career being in plays and films by Wilde. And I guess as a gay man in show business, he's the prototype.
The film takes place at the end of Wilde's life, the relatively miserable few years he spent in illness and exile. Why did you focus on those years?
To start with, the other three films that have been made about Wilde – starring Robert Morley, Peter Finch and Stephen Fry – all kind of end at a point where Wilde goes to prison. In one sense it was because it was virgin territory, but in another, I see this exile in prison as his passion – the passion and crucifixion of Wilde at the hands of society. I think the other films slightly cop out when we get to the point where we have to watch what society does to a man just because he's homosexual.
There are a number of Christ allusions throughout the film. Was that intentional?
I was brought up very Catholic and even though I'm a lapsed Catholic it never really goes away from you. Wilde certainly had a fascination with Christ – he wrote wonderfully about it in De Profundis. I think he saw himself in the same way – remember homosexuality didn't really exist as a word or debate in society before Wilde. When he was on the streets of Paris in 1900, a famous, fallen, scandal-ridden man, people could look at him and see that he was a homosexual man, and that's a very important moment in our culture because it was the first time in modern history that that had been identified. So the road to LGBTQ liberation and the community we're living in now is a result of that in many ways.
This was your first turn behind the camera - was that intimidating?
It wasn't one that I'd imagined doing, I'd written the film to try and get another person to direct it, and by the time I'd approached six or seven directors and they all told me no, I decided I wouldn't let it just die. I'd try and direct it myself. That's how it happened. I didn't really have time to be intimidated really, because once it gets greenlit it all goes so fast, you don't really have time to see what a tightrope you're walking on. Because I'd had so long thinking about it, preparing along this 10-year journey, I was very thorough – I knew the subject really well, I knew the script backward, I knew what I wanted to achieve, and so I think I was as prepared as I could possibly be.
Were you researching the character of Wilde long before you wrote the script?
I wouldn't say researching, Wilde struck me during many periods of my life. Particularly, for example, when I first came to London in about 1975 and I think I was about 16 or 17 and I went straight out into the very new gay scene in London – not realising it had only been legal to be gay for seven years, which is quite an extraordinary thing really. That gay scene – which was very small, very classless, very ageless, everybody in it knew the name of Oscar Wilde because we were still legally walking in his footprints. I think he has touched me all the way through my life.
It's a visually striking film – did you have any inspirations for your approach to shooting?
I very much love the films of the Dardenne brothers – they're not period films, but urban films, handheld, and they look almost deceptively like documentaries. But actually they're incredibly choreographed stories and they often seem to settle on an actor's back rather than his front. That always intrigued me and I had the idea right at the beginning that I wanted Wilde to address the camera full-on, which he does at the beginning, and then the camera establishes a relationship with Wilde as a voyeur, almost a character itself. It follows him down into the depths. That was my modus operandi in terms of the camerawork. Our director of photography was amazing – we were on the same page about it. Also the films of Sergio Leone – Once Upon a Time in America and so on – those films that nip back and forth in time, which I love. I wanted to access those kinds of ideas too.
Is the film called The Happy Prince because it's a favourite of yours?
It's a story my mum used to read me when I was a child. I remember not quite understanding it but being very moved by it. When I heard it, it was at that moment in life where you're the most comfortable, before any problems start and one's relationship with one's mother is so strong and easy and uncomplicated. That again was one of the collages of the Wilde experience that was very important to me. I still remember my mum reading me the lines – "Swallow, Swallow, Little Swallow". I love that story. My favourite Wilde is The Picture of Dorian Grey though, overall.
Who: Rupert Everett
What: The Happy Prince
When: In cinemas Boxing Day