Many may recall Rupert Everett from his turn as Julia Roberts’ comically supportive gay friend in 1997’s My Best Friend’s Wedding, but they may have a hard time recognizing him in his latest project, The Happy Prince, due on Blu-ray, DVD and digital Feb. 12 from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
For the film — which traces the final years of disgraced gay playwright, author and wit Oscar Wilde — Everett transformed his appearance.
“It was quite a simple series of tricks I used to make myself look different,” he says. “I had a wonderful suit made underneath my clothes, and I had these braces made for my teeth that widened my jaw and cheeks, and that was really it. I had wonderful wigs.”
The transformation was part of his process for becoming Wilde.
“There are two kind of major schools in acting, in a nutshell, from the outside in and from the inside out,” he says. “And the old kind of Lawrence Olivier English school, from the outside in, finds a look of the character and then works in from there, whereas the American Stanislavski one is to find the character and work out from there, and I suppose for me getting the look of Wilde, the walk of Wilde, the kind of elephantine gate, was my way in.”
In tackling Wilde’s later years, after his infamous prison term for sodomy and “gross indecency,” The Happy Prince treads new ground, exploring his life in exile in Europe.
Other portrayals “always stop short of the prison and the kind of crucifixion inflicted by society on Wilde for being homosexual, so I felt that period — apart from being virgin territory — for me is the most exciting part, this portrait of the last great vagabond in the 19th century, this incredible jailbird brought down, one of the most brilliant minds of the times reduced to living in relative penury on the streets.”
Not only did Everett play the lead, but he also directed and wrote the screenplay for The Happy Prince.
“My acting career kind of collapsed by 2005, 2006, and so I thought I would have to take it into my own hands and decided to write myself a really juicy, great big role as an actor,” Everett says.
Taking on the directing role was out of “desperation really,” he says.
“I hadn’t really dreamt of directing it at first, but all the directors I approached either had tons of other things to do or just didn’t respond to the material,” he says.
The story of Wilde also spoke to him as a gay man. (Everett also starred onstage in Wilde play The Importance of Being Earnest and in the Wilde biopic The Judas Kiss.)
“Oscar Wilde seemed to be the correct, perfect character,” he says. “For me, he’s a kind of Christ figure. He’s the patron saint of the gay liberation movement and the now LGBTQ movement, and his life in Paris in 1900 really is a kind of portrait of the first openly gay man in modern history.”
The tragedy of Wilde’s end is also a story of unrequited, and ultimately misplaced, romantic love. The playwright famously went to jail as a result of an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, running afoul of his lover’s father in court. Wilde accused the father of libel for calling him a “sodomite,” but instead ended up being convicted himself.
“He brought everything on himself,” Everett says. “He brought himself down completely, but that doesn’t stop him from being a hero. It just means he’s not a conventional modern hero. Yes, of course he was undone by vanity, snobbery, all the human frailties that we all suffer from and most of us get away with all our lives. He didn’t.”
In The Happy Prince, Wilde comes to the realization that he sacrificed his reputation and wealth for a insubstantial and inconstant lover.
“I think the thing about the lover who betrayed him is he realized one of the hugest mistakes he made after prison was, when there was a chance for him to possibly rehabilitate himself, he chose instead … to go back to Alfred Douglas, ‘Bosie,’ and once that happened, really the whole world sets up against him and he could never get back in, and it was an enormous mistake, and once he realized, finally, he had a moment of truth I think,” Everett says. “He realized that this person that he had given everything to was simply not who he thought he was. He wasn’t the great love of his life. The great love of his life in my story is offered to him by Robbie Ross, and I think he realized that by the end of his life, too.”
Ross (Edwin Thomas) is the literary executive who stuck by him through his troubles. Colin Firth plays Wilde’s friend Reggie Turner, and Emily Watson plays the haunting figure of Wilde’s wife Constance. Everett was able to collect such a strong supporting cast through the many connections he has made over the years, he says.
“I have a lot of friends, and I forced all of them to be in the movie,” Everett quips. “One of the good things about the movie is how brilliant the smaller roles are in the film. They are all wonderful, wonderful. They are much too overqualified actors, but who very kindly did me the favor of being in the film.”
Everett says Wilde’s story still resonates with the LGBTQ movement today.
“In three quarters of the planet, it’s still a life and death challenge, day-by-day, to be in this community, so in that sense I think the story is very relevant,” Everett says. “He sacrificed himself and martyred himself for this cause to be born and to have a face and to have an identity.”