Interview: Rupert Everett
Self-confessed 'maverick queen' Rupert Everett is as voluble and indescreet as ever about his return to the London stage. But just what does he have planned for the royal wedding?
'I've just been to Jamaica,' says Rupert Everett languidly as we take our seats in Little Italy, the Soho restaurant where we meet. 'It's like England on acid - lots of the same road names, but the colours are much brighter. I love it.'
You don't have to know much about Everett to suspect that he has always wanted the colours to be brighter - if the acting world were an aviary he would definitely be one of its peacocks (one of the rarer breeds, of course).
And just as the luminous colours of peacock feathers change according to which angle you're viewing them from, so too Everett's personality shifts and shimmers from minute to minute. One moment he's eyebrow-archingly indiscreet - 'If I lived in the pre-antibiotic age, I'd be raging with tertiary syphilis by now' - the next he's as hermetically private as a Mother Superior. 'I really don't want to talk about it, actually,'
He demures when I ask him about his current relationship. The simultaneously charming and dangerous glint in the eye comes from a life lived unconventionally (documented in detail in his autobiography 'Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins'), yet he's also a staunch champion of Prince Charles and his views on architecture - when I express my worry that the heir to the throne doesn't just sound off about architecture, but can actually have building projects stopped, he replies, 'Well, I think he should have more stopped! Look at the O2 Arena. It's like a Dutch cap with nails in it.'
He is no longer the beautiful boy who seduced the public imagination in the early '80s when he appeared first in the play, and then the film, 'Another Country' - which dealt with homosexuality and Marxism at a 1930s public school, and was loosely based on the early life of Guy Burgess. 'I loved looking at myself when I was very photogenic, at the very beginning of my career,' he declares with unrepentant narcissism.
In 2009 he angrily denied rumours that he had had plastic surgery - and today, certainly, his face has the kind of lines that make you think: Thank God! A celebrity who looks like he's lived! In place of the aura of zombified youth that afflicts many who've just had cosmetic procedures, he has the lined forehead of someone lucky enough to have meaningful thoughts, and plenty of smile lines. He's not as physically fluid as he seems on screen because of a bad back, but he is - indisputaby - a maturely attractive hunk of a man.
A former interviewer has referred to the 'nice Rupert' and 'nasty Rupert', and though today he is unfailingly charming, it's easy to discern a capricious streak that suggests he could be much more difficult if he chose to be.
He is entertainingly bitchy in a way that is no doubt hard to deal with if you're on the receiving end. In 'Red Carpets…' there's a description of his collaboration - following the success of 'My Best Friend's Wedding' - with Madonna on the derided 'The Next Best Thing', where he refers to her as 'an old whiny barmaid'. When he's complimenting her on an image change, it seems even more cutting, though his turn of phrase is exemplary (he was - rightly, a colleague asserts - dismissive when a Guardian journalist asked him if the book was ghostwritten). 'Everything about her had changed, and what hadn't had been wrapped in psychological clingfilm and put inside an interior fridge.'
Yet that bitchiness can equally be turned on himself. During the course of our conversation, he talks about a low-level depression that has often resulted in self-sabotage. A weekend catching up on his films has reminded me that - given the right script - he can still easily hold his own playing against a heavyweight like Colin Firth, who originally starred with him in 'Another Country'.
He, Hugh Grant and Firth have formed a sort of unholy trinity of terribly English heartthrobs over the past decade and a half, and with Firth especially on Oscar-winning form, does Everett feel his career should be going better? 'I'm miserable: that's why I have such a bad back, because I'm endlessly stressing out about my career,' he says, then laughs.
'I think every actor is miserable about their career. Tom Cruise is possibly miserable about his career. You know, everyone sees in themselves a lot of possibilities that other people simply don't see. It's a slapper's game in one sense.'
Now we're here to talk about his role as Henry Higgins in a production of 'Pygmalion' which is transferring to the West End from Chichester. 'I rather like these,' he says, gesturing towards the beaded drapes at the windows, 'it makes you feel like you're in purdah.' The production didn't receive good reviews, but has now been recast, with Diana Rigg as Mrs Higgins and Kara Tointon as Eliza.
Reading the script it strikes me that - according to Shaw's vision - the urbane, detached, physically extravagant Everett is the perfect choice to play the phonetics professor, and he too is optimistic that things will go better from the proscenium arch of the Garrick.
This part seems created for you, even though it was written a century ago.
'It's a great role for me to play. I think there's a side of him that's almost like a music-hall ghoul. He's also like Sherlock Holmes, in that there's something on the edge of criminality in him: Holmes is a crime fighter but also a criminal because he's a drug addict. Higgins, like him, is a kind of deviant - shadowy and weird and ghoulish. Something in him wants to torture Eliza into submission although he obviously really responds to her as a person.'
That era seemed fascinated by brilliant men who were also detached emotionally.
'Also, what's he thinking about her body? She is, presumably, a pretty girl. I think when he weighs her up he decides that she is, because when he says, “I could make a Duchess of this drag tail guttersnipe,” it shows he's looked her over and there's been a response somewhere.'
What does your Henry Higgins make of Eliza's body?
'I think he could easily have a series of very fast wanks at night in his room with ejaculation happening about 2.8 seconds after the initial stroke of the penis, and then he could go to sleep and not think about it. For people like that, sex is such a closed-off box, and after that orgasm, the relief that it wasn't actually happening inside a vagina or there wasn't any involvement would be much greater than the build-up. I think a lot of upper-middle-class English public-schoolish men were like that, and possibly still are.'
Were you born in the wrong era?
'I wouldn't have liked to have fought in the First World War, or the Second World War, so I'd like to have been born in 1910. Somewhere between 1905-1910 would be good. I'd be just too young for the first war and just too old for the second. And I could be acting in the '30s and '40s, and then be old in the '50s, which would be great. When I went to Jamaica I was at Firefly, where Noël Coward lived and died, and it was just extraordinary. How great it must have been in the '50s and '60s to go abroad, because hardly anyone did. And then how amazing that an incredibly wealthy person like Noël Coward existed so humbly, in fact, everywhere he lived. You know, nowadays a movie executive in Hollywood lives in the equivalent of Tutankhamun's tomb - the wealth is so in-your-face - but Noël Coward's house in Firefly is a little studio, really. He had meals in the garage.'
What did you think of Colin Firth in 'The King's Speech', and do you think you could play a role like that? [While Everett applauded Firth's Oscar-winning performance in 'A Single Man', he also famously expressed his dismay about gay roles going to heterosexual actors.]
'I thought Colin was excellent in it. So was Geoffrey. So was Helena. I thought it was quite a conventional type of film. It just goes to show that the same old things really work. A stutter: actors who play someone with a stutter, anyone with a stutter, you always do well. Alec Guinness doing Charles I, even me doing Charles I with a stutter did tremendously well.'
How do you feel about returning to the London stage?
'Last time I was in the Garrick, I was playing in “The Vortex” in 1986. I was looking at all those gold tassels - and they do say no energy leaves the planet - so somehow it's all there, all my griefs, somewhere in the tassels. I'm very excited about this run. But back then I did behave in the most shocking manner, which I can't imagine doing now. Once I was having sex in my dressing room when my entrance happened [Laughs], and I had to get dressed quickly… The other actors were talking, poor things, for about five minutes.
'I was just plastered every day; I'd have at least two or three pints of Guinness before going on stage. I used to take ecstasy on stage; I'd do the performance in French; I'd do anything to make anyone else giggle. The night Laurence Olivier died we had three minutes' silence and I burst into fits of laughter and giggles. I couldn't behave like that now - and I can't really imagine what in my head allowed me to behave like that then.'
You've clearly always disliked authority. And it strikes me that the more glamorous a set-up is, the more authority is enforced. In Hollywood, I think there are very strong codes as to how you should behave.
'Certainly, if you had the notion that I had: that showbusiness or theatre or cinema was going to be like 1890s Paris, all bohemian with cocaine, sex everywhere and lying in bed. It isn't: it's like the military. And most people in it are quite militaristic, I think. That initially did freak me out. Where I really blossomed was going to the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow, with the same director [Philip Prowse] who's directing this. The company was being run by three maverick, rather highbrow, queens in a slum in Glasgow, putting on plays that were far-fetched and demanding - things, for instance, by Goldoni. Because they didn't patronise their audience everyone adored it.'
So would you describe yourself as a 'maverick queen'?
'Well, I have to be, whether I like it or not.'
You dated some amazing women when you were exploring your sexuality: Susan Sarandon, Beatrice Dalle, Paula Yates. What was the point at which you decided that men were better?
[Laughs] 'I don't think “better” is the right word. There was a point with Beatrice when we thought she was pregnant, and if she had been things would have been different. Her not being, somehow, was a defining moment. That's when I started going out to clubs a lot.'
Who are you dating now?
'An accounting student. From Brazil.'
You were brought up a Catholic. What do you believe in now?
'I think belief is like having the first Microsoft Windows - it's so rudimentary, in the human brainwork, it's so obviously a sham. I think Jesus, funnily enough, was anti-belief, too. As soon as a teacher, like Jesus, is cultified, what's the point in believing in him? You either listen to what he says as a modus operandi for your life or you don't. So I'm not anti-living religiously, but living religiously does not mean being part of organised religion.'
What will you be doing on the day of the royal wedding?
'I think marriage is ghastly. But I'm very into the royal wedding. First of all I didn't like Kate Middleton. Then when the engagement came up on TV, I thought: Oh, she's rather good - tough. And I adore Camilla. [His headmistress in both 'St Trinians' films is inspired by her.] Oh, yes - I wanted us to arrive in a Mini together at the premiere, and just ignore the paparazzi.'