He had Hollywood at his feet at the age of 25. So why has Rupert Everett never lived up to that early promise? Here, the outspoken actor talks about homophobia, deranged A-listers and why Madonna isn't speaking to him
Rupert Everett. Photograph: Dean Chalkley
Can anyone look more world weary than Rupert Everett? At certain points in the interview, he gives the impression of having been in the acting game since at least the dawn of time, if not before. These are eyes that have seen it all – glittering success, abject failure, critical acclaim, the best reviews on earth, the worst. But then, at times, his career trajectory has resembled the cardiogram of a 60-a-day, overweight smoker: up, down, up, critical, dead, alive again! He was a star at 22, a has-been at 30, a Hollywood ingenue at 40, and here he is again, aged 50, still handsome, still game, gadding around in the new St Trinian's film in a made-to-measure girdle and a pair of false breasts.
But then what hasn't Everett done? There's a touch of the Forrest Gump to the story of his life, as contained within his funny, candid, and intermittently rude memoir, Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins. He was part of a bohemian demi-monde in London before he was famous, through whom he met David Bowie, Bianca Jagger and Andy Warhol. His first play, Another Country, was a smash hit, which was made into a film which was an even bigger hit, and that led to Orson Welles hand-picking him to be his protege (inconveniently dropping dead before fulfilling his promise), which took him to Hollywood, where he managed to meet his hero, Christopher Isherwood, within about five minutes, and then almost everyone else: Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Collins, Lauren Bacall, Gregory Peck. He was still only 25.
What's more, he has a special knack of always being where the action is: in Moscow with the tanks and Yeltsin during the 1991 coup, strolling through downtown Manhattan on 11 September, nightclubbing in Miami with Gianni Versace before he was shot, sleeping with Béatrice Dalle when she was the most desirable woman in France, having an affair with Paula Yates when she was one half of the most famous couple in Britain. Not forgetting his most publicly defining role: gay best friend to Madonna.
Or at least he was. Until she read his book.
"She really didn't like it."
Didn't she, I say? But it's very affectionate.
"I think it is very affectionate, and certainly with her I was very careful to only write things that were. But she felt it was an infringement of privacy."
In fact, it is mostly very affectionate. Of their first meeting, he writes: "She had the cupid-bow lips of a silent screen star, and it was obvious that she was playing with Sean [Penn]'s cock throughout the meal. She was mesmerising. She oozed sex and demanded a sexual response from everyone. It didn't matter if you were gay. You were swept up all the same."
When I read it a second time around, though, I think I spot some of the areas of potential concern. His observation that she smells "vaguely of sweat", to take one example. Or that, like all Hollywood's alpha females, she's something of a "she-man". Or just possibly it was this bit that she didn't care much for: "Just like America, everything about Madonna had changed. And what had happened had been carefully wrapped in psychological clingfilm and locked inside an interior fridge. Sometimes, in moments of stress, Madonna had power cuts and the old whiny barmaid came screaming out of the defrosting cold room."
Still, I say, it's not like you give anything away.
"No I don't, but goddesses like that are obsessed with their public image and want to control everything about it, so if anyone is to tell anyone anything about her it's got to be her."
So has she forgiven you for that now?
"Elephants don't forget."
Has she not forgiven you in a jokey way, or has she really not forgiven you?
"She doesn't trust me any more."
Oh dear! Although she's probably not the only one. Everett's memoir is entirely unlike the usual Hollywood memoir: he tells stories that aren't always entirely flattering, about himself, about other people, about the way the star system works, which is fabulous for the reader, but perhaps less so for his subjects. Julia Roberts is "beautiful and tinged with madness". When she gives him a lift on the Sony jet from Chicago, where they're filming, to New York, he writes, "I witnessed the whole machine grind into action, the grandeur of Hollywood in transporting its livestock from A to B." Sharon Stone he describes as a goddess, but it's only when he starts rehearsals that "I realised something that had hitherto escaped me. She was utterly unhinged."
He's writing a sequel, but this time around is taking the precaution of focusing on people who can't actually sue him. "It's easier when they're dead," he says. There are surely more revelations to come. It's certainly noticeable that the greatest one from Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins concerned another dead (and therefore non-litigious) celebrity, Paula Yates, with whom he had a six-year affair. They met after she and Bob came to see the stage play of Another Country one night. And "according to Alan [Parker, the film director], Bob had a cock so big that he needed a wheel- barrow to carry it around in". Paula went to interview Everett and that was when it all began. "She was married. I was gay. These constraints operated like a kind of safety net… We were both narcissists. We both loved to act up and we adored being looked at."
It's not just that Rupert Everett is unusually candid, he's also unusually articulate, and if he criticises other people it's only because he criticises himself first. The great mystery, of course, is why he's not Madonna-famous himself. His alter ego, the actor for whom he's endlessly mistaken, is Hugh Grant, and if you read his first reviews, or saw his first films, Another Country and Dance With a Stranger, you'd have thought that he'd have gone on to conquer the universe. He was all set to be the new Cary Grant, a latter-day Gregory Peck. Instead he's spending what should be the glory years of his career gadding around in a skirt and heels. He's back next month in St Trinian's 2, The Legend of Fritton's Gold. He played both the headmistress, Camilla Fritton, and her brother, Carnaby Fritton, in the first and was a star turn as both, although particularly as Camilla, modelled on a mixture of his mother and the real Camilla (Parker Bowles). He's the best thing in it by about a million miles, his comic timing brilliant, but it's not likely to be the sort of work that is garlanded with awards and critical praise.
I wonder, after reading his autobiography, if he has some sort of professional death wish. It's always been at the moment when he's enjoying his greatest success that he's suffered his most disastrous setbacks. Does he have some sort of drive to muck things up? I ask it tentatively, but the question enrages him.
"No!" he says. "That's just not true! People have always said that to me, and I've gone, 'Yes, that's so true.' But it's not actually. The fact is that you could not be, and still cannot be, a 25-year-old homosexual trying to make it in the British film business or the American film business or even the Italian film business. It just doesn't work and you're going to hit a brick wall at some point. You're going to manage to make it roll for a certain amount of time, but at the first sign of failure they'll cut you right off. And I'm sick of saying, 'Yes, it's probably my own fault.' Because I've always tried to make it work and when it stops working somewhere, I try to make it work somewhere else. But the fact of the matter is, and I don't care who disagrees, it doesn't work if you're gay."
It's quite an outburst. But then Rupert Everett has committed two apparently unforgivable sins in the eyes of Hollywood: he's not only gay, he's openly gay. And it's not a career path that he'd recommend. "It's not that advisable to be honest. It's not very easy. And, honestly, I would not advise any actor necessarily, if he was really thinking of his career, to come out."
Who are the famous gay Hollywood stars? There aren't any, although he says that there are "probably" plenty still in the closet. But "I think, all in all, I'm probably much happier than they are. I may not be as rich or successful, but at least I'm vaguely free to be myself."
Is this sour grapes? Everett has made all sorts of career mistakes (deciding to be a pop star being just one), but if you look at the facts, it does seem to be, at the very least, part of the explanation. In the past few years there have been films which featured gay characters – Brokeback Mountain and Transamerica – but they've been played by heterosexual men, and while a straight man can play gay, a gay man can't play straight.
It does seem extraordinary that this is still the case, I say, in 21st century America.
"It's worse now. A gay man can only do drag."
"I've been reduced to drag. The next stop is probably The Dick Emery Show for me."
When he won the part of Prince Charming in Shrek 2, he writes that he was thrilled, as it was "a role I would never get in a live-action movie". Everett was born with the looks of a leading man – he's lost the pretty boy quality he had in his youth but he's still strikingly good-looking – and yet he's never got to play the leading man.
"Being in Hollywood is like being in the Christian right these days. It's very, very right wing, no matter how much they claim they're all Democrats and they're fighting for Barack Obama. I was in Hollywood a lot in the build-up to the Iraq war and there wasn't anybody who was against it. It was as if the American people were unable to access anything outside that bubble of cinematic reality, J-Lo's bum, Ben Affleck, all that. They couldn't access Iraq, they're absolutely addicted to this extraordinary version of life, this warped mirror of society that the Hollywood studio system has produced. These huge groups like Viacom produce these extraordinary stories where the good win and the bad lose and the villain smokes a cigarette and young couples don't have sex and everyone says 'Gosh!' at worst. It's this whole language of political correctness, which I think is the closest thing to evil."
Whoa! Actors just aren't supposed to say things like this. Not Hollywood actors. And they're certainly not supposed to slag off studios by name. They've learned to be so bland. Their personal opinions tend to simply be an exercise in brand management. But Everett just shrugs. He refuses to play that game. There's a nonchalant, don't-care quality about him that's hugely appealing. In Red Carpets, he writes about how his agent sent him to Ethiopia to improve his public image. He came across as too selfish, she said; he needed to be photographed doing good. He grumbles about the episode in his autobiography, about the aid workers ("They all drove me mad with their piousness, and they couldn't stand me").
I don't think he can help himself. Or at least doesn't want to help himself. He's damning about Hollywood "celebrity" and keeping his mouth shut would, in his terms, I think, be equivalent to toeing the company line, or rehearsing corporate lies. There was a flurry of headlines earlier this year when, while publicising a Channel 4 documentary he presented on Lord Byron, he said something that resulted in a story in the Sun: "Posh actor Rupert Everett has branded British soldiers 'whining wimps'." And shortly afterwards, he managed to bring down the wrath of the collective Michael Jackson fandom when he said that maybe it was as well he died before doing the O2 concerts .
What was the headline?
"'Why Michael Jackson Had to Die.' I had death threats and everything from it, but it's particularly upsetting because I really adored Michael Jackson. And then on top of that this other journalist who I mentioned in another interview made this photograph of me looking like I had a facelift, and put that out. And it went all the way around the world and it's lost me tonnes of jobs."
He's so outraged. (He's never had plastic surgery, he says.) But it's not as if he tries particularly hard to be extra diplomatic with me because of it. Almost the reverse. But then what has he got left to lose? He's lost it so many times before, it's little wonder that he shrugs in the face of public disapproval, or Hollywood outrage. At one point, after making the film Hearts of Fire, the press was so bad he went to live in France. "I had always been considered a talentless nob, but now there was proof," he writes.
After years in the wilderness, he thought he'd hit a new low when he was sent the script for My Best Friend's Wedding and saw that the character they wanted him to play had three lines and was introduced as "George, a middle-aged gay man, sits at a table with a flute of champagne… I thought I had finally arrived at the end of the road." But the part was rewritten for him and went on to be a huge hit, and he was courted by every major studio in Hollywood in what he calls his "Evita victory tour". It didn't last though. Because it never does with Everett. He appeared in The Next Big Thing with Madonna. Only it wasn't. "I have never read such bad reviews in my life," he writes. "It blew my new career out of the water and turned my pubic hair white overnight."
But then, it's at the moments when he's down on his luck that he appears to have the most fun. "We now live in a world where the only thing to have is success, but failure is marvellous. It's fertiliser, it's like living fertiliser, because you're forced on yourself. Mind you, having said that, I don't know if aged 60 I'm going to be able to come up with some fabulous new reinvention."
He says that he was ambitious when he was young, that he was determined to succeed at all costs – he describes both himself and Paula Yates as "hell-bent" – but it seems to be as much a hunger for life as it is for global domination. Conventional stardom is beyond him. Or at least it is now. "What I really wouldn't want to do is to spend my time going to awards ceremonies, and going, 'And the nominations are,' which is what you have to do if you're in the big time now."
What would you want?
"It's more Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, drunkenly falling out of limousines, and fabulous diamonds. A different thing to all this carefulness. Obviously I'm still for hire, so if it happened I would go with it, but I don't want to be careful. I want to be a mess when I want."
I suspect that at least some of his refusal to be imprisoned within a standardised Hollywood identity is because he spent the first 18 years of his life in another sort of prison: a British public school. It's funny, I say, how you mention St Trinian's several times in your autobiography, although you wrote it before you did the first film.
"Did I?" he says.
You said, for example, that your prep school had a St Trinian's-like quality. It's almost as if you've taken something that was a tragedy and rewritten it as farce. You've gone back to boarding school but this time you're in control.
"Unfortunately, I'm not in control," he says. "I wish I was, but I'm not." It doesn't quite wash though, because he was a producer on both films and the original idea was his. "Anyway," he says, "this St Trinian's school is not a place that any of the girls seem to have that kind of emotion about."
But that's what I'm saying, you've taken something that was a very emotional experience…
"And turned it into a jolly jape. Hmm."
In his autobiography, he describes his school as an evil-smelling prison and it does seem to have had a significant and ongoing impact on his life.
"It has. Absolutely, yes. I think there's a kind of emotional cauterisation that happens when you're taken away from home so young, but that's how they built the empire, you know… But it certainly had an effect on how I relate to people. I think something short-circuits inside a kid when his parents abandon him to a whole lot of other kids. I think the terror that it brings on is like having acid thrown in your face, only it's in your internal system. I think becoming an actor was lucky for me, because it forces you to try and excavate those feelings. But in another sense it's bad because actors tend to save up most of their real feeling for the camera and are unable to use it in real life. I've muddled through anyway. But then I've never been very functional. I'm quite dysfunctional."
It wasn't just boarding school. Or that his parents are upper class, from military backgrounds and not prone to expressing emotions. They're Catholic, too. He claims to have no views on Catholicism, but then we start talking about Africa. "And having gone there with the Global Fund to Fight Aids and with the UN, you just see the Catholic idea, and what they say about things is just so mad. And, I guess, evil. If there is such a thing as evil, that's it. To have someone say that a condom is dangerous. It's just extraordinary."
Are your parents very religious, I ask.
So is this a conversation you have with them?
But then there are lots of conversations Rupert Everett doesn't have with his parents. He's obviously very fond of them, and he writes, movingly, of a trip down the Amazon that he took with his father; but he also seems to regard them as beings from a planet in a solar system far away.
"My mum was brought up just after a war in a very military, naval family. It [homosexuality] was just unthinkable, so I guess you have to be sympathetic. It's very difficult for people to change."
So, how did you come out to them?
"I never did," he says. "We've never discussed it."
It seems extraordinary this, but he's great friends with them, he says. "And we've worked our way through it. Having said that, my mother did say to me the other week, 'I wish you'd got married and had a nice wife.'"
He scoffs when I ask him if he's ever had therapy, but when he expresses his undying devotion to Simon Cowell and Supernanny ("love him, and I just adore her") he looks genuinely taken aback when I point out that they're both parental figures.
"What do you mean?"
The firm but fair daddy and the firm but fair mummy, I say.
"Hmm," he says and appears to think about it for a moment before shrugging. What's undeniable is that so much of his life has been informed by his sexuality, not just the roles that he has and hasn't won, but his whole perception of himself – as someone on the margins of society who is forever looking in.
He winces when I mention civil partnerships. "If you want to have a marriage with some bad-tempered cow from Camden Council officiating, then you must have that, and I think it's nice that you can have it. But I liked being a poof when it was illegal, frankly; it gave me a sense of being outside."
It's what makes his book such a fine read. For all his famous friends, he does come across as an outsider; but then he says, for most of his 20s, "I thought I was dying all the time." It's hard to remember now what Aids was like back then. But Everett can't forget. "I lived in sheer terror, really, until 1985, when you could test for HIV. It was a terrifying thing. People would take cups away from you and wash them with rubber gloves on. I remember doing the love scene in Hearts of Fire, and the girl who I was kissing suddenly jumped out of the bed and wouldn't come back in because she'd heard that I lived with two guys."
He has a partner these days, whom he doesn't want to talk about. He doesn't let on much about his personal life, he says, "because I don't want to bore people stiff with my dreary, dysfunctional, endlessly repeating similar relationships that last from three weeks to three months to nine months or whatever."
What's striking is that however much he's rebelled against his background, it's there in certain ways. There's a stiff upper-lipness to Rupert Everett. Even at his most debauched, taking heroin, hanging out with transvestite prostitutes in the Bois de Boulogne, he still managed to get up in the morning and do whatever he had to do.
"Underneath, I had this very military, naval, very organised background. I could never really go there. Something always stopped me from becoming this utter dissolute. I have such a strong background of showing up on time and stuff like that."
It comes out in other ways, too. He's already told me he's thinking of moving to Brazil. It's what he does: lives somewhere, gets bored, moves on. But he suddenly announces that if the Conservatives get in, he'll definitely leave the country.
"I'm not going to stay here if David Cameron gets in."
He rants about the Conservatives for a few minutes, and then, I say, but why do you dislike them so much?
"Because they're posh."
But you're posh, I tell him.
"I know, but I wouldn't put myself up for parliament. I don't believe them. And I don't want the country run from yachts."
Do you feel that having come from that same milieu, that you have an understanding of them?
"Yes. And they've got no perspective on reality. If you're in a country that's 95% Hooray then maybe they have a perspective on reality, but actually we're in a country that's 90% not Hooray… and I don't want the country to be run through a boat moored off the coast of Corfu, where a foreign newspaper billionaire is pulling all our strings."
He gets all worked up, but then his phone goes and he starts to make motions to go, he's got a lunch date, and as we walk out the door he wonders aloud what line I'll use. What tabloid outrage will ensue? "It's that, isn't it?" he says. "The thing about David Cameron." And he considers it for a moment, and then shrugs. He really doesn't care. Or at least he doesn't care enough not to say it, or to be bothered that he's said it, or to try and retract it or do any of the things that any other celebrity would. "Oh well," he says.★
St Trinian's 2: The Legend of Fritton's Gold is released on 18 December
I gotta ask. Do you think there is any truth in what he is saying? Should gay actors stay in the closet to work leading men jobs? Rock Hudson, Sir Ian McKellan they were all in the closet before they came out.
On the HuffPo snipet the people in the comments section start mentioning names of actors who are/were gay and if they were out during the time they were hot. It is interesting to see that there is not many out actors being sold in leading roles. The only expceptions are those who were in the closet and built up a big fan base and leading role repitore and then came out.
Can we name any leading man actor who is/was gay and was out during the time he was acting in leading men roles?
Right now, all I can think of - and I'm that much a celeb watcher so I could be wrong - is Neil Patrick Harris. But he was forced out of the closet by Perez Hilton.
I also want to know if you think there is a correlation with the lebsians being in the closet for leading roles as well. How many leading role actresses are out of the cloest? And no that chick from Transformers doesn't count - isn't she only playing up the bi-sexual thing?
So got any names to disprove this? Think it is just an actor who cannot handle leading roles who is bitching about discrimination? Or is there any truth to what he is saying?