Rupert Everett: Head boy

Rupert Everett is a former prostitute and childhood transvestite, who went on to Hollywood stardom and literary acclaim not to mention affairs with some of the most glamorous men and women on the planet. Who better, then, to take charge of Britain's most notorious girls' school? Interview by John Walsh. Portrait by Eva Vermandel
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Rupert Everett just cannot believe the fuss people make over a simple tattoo. His handsome brown eyes widen as he protests his innocence. "I shaved my head a month ago," he explains, "because I was going to get this tattoo done, but everyone objected to it. I was always dying to have a tattoo on the back of the head, because you can always cover it up with hair if you get bored with it. I wanted a double-headed eagle, but some Jewish friends took umbrage. They said it was a Nazi insignia and implied I was becoming a Nazi. But a double-headed eagle isn't a Nazi thing, it's Russian orthodox, it's the Romanov eagle." He sighs, resignedly. "But there's no point in upsetting people..."

That tone of languid exasperation is characteristic of Everett not exactly camp but crossly theatrical, as if it's quite natural for "everyone" to have an opinion about his career, his mind or just whatever he's doing to the back of his head. Everett, 48, is an actor who excels at playing the world's Best Friend. He is always bigger than the parts he plays: whether he's playing the schoolboy Guy Bennett in Another Country, Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest, Julia Roberts' gay chum in My Best Friend's Wedding, Madonna's gay chum in The Next Best Thing or the Prince of Wales in The Madness of King George, he's always playing himself: confiding, vituperating, advising, flirting (a little too freely in Dance with a Stranger, where he is shot dead in a pub by Ruth Ellis for infidelity) and holding the action together by charisma alone. Or almost alone. He is helped by his sculpted cheekbones and his public-schoolboy voice a kind of sonic pout, which sometimes reminds you of the spoilt and minxy Joan Greenwood in Kind Hearts and Coronets.

Elderly British comedy is the subject before us today, as we meet for lunch at the ritzy Little Italy restaurant in London's Soho. Everett loves it here: he comes in every day, eats virtually the same pasta dish, and greets the staff with seigneurial hand waves. It's hard to look seigneurial when you're wearing sloppy tracksuit bottoms, a T-shirt and jumper, both with plunging necklines, but Everett carries it off. When you're six-feet-four, aristocratic and shorn-headed, you can get away with anything. Even playing a headmistress.

The lady in question is Miss Camilla Fritton, head of St Trinian's, and Rupert will impersonate her in the forthcoming movie, imaginatively titled St Trinian's. Co-produced and directed by Oliver Parker (who brought out the best in Rupe in The Importance of Being Earnest) it's set to do for box-office tills this Christmas what Love Actually did four years ago. Everett also plays Camilla's bad-hat brother Carnaby, while a cast of familiar comic British talents (Stephen Fry, Celia Imrie, Colin Firth, Anna Chancellor) cavort around a job-lot of glamorous young ingnues, including Mischa Barton, Talulah Riley, Gemma Arterton and Antonia Bernath as the unruly schoolgirls (and there's a walk-on appearance by Lily Cole).

Had it been Rupert's idea? "Not quite. A friend of mine, the designer Rifat Ozbek, had the idea, and I thought it was a good one. I loved the old St Trinian's movies and I knew that, if we got it right, it would be fun.

Such fun to be the headmistress of a girls' school." How had he pitched it to Barnaby Thompson, the producer? "I just said, 'It'll be me and supermodels'."

Based on the cartoons of Ronald Searle, the old St Trinian's movies from the Fifties and Sixties (The Belles of St Trinian's, Blue Murder at St Trinian's, The Pure Hell of St Trinian's and The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery) may seem both trite and shrill to modern ears, but at the time they were subversive. Daringly, they offered no character with whom sensible, bourgeois audiences could identify. All the grown-ups were on the make. Authority figures were corrupt or hopeless. The girls were either savage, violent little psychopaths or chain-smoking, whisky-swilling sexpots in tiny skirts and black stockings with the tops showing. Presiding over them was Millicent Fritton, played by Alistair Sim in drag and pearls, a vision of collusive anarchy.

Everett is full of admiration for his predecessor. "Alistair Sim? A fantastic actor. He was very funny. He dressed for the role like an Edwardian medium, his hair and clothes were wildly outdated for the time of the film, they were practically 1910. But there's no way I could be as good as him. I don't want to reproduce a role someone else has done brilliantly."

What was the hardest part about thinking yourself inside a woman? Rupert doesn't like ack-torish questions. "I thought of a body," he says heavily, "and we created a body for the woman, obviously very different from mine. Different legs and different ankles and different teeth and different hair, and a different bottom and a different waist and once you've done that, you've cracked it really." And a bosom? "Oh Miss Fritton has a huge bosom, disappearing under her arms. I discovered that having big breasts is very tough on the lower back. I could hardly move for weeks during filming. I became very sympathetic towards women with large jugs."

Which ageing divas of his acquaintance did he find useful when planning the part? "My Camilla is based on a mixture of my mother and the Duchess of Cornwall," says Everett. "But I was also thinking of those cooks, the Two Fat Ladies, and that French and Saunders sketch about two posh women sitting round a kitchen table, talking about terrible subjects. One says, 'I had my leg cut orf last week,' and the other replies, 'Oh never mind, darling, you'll be fine.' My character is from a dying breed of upper-middle-class, no-nonsense women in Wellington boots, doing some gardening in tweeds."

One recalls the early pages of Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins, his bestselling autobiography, and the revelation that the six-year-old Rupert used to sit on a swing wearing his mother's red tweed skirt... But hang on. Did he say his Camilla was, to some extent, the Camilla? "She was in my mind. I like Camilla Parker Bowles, she's a funny character." When did he meet her? "I met her just once, quite recently. She was extremely nice. I had this idea." He smiles delightedly, quite the fourth-form prankster. "I wanted her to come to the premiere of St Trinian's with me. I told her my idea, that neither of us should arrive when we're supposed to, and everyone would be wondering what'd happened to us. Then, just before curtain up, we'd arrive in a car and walk arm-in-arm through everyone, like girlfriends going to a movie together, chatting together about our problems. She thought it was really funny." He considers the attractions of the royal consort. "She's very nice, and lovely looking when you see her in the flesh."

One talking point for audiences will be the casting, in the old George Cole role as Flash Harry, of Russell Brand, the kohl-eyed, straggle-haired, tight-trousered comedian and strenuous "personality". Could he really act? "Oh yes, and he's a total sex symbol," says Everett with glee. "You should see the reaction when he walks down the street. He loves women and they love him. And he's really good in the film. One of my favourite scenes is one we're in together, where I'm playing Miss Fritton's brother and Russell's pretending to be a famous gay art collector. It's a really good scene, and he plays it beautifully. He can definitely do it." He forks some penne alla manzo ragu into his elegant mouth. "The thing about Russell is that he studied at drama school, but with all his comedy routine and the clothes and hair, he's almost disguised himself. He actually has a very handsome, almost Jacobean face. I think he's going to be a good actor if he wants to be."

For somebody as entirely comfortable with the haut monde of Hollywood stars and bars as Rupert Everett, he seems to have a strangely on-off relationship with movies. His career has lurched from quality to trashy with profligate carelessness. In the past few years, his admirers have had a chance to enjoy his work in a single sensory dimension he's the voice of Prince Charming in Shrek 2 and Shrek the Third. But they could experience another side of Rupert, in his aforementioned autobiography, Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins. Apart from the effortful title, it's a delightful read, stylish, shocking and funny about his vivid life from his Catholic, upper-class childhood, his childish adoration of Mary Poppins, to his entry to the gay demimonde of London parks, garages and alleyways, his period as a prostitute, the transsexual joys of the Bois de Boulogne and his acting breakthrough at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow. The reviews were mostly ecstatic. The tabloids lapped up the rent-boy stuff, and the affair with Ian McKellen. Personally, I was more interested in how Everett came to conduct heterosexual affairs with gorgeous women like Susan Sarandon, Paula Yates and especially Batrice Dalle. I have been Ms Dalle's personal slave ever since she scorched the screen in Betty Blue, 20 years ago. So Rupert, I say (grinding my teeth), what was it like kissing Batrice Dalle?

"Oh it was lovely," he says without a moment's pause. "She has a very big mouth so it was a very big kiss. She's one those girls who totally subjugates herself to her man, so she'll do just anything you want."

Really? "Anything. She'll make you a cup of tea, anything. It doesn't happen in a gay relationship. Men are always elbowing for supremacy, so if you come from that perspective into a relationship where someone is so attentive... So yes, she was a lovely girlfriend and very nice to kiss."

Humph. How did it work, being a gay man who has relationships with women from time to time? And was the secret of his success with girls, that he's their gay best friend, but might just have sex with them one day? verett considers. "I think the real excitement of sexuality is discovering things that are new. The sad thing about life now is, you get so pigeonholed. When you're young, even if you've a predilection for one area of life, you still want to try everything. What we regard as sexuality now is just repeating the pleasures we're used to, so we become a lecherous queen or a lecherous straight, repeating ourselves. But looking back, the most exciting things are when you're completely on a new planet."

He talks about his excursions into straight sex as if they're just that adventures in a different country. "When you're heterosexual, the world opens up for you. If you go to dinner in a restaurant with a girl, everyone looks at you in a friendly way, there's a unity in the world. You're totally embraced by it, you totally fit in, it's gorgeous. You feel like a star. If you go to dinner with a boy, even now, you have to harden your energy fields against the world's disapproval."

Had he decided to take a rest from the film world when the book project came up? He smiles. "Taking a rest? The rest happens to you, rather than you happening to it, on the whole. But the reception of the book was fantastic, everywhere. It gave my life a change it needed. I wasn't getting any work, and I wanted to write again. It was a great opportunity for a ... a punctuation point in my life."

Has its success inspired him to write more? "Yes, I'm writing a screenplay of a film I'm hoping to get made with myself in it, about Oscar Wilde, after the trial, his life in exile." It's provisionally titled Sebastian Melmoth, after one of the aliases Wilde adopted after his downfall. But hasn't David Hare written a play about Wilde set in the same years? "The Judas Kiss," says Everett grimly, as though announcing the name of a hated rival. "By David Hare, directed by Richard Eyre, and those people should never ever have thought about attacking the Wilde story, because they have no sympathy, or sensitivity or sensibility..." The languid Rupert is virtually spitting with fury by now. "They're rigorously straight, the two of them. They cast Liam Neeson as Wilde why? Because he's big and Irish!"

I say I remember a passionate gay kiss between Neeson and Tom Hollander (playing Bosie Douglas) in Act I. The memory elicits a wounded wail from Rupert. "The snog! I wouldn't have missed it for the world, but it really was one of the most unattractive moments in world theatre. I love David and I love Richard, but not for that play. I thought it was a scandal."

Why Rupert is so exercised about the subject of his screenplay is a little hard to fathom. He talks about Wilde in a passionate, proprietorial way, as if the playwright were a brand that needs protection from defilers; but it doesn't stop him being rude about the great gay icon.

"He was a pathetic character in one way. He was a pilferer of ideas. He was tangled up in snobbery. There was nothing very attractive about Lord Alfred Douglas, but he was a noble, and it's hard for us to understand what an appeal that had. The fact that Wilde even thought of taking the court case was stupid and blind from the start. He was deluded into thinking he'd get through prison on love alone. And how heartbroken he was afterwards, and how he was treated by English people abroad if they saw him, they'd spit at him because that's what you were allowed to do to someone like that." (Rupert is practically quivering with empathy now.) "I love him because he's so hopeless every decision he made was wrong. By the end, he was the last great vagabond in Europe, after Verlaine. It's a very touching story and, if you're gay, he pretty well invented the word homosexual. It hardly existed before him. It wasn't a word used in the newspapers. After the trial, you were an Oscar Wilder! He was the beginning of the gay movement."

Rupert doesn't talk much about the abiding trauma of actors coming out ("I think the public don't really care about such things as much as the industry. I think the business is much more homophobic than the outside world,") but by God, he hates Hollywood these days. A stray question about TV celebrity sparks a toxic rant about "devaluing the currency" of good acting.

"Our world is terribly promiscuous. The other day I saw a film called Because I Said So with Diane Keaton, and I thought, here's one of the women we loved most in 1970s cinema, debasing and humiliating herself in this load of trash. Why? Because we're such sheep, we just follow the herd... It's just part of the huge amount of product that's put out now, that's really bad. And it's our fault. We're all responsible for how the culture is. You can't draw a distinction between the celebrity nonsense on television and the major players in the film industry: De Niro, Redford, Keaton, Allen, Pacino... They're all tragic parodies of themselves. Al Pacino looks like a mad old freak now. I say, give it a rest, or go and do some serious stuff."

I mention George Clooney, as an actor who seems to be making desperate (and well-intentioned) attempts to do just that. Everett isn't impressed. "Yes, but Clooney thinks that, provided he does films which are politically committed, he's allowed to do Oceans 11, 12 and 13. But the Oceans movies are a cancer to world culture. They're destroying us. People in America can't think about Iraq now all they care about is Jennifer Lopez's bottom. We are responsible for the blob-i-sation of the world by entertainment." And anyway he doesn't rate George. "He's not the brightest spark on the boulevard. He'll be President one day. Mark my words, if he's straight, he'll be President."

Whew. Rupert Everett is a strange combination of the fey and the fuming, the effete and the enraged. His apparent devotion to the marginal, camp world of gossip and parties seems to mask strong moral attitudes. One listens to his denunciation of people for wasting their talents, denying their choices, failing to explore their potential, or yielding, like Wilde, to weakness, and one thinks: Rupert, you sound weirdly like a Catholic headmistress.

His immediate plans, apart from the screenplay, are few. "I'm becoming unemployable," he says, "But I'm planning on doing St Trinian's 2 and then The Blue Rinse of St Trinian's..." After two years of civil partnerships, has he any plans to marry anyone? He laughs. "I'm not going to share my dosh with anyone. I don't want to do some awful pantomime of a dysfunctional heterosexual world. You know, being gay was much more fun when it was illegal... At least it was exciting. Now it's like a great big boy band, several million strong. Every face is the same face, and once you've had one person, you've had everything. There's no individuality in anybody. You're not allowed to be an eccentric in the world, you have to fit it. We live in the most conservative time ever, I think. When I nearly had my tattoo, last week, I never came across such a fuss."

Which is where we came in. You'd think, wouldn't you, that such a strident individualist should have just gone ahead with his twin-headed eagle tattoo, and damn public opinion rather than complain about it. But Rupert needs his public. He may upbraid them for their idleness and shortcomings, but he needs their approval. A bit like a head teacher in front of a school assembly...

'St Trinian's' opens nationwide on Friday