Rupert Everett: Prince charming

Rupert Everett is rich, handsome and best mates with the stars. But, as Liz Hoggard discovers, he's also unguarded and engaging on everything from toe nails to Tony Blair.
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Rupert Everett is horizontal. "I like interviews," he observes dryly. "It's like going to see a shrink. You just talk about yourself, the other person listens, hopefully something happens and you leave feeling a better person." Draped full-length across a chaise longue in London's chintzy Covent Garden Hotel, Everett looks impossibly good for 45. Tanned and fit in designer black, he unravels his 6ft 4in frame. His upper torso is less obviously pumped up than in the days when he was a gym obsessive, but he looks all the better for it. True his luxuriant dark hair has a slightly unreal damson glint (a new role perhaps?) but there's no denying his lazy magnetism.

Rupert Everett is horizontal. "I like interviews," he observes dryly. "It's like going to see a shrink. You just talk about yourself, the other person listens, hopefully something happens and you leave feeling a better person." Draped full-length across a chaise longue in London's chintzy Covent Garden Hotel, Everett looks impossibly good for 45. Tanned and fit in designer black, he unravels his 6ft 4in frame. His upper torso is less obviously pumped up than in the days when he was a gym obsessive, but he looks all the better for it. True his luxuriant dark hair has a slightly unreal damson glint (a new role perhaps?) but there's no denying his lazy magnetism.

Everett can be a famously difficult interviewee, but so far we've successfully negotiated love, sex, ageing, and his disillusionment with Tony Blair (more anon). But we're actually here to discuss his role as Charles II in Richard Eyre's new film, Stage Beauty. Adapted from Jeffrey Hatcher's stage play, it's set in the 1660s, just after Charles II restored the English throne and reopened the London theatres. On a whim he makes it legal for women to appear on stage, and overnight the male actors who have spent years training to play female roles are out of a job (Billy Crudup is particularly affecting as a fallen 17th-century star, Ned Kynaston). Like Shakespeare in Love, Stage Beauty is a slightly uneven period romp. But it has some brave things to say about human sexuality - and Everett steals the show as the ballsy rock'n'roll monarch. Ironic that after years of being Hollywood's only openly gay actor, he is the straightest thing in the movie.

"Charles II is that sort of cocktail-y patron who loves the arts but keeps interfering," Everett claims. "In fact, he reminds me of Princess Margaret. She was always going to the theatre and discussing plays. She took me with her several times when I was very young; she was always calling me 'Leggy'. We'd go to a room behind the theatre for drinks in the interval and she'd say" - he affects a posh, blowsy voice - "'Well, what do you think? Terribly good, but we must change the ending.'"

Long before Tom Ford and Tyler Brûlé and Dan from Big Brother, Everett confidently perfected the role of the gay man who is so comfortable with his sexuality he can be dangerously flirtatious with women. Throughout the late 1990s you couldn't open a magazine without reading about his new best friends, Julia Roberts and Madonna. At the height of the Hollywood love-in, he and Madonna made The Next Best Thing. Everett freely admits it was a disaster. "It was a funny, fabulous time because at the start I held all the cards. When the script came in it was about a really nasty woman and her flubby, overweight gay best friend, whose answer to everything was to squirt cream in your mouth - a token acceptable Hollywood fag. Obviously he didn't have a sex life. So I said the story has got to substantially change and not only that, I have to write it. Because the thing that was interesting for me about the whole story was how a woman and her friend could have sex together after 20 years. We wrote a very graphic and funny sex scene and I got into major, major fights."

The other mistake, says Everett, was in the choice of director. "I chose John Schlesinger. I knew he was older, but I thought if I surrounded him with a design team that could make the movie texturally and tonally like Shampoo or Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, but modern, a real slice of life, I could make it work. But everything I did, I did wrong, and in the end the tone turned more and more into a mini-series. For me, that film was a serious disaster, because everyone wants a successful faggot, but nobody wants one that's done a film that's a failure. But now I feel good about it because they love it in Asia and [especially] Cambodia - mostly because of her - but they also see it in a completely different way. Not as a failure, but as a compelling and unusual story."

He may not be on the Hollywood A-list any more, but Everett remains an English national treasure. He long ago threw off the campy-posh persona of his early career and we're now more used to seeing him in great character roles (the Prince Regent in The Madness of King George, Marlowe in Shakespeare in Love) than as the romantic lead. "To be the most interesting character in the film, you only have to have the one screen-stealing scene," he confides. "In the end, a bad actor can be good in a good role, but a good actor will always be bad in a bad role." He says he wanted to play Charles II in Stage Beauty because he'd already played his father, Charles I, the year before (in To Play The King). "To me, Charles I and II are just the most amazing characters. Charles I particularly, because having botched up the whole of his rule, he suddenly came through like Marie Antoinette at the end. It was a terrifying ordeal, but he was so focused. The records of the trial are just like Oscar Wilde's court case, he was fantastic up against the wall. And for a film actor, the role is genius. Anyone who builds themselves up and then drops is a great role to play."

My only reservation about Everett's work is that he does tend to end up in toff cinema (his next role is in Julian Fellowes's directorial debut, A Way Through the Woods). Does he ever long to work with more gritty British directors? "I've got to a point in my career where I just want to be open to any kind of opportunity really. But I can't say I find cinema and the arts in general [to be] the thing I found them at the beginning the 1980s, when I was anti-Thatcher because she was closing down regional theatres - when it seemed to me that the arts were going to save the world - because they're not. The more I've gone out into the world, and looked at other situations [he toured drought-stricken Ethiopia and Kenya for Oxfam], it doesn't seem so vital to me. The world of cinema now and promotion and endorsement is not really my world. You can't fight against all of it, but I don't take part in the same way. I'm quite a good actor and I'd like to go on acting and do more things, but it's not my life blood."

What about more theatre? After he hit Hollywood pay dirt, with My Best Friend's Wedding, Everett appeared as a demented drag queen in a stage production of Tennessee Williams's The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Any More - career suicide for a lesser actor. "I'd love to go into the West End if you could make it a business where you could bring half the house in for free. When I was at the Citizens in Glasgow, they pioneered the idea of theatre for £1. And that makes it into an exciting thing, but when ticket prices are £50 each, no one can afford to go. I don't mind having a middle-aged, middle-class audience but I don't want to just have that. I'd like to get young kids who go to clubs and buy records to come in."

Looking back over his career, Everett has plenty to be proud of. His early film roles - Another Country, Dance With a Stranger - were classics of 1980s cinema. Orson Welles was so impressed he invited him to Hollywood to play him as a young man in the film, Cradle Will Rock. In fact, Welles died before the film could be made, casting Everett adrift in Hollywood. He unwisely turned down the Daniel Day-Lewis role in A Room with A View and returned to London to act in an infamous production of Noel Coward's The Vortex (when a couple wrote to complain they couldn't hear his mumbling, he set them clippings of his pubic hair in the post).

He was rapidly gaining a reputation for petulance and eccentricity. But Everett is a survivor. He reinvented himself as a European film actor in Chronicle of A Death Foretold and still makes French and Italian films. "There's Charlotte Rampling, Jane Birkin and me," he laughs, "we're the exports. It was a good idea for someone like me to go to Europe. But seriously," he continues, "I feel really sad that Europe is slipping through our fingers. It's another thing I feel really pissed off with the English about. We've been so back-seaty and passive-aggressive all the way through Europe. Now everyone's saying, 'It's obviously not going to work'. But if we'd taken part from the beginning we could have been so much more positively involved in structuring the European Union. I mean, what are we going to do in 100 years if we're not European? We'll just be squeezed between China and the States. Are we always going to be the slave of the United States? I think it's gross."

As if on cue, Everett's publicist bustles in at this point to keep an eye on things. But he doesn't need a minder. For a start there are no more dark secrets to hide. "Nothing's really been said about me that I haven't said myself." He came out in the early 1990s and while he's perfectly happy to discuss it, the topic bores him slightly. "I'm gay today, I'll be gay next week and the year after." In interviews, you sense him working hard to describe sexual difference without resorting to clichés. My favourite quotes include: "Being gay is like a pair of trousers in the washing machine with a pair of keys in them" and "It's like talking about cars to someone who doesn't like cars."

In many ways being gay was the making of Everett ("If I'd been heterosexual I'd never have got out of the Home Counties"). He grew up in a very right-wing, military household and was sent away to Ampleforth at seven. "It's funny, I was thinking the other day, here we are in England and England's become incredibly liberal. It was never this liberal before, ever, and yet at the same time, the Government is pushing us [back] in. Tony Blair complaining about the liberalism of the 1960s, I thought that was very peculiar and extremely irresponsible. What does he want to happen in England now? It's very strange because it's so un-Labour. I don't understand what's going on in his mind at all. Surely the 1980s was the decade of greed and consumerism and closing the corner shop ... The 1980s were much more damaging to the fabric of this country. It's the reason that no young family can afford to buy a house now or run a little tiny restaurant. It's mental!"

Everett warms to his theme: "The most bizarre thing for me is seeing Tony Blair growing like a Dickensian character over the past years, he's almost regressing into the unpopular schoolboy he must always have been. He's just out of control. It's such a pity because he was such a handsome, charismatic choice as Prime Minister. He was great up until and after September 11, he was credit to us when he went to America, but I don't know what's happened to him."

Everett and I are roughly the same age. I suggest that, compared to today's twenty-something self-starters, we were the 1970s generation who spent a lot of time in our bedrooms being depressed, convinced that nihilism was more interesting that happiness. "And, of course, we were wrong - but we were right too," he laughs. "We thought it was good to have a relationship that was totally dysfunctional, it was working if you were miserable and smoking a ton of cigarettes and you felt out of place. It didn't occur to us to try to structure our side of society so that we'd feel in place, you just kept rubbing against the society you were in. But then everything changed in the 1980s because success became the thing, and you had to have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, and it had to be beautiful and fabulous. And today, of course, everyone is self-obsessed but more in control. We were self-obsessed and out of control. But the thing that was good about us, was that we were happy being a mystery to ourselves. Now everyone's very certain about everything but we were permanently in flux. That's why I love the lines in the Pet Shop Boys' song 'Being Boring': 'We had too much time to find for ourselves/ And we were never being boring.'"

Everett famously doesn't do relationships. For years his closest companion was a black Labrador called Moise who travelled everywhere with him. So what does he look for in people? "I think vulnerability is the most important thing to have. Not the slash-your-wrists type, but in the true meaning of the word - being open and soft and available, not blocking yourself off from being hurt by things, or being constantly pissed off. And you have to make sure your confidence isn't an ego confidence. What we should all have is just the shared confidence of the fabulous potential of being a human being."

Interestingly he doesn't think actors should say "I love you" on screen because it spoils things for the next role. "Garbo's line [in 1932's Grand Hotel], 'I want to be alone', says it all. Because the dynamic between spectator and actor has changed so radically without anyone noticing it. When people like us went to see On The Waterfront in the 1950s, it reflected and glorified your life. The relationship between this god on the screen and you was something you felt attached to. It was you. So there was a communion through the silver screen. But now that dynamic has completely changed because the characters aren't realistic any more.

"So Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible 2, he's not a character. You're looking at him because you want his hair, his teeth, his wife and his money. And you think, 'Coooee, way to go, Tom', just because he's managed to do it. But actually it's a kick in the teeth for the audience. And, in this celebrity-obsessed world, it's inspiring a form of love/hate which is quite alarming. When you go to the Cannes Film Festival now, it's like The Day of the Locust. The crowd are literally banging on the windows. One day someone will come with a gun and pop off someone they don't like, because the relationship is admiring but it's also, 'You better show it to me now, fucker!' Because we've taunted them in cinema with this kind of illusion for too long. The films aren't about anything any more."

Of course, Everett has known disappointment. He was kicked out of drama school at 17, his pop career was a disaster, his two books, The Hairdressers of St Tropez and Darling, Are You Working?, were savaged by the critics (though they've gone on to become cult reads). When he hit the big time with My Best Friend's Wedding, journalists rehashed his junkie rent-boy past (he's pretty much always been open that he worked as an escort to fund his acting career but he regretted the embarrassment caused to his elderly parents). But he refuses to dwell on humiliation. "I don't think it's a good idea to think about the past too much because everything bogs you down. We're always avoiding the present moment by regretting the past or pioneering the future. But they're just illusions and this" - he gestures at the room - "is the only real thing."

Today Everett lives in New York but spends a lot of time in Florida. He appears so sane, you forget that half his life is spent in the land of cosmetic surgery and high-maintenance beauty. But at the end of the interview, he wrong-foots me. Literally. Peering down at my feet, he observes, "Those are nice little flip-flops. But why don't you paint your little toes with nail varnish?" I mutter darkly about having problem feet where the little toe curls under (dear God, how many other imperfections has he noted?). But he is having none of it. "No, no! You shouldn't think like that! You should paint them." It's a typical Rupert moment: borderline bitchy, but thrillingly personal. As I leave the suite, he's still murmuring, "Poor little toes."

'Stage Beauty' opens 3 September nationwide