Hello darlings, I'm back
Rupert Everett has been an actor, a model, a pop star, a victim of his own fame. Now he's written a novel about hairdressers. By Michael Arditti
Monday 13 March 1995
A Renaissance man with a Regency raffishness, he is one of the new breed of multi-faceted actors such as "painters" Tony Curtis and Michael Grandage and "writers" Simon Callow and Anthony Sher. He is disarmingly frank about his motivation. "I suppose it's because acting's not a full-time job. After a certain point in my particular, rather humdrum, position in the food chain, there simply isn't enough meat to sustain me for 24 hours a day, 12 months a year. I also thought that probably my only possibility in the cinema would be to find material for myself. So I wrote my first novel, fully intending to turn it into a screenplay, which I'm now halfway through."
He wrote that first novel, Hello Darling Are You Working?, at a time when he felt "bricked in emotionally", particularly by his profession. "When you say `I love you' into someone's eyes on screen, in a sense you're destroying the next `I love you' experience because it becomes a sense memory. I feel there's much more emotion for me in my writing than in my life. There are only three emotions that I can feel for myself now: anger, fear and panic, especially anger."
Described by one critic as "like Nancy Mitford on ecstasy", Hello Darling was a brittle, camp and charming comedy about a young actor, Rhys Waveral, who bears a noticeable resemblance to Everett himself. "I very much wanted to write a sort of What's Up Doc? alternative screwball story, with larger- than-life characters, about my teens in London and becoming an actor and everything." Rhys is also a part-time hustler, a profession of which he has had first-hand experience. "Although the hustling episodes in the book weren't mine, I did get my first offer outside Gloucester Road station when I was 16. And I was very pleased with the money!"
Despite sharing a central character, the transsexual Peach Delight, the humour of The Hairdressers of St Tropez is less screwball and more gallows. Shifting between the late Eighties and an apocalyptic future, it marries the threats of Aids, the National Front and ecological disaster to a Firbankian tale of rivalry beneath the dryers, sexual excess and substance abuse. The genesis of the book lay in characters whom he knew when he had a house in St Tropez and in the stories he invented around them to tell to an 80-year-old friend, whose own end was as grizzly as any in the book. "He disappeared and was found nine months later behind a tree, where he had been eaten by foxes."
Aids looms large in the novel, and Everett has already been savaged in the gay press for his irreverent treatment of the subject. He angrily rebuts his critics: "In the book, I didn't want to deal with the horror of Aids, because that's understood when you see the word written down. It didn't need to have a paragraph saying, `Isn't that shocking? Isn't that macabre?' I wanted to look at it in a different way."
He sees the Aids crisis as part of a wider breakdown. "I really think that it's the beginning of our bodies not tolerating the atmosphere that we live in. We're ruining the planet." In St Tropez, he was very aware of what he describes as "the slow fade to urbanity". "You'd go away for a month and be driving back from Toulon airport and find that a new roundabout had been built.
"Every year you'd come out in different rashes from the new algae in the sea. That, in the end, encouraged me to leave the area. It was too depressing to watch at close quarters how we're ruining the earth."
He originally moved to France out of a deep disillusion with the state of Britain and, in particular, its theatre. But beneath his graphically expressed contempt ("The British theatre sucks") lies a heartfelt attempt to analyse the problems inherent in the medium. "I don't think theatre works in this age of television, where you can see even bad actors being natural. It's so difficult now even to offer a cup of tea in a way that's both real and audible to the audience at the back of the upper circle. Theatre is film in long-shot. It is only meaningful to regular theatre- goers. Otherwise there's no connection with the way people see acting on TV."
He attempted to remedy this in his performance in The Vortex. "I tried to reinvent my acting... to make all that stagey dialogue real." His Nicky Lancaster was an extraordinary portrait of drug-debilitation and neurosis; but it drew complaints of inaudibility from that same upper circle. Everett believes that the problem lay elsewhere; it was not so much that they could not hear, but that they could only hear what they wanted to.
"My criticism of the West End audience is that they only want to hear a lot of perfectly modulated sounds."
So he has pursued his stage career at the Glasgow Citizens, "a theatre whose politics I very much admire", most recently as Flora Goforth (treading in the heels of Tallulah Bankhead and Elizabeth Taylor) in Tennessee Williams's The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Any More. The unusual casting, an attempt to draw parallels with Aids ("We played it basically as a queen with dementia who thought he was a famous old actress on the side of a mountain"), was highly acclaimed; and Everett is keen to take it elsewhere. "But only if I could play to people who are under 25, who buy records or go to movies... not 50-year-old stockbrokers whom I wouldn't use my saliva to spit on if they were on fire in the street."
He aimed more directly at the youth market in the mid-1980s with an ill- fated attempt to launch himself as a pop-singer. "I made three records. The last one was the `Hooray Rap'. It was the time of the Summer of Love, raves and house music and my manager, Simon Napier Bell, said I should make a record based on The Vortex. So I used lines from the play over my own music; and I sang the story of a junkie who could not stop taking drugs. It should have taken off... it could have if I'd been stronger; but I was so terrorised by the reaction to everything I did that I became as pathetic as everyone thought I was. That was when I went to live in France.
Eight years on, he would like to return to England but is prevented by the quarantine laws for his dog. "Even if I smuggled it in, I'd be denounced by some do-gooding neighbour. Nothing better illustrates our insular mentality than this obsession with rabies."
In the meantime, he continues a globetrotting existence, hoping for a part in Bertolucci's new film in Italy and planning a trip to Hollywood to research his new novel. For the days when he wrote simply to provide himself with material are gone; his ambitions are now far larger. "I think we're living in a fascinating time; there's so much extraordinary stuff happening. All I want is to improve as a writer so that, one day, I may be a really good witness."
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