Two years after he scored in 'My Best Friend's Wedding,' the star of three summer movies talks about God, Madonna ("Put her in a gay disco, and most of the guys would be very happy to have sex with her") and why he’s “kind of a monster”
By Chris Heath
Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark
Photo Editor Jennifer Crandall
During our first meeting, Rupert Everett asks whether I mind if he lies on the floor of his London hotel room while we talk. "I started trying to do jogging recently," he explains, "but my hip is not having it." He stretches out unselfconsciously on the carpet, face up, and chats away. In between sentences, he munches on a banana.
These are good times for Everett. "Rupert," offers Madonna, "is a brilliant actor, extraordinary author, wonderful friend and has a fantastic body ‑ all in all, a real hunk. Any wonder why I can't wait to work with him?" He will be 40 in May and is fully enjoying the fruits of the career renaissance sparked by his role as Julia Roberts' gay confidant in My Best Friend's Wedding. "People think he's like the character in My Best Friend's Wedding – a witty, erudite, sophisticated, fun, gay man ‑ in real life," his friend and screenwriting partner Mel Bordeaux says. "He is like that, but probably a little raunchier." She considers this for a moment. "Probably a lot raunchier."
Everett still offers Roberts profuse thanks for his popularity. "I love Julia Roberts," he says. "She was very instrumental in the whole of my success. She encouraged them to put me more in the film, and in the promotion she presented me in a lot of places where she really didn't need to, and she kind of made the country see me through her eyes slightly." Since then, Everett briefly appeared, unbilled, as Christopher Marlowe in Shakespeare in Love (and although he considers it, with Rushmore, one of last year's two best films, he also insists, "Actually, I was very, very bad in it ‑ I was a bundle of f‑‑‑ing hideous nerves'). This summer he has three new films: A Midsummer Night's Dream (a rompy adaptation of the Shakespeare comedy, also starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Kevin Kline), An Ideal Husband (awry adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play, also starring Minnie Driver and Jeremy Northam) and Inspector Gadget (a family‑entertainment adaptation of the children's cartoon, also starring Matthew Broderick).
"I felt," Everett reflects, "that I'd covered all the pies I had fingers in. Going back to my power base in English costume films ‑ it's important to try and hold onto your territory, because that's where you have to go back to when all else fails. And to play in a Shakespearean star romp was also a very good thing. To play a villain in a huge American blockbuster is a very good thing for an English actor to do ‑ get a bit of range going. And then, you know, doing a gay role, and trying to make a mainstream character [who is the] hero of the film who is also gay is a great challenge to me."
The latter is The Next Best Thing the film that he is about to begin shooting opposite Madonna (with whom he has been friends since he met her with Sean Penn years ago) and that he rewrote with Bordeaux. "[In the movie, Madonna} and I are best friends," he explains. "I'm gay, and she's straight. At the beginning of the film her boyfriend dumps her and our mutual best friend dies, and we get drunk together and suddenly we have sex, and then we have the most enormous blazing row and decide never to see each other again. But a month later she discovers she's pregnant. It's a film about parenthood and what constitutes a family and what constitutes a relationship. The relationship is true to us, in a way. And she is someone who attracts gay people. You put her in a gay disco, and most of the gay guys would, if they got the opportunity, probably be very happy to go and have sex with her. She's one of the only women I've ever come across like that."
Everett grew up the younger of two brothers in a wealthy upper‑class English family and from an early age desperately wanted to be famous. He was educated at Ampleforth, a Catholic boarding school where both spiritual and academic education is given by monks. ‑'He was very irreverent and funny," says his schoolmate Julian Wadham, who later appeared with him onstage and in the film The Madness of King George. In school plays, the two would typically play the leading ladies. "He tended to be the glamorous one," Wadham says, "and I was the frumpy, middle‑aged one. Offstage he used to build dressing rooms on what is in fact the fire escape to the theater. He created a fantasy world where the famous film star had this vast Hollywood dressing room, complete with two or three prop telephones, one to his New York agent and another to his London agent. Of course, none of them were plugged in."
Everett left school early to study acting. In his youth he spent some time on the edge of the European club‑land jet set, embraced most of the available excesses and worked for a while as a boy for hire. (When, in his last interview with US magazine, he discussed this early career choice honestly, frankly and without shame, the media coverage that followed was very upsetting to his parents. It is an upset he prefers not to rekindle.)
His career first took off in Europe when he was in his early 20s, after the attention he received for two fine films, Another Country and Dance With a Stranger. He was flown to America and feted by Orson Welles, and there were further movies, most notably the fascinatingly ghastly rock‑star caper Hearts of Fire, with Bob Dylan, and the drama Duet for One, with Julie Andrews, but none were as good. He had a brief and ineffectual stab at being a pop star, moved to Paris and wrote two novels (the semiautobiographical Hello, Darling, Are You Working? and The Hairdressers of St‑Tropez). In the '90s, the film world slowly re‑embraced Everett. In The Madness of King George, he showed he could be funny and unattractive. He was one of the few who emerged with their reputation enhanced from Robert Altman's fashion‑world fiasco, Prêt‑à‑Porter(Ready to Wear). In the children's comedy Dunston Checks In, he showed a willingness to take on farcical character work. For most of that movie, he acted opposite a large monkey ‑ "one of my favorite scene partners ever," he says.
In the flesh, Everett is engaging company: direct, smart, determined to charm and almost melodramatically self‑deprecating. "I think it's a part of his appeal that he knows his weaknesses," says Wadham, "but the people who are fond of him like me love him in spite of those things. He's a very lovable person, as long as you accept him on his terms. He's a very loyal friend. But he doesn't hold anything back. I think he's hugely courageous in that sense. That's why people rejoice in him ‑ he challenges one's own cowardice. He's a tremendously life‑affirming person in that way ‑ you see the whole bloody thing, warts and all."
For our second interview, we meet in a Los Angeles restaurant. (Everett has homes in Los Angeles, New York and Miami; though he likes to visit England, he will not live there while his beloved Labrador, Moise, is still alive, because of that country's strict animal‑quarantine laws.) "You feel like you've got nothing left to say after a bit," he insists. "Or that you want to say. I think an actor's promotional job is a very difficult one, because talking about acting is boring. Talking about 'the art of acting' is balls‑achingly boring. And talking about life ‑ what's one got to say about life, really?"
As it turns out, quite enough.
What's the very first thing you can remember?
I think I remember being in my pram, but everyone says you can't remember being in your pram. And I remember our Labrador doing a dump and it being just the hugest thing, this mountain. I didn't know what it was, quite. And I remember putting Vicks all over a photograph of my dad in the army.
Was your father away a lot?
When I was very little he was. I come from a very, very conventional military, naval [family). All my grandparents and great-uncles and great‑grandparents were kind of mown down in the first world war and the Boer War. We were kind of nomadic. My granddad was in the navy in Malta, so we spent a little time there; and then my dad was in the army in Cyprus. I was conceived in Cyprus. And then my dad went into business.
At Ampleforth you were taught by monks.
It's a genuine monastery. It's a real throwback to seven centuries ago. Some very, very smart monks, some who were very, very spiritual and others who were alarmingly see-through. They said, "Some of you will have vocations," and I remember that as being one of the big panic moments of my life.
Which worried you more: that you would or wouldn't have a religious vocation?
I went through several periods. When I was 10, I was so hellbent on celebrity. I wanted to do anything. One way I thought I was going to become a celebrity was I decided I would have a vision at the bottom of our garden and become a saint. It didn't really work, unfortunately, although I was endlessly on my knees down in the orchard, waiting for it to happen. But I remember my mum saying, "You're a terrible fibber, and you're never going to make it as a priest." I was terribly upset. Then when I went to Ampleforth at 13, I spent my first two years praying and praying that I wasn't going to be given a vocation.
Why did you have such an infatuation with being famous?
Just being a major showoff, I think. I always just had enormous fun showing off to my family. I made a great fantasy world for myself in which I was Julie Andrews' son and not my parents'. I told everybody. She was never there, but I made great excuses for her, that she was filming in Africa or something.
Did you confess this to her when you worked with her?
Yes. She was really freaked out at first. We played this scene in the Royal Albert Hall where we had to give a concert together, and in it she took me in her arms and said, "You are the best protégé I've ever had. "And as we walked up the ramp with our violins, everyone in the Royal Albert Hall screamed. And it was like one of my childhood fantasies. After Duet for One, I should have retired from acting or been killed, because it was too freakily, uncannily the end of everything.
Did your family expect you to wander gently into the armed forces?
Either the armed forces or probably the stock exchange. Or maybe Sotheby's, which was as arty as I was meant to get. My generation of English hooray [young upper‑class layabouts) was a very specifically weird one, because we had been brought up by the last generation of empire rulers, who brought us up to do more empire ruling. Which wasn't there. All the empire rulers, they'd been puffed up so big, and they walked into a world where they were actually nothing and had these rather cantankerous families frustrated at them for not getting anything together. What was funny was that in the middle of the '70s, the middle‑class people invented punk, but the upper‑class people, they just did heroin, really. It was the one thing they could do to be subversive.
Do you remember what you felt the first time you took heroin? Did you think you were really getting one over on people?
Apart from feeling really, really sick, I suppose you just felt you were getting outside the law.
How old were you?
Did you find the same kind of freedom in both the acting and the youthful decadence?
Yeah. Making one's life one's whole expression, I suppose. When you get to the big city for the first time, there's nothing more intoxicating, and I was drunk on anything I did. Then drama school brought me down to earth a bit. After you've been at an English public school, you think that English drama school is going to be full of girls with glitter eyebrows knocking back bottles of vodka, and other netherworldly kind of stuff. And in fact, show business is as middle‑class as banking, really.
Before you had any success, you were already hanging out with the Bianca Jagger jet set. How did that happen?
I don't know. When I got my first job in a rep company, two days before, I had met Bianca Jagger at a party for Andy Warhol, and we made it onto the cover of The Daily Mail: "Bianca's new leading man." She thought I was sweet. We became very good friends but nothing more than that. I had to give a press conference in the end to keep the journalists away. That's when I made one of my first big press blunders. I invented this whole story about me and Bianca going on a cruise down the Nile and being into macrobiotic food and stuff like that. Me and Boy George also met David Bowie when I was 16 or 17, and when Bowie came to London I would go out to dinner with him.
Why do you think David Bowie had time for you?
Because I listened. About him talking about how the perfect number is 3. And about how the inside of an isosceles triangle is the perfect combination of spiritual and so and so... (Laughs) He was a great theorist. I thought it was fantastic, going to the cinema with David Bowie.
What did you see?
The Omega Man.
People don't make those kind of associations accidentally.
I was hellbent on making those associations. The frustrating thing was that I was quite a funny character, but I was dumbstruck by these people. Even when I was a kosher actor and Orson Welles sent for me to be in his new film, I couldn't open my mouth. He was directing this film of the making of a musical he'd done in the '30s, The Cradle Will Rock, and he wanted me to play him. He'd seen me in Another Country. He'd ring me up in London all the time and ‑ I feel like Monica Lewinsky ‑ I'd play friends all my Orson messages. Then he flew me to Hollywood, and I used to have lunch with him every day for three months in Ma Maison, with his dogs. They'd bite your leg. And I could tell, really, that he was disappointed by me.
Did he give you any useful advice?
Nobody gives you useful advice, my dear. (Chuckles) At least, you never take it. He chastised me a couple of times. I said, "That's not very professional" once, and he said, " 'Professional' is a word I've never been able to stand. I've been an amateur since I came out of the womb," or something. One day he rang and said, "Rupert, I think you better try and find another job, because the film is not happening now "The first year I spent in Hollywood was one of my most miserable years. I was so insecure and so needy and so negative about the future.
Were you scared you'd end up as an occasionally employed, dwindling semicelebrity?
Um, I don't know that I would have seen it exactly like that. I moved to Paris. Everyone was talking about the unification of European cinema, and I thought I could be a forerunner of a new breed of European cinema star. It was a good idea. All my ideas have been quite good; they've just kind of not hit at the right time.
When you came out as gay in that period, what did you think were the pros and cons of doing so?
One of the good things about France is that people aren't really very bothered about sexual mannerisms. I don't think I had imagined myself ever going to America again, really. I came out because I couldn't be bothered to not. I was going out a lot. I didn't see why I should have to lie about it. It certainly wasn't some heroic... It wasn't about being a banner waver. It was a very gradual thing, and I was proud of it, anyway.
You've said that the last ray of your heterosexuality fizzled out when you were 26. Had you ever not been sure you were gay?
It was not so much not being sure I was gay. I wasn't sure I wasn't heterosexual as well. There's a whole area about being with women, above and beyond the lustful side of the sexual act, that was very, very appealing to me. (At that time) I was going out with a really beautiful actress, Beatrice Dalle, and she was unhappy and I was unhappy. And she met a mechanic and I met a volleyball player, basically. [Laughs] And things changed. There was something I really liked about having a girlfriend, but it wasn't enough ‑ it wasn't enough for them, and it wasn't enough for me. And it wasn't making anybody happy.
Would you nowadays describe yourself as a practicing Catholic?
No. I'm not practicing anything. I'm also kind of a monster. And I'm trying to do everything better.
What do you mean by a monster?
Well, I'm incredibly selfish. I fly off the handle at the first possible thing. I haven't necessarily dealt well with people. I have a hard side to me. Laughing too long and loud.
That's quite a devastating self assessment.
Well, I think it's what most people are like. I don't think it's uniquely me. I think we're all kind of monstrous. We're very, very spoiled, and we have so many ways of letting ourselves off every hook.
But you have ‑ which I think will surprise some people ‑ ended up quite religious, haven't you?
I wouldn't exactly say I'm religious. Apart from the whole thing about sex and guilt and relationships, and how much time it's wasted me to sort everything out in my head, religion is one of the only subjects I've been very, very well educated in. And having to go through all that, of feeling at the age of i5 you are rejected by God, however much you try and throw yourself away from it all, it's still there. And with the whole AIDS thing coming, which so bought into everyone's feelings about gay sex, it forced me to really make an evaluation of the whole thing in my 20s, and I'm still kind of endlessly fascinated by it. I think the Old Testament of the Bible, which with the Torah is what the whole of Western society is based on, is the most extraordinary and alarming book if you think that's God. There's six or seven characters of God in that book, and he's so random and so mercurial. He lies on page 1 of the Bible, for example, which is fascinating.
What's his lie?
He says that if you eat from the tree of life, you'll die. All the snake does is set the record straight: You won't die, you'll get knowledge. But actually all the Bible is, is the first and most brilliant sketch of a human being. He's not even fair or just. He's very guilty sometimes; he's very vengeful. And at the end he's a kind of mute character. It's a fascinating character, and it's us. You know, people are always saying, "Why does God let all this happen? "That's the great cry of people who are antireligion. But the whole concept of God as this Big Brother figure is such a vanity: "God invented us in his image." But actually we invented God in our image, because we're so f‑‑‑ing egocentric. If you take away the Gothic Catholic slant on the New Testament, Jesus is very similar to Gautama Buddha ‑ all he's really doing is preaching a philosophy of how we can live with each other. Oscar Wilde's reading of Jesus is a fantastic one. There's a parable in the New Testament about how we should live our lives. Jesus says, "You should live it as the bride, always in expectancy of the bridegroom's arrival." This, taken into the Catholic Church machine, is turned out as, basically, "You've got to be hemming, darning, scrubbing, working as hard as you can, because any moment now, He might arrive, and you've got to be ready" Oscar Wilde's reading of Jesus is an emotional one: "Imagine if your husband is about to arrive ‑ what a state of exhilaration." It's the best moment of life, because afterward it probably becomes a series of disappointments. But the moment of waiting, that's how you should live your life ‑ in exhilaration. And when you start reading Jesus like that! Reading about his choice of friends. He never wanted to be around the Pharisees and all those people. He was always with the prostitutes and tax collectors. The worst trash possible. And having a good time.
The traditional reading is that he's with them because they're the ones who need to be saved. But presumably what you're implying is ...
... that they're more fun!
And in that respect, without wanting to identify you with Jesus, you can presumably somewhat relate that to some of the choices you've made in your life, and where you've found fun.
Yes. These are all phases of your life that you probably work through. The church talks endlessly about sex, and promiscuous sex, and as a kid I had a lot of sex; and it's not that I regret it, but I certainly think it's something to move through. I had a lot of sex because it seemed to me that it was the only thing that was mine. But it's something that was to move through. There's a value to giving yourself to someone, however boring that sounds; and when you don't have the value for that because you've given yourself to a lot of people, you're diminishing yourself in a subtle way. And also, something in you smashes when you have a lot of sex as a kid. I feel there's something in me that smashed.
Something you can't regain?
I think you can regain. Not that I think having promiscuous sex is a sin; it's a choice. And like all choices it has an effect. I do believe in the whole parable of eating the apple. The thing about that is that we're always changing. At one point we were lungfish; now we're human; and we're going to be someone else.
And you've always been the kind of person who'd eat the apple.
Who can resist eating the apple? We're all Adam and Eve. It's an impossible thing to resist.
Chris Heath wrote about Jennifer Aniston for the October 1998 issue of US. END