To understand the man, Freud believed, you must look to the child – and as a child Rupert Everett was asked to leave his prep school for ‘being difficult’. The reason given for his expulsion from drama school several years later was ‘insubordination’. It would not surprise Freud, then, to learn that interviews with the adult Everett tend to end in tears – the interviewer’s.
And yet I’ve been told by an old friend of the actor that he is ‘funny, sharp and easy-going’. So, I ask Everett as we square up on a sofa in the Grosvenor House Hotel, London, am I going to get Nice Rupert or Nasty Rupert? ‘That,’ he says with an ominous arch of his eyebrow, ‘depends.’
At 42 he still has the brooding features of a teenage delinquent: sulky mouth (lip-glossed), imperious nose and hooded brown eyes (lined with mascara). Even though his T-shirt strains against the muscled contours of his upper body, hardened by hours spent in the gym every day, he still looks gangly. It’s partly to do with his height – he’s a rangy 6ft 4in – partly to do with his legs, which look weedy in tight jeans (he used to wear several pairs of tracksuit bottoms at once to make them look bulkier), partly to do with his large, angular head, as out of proportion as a toddler’s. It’s partly to do, too, with the way he sprawls, his trainers resting on the coffee-table in front of him.
Despite the posture he seems edgy and suspicious, which is only to be expected, given that he finds journalists’ questions ‘unpleasant – like having someone shine a torch in your face’. He didn’t always, though. There was a time when he could be relied upon to say or do something outrageous in his encounters with the press. He would gamely talk about his time as a rent boy (which was how he said he earned his living for a couple of years after his early departure from the Central School of Speech and Drama), or his enthusiastic consumption of heroin, or about the time he had a wobbly and sent a cutting of his pubic hair to a woman who criticised one of his stage performances.
Then, in 1997, he co-starred with Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding, playing her gay friend and confidant. The film made £200 million. It also made Everett a hot property in Hollywood – and he refused to talk any more about his youthful follies. So could it be that the studios decided it was time he toned down the junkie rent boy stuff? Nothing to do with the studios, he says, everything to do with his family who were mortified by the stories and are ‘excruciatingly embarrassed’ by him. A belated attack of conscience, it seems.
Even so, Everett is contractually obliged to promote his films and next month he has a new one out, a romantic comedy called Unconditional Love. In it he plays the secret lover of a popular crooner (Jonathan Pryce) who is a heart-throb to women (especially a Chicago housewife played by Kathy Bates) but who is very much still in the closet. So, let’s start gently. Talk about the latest project. He’s a bit like the character played by Jonathan Pryce in the film, isn’t he? After all, when he first found fame in the mid-1980s, with Another Country and Dance with a Stranger, he became a pin-up to schoolgirls everywhere, as well as to schoolboys who wanted to emulate his dark, scowling, foppish look. ‘What do you mean?’ he says in a lazy, patrician voice.
Well, he is, is he not, in the unusual position of being a sex symbol to both women and men? ‘I see what you’re saying. But I don’t think I’m a sex symbol to men, to be honest. Sex symbols to men are people like David Beckham.’ Perhaps ‘role model’ would be a better term then, in the sense that many heterosexual men wish to emulate his easy way with women, that ability to become the confidant, as he has with his friend Madonna? ‘Be the GBF, you mean? The Gay Best Friend? Well, yes. Lucky me. But I think it’s an old-fashioned view that only gay men are capable of fulfilling that role. I’m sure David Beckham could talk about eye cream and shopping for clothes.’
Everett is the second son of an Army major who later became a stockbroker. While his parents were stationed abroad, he and his brother, Simon (who now runs a fleet of helicopters in Nairobi), lived with their maternal grandmother in Norfolk. He was sent away to board at the age of seven, which he says ‘calcified my heart’. At the same age he watched a film that was to change his life, Mary Poppins. He found, he says, that he identified with Julie Andrews so much that he knew from that moment on that he wanted to be a star.
Was it a parochial childhood? Military? Bourgeois? ‘Um, we weren’t the sort of family who went to St Moritz. We went to Scotland in the summer, stalking. And I had a pekinese, one of my first acts of rebellion. My idea of a holiday was following my family up the hill with my pekinese, who would skip over the heather in front of me. All the other dogs were big and butch.’ He smiles broadly at the memory – it’s a disarming, boyish smile; toothy and mischievous.
Presumably he was a rebel at Ampleforth, the Roman Catholic public school in North Yorkshire he attended? ‘I never wanted to take part in any group activities. I felt really proud of the fact that I never once played rugby in five years. No, that’s not quite true. I was forced to play it twice. I felt good about hiding out in the music school.’ Indeed he did – he’s an accomplished pianist – and in the school’s music and theatre wing, under the stairs, he had a ‘dressing room’ covered in pictures of himself. He would invite friends round to it for imaginary cocktails. Not very Mary Poppins, but certainly starstruck.
He thinks for a moment. ‘I’ve never been any good with authority. I just thought I had all the answers.’ He stands up, walks over to the window, lifts one side of the swagged curtain and peers out across Hyde Park. ‘Authority figures are so irritating,’ he says over his shoulder. ‘Because they always tell you to do things for reasons that aren’t very good. That sums up what authority is about for me.’
Did he have a nickname at school? ‘No.’
Come on, he can tell me. ‘Everett Two. My brother was Everett One.’ Everett Two has written two novels: Hello Darling, Are You Working? (1992) and The Hairdressers of St-Tropez (1995). The reviews weren’t at all kind (‘Deplorable’ – the TLS; ‘Abysmal’ – the Guardian) but the first one, about a boy who wants to wear a wedding dress, and later becomes a hard-up bisexual actor, forced to work in soap operas, had a cracking opening line: ‘By the time he was eight he knew he would never be a Great Actress.’ Was it autobiographical? ‘I don’t want the interview to be about that.’
Oh go on. ‘All right, yes, there was an autobiographical element. As a kid I would be put to bed when my parents had guests and because I was such a show-off I would go to my mum’s room, put on her nightdress and Jackie Onassis shawl, run downstairs, go outside, ring the doorbell and pretend to be one of the guests. I’d say, “Hello, I’m Mrs So and So.” And my parents would say, “Come in.” I would join the other guests for ten minutes, then be sent to bed again, only to reappear ten minutes later at the door in another outfit. This was repeated a couple more times before I became over-tired, refused to go to bed and clung on to the banister sobbing. Those were my dressing-up days.’
So his parents can’t have been that surprised when he told them he was gay? The temperature drops. ‘No,’ he says icily. ‘I think they were very surprised.’ He sighs. He frowns. He unscrews the top of a bottle of fizzy water, making it hiss angrily. ‘Look,’ he snaps. ‘Does everything have to be about me being gay?’ He takes a swig from the bottle. ‘Why can’t we talk about my new film?’
But he, er, plays a gay character in his new film, as he did in his last one and the one before that. And Another Country, his first film, was about homosexuality and betrayal in public schools. ‘Yes, but we’re not talking about them, are we? We’re talking about me being gay, as usual. Why are you so interested? Are you a closet fag? Would you ask a straight person about what they did with their parents’ clothes aged six?’
Of course I would, I say, if I thought it would offer some insights into the person.
There is a cold fury in his eyes now. His nostrils dimple in and out as his breathing quickens. Nasty Rupert has taken possession. ‘Yes. But with me it is the only thing that people are interested in. People aren’t just about their sexuality – and it’s very, very frustrating.’
What to do? Make a run for it? Faint? I slowly cover my head with my hands and draw my knees up to my chest. It seems to lighten the mood. He sighs once more, this time more calmly, and says: ‘OK. OK.’
He stands up and walks over to the window again, his back to me. ‘I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with talking about a person’s sex life. I’m just saying it can’t be the only identification point.’ He turns to face me. Pauses for dramatic effect. ‘It is provincial and old-fashioned to make it so.’ Fair enough, I say, let’s look for a different identification point then. Everett changed his identity radically in the mid-1980s when he left London to live in Paris – stayed there for a decade before coming back to make The Madness of King George. Was it a self-imposed exile? ‘I wanted to get out of England,’ he says flopping back down on the sofa, no longer in a strop. Nice Rupert.
Why? ‘Because everything had gone wrong. I wasn’t getting the jobs. I was feeling paranoid. I wanted to escape the attention that I was getting. It was pretty negative [two pop songs he had recorded were panned]. I went for one weekend to Paris and thought, “I’m so crazy, I could get out of all this negativity and move here,” and I did, the next week. And I didn’t understand French much at first and lived in this blissful fantasy world. I reinvented myself – and had a new character because I couldn’t express myself. All my new friends thought I was rather mournful.’
Were they right? ‘Yes, I do get depressed. Not so much recently though.’
What’s changed? ‘My spirits were low in my twenties because everything unravelled. I thought I was doing one thing, but when I looked at it objectively I was doing another. Some people would say your work is really, really fantastic, that you’re like a matinée idol from the 1950s, and others would say it’s really, really crap. Both were partly true, but neither was the whole truth. When this was happening to me it was at the time I was exploring my sexuality [he didn’t decide he was totally gay until he was 26], and it is a very trippy thing, like being in a kaleidoscope. So you spend a lot of the time bewildered and confused and having dysfunctional relationships.’
So were those his wilderness years? ‘They weren’t wilderness years for me, no. I’ve always been forced to move on and probably always will be. But wilderness years, no. Moved to France, learnt two languages [French and Italian], and working there set me up for my next successful moment.’
Is there anything he would change about himself now? ‘Everything and nothing. I like being Rupert Everett but I’d also like to be a muscly black billionaire hip-hop singer.’
And so you shall, Rupert, I say, waving an imaginary wand: Ping! ‘The Sunday Telegraph,’ he says dryly, ‘the paper that just keeps giving.’ He yawns without opening his mouth.
Does he contemplate his own mortality? ‘And immortality. A lot.’ Through film? ‘Hopefully. Yes, you see a whole life ageing on screen. Life as a selection of repeats.’
He has also been ‘immortalised’ as a model, the face of Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium for Men. What was it like seeing himself on billboards everywhere? Did he become a narcissist? ‘Mm. Yeah, narcissism. I think most people who are vain have a lack of belief in their looks, they want to look better and they want people to tell them they are good-looking.’ He takes another sip of water from the neck, then swirls the bottle round and round absent-mindedly. Bored now. But did he ever look at himself in magazine ads and think, ‘Phwoar’? ‘All the time! I would go to bed with a magazine and just stare at a picture of myself. Sweet dreams!’
Does he sleep well? ‘Not the last three nights, but normally, yes.’ No guilt or angst keeping him awake? ‘Guilt for what?’ He pulls a mock nervous face. ‘What have I done now?’ Everyone feels guilty. ‘No, I don’t feel guilty at night. Only during the day.’ So he’s a man with a clear conscience? ‘Mm, lazy but well-disposed. And unpunctual. And easily bored. And quite selfish.’
Is he a good friend to his friends? ‘For the most part, but I have lapses.’
So he does. His friends speak of the bust-ups and mood swings – inevitably, he had a brief falling-out with Madonna – but he is usually quick to make up. What everyone says is that he has never been able to settle down. It’s the ‘always forced to move on’ factor he mentions. His longest relationship lasted a year – or rather his longest human relationship. A man’s best friend is said to be his dog, and that was certainly true in Everett’s case. He divides his time between London, Miami and Paris, and at one stage bought a home in Los Angeles just so that his arthritic black labrador Moise – Mo – could get the veterinary treatment it needed. And he once turned down a role on the London stage because it would have meant Mo being quarantined for six months. Mo died in November; was he heartbroken? ‘Yep.’
Will he get another dog?
‘Nope. It would be too depressing seeing another grow old and ill. You have them from puppies and they age so quickly. Always trying to keep up. So obliging.’
And would he characterise what he felt for his labrador as love?
‘Mm. The closest I have ever come to it.’ Does that surprise him? ‘Not really.’ Why? Is it because, as an actor, he has to be able to say, ‘I love you,’ to a relative stranger, in front of a film crew. ‘Yes, you can say it with as much conviction as possible, even if you hate the bitch. That’s what it’s about. When you say, “I love you,” on screen it destroys the next time you say it because it has just become a sense memory.’ He taps his long fingers together. ‘I sometimes find myself standing back from emotional situations in real life and thinking [he adopts a German accent], “Ziz is werry interestink. Later I shall go to my room and write a sonnet about it. Over a glass of dessert vine.”‘ He laughs crisply. ‘You’re looking at me as if I’m mad!’
Not mad, but sensitive, amusing, erratic – and a little bit lonely. An encounter with Everett can be a bit hair-raising – his one-man good cop, bad cop routine – but he probably feels it’s what is expected of him. So Rupert, I say as we wind the interview up, that wasn’t so bad now, was it? ‘No, not so bad.’ And, I add, we didn’t even touch on the dreaded rent-boy stuff. He looks at my tape-recorder and says quietly and with unexpected dignity: ‘That’s still running. Please. My parents read The Sunday Telegraph.’