Rupert Everett, currently garnering raves on Broadway for his role in the Noel Coward revival of Blithe Spirit, has a reputation for outrageous candor. Here, he lets it rip to Kevin Sessums about his exasperation with the British (“the audience is like a bunch of old sluts who have had too much sex”), his views on gay surrogate parenthood (“This whole idea of two gay guys filling a cocktail shaker with their sperm and impregnating some grim lesbian is just really weird”), and a very intimate take on Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter (“I did rather politely tell him that morning that I thought he was a very good fuck”).
After appearing in 25 films—two of which earned him a Golden Globe nomination—publishing two novels, and penning a memoir, Rupert Everett is making his Broadway debut. In Blithe Spirit, which opened last month, he plays Charles Condomine, a widowed writer, since remarried, who is haunted at a séance by the ghost of his first wife. “Mr. Everett does shallow splendidly,” raved Ben Brantley in the New York Times, “and even finds a few teasing currents of depth in the dapperer-than-thou Charles.”
The Daily Beast’s Kevin Sessums met up with the outspoken actor on his way to the theatre last week for a bite of dinner—and some biting conversation.
"These awful middle-class queens—which is what the gay movement has become—are so tiresome. It’s all Abercrombie & Fitch and strollers."
So how’s the run going? I was sitting in a Starbucks yesterday in the theatre district and three teenage boys from Kentucky were up here for spring break. They had just seen your matinee and were busily dissecting the performances. They were the kind of boys who came to New York to see theatre on spring break instead of ogling girls in Daytona Beach. They were swooning over you.
That’s sweet. But the audiences here compared to London audiences are very warm to start with. There’s an enthusiasm. When you’re European and you came here back in the 1970s, that’s what you came for—this amazing American enthusiasm. I’ve gotten in touch with that a bit again doing this play. In London, the audience is like a bunch of old sluts who have had too much sex and can never cum. They’re mean and they dare you to entertain them.
So you’re homesick.
In fact, I am at the moment. Very. But not for the English audience.
Have you been watching the G-20 Conference in London? Has that made you homesick? You come from a long line of politicians. Your great grandfather, Sir Donald Maclean, was head of the Liberal Party in England from 1918 to 1922.
I’m not really a political animal but I am rather fascinated by the meltdown of England and America. In the end, it seems as if America might come out of it, but I’m not sure if England is ever going to recover.
Do you think British Conservative Party leader David Cameron has a good chance of replacing Gordon Brown?
Oh, I think they’re all hopeless, the lot of them. It doesn’t really matter who’s the prime minister. In one sense, we’re all the prime minster. It just seems that we cannot change ourselves; we are incapable of changing. All anyone wants is to get back to the same hell we were in before.
What’s your opinion of the Obamas?
Well, they are certainly glamorous. They are gorgeous looking. And they are inspiring. But at the end of the day, the only thing they can do is to bring out the Obama in each of us—that thing that you can get there, if you want to. There just doesn’t seem to be a solution to the mess we’re in at the moment. One of the members of my cast is Christine Ebersole and she’s one of these conspiracy theorists. People like that have always seemed a bit mad to me, but the crazier things get, the less mad these people are beginning to seem. Christine said backstage the other night, “It’s all been written on the dollar bill since the beginning. There’s always just been one bank and they’ve always been snuffing out all the little banks.” There’s nothing one can do about it so we might as well perform a bit of Noel Coward.
What draws you to Coward? Where do you rank him as a writer? Below Shakespeare and above you?
He’s a great writer while being a funny little one also. I say funny little one because of his obsession with class and the class he came from. For example, in Blithe Spirit the class he paints is this weird, wonky kind of circus-mirror class that doesn’t exist but is his version of a something of a something and none of it quite makes sense. But at the same time there is a Chekhovian side of Coward waiting to be mined. There’s something lyrical and rather touching at how his characters use manners to mask a sort of sadness, and yet he is quite savage about relationships. And I also find from the vantage point of 2009 a romantic side to a play like Blithe Spirit—romantic in the sense that when Madame Arcati talks about bicycling through the woods and the birdsong being deafening, it evokes such an idea of England itself. Angela Lansbury, who is playing Madame Arcati, is a great actress, and when she says that line it captures for me a time in England before that great crash of the Second World War with all those planes roaring overhead and all that followed which has culminated in—oh, I don’t know—in diagnoses of attention deficit disorder and ADHD and prescriptions for Ritalin. Yet Coward is a difficult playwright to act because there is also a lazy side to him and he has the actors say the same thing over and over again.
"This surrogacy thing is crap. This whole idea of two gay guys filling a cocktail shaker with their sperm and impregnating some grim lesbian is just really weird."
One of the things you’ve had to say over and over again is that you’re gay. And yet when those teenagers from Kentucky were talking about you, that’s one of the things they were so appreciative about. You are a kind of role model for them.
God, I hope not. I don’t think kids should have role models. They’re disastrous. My own role models were film stars who were tortured and downed barbiturates on film sets and I thought that was just the coolest thing. Montgomery Clift and people like that. I just think having role models is terrible.
When you came out of the closet did it upset your rather upper-class family back in Britain? I know your great uncle Donald Duart Maclean was part of the Cambridge Five and was a double agent for the Soviets. He was even made a brevet colonel in the KGB. Which was more upsetting to your parents, having a Soviet spy in the family or an avowed homosexual?
Oh, an avowed homosexual. They would have much preferred I be a double agent. But they are quite old now—my father is quite unwell—and age has a way of knocking down a lot of things that mattered before. They are very sweet, my parents. They are very sad in one sense, that they don’t have grandchildren.
But being gay doesn’t preclude one from having children. You could adopt or go the surrogacy route that so many gay men are using these days.
"Being an actor in Hollywood is not that great a job anymore. It’s become the sluttiest job on the planet."
I think this surrogacy thing is crap. It is utterly hideous. I think it’s egocentric and vain. And these endless IVF treatments people go through. I mean, if you are meant to have babies then great. But this whole idea of two gay guys filling a cocktail shaker with their sperm and impregnating some grim lesbian and then it gets cut out is just really weird. If I did have the impulse to be a parent, I would adopt—or foster. But this whole thing of forcing the idea of parenthood on us gay men is so bogus. Marriage? Babies? Please. I want to be illegal. I want to live outside the mainstream.
You’re so old-fashioned.
Or am I slightly ahead of the curve? It has to change. These awful middle-class queens—which is what the gay movement has become—are so tiresome. It’s all Abercrombie & Fitch and strollers. Everybody has the right to do what they want to do, but still...
It’s good to know you’re not judgmental. Do you regret having come out as a gay man? Does it anger you that a lot of actors who are gay have chosen not to come out and have better careers to show for it?
No. What I find I regret—what pisses me off—is this complicity among everyone else against a queen even though they don’t even know it. Even people who consider themselves thoughtful. So what people say about me is, “Isn’t it amazing that you didn’t really try very hard in your career? Your career is so up and down.” But the reason my career is so up and down is that I get very little opportunity. There is just very little opportunity for a fag. That’s the reality. There isn’t. But I have no regrets for being out. None. It’s not like I’m missing out on that much. Being an actor in Hollywood is not that great a job anymore. It’s become the sluttiest job on the planet. It’s not remotely serious. It’s not like we’re talking about Hollywood in the 1970s that I’m missing out on. If we were talking about ‘70s Hollywood, then I’d be killing myself because the product back then was so astonishing even though it was still thought of as commercial cinema. I’m not that upset not to be in Ocean’s 15 or whatever.
Gavin Creel, who is so remarkable as the lead in the revival of Hair—he plays Claude—just gave an interview and came out. He said that if it hurts his career so be it, that he’d rather have a life than a career.
I’d definitely rather have a life, too. He’s right. I find it’s made me much more interesting because it’s forced me to find alternative means of employment. It forced me to become a writer. It forced me to live in France. It forced me to work in Italy. It forced me to go to Russia. It forced me to write my own script about Oscar Wilde I hope to get made one day.
You’re even on the masthead of Vanity Fair as a contributing editor.
I know. Who does one have to fuck to get OFF that masthead? He’s such a weird character, that [Vanity Fair Editor in Chief] Graydon [Carter]. He’s certainly not the buffoon he looks like. This is the most amazing thing I found out about him. I was once staying at a hotel and I was in the room directly under his. He is an amazing fuck. And you can quote me on this. The screams coming from the woman were some of the purest sounds of pleasure I’d ever heard. And there I was sitting alone in my room unfucked. Suddenly it all made sense. That messy hair of his that I always thought was buffoon hair was buffoon hair hiding a monster cock. The next day I went down to breakfast and Graydon came in and I thought to myself, well, now I understand why you are always acting so entitled and walking on air even though you’re rather fat. It’s because grazing the grass between your legs is this appendage of yours. I did rather politely tell him that morning that I thought he was a very good fuck.
Perhaps that’s why you’re still on the masthead.
Hmmm ... you think?
Irreverence is certainly one of your calling cards. Maybe that irreverence—coupled with your erudition—is why Channel Four in England hired you to be a host for a series of travel documentaries, which is yet another aspect of this varied career you’ve been forced to have. You’ve done shows about the explorer Sir Richard Burton and another two retracing Lord Byron’s journeys in Albania and Greece. Did you swim the Hellespont—or the Dardanelles, as it’s called today—like Byron did when he was inspired to do it by reading about Leander swimming toward the priestess Hero? From Leander to Byron to Everett—that’s quite a lineage.
I attempted to swim it, yes. But we were forced to stop because of the tankers. They wouldn’t let us go on. We were stopped by the traffic controllers of some sort. Channel Four wanted a bit of sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll in the documentaries and it was difficult to know how to incorporate that in a travel documentary. Sir Richard Burton’s life was all about sexuality in Africa so that sort of fit. And then I thought that Byron had a bit of all that in his day.
Did you identify with his lover Lady Caroline Lamb’s description of him as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”?
A bit. We looked at him in those terms, yes. But then we looked at his life in Greece and Albania where he was a serious revolutionary—as serious as Che Guevara or Bolivar.
He is considered a bisexual today. He wrote all those poems about his schoolboy days at Harrow. There are those lovely lines: “Ah! Sure some stronger impulse vibrates here, which whispers friendship will be doubly dear to one, who thus for kindred hearts must roam, and seek abroad the love denied at home.”
In that regard, his saddest love affair was his last one when he went to Greece to escape his girlfriend and he finally fell in love with this boy called Lukas. By this time Byron had turned into a kind of pastiche of himself. Dyed hair. Slightly overweight. And for the first time ever he was rejected. One of his last poems that is seldom ever published is the poem he wrote to Lukas. It’s the saddest poem I’ve ever read about unrequited love. He was ultimately a sweet character, Lord Byron. A sweet man—which is finally a nice way to be remembered.
Kevin Sessums is the author of the New York Times bestseller Mississippi Sissy, a memoir of his childhood. He was executive editor of Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and Allure. He is a contributing editor of Parade. His new memoir, I Left It on Mountain will be published by St. Martins Press.