Rupert Everett depicts the downfall of Oscar Wilde in The Happy Prince

We spoke to the actor about starring in his directorial debut, a decade in the making.

Rupert Everett as Oscar Wilde in The Happy Prince

Passion projects are always hard to make.

Maybe it’s partially a self-fulfilling prophecy — you never hear that someone’s passion project was immediately financed and a breeze to pull off, because passion requires sweat and blood and conflict. Nevertheless, everything I’d heard about Rupert Everett’s directorial debut, The Happy Prince, suggested that it took 10 years to make because it was exactly that type of passion project.

When I got Everett on the line to discuss the film prior to its screening at image + nation this Saturday, I had to ask: what does it mean when someone says they’ve been “trying” to make this film for 10 years? What does that look like?

“It’s a difficult time to make independent movies,” says Everett. “Things get more and more expensive and there’s less and less money around. In the U.K., for example, there’s really only three outlets. If you don’t score with one of those initially, you’ve had it. You have to go to Europe, and you’ve got to get a guide to take you through the financing world in Europe. It’s incredibly complex! Even though it’s the European Union, there’s not really one country who’s in a financial accord with another country. You have to go and present yourself to all of these different people. And for all of them — it takes, for example, three months to apply, three months for them to take in our application, you might have to go in and see them… and then, like with most things, you don’t always succeed.

“Then, when you manage to get one piece of financing, that financing could be out of a place where it’s complicated to make your movie in. It’s a really difficult business to organize! And I don’t think it was the subject matter that wasn’t impressing people — I think maybe it was the price tag. It’s a 19th century road movie, essentially, which means that it’s quite expensive to pull off if you want to do it convincingly. And then, you know, I wasn’t exactly the hottest ticket in town, let’s say, when I was presenting it.

“The hardest part was definitely getting it off the ground,” continues Everett. “It took such a long time. You have to be incredibly strong. You have to have great tenacity, and pick yourself up each time it falls apart. That’s why you really have to take your hat off to anyone who gets a film made — at all. It’s so complicated — as likely as a sperm hitting an egg, really.”

In The Happy Prince, Everett plays Oscar Wilde at the end of his life, soon after his release from prison for the crime of sodomy. (Wilde was jailed after his affair with a young lord, Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, was reported by Bosie’s mother.) Penniless and broken, Wilde lives in semi-squalor, supported by a meagre allowance from his wife (Emily Watson) and trying, with limited success, to live it up in the way he used to in happier times. Wilde continues to write under a pseudonym, but the years of hard living and the trauma of his incarceration have taken their toll, not to mention the judgment and mockery of a populace who has turned him into a pariah. Wilde unwisely resurrects his affair with Bosie (Colin Morgan) and ignores any advice from longtime accomplices played by Colin Firth and Edwin Thomas, essentially letting himself die slowly.

It’s a notion that often comes up with extremely famous or tragic figures of the pre-television era: the idea that, despite their success, they died penniless and in misery.

“I really find that whole era incredibly glamorous and romantic,” says Everett. “It’s this idea of this rockstar on the skids. He was really the prototype for this famous-for-being-famous world that we live in now. Apart from his plays, he was just famous for being himself. At this point before his downfall, he was called the most famous man in London, which means the most famous man in the world, in a way. His downfall, to me, is more interesting than his success. Success is quite boring, I find. Failure and collapse is more exciting. He ended up being one of the images of the end of the 19th century that stands out and is consistently fascinating to me.”

The Happy Prince is Everett’s first directorial effort after three-plus decades on the other side of the camera — but he also wrote and stars in the film, which requires him to wear considerable amounts of make-up and a fat suit to replicate Wilde’s particularly grotesque physique at the time. It’s one thing to direct your first movie; it’s quite another to appear, unrecognizable, in nearly every scene.

“Well, you may not have seen me for a few years (laughs), but it’s definitely a transformation,” says Everett. “I’d read so much about Wilde, and the two things that came up over and over again were a) his great height; b) that he was kind of like an elephant. I always imagined the legs of an elephant, and that he sort of waddled in a sort of weird way. I’m one of those actors, I suppose, that’s kind of old-fashioned in my approach: I go from the outside in. I very much wanted to get the look of him straight first. I wanted these big legs and this big, low-hanging bum and these kind of sagging moobs and stuff like that.

“Over the fat suit, I wore a corset: that corset gave him the right walk. And then, in my mouth I had these special plates made for my teeth that made the teeth kind of old and raggedy and also made my cheeks fatter. I also shaved my head and had these very thin wigs made. I wanted to portray him as… not quite a Charlie Chaplin figure, but a kind of almost homeless person tramping around in the streets in this huge old coat with the pockets full of pieces of paper and bits of money. I wanted to paint this picture of a vagabond, someone who’s friends with street urchins and petty criminals and who was, only five years before, one of the most famous men in the world.” ■

The Happy Prince screens at the De Sève theatre (1400 de Maisonneuve W.) on Saturday, Dec. 1, 9 p.m., $14.50