I’d just arrived at Tea & Sympathy, a charming café that sits on a block of Little Britain in New York’s West Village. It’s long been a haven frequented by British actor Rupert Everett, who displays a clear affinity for the staff. Holding a Sherlock Holmes book under his arm, he'd walked through the door just seconds after me, greeting the hostess like an old friend.
Admittedly, I was intimidated to be in the presence of an actor whose work carried such weight during my formative years. A heartthrob since the ‘80s, he appeared opposite the likes of Julia Roberts, Julianne Moore, and Reese Witherspoon in typical leading man fashion. My childhood memories of him were in Dunston Checks In, a children’s film about a boy living in an upscale hotel who befriends an orangutan. The primate was hiding away from his villainous owner, played by Everett.
“I’ve worked with a lot of people but those orangutans come out easily on top as some of my favorite scene partners,” Everett says. “Working with them, you have to kind of let your own ego aside because you just have to concentrate on getting them to do the scene. But it was such fun.”
His unmistakable charm comes through when the waitress brought a kettle of Earl Grey to the table.
“I’ll be mother,” he says with a chuckle, as he pours us both a cup.
A few days earlier, I saw him play a role critics say he "has been born for." In the US stage production of The Judas Kiss, at BAM through June 12, Everett portrays Oscar Wilde in the final years of his life, just before and after his imprisonment for gross indecency.
Everett masterfully depicts Wilde, delivering some lines that evoke laughter and tears almost simultaneously. During the direst situations, he’s able to break the tension with a quip, right after making us fear the literary icon's outcome. It’s a testament to Wilde’s cavalier optimism and confidence in the face of adversity, and Everett’s unwavering ability to understand the character.
“I think he didn’t know,” Everett says about Wilde. “He hadn’t had a clue what it was going to be like. He thought he was going to have his feet up and have beautiful thoughts. He didn’t quite realize what hard labor was.”
Cal MacAninch, Rupert Everett, and Charlie Rowe star in The Judas Kiss at BAM Harvey Theater. Photo by Richard Termine
Although Wilde’s struggle remains a daily reality experienced by LGBT individuals in some parts of the world, it’s hard not to draw similarities between the writer's career and Everett’s: In 2009, the actor advised industry peers not to come out, referencing struggles he’s faced. Although he’s come under fire for his opinion, they ring true.
“I wouldn’t say it hurt my career, but it became my career," Everett says. "It became the issue before I was seen as an actor. For me, there was no choice about coming out. It was only one direction for me. I was part of a scene, and there was no question if I was going to make that part of my life something undercover. So it was beyond a question of regret. It’s what I was, and I wanted to live that life.”
He refuses to identify as a victim though. Instead, he shows a fond admiration for the survivors of our community. One of which he credits is Lady Bunny, whom he recently saw perform at Stonewall.
“Those girls, they went through a lot to survive,” he says. “And to see her up there on stage, still with the resilience of a mountain goat, it’s just incredibly inspiring. It’s completely the antithesis to certain areas of modern culture which I think slightly worship victimhood. We mustn’t be victims. We must be survivors.”
Complementing Everett’s phenomenal performance in The Judas Kiss is a talented cast of supporting characters. Cal MacAninch is riveting as Robbie Ross, Wilde’s devoted confidant, who stands by his side during his darkest hours. You can’t help but root for Ross, whose youthful flame for Wilde burns under the surface of their platonic camaraderie.
But it’s Wilde’s passionate relationship with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, as depicted by Charlie Rowe, that takes focus. Rowe's seductive charm is perfect for the role of Wilde’s fickle lover. Their affair will ultimately unravel at the hand’s of Bosie’s fervent entitlement.
Charlie Rowe and Rupert Everett star in The Judas Kiss at BAM Harvey Theater. Photo by Richard Termine
The Judas Kiss seems to bring Everett’s career full circle, considering his lifelong connection to Wilde’s work. He’s performed in stage productions of The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest. He’s also starred in film adaptations of Earnest and The Ideal Husband. It’s as though Everett was the writer’s muse, albeit born a century too late.
And Everett won’t be done with Wilde when The Judas Kiss ends. Immediately after his final bow at BAM, he will begin production on The Happy Prince, a film about Wilde's last year after his release from prison. Everett will be writing and directing the movie, as well as starring as Wilde -- it’s a pivotal moment in his career.
“My premise is that the real love affair is between Oscar Wilde and Robbie Ross,” he adds. “Robbie Ross is the man who’s with him when he dies, and Robbie Ross’s ashes are in a little urn near Oscar’s coffin in the tomb. So I think they are the lovers.”
The Judas Kiss runs until June 12 at BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn. Tickets are available online.