July 28, 1997 12:00 PM

AS HER GAY PAL IN MY BEST Friend’s Wedding, Rupert Everett cheers up Julia Roberts; offscreen he wore her out. “I’m so exhausted,” she told her agent, from “laughing my head off with Rupert.” On the set, director RJ. Hogan bet her $100 she couldn’t keep a straight face in a scene where her character is told, “It must have hurt to go through so many guys and never find the right one.” Everett ad-libbed a ribald response (it’s in the movie), but Roberts stayed in character to win the bet. “A comic genius,” she calls him.

Gracious talk, coming from the victim of the cinematic heist of the summer: As her suave and witty confidant, Everett, 38, steals the film. Enlisted by Roberts’s character to play her straight fiancé to make the man she wants to marry (Dermot Mulroney) jealous, Everett gets big laughs whether he’s groping her in a cab or leading an entire restaurant in belting out the Dionne Warwick antique “I Say a Little Prayer.” Key scenes—including the ending—were revised to fatten Everett’s role after test audiences clamored for more.

But—sorry, ladies—though the 6’4″ Everett, who moonlights as Yves St. Laurent’s hunky Opium for Men model, may be as dashing as Sean Connery, he is gay in reality too. Having come out in 1989—”because,” he told Time Out New York, “I couldn’t be bothered to lie”—Everett is now trying to break out as a leading man. “I don’t think an actor should be pigeonholed by his sexuality,” he argues. “I’m really happy to be gay, but I don’t want that to become all my acting career is about.” Hollywood isn’t sure Everett can become its first proudly gay heartthrob. “Uncle Joe in Des Moines is not going to sit and watch a gay guy make love to Kim Basinger,” says screenwriter Rod Lurie. Everett scoffs: “People say it’s a turnoff for female fans, but it’s always men who say that.”

Born in Norfolk, England, to Anthony, a British Army officer, and Sarah, a homemaker, Everett left a prestigious Catholic boarding school at 15 to study acting in London at a school that soon booted him. “I was very difficult,” he says. Later a stint with the avant-garde Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow led to the 1984 film Another Country, which, along with Dance with a Stranger the following year, made him a rising star in England.

He immediately abused the privilege. “He certainly got a lot of people’s backs up,” says Celestia Fox, a London casting director and friend, who recalls a time when Everett did the stage version of Another Country (he played a British spy who defects to Moscow) in a long red wig. “When he gets bored, he mucks about.” For Everett, there was a fine line between acting and acting up: After a theatergoer complained about one of his performances, he sent her a bunch of his pubic hair. “I had a wild phase,” he says now, “a long wild phase.” No British understatement there: Everett did drugs and even worked as a male prostitute. “I didn’t set out to hustle,” he told US magazine. “But this guy offered me such a massive amount of money, well, it was like a year-and-a-half’s pocket money.”

Turning down the Daniel Day-Lewis part in 1986’s A Room with a View (“I felt I’d done that type of thing already”) led to a series of flops that ended only when Fox cast him as a foppish Prince of Wales in 1994’s The Madness of King George. In the meantime, Everett tried a pop singing career (he cut two records) and wrote two novels (the first, Hello Darling, Are You Working? was a bestseller in England; a third, Guilt Without Sex: A Jewish Bestseller, is on the way).

These days, home is a four-room, rented apartment in Paris he shares with his 7-year-old black Labrador, Moïse, which he takes nearly everywhere—including the neighborhood patisserie, where the waitress lets them eat cake. “I prefer animals to people,” says Everett, who is spending most of July hiking with his dog in the Alps. He also has apartments in New York City’s Greenwich Village (where he gorges on Yorkshire pudding at Tea & Sympathy, a British bastion) and in Miami Beach, and he has a house in England that he rarely visits because to do so means leaving Moïse behind (Britain requires immigrating dogs to spend six months in quarantine).

Everett has two comic follow-ups to Wedding in the works: P.S. I Love You, in which he would play a gay secret agent; and Martha and Arthur, a comedy in which he and Roberts would play married movie stars dealing with his realization that he is gay. Not bad, considering that “a year ago,” says Michael Radford, who directed Everett’s upcoming drama B. Monkey, “he couldn’t even get hired.” Not true; surely you remember Everett’s 1995 horror film Cemetery Man, in which his character falls in love with a corpse, or the time he played second banana to an orangutan in Dunston Checks In, Having been mired in more B movies than Godzilla, Everett knows that hot careers have a way of icing over. “What happens to most people who get a huge success like this,” he says of Wedding, “is that the bubble bursts in about 10 minutes and they’re back to summer stock in Connecticut, swatting mosquitoes as they play Sir Toby Belch.” Not that he minds adulation. “An actor,” he declares, “never gets tired of people telling him how fabulous he is.”


CATHY NOLAN in Paris, SHELLEY LEVITT and JEFFREY WELLS in Los Angeles and SUE MILLER in New York City

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