Stephen Fry on Reprising the King in ‘Red, White & Royal Blue 2’ and Why Prince William and Harry Are ‘Very Gay-Friendly’

British actor Stephen Fry remembers being about 10 years old in the late 1960s when he first saw a production of Oscar Wilde’s play “The Importance of Being Earnest” on television.

He immediately checked out the “Complete Works of Oscar Wilde” from the mobile library that visited his town in rural England.

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“I went back and said, ‘Have you got anything else?’ And [the librarian] said, “Well, that’s the complete works,’” Fry tells me on the latest episode of the “Just for Variety” podcast. “I searched the shelves and I found this book, ‘The Trials of Oscar Wilde.’ I thought, that’s really weird. I thought trials as in trials and tribulations, maybe he had a very unhappy life. So I took the book out and she stamped it out for me looking a bit doubtful as to whether I should read it. I didn’t understand why.”

Fry learned that Wilde was charged and convicted of gross indecency because of his same-sex relationships. He was sentenced to two years hard labor in 1895. Upon release, he fled to France, where he died in misery and poverty.

“That’s how I grew up expecting life to be. There was just no other way,” Fry says. “I was preparing myself somehow to hide my identity and to live a life in which such things were not possible. Then by a miracle, my life, my growing up coincided with a change of attitude.”

Now, 66, Fry is one of the OGs on the rather short list of gay actors who came out decades ago. His career spans theater, television, radio and film. He’s an actor, comedian, writer and director. In a full circle moment, he not only played Wilde in “Wilde,” the 1997 British biographical romantic drama, but he also earned a Golden Globe for his work. Fry’s most recent credits include “The Sandman” series on Netflix as well as the streamer’s LGBTQ coming-of-age series “Heartstopper.” He played King James III in Prime Video’s queer rom-com, “Red, White & Royal Blue.”

His latest film is “Treasure,” a dramedy about a Holocaust survivor who travels back to his native Poland for the first time since the war in the 1990s with his daughter (Lena Dunham).

I caught up with Fry over Zoom.

“Treasure” is heavy material but you and Lena bring the jokes.

Life is a balance of the humorous, the absurd, the preposterous, the ridiculous, the surreal and the deeply tragic and the howlingly painful. And without the humor, I sometimes say, “It’s like seeing a film in which no one has a nose. You look at it and go, “Well, where’s this strange world in which there are noseless people? I’ve never met such people.” One of the things you want to do as an actor or a writer, or I guess if I could do it as a painter or sculptor, is to represent the truth exactly as you perceive it. And the strange thing about humans is that we use humor all the time, even in the darkest moments, both as a shield and as a sword. It’s one of the things that I found so wonderful about the film, because it reminded me of so many Jewish members of my own family and people I’d met, how humor was such an important feature.

You had family who perished in Auschwitz. Was that talked about when you were younger?

No. The weird moment I had was when I was about 12 and I was rummaging around old furniture in the house somewhere. There was this great waft of camphor, the mothball smell and these strange furs, fox furs and things like this, and peculiar Austrian artifacts, and collars from my grandfather with Germanic names on it. But then I found a photograph with all these children and other people in it. I rushed over to my mother and said, “Mommy, who are these people? Why have we got photographs of them?” And she sat me down and she said, “Well, these were your father’s [family]… Your grandfather’s sister, my father’s sister, who would’ve been your aunt, and their children.” And I said, “Whoa, do they still live in Hungary?” Because I thought of my grandfathers as Hungarian and she said, “No, they all died.” I said, “Well, how?” And she said, the words she chose were, “Well, Hitler killed them.” So I literally had in my head this idea of the mustachioed guy with a knife stabbing my family. I said, “Why?” And she then tried to explain the story. She told me about the train journey and about the shower rooms and so on. I just found it very hard.

Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry in “Treasure.”
Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry in “Treasure.”

You played King James in “Red, White & Royal Blue.” I always tell younger people that it still astonishes me that something like this could get made.

It’s wonderful — shout out to [director and co-writer] Matthew López, who’s an extraordinary talent — and indeed that I would ever play Oscar Wilde in a film. That was an extraordinary idea. My little self would say, “No, this is fantasy. Fantasy is dangerous. The hope is what kills.” But part of me wants to fly back through time and just sort of rest on the shoulder of my young unhappy self and say, “It’s going to be all right. Don’t worry.”

When you’re on a set of something like “Red, White & Royal Blue,” do you think, “I am making the most mainstream queer story. As mainstream as queer could get.”

Yeah. We have reason sometimes to doubt the sense of the younger generation in some respects. And there’s that typical old fart behavior of myself. But I’m so impressed by their willingness and openness to play those roles, those two boys [Nicholas Galitzine and Taylor Zakhar Perez]. They were terrific at it. That’s the openness that I really treasure because I can remember when Rupert Graves and James Wilby were in “Maurice.” They were brilliant in the E.M. Forster adaptation, but I can remember how the business looked down on them and said, “But they’re both straight and doing that. That must be so embarrassing for them. How could they. Oh, gosh! How would they prepare for that?”

Stephen Fry as King James III in “Red, White & Royal Blue.”
Stephen Fry as King James III in “Red, White & Royal Blue.”

Will you play the king again in the “Red, White & Royal Blue” sequel?

Matthew’s become a friend and he’s told me he’s doing it. I’m hoping that he hasn’t left me out. We need the king. You’ve got to have the king.

Do you call your friend Prince William and say, “By the way, I’m playing the king. I need advice.”

They had a great-great-grandfather, George V. And if you wanted to know what summed up the casual and hideous homophobia of Britain and probably most of Europe and America at that time, there was a member of the family of the Duke of Westminster who was arrested in some case gay scandal or was about to be arrested and he escaped to France. And someone broke the news to the king because the Duke of Westminster was a friend of the king and said, “Oh, have you heard that lord what’s-his-name has gone to France because of that?” And the king’s words were, just to say very coldly, “I thought men like that shot themselves.” Isn’t it the coldest remark you’ve ever heard? And that was those boys, William and Harry’s, great-great-grandfather. And believe me, they are very gay-friendly and charming. They’re part of their generation. They grew up with it because of their father. Their father was great friends with, for example, John Richardson, the Picasso biographer. He and his boyfriend used to stay with the king. And they were friendly with them both. They have absolutely no issues.

Do you think England could ever have a gay king or a gay queen?

It has done in the past. Many times.

Openly gay.

But openly? Aha! I don’t think that’s impossible. I really don’t. I think it would raise constitutional issues in terms of the heir. That’s the only boring nonsense about kingship is that you’re supposed to have an heir. Or as the horrible phrase goes, an heir and a spare, which we know is a word that Prince Harry has used to his advantage.

This Q&A has been edited and condensed. You can listen to the full conversation on “Just for Variety” above or wherever you download you favorite podcasts.

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