He drifted into comedy, found he had a flair for the dramatic, and now wants to enter politics. Eddie Izzard’s life is a marathon, not a sprint
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Eddie Izzard doesn’t really speak English, or at least not a version of it that cares for trifles like syntax. Take the following, for instance: “By the 1700s we’re kicking with the navy and to come to this sun and booze and women and gold if you’re going to be a villain in London why not be a villain on a boat, which is like, it’s like the Millennium Falcon, that’s what the Millennium Falcon I suppose is. I guess it’s Silver being the pirate, or at least a privateer, like Drake. So as long as we put that – that edge – in there then I sign for it.” This was Izzard’s verbatim response to a question I put to him in the small town of Ceiba, in Puerto Rico earlier this year, where he was filming Sky’s new adaptation of Treasure Island. I’d asked how he had come to be cast as the lead, Long John Silver.
Izzard is, of course, famous for his rambling, surreal and gleefully round-the-houses style of stand-up comedy. But in person he speaks very quietly, with little or no need for a listener. It’s tiring enough trying to follow him; it must be exhausting being him.
Not that he is someone who appears to be afraid of exhaustion. After running an astonishing 43 consecutive marathons for Comic Relief last year, the transvestite comedian and actor became a world-class endurance athlete as well. His is an almost wilfully disparate CV, seemingly bound together by nothing more than obsessiveness.
“I’ve got this weird baggage not only of coming from comedy but quite surreal, bonkers comedy – and also being a transvestite. When people say about someone, ‘He just keeps on going’, someone who is just relentless, that’s me. And I like that.” One morning, a few months ago, he realised he hadn’t done a marathon for a while. “I just thought, ‘I’ll do one now.’ So I went and did one. It took me six and a half hours.”
It’s no surprise that his reading of Treasure Island’s Long John Silver focuses on Silver’s pathological pursuit of his goal. Izzard says he wanted to make what he calls “a Goodfellas-y version” of Stevenson’s classic tale. The resulting two-parter is indeed pretty brutal for a supposed family film. “Silver will not stop. This guy is going to go back and get this money from the island – we worked out it was something like 300 million of today’s money. It’s got to be a fixation because you wouldn’t go all the way back there. He’s got to put a crew together, somehow insinuate that crew on to another ship, play both sides off against one another and find this map that he’s been trying to find for so bloody long.”
To help prepare himself for the role, Izzard built an assault course in the director Steve Barron’s house. He then went around it on one leg and a single crutch, endlessly, until Barron ordered him to stop.
It would be convenient to put this down to method, but Izzard is untrained, and anyway, it fits into a broader behavioural pattern. “That’s the thing that I think I can bring to any role – my determination mirrors that of any character I want to play.”
One thing strikes me over the course of my conversations with Izzard, both here in Ceiba, where, at one point Izzard waves towards the harbour where Silver’s vast pirate ship is anchored, and later, in London. I love Izzard’s comedy. But he doesn’t make me laugh once. Has the comedian been put away for the time being, along with the make-up and the women’s clothes? (Izzard still maintains he’s a transvestite, despite having been in “boy-mode” for a number of years.)
“You develop [comedy] as a social skill, but then once you start doing it as a professional skill, you start switching it off as a social skill – because otherwise it feels like ‘this guy’s never off’ and that becomes an embarrassment. That’s why comedians turn it right down. And anyway, I am so f—–.”
It’s little wonder he’s tired. It’s coming to the end of the shoot and Izzard has been hopping about on a single crutch for months – first in Delaney, during Belfast’s coldest winter in decades, and then in Puerto Rico. Today he’s filming a scene where he has to run – in as far as a man can run on one leg – through dense undergrowth. His crutch keeps snagging on creepers; he keeps falling over. And when he falls over, he has to fall over like a man with one leg.
It’s funny, the first time. Then it’s a question of watching Izzard solving a problem. He likes solving problems. “I realised that I have to flick it out to the side and then bring it back in,” he says to no one in particular. “I can do it but it has to be under the surface. For some reason, I can get it out to the side, but not the front.” They go again.
The endless retakes (in this case, in brutal heat) are one of the clichés of an actor’s life. But for Izzard, who landed his first lead role in The Riches, a US comedy drama about a family of crooks, back in 2007, it must all still feel pretty new. On Treasure Island, he’s surrounded by Hollywood’s Elijah Wood, soon to reprise his role as Frodo Baggins, and British acting stalwarts such as Rupert Penry-Jones and Philip Glenister. Donald Sutherland, as Captain Flint, also makes an appearance.
“I’ve always been so envious [of actors]. I was saying to people in my twenties and thirties, ‘Can I go to drama school? Can I go now?’ People said, ‘Don’t bother. You’re already doing gigs.’ I’m no good at anything straight off the bat but I’ve learnt by just watching everyone.” He says that The Riches was his finishing school after years on the stage and in supporting roles in films and television. Izzard’s slippery con artist was his strongest role to date. Being inscrutable, you might conclude, is a particular strength.
In his stand-up prime, Izzard was so effervescently brilliant that he’d make you feel as if you’d do anything to borrow just a fragment of that intellect for a single minute. He had his live audiences in his pocket. How could screen-acting be more rewarding?
“Comedies are like desserts, really. They hit – boom! – and it’s great and people love that. It is much more like a sugary dessert or like a cokey, speedy drug and endorphins are released. But dramas are main meals. They take longer, they have all these different tastes going on, and it moves you from one place to another.” He burrows further into the analogy. It starts to sound like one of his routines. The disheartening thing for Izzard’s comedy fans (and there are a lot of them — he sold out nearly 50 gigs this year) is that he never really wanted to be a comedian.
“I wanted to act when I was seven. I mean, I loved comedy on telly. I thought people were really funny, but it wasn’t what I was planning. Then at 12, I made someone laugh and then I discovered Python, and thought, ‘Oh, you can do that yourself.’ And then I got the gigs.” As Izzard points out, though, realising his acting dream hasn’t exactly been a doddle. He’s been plugging at it for 17 years.
“I had to fight for the roles. And some people will sniff and go, ‘Well, no, you do comedy. You’re not allowed to do this.’ Well f— ’em, you know. This is what I was born to do. It’s never moved.” But it’s hard to believe Eddie Izzard entirely, because his stated goals do move. Next – as widely trailed by the man himself — is a career in politics. “It’s dead set,” says the long-time Labour campaigner. “About 2020 is the plan, MEP or Mayor of London. I can’t shuffle off this mortal coil and not stand for an election. I could be rubbish when I get in there, but I’m very determined.” He cites Schwarzenegger and Reagan as examples of actors who have moved into politics, even though their ideology is so opposite to his; I counter that the British tend to like people who remain in their category. He comes back at me with Michael Cashman, MEP and former EastEnders star. I’m not sure if he’s joking. I don’t think he is.
The question for the marathon man, then, is how much is enough? Or perhaps: how can a man who is always striving ever be happy?
In acting terms, you could say he’s made it – a leading man, fronting not only Treasure Island but the BBC’s big Christmas family fable, Lost Christmas, about a man who wakes up in a snowy Manchester street not knowing who he is but blessed with the power to find lost things.
Izzard, however, doesn’t think he’s quite there yet.
“I’m just hacking my way up the dramatic mountain,” he says. He says he scrutinises his own performances, likes some scenes, winces at others, and concludes: “I’ll get there.” He won’t talk about his love life at all. Does he have many close friends?
“No, I don’t seem to have. There are a lot of people that I am friendly with but they aren’t people from childhood, you know, ‘Stevie I’ve known from the old days.’ I never had that. I kept moving, kept going to different schools.” Izzard’s childhood was peripatetic as he followed his father, an accountant who worked for BP, from job to job. He was born in Yemen, moved to Northern Ireland a year later and then to south Wales when he was five. His mother, Dorothy Ella, died of bowel cancer when he was six and he and his eight-year-old brother attended boarding schools from then on, in Wales and, later, in East Sussex.
Following his mother’s death, Izzard has said that he cried until the age of 11; today, his production company is called Ella Communications. He withdrew emotionally for most of his teens. Nor did he find that telling his peers he wanted to perform was the way to make friends.
“I found that with ordinary people, if you said, ‘I want to go and be an actor,’ there were a lot of them who said, ‘You can’t.’ I couldn’t talk to those people, I just couldn’t, because if you’re trying to hold on to this little fledgling idea of ‘maybe it can work, I can be an actor, performer, whatever it was’, and someone’s just going, ‘It just won’t happen mate,’ they crushed it so easily that I couldn’t talk to them.
“I always thought that would happen with friends: that they might go off and work in insurance, or be a civil engineer, and then I’m going to go and do all this weird stuff. So you’d hang out and talk with the people who did do this kind of crazy stuff because they’d find that normal.”
He obviously knew that he was different, and you feel that ever since he’s been trying to prove, in one way or another, that he’s also better. I suggest that this kind of endless striving is generally driven by fear. “There’s a fear, yeah: I’m always trying to be four steps ahead of my career disappearing.” Yet if he goes into politics, his career will disappear. An actor can at least be judged a success. Whereas all political lives, I remind him, end in failure.
Surprisingly, for a man who devours books, he doesn’t recognise the line.“Is that a quote?” He chews on it for a minute. “It is interesting, because if you go and try to do something positive, people are still going to hate you for doing it.” So why bother? Right now he sits somewhere between admired, feted and adored.
“Because I can’t leave it to the right wing. I cannot leave it to the right wing. And I think I’m good at finding the centre of an argument. I remember growing up and seeing people arguing and saying, ‘Hang on, you two are agreeing. You realise that? You’re just shouting. But you’re actually agreeing.’ I do think I can come up with new ways of doing things. I’ve done things differently right out of the box.”
Meanwhile, back in Puerto Rico, Izzard is indeed his own man. It’s not that he’s unpopular – Elijah Wood has said Izzard is the reason he signed up – but while several of the other actors put in some piratical stints on the sauce out in San Juan (the “rum-sodden” relic that Hunter S Thompson so detested), Izzard remains aloof.
Later, I ask him why. He says he was working too hard to join in the fun. “They might have had more energy to spare. I was never one to say, ‘Come on, let’s go and get slaughtered down the town’ every night. In a way it would be nice to do that, but I’ve never had it in me. I have other things in me: I have the 43 marathons.”
‘Treasure Island’ begins on Sky 1 HD, Sunday 1 January, at 7pm