The truth about Eddie Izzard? You better believe it

[from the London Evening Standard | thanks Beth]

Eddie Izzard does not do things half-heartedly. He made this clear in 2009 when he completed 43 marathons in 51 days for Sport Relief in spite of having no prior history of long distance running.

Not only was this a test of his physical ability but also demonstrated the strength of his will power. It is only natural, then, that this determination extends to his other achievements. Eddie the actor, the stand-up, the political campaigner; all have a common drive to do whatever it takes to be the best. This is what makes Eddie Izzard, born in Yemen and raised in Northern Ireland and South Wales, interesting. It is precisely why it makes sense to have created a documentary about him. It is also the reason I don’t quite know what to expect before meeting him.

When we are introduced he is not alone. Former girlfriend Sarah Townsend, who has directed Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story is by his side. She is warm, confident and not at all in the shadow of her ex. In fact, on first impressions, Izzard seems like the more retiring of the two. We make our way to a meeting room in a Soho Square office block. It is when we sit down for a cup of tea that they unwind and begin to chat.

“I asked her to make it,” says Izzard referring to the story of his life.

But Townsend was reluctant at first. With a background in theatre, comedy and music, film would be a new venture.

Townsend and Izzard first met in Edinburgh. She was running the GreyFriars Kirk House, an ex-soup kitchen which she turned into a venue for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Izzard approached her for a booking in the venue. She saw what many others did not at that time and put him on the bill. This became the first solo stand up show for which he received his prestigious Perrier Award nomination.

From her success at Edinburgh, Townsend became more involved in the UK comedy scene. She opened a comedy club in south London and then ran the Soho comedy club Raging Bull, where Eddie Izzard was the regular host for several years. Following Raging Bull, Townsend set up The Halyon Club, in Soho in early 2000. With support from local jazz musicians, The Halyon became a music, art and film club which held regular events for both up-and-coming and established artists.

“We were at The Halyon Club just when digital movies were starting to take off and I wanted to start making movies. There was a big crossover between theatre people who were starting to make films and Eddie said ‘you should direct one of my specials.’ I said I couldn’t do a multi camera shoot from zero. Maybe I could work my way up from DVD extras but I thought it was completely beyond me. Six months later I started to think it was a great idea. So I decided to do a tiny documentary and build it up from there.”

For Izzard, this was a chance to give the public an insight into his personality. The man we see oozing confidence on stage for live performances or playing quirky parts in movie blockbusters worries how people perceive him.

“I thought a documentary would be interesting because people do have a preconception of me,” he says.

“I felt I had been pigeon-holed and the truth was a lot more interesting. Sometimes you see people on chat shows and dislike them beforehand but you hear them talk and think they are all right. That happened a lot with me and it must happen with everyone else so the documentary was a way to overcome that.”

He gave Townsend permission to “dig around,” implying a great deal of trust. I suggest that the documentary is successful because of how well the pair know and are loyal to each other.

“I think that is a fair comment,” says Townsend.

“The biggest battle was to try and make him accessible to people. He can talk a great deal, do fantastic interviews and is a wonderful improviser. That is great but when it comes to a documentary and something that has to sustain itself over a much longer dramatic art than TV, he doesn’t provide endless tantrums and things that you can follow. Nor is there much revelation so it is hard to go deeper.”

Indeed. For all his on stage flamboyance, off stage Izzard seems calm and collected. Watching Townsend talk, he is remarkably passive and it is hard to imagine that this is the same man who can entertain a room of thousands with just his words and a dazzling outfit.

“I have a compressed emotional state,” he admits.

“There is a firewall that Sarah didn’t get behind for ages.”

Townsend agrees. “But it was necessary to get to that point otherwise you don’t get any self-exploration or result. It’s odd to be talking about an emotional thing with the subject in the room but I certainly think that in the years of filming and following Eddie around we often did feel like we were searching for something that really wasn’t there.

“Terry Gilliam’s documentary Lost in La Mancha, for example, was an unbelievable tale of disaster. Terrible for poor old Terry but fantastic for the filmmakers because they happen to be around and capture something like that.

“With Eddie, it was a huge struggle to find a story. What we ended up with is a collection of different edits: a very personal one but really only for fans, one that was a treasure hunt that showed no matter how far you go your past will catch up with you. Like when at a gig in Scandavia someone turned up and said I knew your father.

Eddie interrupts: “That was weird. That was the daughter of a family that we had spent the holidays with in 1965.”

But Sarah is animated and wants to finish her explanation: “It was then a matter of making stories piece together. It told a tale that was more than just Eddie. In the end I think the greatest story was endless failure can be interesting so I ramped up that aspect of it. At this time people think if they are not instantly successful they are unlucky. Actually it is about hard work.”

And Believe shows just how hard Izzard has worked. It is a frank account of his desperate struggle to be liked as a comedian and the long road to finding his niche. As a critic from the New York times put it: “The guy’s persistence alone will make you an admirer if you’re not already one.”

Izzard says: “Hopefully it could resonate with people round the world who are struggling to get anything going. They should think they could do that.”

But it took Townsend a while to get the right balance between failure and the glory of success.

“People were originally so resistant to a story that showed the ups and downs but I felt that it was important. People told me that endless failure was boring so I tried to keep it amusing. Eddie gets nominated for an award, for example, and things are looking up but then he can’t go and collect it because he is stuck up a mountain filming one of the worst movies of all time.

“Documentaries can be quite uninteresting unless you are a fan but I think the story of not giving up from anyone’s perspective has universal appeal.”

Russell Brand certainly got the message, concluding: “Believe is a lesson in how to achieve your dreams with nothing but sheer hard work.”

But the inspiration for the title Believe is often mistaken as being inspired by Izzard. It is another of the personalities that feature in the documentary that deserves the credit – Covent Garden street performer Captain Keano.

“Paul Keane plays Captain Keano,” explains Townsend. “I had met him years before I filmed in Covent Garden and he was amazing.”

His act is to untangle himself from chains and he claims to achieve the seemingly impossible through belief.

“For someone that was so aggressive and intimidating to give a piece of advice that was so life-changing surprised me. In the moment of most fear you learn your greatest lesson.

“Paul Keane hasn’t come to any of the premieres. I think he has gone all shy but he has the pivotal role in the whole thing.”

A former street performer, Izzard still has ties with Covent Garden’s community: “I go down there and hang out. I met Mark who is head of the Street Performer’s Association (SPA) and I told him I set the whole thing up. They were going to get rid of us in the Piazza so I arranged a petition for the public to sign because I knew they liked it. Then there were negotiations and it all calmed down but to come back 10 years later and see the SPA still exists is amazing. Mark is really organised. He has storage areas and all sorts.”

Townsend adds: “The street performing thing is an entire world in itself. I would love to have done a whole piece on that. Seeing all these different, interesting and intelligent personalities fighting their way through created an extraordinary vibe that has never been tapped into.”

This has clearly ignited a passion in Townsend and may be the subject of her next documentary.

After being nominated for an Emmy award for Outstanding Nonfiction Special, for Believe and having ‘great support’ from cinema chain Cineworld, which saw the documentary go out to 50 cinemas in the UK and one in Dublin, this is surely enough motivation to continue pursuing her filmmaking career.

But does Izzard still have the same sense of determination to achieve? “I think even more so,” he assures me and compares his victory to that of a battle.

“I think Sun Tzu’s The Art of War said if the troops have been out a long time they need to get a little victory. Washington did this when he was in the American Revolutionary War. He kept losing the battles against the British. At Christmas time he crossed the Delaware River and won.

“Initially it was a little hellish because I thought success was never going to happen. Once you get a little victory you want to build on it. Then you get the bit between the two. It is a lot easier now because I have seen things not work but then I have also had success. I have a ten year stamina that will keep me going even if other stuff goes wrong in the future.”

It is at this point in the interview that I begin to see the Izzard we are acquainted with in Believe. He is fired-up and talks with such passion:

“There is everything out there. If you have had to think sideways and out of the box there is always something. I don’t have a television show so I don’t have to stay locked into an idea that a commissioning editor has given me.

“I am thinking laterally so I am going to do gigs in French next year. The first time was so miserable but now I am going to go back to do it and get it right for three months. The English promoter over there used to say ‘there are 200,000 English speakers in Paris’ and I said ‘Yes, but there are 60 million French speakers in France.’

“I am doing Treasure Island, playing Long John Silver and also want to develop another drama series. I just keep trying to do decent stuff that has some impact and is useful.

Townsend laughs: “There is also space travel, there is the presidency….”

I suggest there will be a Believe 2.

“Yes,” says Izzard. “Maybe Believe 2: You Better Believe It.”

Written by Momo in: Interview |

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