Going the distance with Eddie Izzard

Eddie Izzard’s latest incarnation in what has been an eclectic career sees him take on the role of Queen Victoria’s son, writes Esther McCarthy

IF Eddie Izzard ever wanted a change from his successful comedy and acting careers, he could really kill it as a motivational speaker. 

We are talking about his extraordinary achievements as a marathon runner — 27 marathons in 27 days in South Africa last year, among others — when he turns to his passion for being fit and strong, and says it is something within all of us.

Admitting that he hated distance running and preferred football at school, he adds: “The long distance was an adventure, it was trying to reclaim the health that I had when I was a kid, that we can all reclaim. I’ve noticed that all wild animals, every single one, is fit.

“They’re designed that way, and we’re designed that way, but we did the civilisation thing, which has a number of good aspects to it, but also that we’ve become like domesticated animals, eat bad food, don’t move about enough, and that’s not good.

“If you don’t use it you lose it. The car that we don’t drive seizes up, the house we don’t live in gets wet. These bodies, we need to drive them.”

It’s a mantra of “working his arse off” that he has applied throughout his life, studying as an accountant before first dipping his toe into street performance as a young man.

“I’d sing: ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ on very bad blustery days, when people were kicking my props across the ground.”

Perseverance certainly paid off and Izzard, who is straight but identifies as transgender (he has said in the past that he’s a lesbian trapped in a man’s body) says that that process helped hone his love for a challenge: “Bizarrely the transgender thing, coming out 32 years ago, that was the key training ground, really.”

There’s a line in his new memoir, Believe Me, when a commentator unjustifiably asks: Why does he want to be a so-so actor when he can be a brilliant comedian?

“I said: It’s because I used to be a so-so comedian. I know there’s a so-so period I go through. I was even a so-so transgender person who was walking about the streets, coming out 32 years ago, and people saying: ‘God you look a mess’.

“A lot of people will back off and go: ‘I’ll not do that’ but I will just keep going. If I want to do it I’ll keep going until I get it better.

“I have found that any talent within me I have had to pull out of me, probably like a lot of us human beings. I have to go and hit the wall a few times and then go: ‘This goes there’.” His self-awareness, candour and warmth are refreshing, but then it is Izzard’s very openness which has helped make him one of the world’s best-loved stand-ups.

Yet he always had a passion for acting. He says he had a hankering for dramatic roles since the age of seven, long before comedy was on his radar.

His credits include Valkyrie and TV’s Hannibal and Treasure Island, and there have been several theatre roles. Has comedy, for all the success it has brought him, sometimes proved a barrier?

“Well this is the point. You may not know that I suppressed my (comedy) career. It was rising up and I could feel it going very fast and I slowed it right down. There’s no sketch
comedy show with me in it. There’s no sit-com with me in it.

"I was trying to do a ‘Monty Python’ career, then I realised I could double down, which I think is a blackjack thing, and in 1993, I went around agents in London and said: ‘I want to do just dramatic roles’.

“My early work is not good because I did an interesting experiment, I switched off all my comedy muscles, my instincts. I knew I had to be still, I had to be there. I couldn’t rely on my dramatic training, because I didn’t have any.

“It was experimental, it had to be, but now I know how I can drive it on the stage, on the screen.”

He acquits himself well in Victoria & Abdul as Bertie (Edward VII), the scheming, wayward son of Queen Victoria, who is aghast at her close relationship with Abdul Karim, her Indian attendant.

Their friendship rocked royal convention and caused much friction in the royal household, leading to pressures on the ageing queen. She’s played by Judi Dench, a good friend of Izzard’s in real life.

“He did have sex with a lot of people all around Europe when he was married and was supposed to be a family man. He was brought up badly, so no wonder he was off the rails by the time he was 20,” he says of Edward.

“In this case he just wants Abdul Karim to get out of the way. His mother’s dying, he’s going to be king very soon, and this guy gives her an extra 10 years of life, I think.

“When you look at Victoria you see, I’m going to use the word, a ‘dumpy’ lady. She was not having a good time. Judy is in touch with the teenage girl inside of her and she can bring that to the story, which illuminates it. She can bring a vibrancy to someone like Victoria, who’s a real person. She looks more identifiable as Victoria than Victoria does.”

The role offered him the opportunity to work with director Stephen Frears.

Izzard says Frears would say of Dench: “She turns up and I let her go.”

For his part, the 55-year-old is relishing his latest challenge, to secure more dramatic roles.

“The casting director threw me in to the mix and hopefully I’ve got to this place…I’m working my way up, hacking my way up the mountain of drama from the bottom, and from the roles I’ve done, I think he (Frears) saw that.”

Izzard, who has himself experienced abuse over the years, is heartened to see positive changes in the acceptance of LGBT people, not least in the passing of Ireland’s marriage referendum.

“It is amazing. I still get it. I just recently took a guy with the Crown Prosecution Service, in a very nice way, to court. I found it not easy going to court, but we do move forward.

“This negativity towards alternative sexuality has been going on not for 100, 200, 500, not for a thousand years, but for about 10,000 years or back to the beginning of time.

“We are making some progress and that’s quite fantastic. Even in a Trump/Brexit world I don’t think that is rolling back.”

  • Victoria & Abdul opens in cinemas on September 15



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