Eddie Izzard interview: Victoria And Abdul, acting, Robin Williams and more

Eddie Izzard on his acting career, Victoria & Abdul, Clint Eastwood, Robin Williams, directing films and more...

Eddie Izzard is back on the big screen this weekend in Victoria & Abdul. It’s the new film from director Stephen Frears, a sort-of follow-up to Mrs Brown that sees Dame Judi Dench playing Queen Victoria in a story that’s recently been discovered about her later life. We got a chance to chat with Eddie Izzard about his role in the movie, and potentially directing…

Could you clear something up for me, as I swear I heard a hint of it in the film – did you give Bertie a slight German accent?

Maybe mentally. He did have a tapped ‘r’, because his first years there was German in it, but it was only the hint of it, I didn’t overtly push it.

I was watching your interview this morning on This Morning, and I know you mentioned that you sort of ‘channel’ the character…

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Well, if I’m getting it right, I feel that I should be able to come off script and improvise, even though that’s not actually going to happen. I feel at least I’m moving around, I go and eat, and have lunch and you say [falling into Bertie] ‘yes, I want one of these’, and you just walk round and you talk to people in a way where you stay in the character.

It helps you to be able to… when I was doing The Riches, I’d stay in the American accent the entire time, and in fact I got a ticket for jaywalking, and I realised it was my passing out ceremony, because I went up to the guy and I said [in an American accent] ‘was that jaywalking, I didn’t realise’. So I was talking to the policeman, and he says, ‘you got any ID’, and I was giving him my California license, and then I thought, ‘actually, I’m British’, I should just go, [in a very plummy accent] “I’m so sorry this happened, this will be a lot of paperwork, I suppose, because I’m British”.

I should have done that, and brought out the other license, and I blew it because I was too American.

Presumably there’s a lot of preparatory work that goes into building your characters.

Yes, there’s a deal. I’ve never measured it, say, this role is that, you just do what you feel you need to to get in. Also, sometimes coming into a role there might be a different length of time to prepare, but the more you can – I have noticed a reluctance in earlier years to know exactly where to start with research. Maybe it’s a laziness or lack of confidence about which way to go into it.

The obvious thing that came into my head, or that I realised, was the better you researched it – the better you are into the character before you land on the set, the easier it’s going to be. You’re just going to be fully formed, I mean, obviously Daniel Day-Lewis does this to a huge extent, and that’s what I want to do, that’s the direction I want to head to, so that when I’m there, getting to the set, I know where I am, rather than a week into it, getting the hang of it

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You don’t strike me as a man who lacks confidence. Ever.

Depends what it’s in. I do understand confidence, I could be a student of confidence – I like being a student of things, just if you study it you work out the parameters and how things work. So general confidence, yes, I’m very high on that, but if you go to a new area, the confidence goes back to the bottom of the mountain, and that’s the thing you need to understand.

I think some people might get to the top of a comedy mountain and say ‘I’ll go and do drama now’, and feel that they can walk across, because profile-wise some studio head might say, ‘yeah, you can come and be the head of this smaller, dramatic movie, and then go back and do your hundred-million dollar-earning comedy film, but if you just walk straight across to the top you haven’t developed it and worked it out. You think your confidence may be high dramatically, but you won’t have any sensibility of it.

There’s a thing called the Fog of War, and the Fog of War seems to apply – in wartime it applies, you can apply it all the time – I don’t know whether you’ve heard that term before?

Fog of War?


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Not, specifically regarding this.

No, but at all, you’ve heard it at all?

I’m familiar with the term in general.

It’s because, in wartime, you could never tell where the frontline is what’s going on, it’s always kind of hazy, and the other side are trying to misdirect you left, right and centre. So that continues. Whereas the Fog of… the Fog of Learning, let’s say, applies to any new area you come into, which gradually gets less and less until you can see the wood for the trees.

And now, dramatically, after twenty-four years, I’ve taken a long time to get anywhere, I feel that I can really feel what is important. After a while you think, you don’t need to worry about that, get that sorted out. You get scared at the beginning of film acting, because ‘lock it up, OK, camera’s rolling’, huge camera next to your face, people measuring things, doing things, turning things, the focus puller. And I can’t even see it now.

It’s interesting, I was shooting on Hannibal in the middle of Canada, and they decided to do a very high, diagonal shot, diagonally down onto me. And because I was not used to a shot coming from above my right eye, I could see them all, and feel them all. I was hypersensitive to it. I had to say to the focus puller, ‘if you could possibly be as still as you can, because for some reason it’s completely getting into my peripheral view, and I could feel it, whereas I couldn’t feel the people around me on the horizontal plane.

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That’s fascinating. So you lose awareness…

Yes, you can train it away. And if I had lots and lots of people doing high diagonal shots, I would gradually phase that out. You learn what to phase out.

Like if you’re driving in a car, you drive along, you will not see everyone on the left hand side, right hand side, because they’re not about to fall into the front of your car, but if you watch yourself going up to a junction, and I’ve started studying myself doing this – actually once you’ve been driving for a while, you’re watching out for idiots, same way for bicycles, you’re looking out for idiots, that’s the main thing you’re doing. You’re probably not going to hit something, but an idiot may run out in front of you. So when you come up to a junction, watch what you do. Your brain sometimes – a car threatens to pull out and you think ‘if he puts his foot on the accelerator now because he hasn’t seen me, then I am gone, so be ready to swerve, be ready to swerve, be ready to swerve. No, he’s OK, it’s not an idiot, it’s a human being’, and you go on. That’s what I found that I did, which I think everyone does.

I’m going to be hyper-aware driving home now.

But it’s an interesting thing what we do, and once I get to a level of acting where I’m seeing Judi, I’m seeing Michael Gambon, Tim Pigott-Smith on the set, and I’m just interacting with the essence of their character they’re bringing to it, and all five backing into each other with the attitudes of their characters, and the rest drops away.

That’s something really interesting. I never really considered that before. At some point, presumably, those people cease to be themselves, as far as you’re concerned. How quickly does that happen? Dame Judi Dench, in particular, because I know you have a prior friendship with her, how quickly does she cease to be your mate, and become Queen Victoria?

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Once the film is up and running, instantaneously. Like a light switch, like switching a light on and off, boom, it’s gone. At the beginning of the first day of filming, you’re still not seeing your friend, the person you know, or the person you’ve just met. You’re still not seeing them. You’re trying – have you ever had a train set? You have to put the train onto the tracks, you have to make sure it’s on the tracks, that’s what you’re trying to do with your character, just get them on the track so they can roll. That’s what you’re trying to do at the beginning, which doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re hugely aware of how everyone else is interacting with you, because you’re just trying to make sure you’re on the tracks. And once that’s in, they’ve probably got themselves on the tracks.

I’m at a level now where they’re all really good professionals, so they just relax into it, they’re bringing that to the game, and you’re seeing Sir Henry Ponsonby, Tim Pigott-Smith playing Sir Henry, and I’m just going to fire into him. He’s not going to fire anything into me, no one says ‘boo’ to me, except mum, and I’m the only one that can tell mum to fuck off.

It’s interesting that relationship you have in the film with Dame Judi, in fact the whole character is interesting, because Bertie is a very different human being from Eddie, from what I’ve read about you, your relationships with other people, your comfort in your own femininity. How do you turn off the bits of you?

I don’t, see the distance that I have to go, say if I’m transgender, or know how to run or whatever, or do comedy, and bring that to the table, is not really much more than anyone else who doesn’t do those things. They could do other things, they could learn to fly a plane, they could love hop scotch, I don’t know what it is. You’ve got to switch all of those bits off that you don’t want, and we can train ourselves to do that. Like if you learn how to ride a bicycle and you get in a car, you don’t say ‘make sure that you’re not thinking that you’re riding a bicycle’. We can train ourselves to do this. Initially it’s a bit plucky and all over the place, but after a while you just get the hang of it. Hopefully after a short while. So it’s not that, I didn’t find it that tricky.

It’s interesting to me, when I came into dramatic acting twenty-four years ago, which was what I wanted to do when I was a kid, but when I got an agent and said, ‘I want to just go for dramatic roles’, I did actively switch off all my comedy muscles. I actively turned them down to zero, and that, I think, is unusual. I don’t think anyone would analyse it that much to realise that they should do that. But in doing that I switched off all instinct, so my early work is not good, because if you watch – and I think it would be interesting, I’d quite like to take people through, acting students maybe, my early work, my not good work, where I go, ‘this is me being bad, and why am I being bad? Because I’m not doing anything, I’ve just switched everything off.’ But I had to switch everything off, because I would have had comedy muscles bleeding into my dramatic instinct. The bottom line of drama is to be truthful, the bottom line of comedy is to be funny, and they are different.

Which performance do you think was the turnaround?

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I learned, there’s a film called Circus, I was offered this rather flash character. It was a great script, which I don’t think we landed, I don’t think it was handled right, and came out not as good as it went in. David Logan wrote it. Everyone was lying to each other, there was so much lying going on, I loved it. My character had four scenes, one of which was cut out, and of the three scenes, I filmed one of them, and that was bad, I did a bad job of that. I did the second scene, which I was OK in, I think, and I went back and they did an assembly, and they showed the assembly to cast and crew, I saw my first scene and I thought, ‘I don’t believe me, I’m not doing anything, I’m not committed to anything, there’s no attitude, I’m not driving anywhere, I’d better get it right’.

So the third scene I did, which I think comes out – might have come out second or first, it might be the first scene that you see – that’s where I learned how to act. That’s where I began to turn. And after that, The Riches really helped me, because it was 45 minutes of drama shot every seven days, that’s an incredible speed, so you’ve just got to get on the rails and do it, and in the end, for most things, the more we do something, the better we get at it. So I just had to keep going back when some reviewers, logically, I haven’t read them all, but I assume they would have been – I think I read some of them – going ‘this is not so good’. I do know somebody said “Why is he trying to be a so-so actor when he’s a brilliant comedian?” That was an interesting quote, and the answer is because I used to be a so-so comedian.

I’m so-so at everything that I start, most people are, but if you have enough stamina, you can get to be OK, and you go ‘ah, that’s OK’, and then you go, ‘ah, quite good’, and then ‘good’, and now I’m happy with what I did as Bertie, I’m happy with what I bought to the table.

You’ve spoken about the Hollywood TV series process. Are there significant differences for you, going from the Hollywood process, with big trailers, big everything, lots and lots of human beings around, to what I would imagine would be a significantly smaller scale, British independent movie, without all that fluff and periphery stuff?

You mean the American TV series being compared to Victoria & Abdul? Victoria & Abdul was higher budget. There’s Judi Dench in it.

And the TV series, there’s a lot of low-budget movies done in America. We were doing 45 minutes of drama shot in seven days. That’s not, that means that’s a full hour-and-a-half movie shot in two weeks. That’s kind of rare. So our budgets, we had trailers, I, as a co-lead in that, had a full-sized trailer, but not a massive trailer, so there was a certain budget, but it was not… if you compare, they’re not that different. It’s just big-budget movies over here, Ridley Scott will make British movies with a big budget. I’ve got used to bigger budgets and smaller budgets, the roles as well, I’ve done big roles in smaller films, small roles in bigger films, I now need to get up to big roles in bigger films.

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That’s definitely where you’re working towards?

Oh yes. Think about it, who would go ‘I’d rather get to the middle of the mountain, do some quite good roles, and then I’ll just die’.

Does this mean then, that your business card is now ‘Eddie Izzard, Actor’, rather than ‘Eddie Izzard, Comedian’?

I think actor slash comedian. I’m up for the Slashie award. Actor/comedian. I know the press resolutely says comedian and just dropped the actor off for the last twenty-four years. And one Tony nomination, and I think now if you track my most recent works, it’s getting interesting, otherwise Stephen Frears wouldn’t have put me in this movie.

Very true, I suppose. It’s interesting, in previous interviews you’ve mentioned the thrill of working with Robin Williams, it strikes me that you’ve kind of followed his career trajectory, somewhat.

I think he got his trajectory going much quicker than I did. It’s very tragic what happened to him, and where he – how it tracks as a career – but yeah, he got two? Three? Was it four nominations? I think three nominations, and one supporting actor Oscar. So yes, that’s a place I would like to get to.

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I knew Robin, and I felt a kinship with him, but for some reason, my journey – I’m not tracking his career, I’m not actually trying to emulate him. I’m not saying, ‘What did Robin do?’ Because I do say that to people, if you see someone, and you like they’re stuff, and want their career, see what they did to get that career. But for some reason I don’t do that with Robin.

Who do you do it with?

I don’t know if I do it with anyone, but I do… Okay, well Clint Eastwood. That is, you’re either Judi Dench who has this – she’s in charge of, in control of the teenage girl inside of her, she can bring to a movie. She can play darkness or lightness, wherever she wants to go, and she’s going to get these roles. And Judi is in her 80s, early 80s, so it’s brilliant she can do that, but there’s got to be very few people who are tracking that, doing lead roles at that place.

Clint Eastwood is the perfect place to be, I think he’s backed off a little now – has he hit ninety? Or is he late 80s? But he obviously could go, for the last few decades, ‘that’s a good role, I’d like to play that. I’ll direct it, now who should I get…’ so you make that all happen. So there’s an interesting place that I need to get to, I need to head in that direction. That’s why I’m writing my own movies now.

Will you be directing as well?

Not the first one, maybe the second, but yes, I think I have to. I think that’s what I have to do. I did direct a couple at university, and I didn’t like what I did, but I think I have to play the part and do some – I need to get a review that says, ‘why is he trying to be a so-so director when he’s a brilliant actor?’ I need to do that one. I need to get to that place. I think I’ll probably fall on my face a few times, but with Play Misty For Me, he did that, and people said, ‘What is he doing?’, but if you track it going along, and then there’s Bird, and Bird’s sort of his arrival, and then there’s White Hunter, Black Heart.

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It’s a wonderful film, very much disliked when it came out, and they got it wrong. Over the years, they’ve gone, ‘no, this is good’. He’s doing an accent, the only time he ever did an accent, he’s playing John Huston, it’s all about the making of African Queen. It’s a really interesting film. But everyone was expecting – it’s sold, on the packaging, it’s got Clint Eastwood with a gun, so the marketing guy was saying ‘it’s a killer movie, he shoots’, but actually it’s just a very good story. It’s about him trying to kill, he wants to a hunt an elephant, while he’s trying to make African Queen, and it gets in the way. But it’s a marvellous story, I just watched it again.

Eddie Izzard, thank you very much.

Victoria And Abdul is in UK cinemas from Friday.