I wrote this story for the Sunday Times to coincide with the cinema release of Rock Dog, in which Eddie Izzard voices the character of Angus Scattergood.
It was right around this time last year that Eddie Izzard set about doing the hardest thing he’s ever done in his life. For someone who’s life has been filled with hard things – dealing with the loss of his mother to cancer when he was 5 years old, coming out as a transvestite in his 20s, living with dyslexia – it was always going to be a feat among feats. But, when Izzard completed 27 marathons in 27 days in March 2016, to honour the spirit of Nelson Mandela, he’d raised over a million pounds for Sport Relief and capped off a second attempt to cover more than 700 gruelling miles across Madiba’s South Africa.
Lending his talent, then, to an animated film is perhaps one of the easier things Izzard’s done in recent times, but it doesn’t mean the Emmy-winning comedian and actor has let up the pace of his life. He’s currently in the middle of a marathon of a different kind – his most extensive comedy tour ever, Force Majeure, which began in 2013, seeing him perform from Cardiff to Cape Town and Moscow to Montreal, covering 30 countries across Europe, Africa, the US, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, and now Nepal and the Far East. When we speak over the phone, it’s the day of his 55th birthday, and he’s making his way from Spain to India.
Although he doesn’t voice the lead character in Rock Dog – in which a feisty young pup leaves his village in the mountains of Tibet to become a musician – Izzard knows all about chasing dreams, which is at the heart of the story, based on a Chinese graphic novel. In Rock Dog, he voices a cool cat named Angus Scattergood, a washed-up rockstar he says he relished playing around with. But going from a street performer to one of the world’s most well-loved comedians means Izzard himself is more in line with the dogged determination of the lead character, Bodi voiced by Luke Wilson.
“My autobiography is coming out in June and that covers a lot about how early on I knew this was what I wanted to do,” he says. “At age 7, I knew I wanted to act, but I didn’t know if it would work.” Having parents who weren’t in the field at all, Izzard says he had no idea it would be a viable path to follow in life. “It’s not like growing up in a family where your parents were actors and so they gave credibility to the idea, or having it be a genetic thing, or whatever, I didn’t have that. My dad wasn’t creative and my mum was in nursing, and they had their own adventure to get to where they did. So I do believe some of it is built in, and if you’re motivated, you’ll be determined. If you’re not motivated, you won’t be determined. It’s feast or famine – or at least it is with me.”
Born in Aden, a British colony in South Yemen, to father who’d been working as an accountant for British Petroleum, and a mother who was a midwife, Izzard became used to travelling around a lot from a young age, and figuring out how to pursue his acting dreams along the way, going on to fill his life with theatre work, and a rich life off-stage too. Building upon roles in films like Ocean’s Twelve and Valkyrie, he recently appeared opposite South African actor Sharlto Copley in the Playstation series Powers, and will be seen in the forthcoming Stephen Frears film Victoria and Abbul. It’s natural to wonder how he fits it all in around his stand-up globe criss-crossing.
“Oh, but it’s the other way around, you see,” he says. “I make time for the drama – the film and TV work. That is more important to me because that is what I first wanted to do, and I didn’t realize you could separate them. My drama work started much later than my comedy so I still have a lot of catching up to do.”
Izzard feels he’s only just started making strides into this part of his career. “I want lead roles in big meaty dramas with great directors,” he says, with a smile you can hear beaming through the telephone line. He’s also just finished co-writing a script he’s been working on with his friend, Kevin Jones, for a film of his own. “I’d say it took my whole life to write because it’s an idea I’ve had for ages. I didn’t quite believe in my ability as a scriptwriter, so I needed someone to tell me I was on the right track, and believe in me too.”
For someone who’s been tested beyond any ordinary setting in running marathon after marathon for 27 days in a row, surely he’d be convinced of his capabilities by now? He laughs a little before explaining how he views his accomplishment – and what it means – in hindsight.
“There are hard things in the world and they don’t get easier. But just to think about how Madiba stayed with it – the cause that he was fighting for – even without being absolutely sure it would work out, is something that really left an impression on me…I’m going into politics in 4 years’ time, and I have Madiba and Abraham Lincoln as my guiding lights.”
Izzard has made his political inclinations well known – having been outspoken against Brexit or “Brexhate” as he calls it. He hasn’t let losing his bid for a spot on the Labour Party’s executive committee last year deter him, and still aims to run for London Mayor in 2020, buoyed by all he’s learnt about Mandela’s life. “He was a very thoughtful person – not a saint, but an incredible man. That he only wanted to do one term of office, and wanted to be alive to see someone else rule as president, and that he left prison without resentment – these are incredible feats. The fact that he learned Afrikaans. I’m on my 4th language for this stand-up tour that I’m doing, and it’s not easy at all.”
As part of Izzard’s latest comedy tour, he’s been learning languages of the countries he’s performing in along the way. As much as he wanted to pick up one of South Africa’s 11 official languages, that hasn’t been practical, he admits. But his attachment to the country remains beyond the marathons he achieved last year. “Mandela fought through. When the Apartheid government was in its final days, negotiating with him, when he didn’t know what the other guys were being told and what was going to happen, he fought through. To do good and positive things.” Izzard has been keeping that thought fore in his mind.
And to those good and positive things with flair. “I ran through Africa with painted nails!” he says. “I hope in the future Africa will chill the hell out about LBGT people. And remember that a transgendered guy ran through South Africa. I challenge anyone – LGBT or not – to do it. I know Uganda is the problem, but we have to stay on top of this. Now more than ever.”
Keeping his political streak alive while feeding his acting career seems to be the course Izzard is on for now, even if it means taking on another hard feat. “Running a marathon is clear,” he says. “You run, you push through to inspire, to raise money and awareness. it’s quite clear. But with politics, it’s two steps forward, and then you’re going back to Thatcher and Regan eras – where they were helping Apartheid and not working to end it.” Looking at the current situation in the US and the UK, he feels disappointed. “We’ve either gone back to the ‘80s or the ‘30s,” he says. “We do this as human beings. We keep making decisions emotionally.” But he keeps the lesson he picked up from conquering 700 miles in one go, simple as it is, in his mind always. “We’ve got to keep pushing forward. That’s all we can do.”
While Donald J Trump was being inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States of America, the South African film The Wound was making its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah – the first of its multiple screenings at the world’s most popular independent film showcase and springboard for future Oscar nominees. That it played during the time Trump was officially sworn in doesn’t seem to have apparent significance, but the ethos behind making The Wound is the kind that’ll become more necessary in an era of a leader who touts discriminatory rhetoric that reverberates across the world.
Among critics at Sundance, The Wound has been lauded for being a brave film in its depiction of homosexuality within the secretive Xhosa imitation ritual of ulwaluko. Made by director John Trengove, the film is the first feature-length film for the commercials professional, after he directed a short based on the subject called The Goat. The film explores the clash between culture and modernity in the story of a gay boy being sent to take part in the traditional rite of passage for African men.
Trengove, who travelled with the film to Sundance this past week, along with the film’s star Nakhane Toure, says it’s a great validation to have the film premiere at the festival, given the challenges he faced tackling the sensitive subject matter.
“I think mostly because of the kind of film we were making,” he says, sitting inside one of the many pop-ups on the festival’s busy Main Street. “It’s an uncompromising film, and many people thought we were crazy to make it. So to then bring it to a platform like this, it’s amazing,” he continues. “Making a film – any film – is a lot of hard work, endless nights and months of thinking its never going to happen, lots of blood, sweat and tears, so it’s exciting to be here.”
On a practical level, he acknowledges the exposure a major international film festival like Sundance provides for a South African film. “The scope for the film is much wider, and broader now,” he says. This, he says, plays into his aim for the movie, which was shot in the Eastern Cape – of wanting to change the way homosexual men are shown on the big screen in African cinema.
Trengove, a white male, admits he’s an outsider to the world shown in his movie, but he says he committed himself to staying cognisant of that while navigating the complexities around the ritual. “It was very challenging, but also very rewarding because by stepping into this space, some phenomenal collaborations took place,” he says.
He’s referring to working with Thando Mgqolozana and Malusi Bengu, his co-scriptwriters, and the cast of Toure, the SAMA-winning singer in his first acting role, theatre star Bongile Mantsai and youngster Niza Jay Ncoyini. Trengove says each had their own reason for wanting to be part of the film, fully aware it would stroke ire and contention among many South Africans – even before they watch the film.
“It can’t be under-estimated what a big decision that was,” says Trengove. “Each has their own particular reason for doing this. I am very protective and will defend their decisions with my life.” For Toure, who says he’s already experienced some backlash on social media for being in a film that lifts the veil off a cloaked tradition, it was the authenticity of the story that compelled him to sign on for his first acting role. “What I found poignant is that the story isn’t as alien as people would like to pretend it is. That’s really the trigger here – the sore-point for people.”
His reason goes deeper still. “Because some of these things that happened in the movie happen to me when I went up the mountain,” says Toure, who was born in Alice in the Eastern Cape.“When word got out that I might be homosexual, I found I was suddenly being solicited. So, it’s not from a film, or a fictional or academic point of view that I know this, it’s a personal one. It happened to me and it happened to others.”
Toure, who’s trip to Park City, Utah, was his first ever to the US, says Trengove initially approached him to do the music for the movie. “I went to him with all these ideas – talking about Bjork’s Medulla album, and the way she works with voice, and how I planned to do something like that too.” When Trengove suggested he audition, he did. The involvement of Mgqolozana and Bengu were central to his reasons too. “They had huge impact on the authenticity of the story – how the characters and the culture are depicted,” he says.
As for Trengove not being Xhosa himself, Toure says he didn’t feel that was an issue. “I think he brings value because he’s a good director – full stop. John couldn’t have done any of this without any of us. 90 percent of the people who worked on the script where Xhosa and had experience with the ritual. That crosses a big box,” he says.
Sundance is the first stop for The Wound, and it’ll move on to make its European debut at the Berlin Film Festival next month, before likely doing more of the film festival circuit. But for Trengove, the film’s biggest achievement is still to come – playing to local audiences with a cinema release planned for the second half of this year.
“All the exposure and international recognition is really great,” he says. “But if I have a wish for this film it would be to start a conversation in South Africa, and perhaps, if at some point a gay Xhosa kid sees this and says that wasn’t my experience at all, but be inspired to write their own story, that’s potentially the most amazing thing that could come out of all this.”