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.”