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.”
It’s my New York-a-versary!
Six years ago, I moved here from South Africa, to live a life based out of the Big Apple – just as I’d once dreamed of doing.
As a journalist, I came to New York on the hope and the dream of interviewing Meryl Streep over lunch (at some divine restaurant in the West Village, or you know, anywhere). Of course, I knew it would be hard. I knew I would be giving up so many safety nets – a regular salary, my trusted hair-dresser, my gym membership (Melrose Arch Virgin Active had become a second home to me), an entire industry I’d worked long and hard to become a part of, dear friends, and Greek-style family lunches.
But I knew I had to do it. That fire was burning inside and I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I came looking for adventure and to broaden the proverbial horizons of my career as an entertainment journalist. I came looking for interviews with actors and musicians I admired, for stories about South Africans beyond Charlize and Elon achieving wonderful heights, for opportunities to see concerts, take in museums and Broadway shows and be exposed to more cinema than I ever had been before.
A year and a half into my time here I found something I was not looking for. Not at all.
Begins with ‘r’, and ends with ‘unning.’
I’ve spoken about this before, in a recent episode of The Rundown, and a couple of posts before, but thanks to the New York City Marathon and the inspiration (that still doesn’t feel like the right word) from a South African NY Times photojournalist who took part in the marathon a year after he lost both his legs in Afghanistan, I started running. Properly. Outside. Longer than the usual 20-minutes on a treadmill I’d done before.
Like many of the friends I’ve made since becoming a “runner” I realised we all have our story of how we came to running. Or how it came to us. Which is funny, because it’s something we were innately born to do, but often the joy gets knocked out of it, after being dished out as punishment one too many times. Or in my case, being tripped up and falling in a school race and being told I’m not good at it.
Crossing my first finish line was the opening chapter of my love affair with running. More than just a physical feat, I saw finishing the NYC Marathon as somewhat of a test. If I could get through it, I would be okay in NYC.
Because living here is not easy. Not easy at all.
With its high rents. And South Africa’s terrible exchange rate.
With its multitude of people. And very little space.
With its seven-girl-to-every-guy ratio.
With its many Choose Your Own Adventure options. Too many options, sometimes.
I engineered my life to be here. No one sent me here. No one secured me an apartment or helped me transfer my life here. I wanted this. But I couldn’t have foreseen the challenges life as a freelancer in a new city would bring with it. It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions, waking up excited yet daunted by what each new day brings with it.
Through it all – late-paid invoices, interviews with Oprah and Spielberg, unanswered emails taken too personally, broken relationships and solid ones, many slices of late-night $1 pizza, friends who’ve become family, one-night trips to LA and Miami, over-extended credit cards – running has become the rock, my anchor.
When most have a 9-5 to go to, I have 5-9 — miles, that is. I know that no matter where I am, or what is happening, I can run.
It keeps me on track when nothing else does or can. I’ve tried all I can to establish a routine, and then I go to London for a Captain America junket (I know, boo hoo) or a big US story breaks and I’m filing for News at 3am. But running is my routine.
I’ve tried to picture my life over the next five years. It’s hard to imagine most of the time, at the rapid rate journalism is changing, and I’m trying to figure out my space and place within it all. I’m not new to forging a different path for myself – I did it in South Africa – but being overseas and without the comforts of home make it a little more terrifying. Running is the vision for my future that I can’t yet see. I catch glimpses, however small they may be, of what could happen, and how.
In running, I scratch the surface of who I could become. It’s the hope I have for my life and for the lives of others around me. Running is the dream I never knew I could dream. It takes me beyond what I imagined for myself when my imagination doesn’t seem to want to work. Little 4’11 me qualify to run Boston? You betcha! What else?
And running is my reminder. It allows me to tap into the part of me I most recognize, that sometimes gets buried under piles of dresses I’be worn one too many times and crippling self-doubt. The part that is alive and full of excitement and enthusiasm for life.
It reminds me of little victories I’ve forgotten when I am my own worst critic, which is most of the time. When I forget what I am capable of, I run to remind myself: I’ve done it before, I can do it again. Every time I do something I think, truly think, I couldn’t do, it’s like my muscles send messages to my mind that I can go on, and farther.
I do it to outrun the thoughts – the negative thoughts that have thrived on uncertainty and internal questions over my abilities and skills that threaten to become the default setting in my life as a freelancer. I run to re-set my own heart beat, re-set my thoughts. I’ve gotten myself this far, with my legs and my heart – surely I can keep myself going. Because running is a clear sign when there are none for me to see.
It connects me to the Earth. It makes me remember I’m not alone. Truly. With each step I take, I make New York a little more like home, places become familiar, the faces too. Wherever my work takes me, I run. More often than not, carving out my own culturally-rooted route, knowing I am connected to footprints of those who have come before. Even as I travel and work alone.
On a run once, a friend told me running isn’t going to pat you on the back, and say, “good job, well done.” But the confidence it has given me to face the challenges of my life keeps me coming back for more. Even when it’s hard. Even though I struggle with it more than I don’t. Even though I am not a “traditional” runner and have been told I don’t look like a runner. (It’s my height, isn’t it? Too tall, I know, haha)
It seems so easy to remember, and yet, how easy to forget that breaking something down into the smallest of steps is the way to best get through it. And to best get through this life. Each time I make it through a run that’s particularly hard, I not only know this, but I feel it to be true.
I know the route I’ve chosen is hard. Since discovering my love of running, I’ve started to make peace with the fact that pain and challenges are a given. Testimony doesn’t come without the test, and all that. Struggle, however, I’m learning, I can choose to forego. Just like with running, in life, I’ve gotten a little better at expecting hardship to pop up along the way, so now I tell it to lace up, we’re heading out. And just like running, living in New York is an oh-so rewarding experience. Just like running, I’ve done and seen things here I never thought I would ever do. Like watch Lady Gaga play the closing down party of the iconic Roseland Ballroom. Like listen to Hugh Jackman tell me what he learnt out of reading Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. Like stand next to couple hundred thousand other bodies as the NYE ball dropped in Times Square. Like be in the audience when Trevor Noah first appeared on The Daily Show.
When the rent is due, I run.
When I don’t know how to answer a text, I run.
When I’m overwhelmed by all the things I want to do to make sure I live life to the fullest, I run.
When I don’t know how long I’ll be in New York for, I run.
Onward, I run.
“One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.”
– Tom Wolfe