Biopics are normally saved for the icons that are old and wrinkled octogenarians reflecting back on their life of accomplishments. But what if through sheer grit, determination, talent and an unyielding belief in yourself, you’ve managed to cram all that life and success into half a lifetime?
Sarah Townsend began working with Eddie Izzard back at the Edinburgh Fringe Festivals in the 80s when he could barely get a time slot, if a laugh. Her career as a budding theater director and filmmaker followed a similar trajectory as the two learned by trying and failing and trying again. Sarah began filming Eddie’s journey and what culminated over the past ten plus years is the documentary Believe. The film is an Emmy nominated, uplifting look of how a transvestite street performer can become one of the most iconic and lauded performers of his time.
© 2010 Halyon Films
ALI MACLEAN: Let’s talk about your early days at the Edinburgh Festivals — starting with the Salieri/Mozart rivalry you had with those evil Fry & Laurie characters who thwarted you.
EDDIE IZZARD: They weren’t evil, they were just better. I think I’ve gotten better since then. Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson were in the Cambridge Footlights where Monty Python had come out of. I was trying to get into Cambridge, just to get into the Footlights. So these were the guys who succeeded in getting into Cambridge, and being in the Footlights. And they were better, so it was two kicks in the head, really.
A: Was it hard for you to believe back then? Did it take time for you to build your confidence?
E: I decided at seven to become an actor and at sixteen I made a private pact in my own head that I was going to do this and I wasn’t backing out of it. At the same time I was going to career advisors with my Dad and Step-mom and saying I might be an architect, but I just was coming up with things. I knew I wasn’t going to do those things. I wanted to do this. It just seemed a million miles off.
A: Your one hundred percent belief in yourself has worked out for you. I, for one, am glad that you didn’t give up, but are there any people out there that you wish had given up on their dream?
E: I don’t know if I should start that list. If you think about determination, if people have a heart and are determined, they can get to that place. But there are a lot of negative people who were enormously determined. All the Nazis were determined. They wanted to murder everyone. Everyone with a bad heart, who doesn’t care about people, I wish they hadn’t started. People with a bad heart can all fuck off.
A: What do you think about mass marketed guru stuff about believing like ‘The Secret’ and best selling books that teach people how to manifest their dreams? You know, all the books on tape and workshops and week long retreats.
E: I have done my own version of that for myself. I do realize that the word ‘believe’ is part of the word ‘faith’. And I don’t believe in God. So I’m a non-believer in the non-visible. I’m a believer in us; in humans. I think people either see the glass half full or half empty and suffer from depression or are prone to depression. I’m like my Dad and I don’t seem to have that. I’m consistently able to regroup fairly quickly. It’s much harder if you suffer from depression. You know, comedy improv has a lot of positive thinking in it. It’s all about ‘Yes, and…” If someone says “I am the King of Prussia.” You have to say “Yes, and I have your new shoes.” It’s a glass half full method. So positive thinking is great, as long as you’ve got a positive message. If you’re a positive thinker and you’re a dickhead, well, these are the complicated things of human existence.
A: Sarah really showed in the film how controlled and structured you are with putting together a show. A lot of comedians and actors spend their lives complaining on TMZ or their act is completely neurotic, like a Rorschach test. Do you attribute your success to your military background and that discipline?
E: It definitely helps. I kept pulling back and regrouping. You get knocked down and you get up and go back into the fray. Though, I don’t feel that disciplined because I’m incredibly lazy. I’m like a large ship. Once you get the ship going you can’t stop it. But once you stop it you can’t get it going again. I tend to like to watch black and white movies on Turner Classic or AMC. Apart from talking to you today I’m not doing anything and I like that.
A: I have a feeling our ideas of lazy are different. I think I could challenge you to a sloth-off and I could probably win.
E: Oh, I don’t know. Get me going…but I do start hating myself. People are offering me things now. So I’m trying to catch up on the years when I had nothing going. As you know the media is full of people taking off at seventeen. At sixteen years old they come in at number one.
A: Yeah, but they go to rehab when they’re twenty-three.
E: Yes. If I had to do it all again I’d do it the same way, but at the time, you want it to happen immediately. Learning that you have stamina is an excellent thing to know. If a project fails, I know I can pick myself up. Just like Clint Eastwood in a Fistful Of Dollars.
A: You’ve talked about future plans for politics and that your model would be more Franken than Schwarzenegger. I’m wondering if you think if Schwarzenegger would be a better politician if he were funny? Or maybe not a Terminator?
E: I’m more linked to Al Franken because of the comedy and because he’s a democrat. There’s no particular advice I can give Schwarzenegger…I’m pleased Prop 8 was overturned in California.
A: Do you think there is something about comedy and Al Franken’s satirical mind that lends itself to critical thinking and political policy?
E: Comedy is good at tearing down. If the right wing government is in power, comedy is good at tearing away at that. If the left wing government is in power, they will tear away at that too. So, I think comedy may be a hindrance in a way. I don’t subscribe to the theory that all politicians are crap. I think the ‘cool people’ often take that position.
A: So, are you prepared, when you take office in 2020, for Larry the Cable Guy to make fun of you for giving people clean drinking water?
E: Oh yeah, it’s gonna happen. If you’re a performer, people tend to be quite positive about you or they have no opinion. If you go into politics, it will be polarized. I’m ready for people to take swings at me. But then again I am a transvestite, so how much harder can it be to deal with political pressure?
A: You’ve talked in your shows and on The Riches about The American Dream. And you’ve mentioned the European Dream. Do you think you’ve achieved either?
E: I’ve started saying that I’m living the European Dream. Now I want Europeans to have the dream too.
A: Congrats on the Emmy nomination for Believe.
E: Well, I’m not nominated, Sarah is. She made my life worthy of being nominated. But hopefully there’s some lesbian girl in Pakistan or some transgender kid in Chile that sees the documentary and says, ‘Shit, I can do that!”
A: Or maybe some kid who’s trying to put together a tight ten-minute set to go up at The Comedy Store.
E: As long as they have something interesting to say and a good heart.
A: Yeah, we’re not trying to encourage any more Hitlers.
E: No. They can fuck off.
As Eddie said, Sarah Townsend made his life worthy of being Emmy nominated. How does one follow a man that runs 43 marathons in 51 days, performs his shows to sold out crowds at Wembley Stadium, and films blockbuster like Oceans 12. How do you capture a hummingbird on film?
ALI MACLEAN: This is your first feature length film and you are nominated for an Emmy. You run the risk of being called an overnight success — even though the film took, what, seven years to make?
SARAH TOWNSEND: Well over seven years. It’s one of those magical overnight successes that wasn’t really overnight. That’s really the storyline of the film. People really do work for ages. We wanted to make something that reflected what Eddie has put into his career because he gets the same comment. And of course it wasn’t. It was years and years before he finally got attention.
A: Eddie seems like a private person and the film shows that he is in control of things, certainly his emotions. Did you feels, as a filmmaker that it was hard to get behind that? Were you surprised that he wanted to do a documentary and let you behind the scenes?
S: I don’t think he thought that’s what we would be doing. I thought “Oh, because I know him, this will be so much easier.’ Far from it. I don’t think it was easy for anyone. It took four years to get an interview that was genuinely in the moment that was absolutely honest. He has like a sixth sense of when that little red light on the camera was on. It was unbelievable. If something interesting was going on and we started shooting he would instantly change his demeanor. Just at the point where we thought, “What are we doing? This is a special, but not a full movie”, then it happened. We got that scene with him. I think it was a real moment for him – he really shocked himself.
A: With his military background and the marathon running, he is so disciplined.
S: With the military stuff I was trying to show that he is a very early 20th century character. They don’t really make them like that anymore. Very stiff upper lip, “Carry on chaps”. You don’t encounter that much. He doesn’t complain. He doesn’t say: “That’s not fair.” He’ll just say: “Right, I’ll do some extra work, then.” In Britain we have a very powerful tabloid culture with celebrities on the front page crying with their make-up smeared and tears, and it’s kind of what you’d expect from someone who likes to dress up that way. It’s a very contradictory bunch of things going on with him, and that’s what makes him so fascinating.
A: Would you ever consider doing a documentary about Eddie’s future political run?
S: No. At this point it will be a while before I do another documentary. Doing it was an enormous film school experience and I don’t regret it for a moment. It was very humbling and exhausting and an incredible experience. I’m grateful for every moment of it now.
A: The theme of the film is believing in yourself. Eddie talks in his shows about believing in the American Dream and the European Dream. Do you believe in those?
S: In the UK a lot of people don’t like to try. There’s a different cultural thing. Here if you try and fail, you get up again and start again and keep going. People respect you for it. Even if you keep failing, they respect the tenacity.
A: We are a country of failures.
S: I love the fact that trying is respected. The American Dream: if you try, if you build it, they will come. I love that. It’s honorable. That’s part of what got this film finished in the end. It’s not really how it is in the UK.
A: It’s funny that you bring up ‘If you build it they will come’ the Kevin Costner movie quote, because he just built that oil spill machine and sold it for millions.
S: What? Not the Hadron Collider? In Geneva?
A: No, Kevin Costner, the actor, invented some centrifuge type device that supposedly separates oil from water and he sold it to the US government to help clean up the oil spill.
A: No. He went before Congress. I guess anything is possible. I mean after The Postman and Waterworld, he staged this comeback. It’s The American Dream.
S: That’s the maverick spirit.
Believe has been nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Non Fiction Special at the 62nd Primetime Emmy Awards 2010. It is available on DVD.
Eddie Izzard is currently performing on Broadway in David Mamet’s Race through August 21.