Rainbow Crew is an ongoing interview series that celebrates the best LGBTQ+ representation on screen. Each instalment showcases talent working on both sides of the camera, including queer creatives and allies to the community.
Next up, we're speaking to Eddie Izzard, star and co-writer of Six Minutes to Midnight.
Some people say 'jack of all trades, master of none.' Eddie Izzard proves that some people are idiots.
To comedian, memoirist, politician, activist, Tony-nominee, actor and all-around icon, Izzard is adding screenwriter to her list of trades. Izzard co-wrote the World War Two drama Six Minutes to Midnight which also stars Judi Dench, James D'Arcy and Jim Broadbent, about an all-girls school on Bexhill-on-Sea that taught exclusively German girls, including the daughters and friends of Nazi high commanders.
Its a premise that sounds too absurd to be true, but as the other saying goes, truth is often stranger than fiction. Izzard holds up her phone to the laptop camera (another peril of these socially distanced times) to show me a photo. "That was the first thing that was shown to me – this black-and-white photo, grainy photo, and you've got the British flag and the Nazi flag right next to each other, which is… you know, you never see that! I just thought, 'Really? Is that real?'"
It is real. "There were 26 schools," Izzard explains, "one of them was that school, and it had German girls, and Himmler's goddaughter was at the school. So, yeah, this is a real school, and they were listening to Hitler's speeches. They were saluting the radio set at the end of the speeches. They were going up to London and hanging out in the German embassy. This was going on, all this – the school, the girls, everything – the links, how passionate they were."
Izzard plays Thomas Miller, a teacher who arrives at the school but sees what is coming and tries to raise the alarm. The authorities believe he is the problem. While it might seem like a black-and-white case of good versus evil, Six Minutes to Midnight shows it's not that simple.
Though the girls are all clearly pro-Nazi, they aren't framed as villains. "It's a tricky old thing," Izzard says of the blurred lines between good and bad. "The truth is, only a third of the people in Germany voted for the Nazis. Two-thirds of them didn't vote.
"But once the Nazis got in, they enforced a referendum on them, you know, with an implied thing: 'If you don't vote for us, then bad things are going to happen to you…' People would just start toeing the line and going along with it."
Watch: 'I'm not showered with acting offers' says Eddie Izzard
Now we have a clearer understanding of how silence and complacency operate in power dynamics, but Izzard is sympathetic, still. "Well, it's difficult, especially when the people in control force you to take sides. Especially as it gets closer and closer to war. Once war happens, anyone against the war is a traitor. It's a traitorous thing." She draws the parallel to 'Freedom Fries' in the US after 9/11, an apt example of how rhetoric is used to influence people.
Six Minutes to Midnight plays into the grey areas, using the relationship between the kids and Thomas to introduce the antisemitism at the heart of Nazism.
"That [idea was] Celyn (Jones, co-writer), actually," Izzard says, giving credit where credit is due. "It is a nice junction. It's tricky – you've got to have this link between Thomas and the kids, and that's difficult to do."
But Izzard is nothing if not determined. "To make a stronger connection with the kids, I actually performed in German to them. I said, 'If you want, at lunchtime, I'm going to do 40 minutes of my German show under the tree, so you can sit there.'
"I'm not sure what they thought of it. But I thought that was good for them, to see their teacher doing a show, so that they can fall out of love with me, and fall in love with me, and just have a relationship with me."
Izzard knows how to forge connections both in real life and in her comedy, but in drama, she has a different approach. "This is my first film. I developed my comedy career up to a certain point, and then I put a block on the top of my career, and went to the bottom of the dramatic mountain, and started going up this separate drama mountain.
"I knew that I couldn't rely — I needed to not use my comedy instincts. Because the bottom line of comedy is to be funny, even if you break character, even if you do something that doesn't quite fit — just get the laugh in. That's your bottom line.
"But the bottom line of drama is to be truthful. Never break character, never break the truth of what that character does, otherwise, you've lost it, and everyone's going to fall out of the film and go, 'This is someone portraying a character.'"
But surely, for a comedian whose routines are based — if only in part — on her real, lived experiences, is that not also a form a truth-telling? "When I'm doing stand-up as me, if I'm narrating something, that will be about me.
"It's just that... If I go into a little story about a routine, I could possibly spend the story – or make the character in the story – do something that is not quite truthful to that scenario, in order to get something that seems funny. There's a desperation to get "funny" first. Whereas with drama, there's a desperation to be truthful."
Before we know it, it's almost like watching an Eddie Izzard stand-up routine.
"In To Catch a Thief, you've got Cary Grant playing a jewel thief in the south of France. He comes in, and he does something which is just… He's obviously chosen to do it.
"So it's during the Second World War. The idea is that he was a jewel thief, but he hung out with other criminals or petty thieves in the south of France. And they all worked against the Germans because that was going on.
"But when he comes in, he does this thing where he puts his foot up – I don't know if you can see this here?" She gets up and stands back from the camera. "He puts his foot up, and does this… you know, where you're leaning on your knee.
"When you look at it – who does that? I think if you're a very young character, you might do that. But he's obviously chosen to do it. 'I'm going to put my knee up.' If you look at the scene where it comes out – it's early on — you just go, "Why is your knee up?"'
Izzard is back in her chair, her brows concentrated. "It's not truthful. It just doesn't ring.
"Whereas really good actors… You'll see everything sort of fit in, and they'll look for things which kick out of the screen dramatically but still are truthful. And that's what you had to do.
"I had to get quite far in to be able to see the differences, and even articulate the differences, between [comedy and drama]. But the bottom line of my dramatic thing is to just be truthful to the character. Then at least the audience can relax and settle in – you're going to take them down a truthful story.
"It may not be fascinating. It may not be brilliant... Because you're trying to capture lightning in a bottle – moments of art, of beauty. You may not get that, but at least you'll be truthful as your bottom line."
Truth. It leads us to an easy segue to the conversation around sexual and gender identity — which is being led more and more by prominent people like Izzard. Some might see celebrity as both a spotlight and a shield. "I found it quite… hmmm. Is it scary? I think the first part of it, coming out, was scary, but I wasn't known when I first came out in '85.
"But talking about that was very tricky. I mean, recently, the whole pronouns thing, I just mentioned it in something. I'd already mentioned it a year before, and no one picked up on it.
"Because I got given an honorary doctorate at Swansea University, [The Daily Mail] said, 'What's the pronoun? [Swansea University] said 'she' in your thing.' And that was picked up by WalesOnline: 'What's that about?'
And I said, 'Oh, well, you know, I quite like to be referred to as 'she' and 'her'. But, if not, 'he' and 'him', or just call me Eddie if people have a problem with it.' That was over a year ago, and there were no ripples. Nothing went viral.
"And then I go on Portrait Artist of the Year and it goes viral. So one didn't go viral, and one did, and I don't know what the difference was, except – just the time.
"I don't find that difficult, but there does seem to be, sometimes, repercussions, or waves, or resonances that happen. But I'm trying to play it with a straight bat, as we say in the cricketing world.
I'm not very good at cricket; I don't know why I said that. I'm trying to be open and honest. And I think, hopefully, that works for positive people.
Some negative people are always going to be negative, but positive people are going to go, 'Oh, OK.' You know, I'm trying to be as open and upfront about that.
Some people said, 'Oh, you came out with it?' I said, 'No, I came out in 1985. That’s 35 years ago. Where have you been for the last 35 years?' So, yeah. But it's good.
And doing that in the public eye isn't so bad, because once you’re out – the pronouns thing just... adjusts things. It doesn't change things. It just adjusts it a bit.
Six Minutes to Midnight is available on Sky Cinema and Now from March 26
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