In a special, one-night-only movie event, taking place on May 5th, Syfy is airing the four-hour re-imagining of the classic tale, Treasure Island, featuring an all-star cast led by Eddie Izzard (as Long John Silver), Elijah Wood (as Ben Gunn) and Donald Sutherland (as Flint). In this version, directed by Steve Barron and written by Stewart Harcourt, Robert Louis Stevenson’s swashbuckling adventure story about fantastical treasure, youthful courage and murderous greed has a fresh, new feel. The film also stars Toby Regbo, Rupert Penry-Jones, Shirley Henderson and Nina Sosanya.
During this recent interview to promote the film’s premiere, actor Eddie Izzard talked about how he got involved with this project, his inspiration for Long John Silver and how he made the role his own, finding the unique look for the character, the high and low moments during shooting, working with a real parrot, and that they’re already talking about doing another film. He also talked about being a big fan of science fiction and the imagination, his desire to continue doing dramatic work, and being offered a role in the Munsters reboot, Mockingbird Lane, from creator Bryan Fuller and with a pilot directed by Bryan Singer. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Question: How did you get involved with this project?
EDDIE IZZARD: I was asked if I wanted to do it. They said, “Do you want to it?,” and I said, “Well, I’d like to do it, but I’ll only do it if the script has teeth and is gritty.” I feel the story has been portrayed in a somewhat lighter fashion, over the years, and has gotten watered down. So, I said, “It’s got to be harder than Pirates of the Caribbean,” which is fun, but a bit flotsam and jetsam. I wanted something with teeth. So, we went to Stewart Harcourt and came up with the final version of the script that we did, which had teeth in it.
The story of Treasure Island has been made into films many, many times. What do you think the appeal is, of this particular story?
IZZARD: Well, it’s interesting. I was born in Aden, which is in the city of Yemen, an Arabic country. The Gulf of Aden has all the Somali pirates going around, and we know that it’s hellish down there. You can get caught by those pirates, and you just do not want that to happen. But, pirates plus time equals romance. We have a different take on it. The story is interesting. We worked at it to fight for the soul of Jim Hawkins (Toby Regbo). Anyone in their youth can identify with that, even young tomboy girls and women, because he’s not like a big macho man. He’s slight, but feisty. So, it’s a story that anyone can identify with. Going to the Caribbean in those days is like going to the Moon now. Imagine there is $500 million on the Moon. Could you go and get it? It’s one of those stories. You get caught up in it and it just gets nasty. It’s about death and blood and life, and finding yourself. What would you do in those situations? It doesn’t end with a Hollywood happy-go-lucky thing. It’s got all these things that can appeal to people across the ages, and it did in the U.K. already.
Long John Silver has been portrayed so many times. Did you have any particular inspiration for your version?
IZZARD: Churchill was my inspiration. It sounds kind of weird, but obviously you’re looking for a fresh take, and the interesting thing with Silver is that he keeps changing sides and shifting the ground. Sometimes it’s pushed upon him, but sometimes it’s him manipulating and moving. Churchill has been voted by the British people as the greatest British person ever, in a television poll program that they did. This is someone who changed his political party twice, which is called “Ratting.” Winston Churchill was not only a rat, but he was a double rat because he changed from the conservative party to the liberal party, and then back to the conservative party. He should have been vilified and dead and out for the count. In the end, because of going up against the Nazis, he’s become our greatest person ever.
Robert Louis Stevenson based Long John Silver upon a friend of his who was actually an editor and a journalist and a poet that actually wrote the Invictus poem that influenced Nelson Mandela when he was in prison. It’s about the indomitable spirit, which is in that poem. We worked out that the treasure was the equivalent of something like $500 million, so imagine what you would do to get $500 million, if it was buried on a treasure island. That’s the essence of Silver, and that’s the story we wanted to do. We wanted to do a real kick-ass version, as opposed to a campy version, which I think has been done before. This one was with teeth. Twenty main characters go out there, and only about four come back, and I wanted Silver to be the engine behind it. I’m a very determined person, and I like to bring that to my characters.
Why did Churchill help you in understanding who John Silver was?
IZZARD: It’s all about the indomitable spirit. The vast majority of people respect you, if you’ve got a good heart. The interesting thing about John Silver is that he has a mixed heart. He will blow different weathers. Silver’s heart is not there. He is a greedy man, or a man who has worked hard to steal a lot money, and he feels that he deserves this $500 million, or at least his share of the $500 million. That is how I portrayed him. If you look at the history of Churchill, it’s all over the place. He was against India getting its freedom. He kept changing parties. He was on the wrong side of the right decision, many times. In World War II, he made the right decision. With Long John Silver, you think, “Well, I think I’d be okay having a beer with this guy. I think I like him. I’m not sure. I don’t really trust him, but I think I like him.”
How important was it to you to find that specific look that is very unique to this character?
IZZARD: Once you cut your hair off, you don’t have to worry about whether your hair is in the right place. Shaving the head was the big dramatic departure. I didn’t have any set ideas on how it should be. We obviously knew there was going to be a lot of crutch work, which is really important in how he moves. We worked with moving people on that. But, shaving the head defined it. I’d been trying to do a role where I could shave my head, for some time. If you ever do choose to shave your head, it’s all about the skull shape. You’ve got to have a good skull. Some people have an unfortunate skull that doesn’t quite work, and you don’t know that until you get down there. For eight years, I’ve been saying to make-up artists, “Could you do a bald cap on me, at some point? I just want to see what it looks like when I have no hair, to find out if it works.” So, when they came to me for this, with a mock-up of me with no hair, in a Long John Silver look and said, “Would you think of doing this?,” I said, “Yes!,” immediately because I’d been trying to do this for so long. So, we went down to a very short buzz cut to check out the skull shape, and I thought, “This is going to work.”
I cut all my hair off, when I got to Dublin. My skull worked, which was just genetic luck. I was very happy with my skull shape, so that changed everything and made it interesting. The accent that I use is a London accent. There are a lot of villains in London. London was huge, in the 1700s. It became a city of a million people. The last city, before that, of a million people was Rome. Everything collapsed after Rome, and then it built all the way back up. In the 1700s and early 1800s, London became the size of what Rome was. It was a really pumping city. And, out of that, a lot of villainy was coming. The make-up and the tattoo came up from the make-up designer. He did a brilliant job, giving him that wonderful punk edge. And then, they added designs to the crutch. Learning to use that was very tricky, actually. I set up an assault course so that I could practice and get used to it. But, in the end, I got very comfortable with that crutch, which is now sitting at my home in L.A. I will use it in Treasure Island 2 as well because I now know how to do it.
Was the look of the production one person’s vision, or was it a lot of people working on it together?
IZZARD: That was a lot of ideas. We all wanted to do something different, and this felt like a 1700s punk thing. Also, the skin colors of the actual actors was very important because we felt that’s what the pirates would have been like. In a lot of films, through the last century, you had a lot of white pirates and a lot of white people. People were black, brown and white. The whole mixture was in there, and I really liked that. I think that’s going to resonate because that’s what the world really is. This film could play all around the world and people in different countries could say, “See, I could have been a pirate.” That was the look, and a lot of different people contributed to that, from costume design and make-up design to the overall design. And, we had the different buzz cuts and Mohican cuts. It looked like Mad Max meets Pirates of the Caribbean meets Goodfellas. I think that we’ve reset Treasure Island. I hope this is the benchmark that everyone has to measure Treasure Island books by.
What was it like to work with your co-stars, Donald Sutherland and Elijah Wood?
IZZARD: Elijah Wood came onto the scene and he was just a joy. He had no attitude and no size to him. He just joined us, hung out with us and was great. I’d love to work with him again. It was quite an honor to work with these people. And then, Donald Sutherland coming and playing John Silver was crazy. I had worked with Elliot Gould on Ocean’s 12 and 13. It was quite amazing to have words with Elliot Gould, and then to work with Donald Sutherland. He was great and he gave me a book on Treasure Island. Sometimes it blows my mind to work with people who I’ve known from a long time, and then finally get to work with.
What were the high and low moments during shooting?
IZZARD: When I was seven, I said, “I want to act.” When I was 10, I realized that films exist, and I wanted to be in them. Not a comedian, I wanted to be a dramatic actor. Films just seemed such fun, and like such a great thing to do. To do a drama that’s a film and that’s on location – two locations here with Dublin, Ireland, doubling for Bristol on the West Coast of England, and then Puerto Rico, for our treasure island – with such great actors as well, were highs, just to be with that team. I always tried to be the captain. I encouraged everyone to play soccer, or fútbol, as we call it. I like team activities. Just doing the work was a high.
The low was that it was bloody freezing in Dublin. Dublin was the coldest in the U.K., at this time. It was snowing. That’s real snow in the film. We didn’t buy the snow. That was actual snow. Some people got frostbite. Some of the extras got frostbite on the day we were running around, at the beginning of the film. And then, in Puerto Rico, it was extraordinarily hot. I had to hide under an umbrella between takes because it was that hot. The temperature differences were the crazy thing.
Were you able to relate to playing a character who can be so disloyal, at times?
IZZARD: If you know anything about me, as a transvestite who’s gotten this far in my career, and you remember all the transvestites who are out and doing okay in their careers, it’s not a big group. Obviously, I’m determined. I run marathons. I’m going into politics. I do productions. I’ve played the Hollywood Bowl. I do gigs in the French language. His fallibility is at the center of all of us. I don’t believe in God. I believe gods and devils are within us. It’s our own battle. Our life’s battle is to appeal to the gods within us, and to fight the devils within us. To be weak and greedy is a potential for all of us there. If we look at Nazi Germany, the German people are not bad people. But, if someone grabs hold of the country and says, “Agree with me or I’m going to kill you,” then a lot of people fall into line. Some people don’t. Some people fight it. Some people get out. Some people become part of the resistance. But, it’s a difficult thing to do. These are the stories of our life that should mold us and, hopefully, make us better people.
So, within watching Silver, I tried to appeal to my own demons. I know that I have done things in my life where I thought, “I shouldn’t have done that. I’m ashamed of that. That’s no good.” I try to push for better. I try to be positive. I try to be generous. But, at times, you’re not. Sometimes you’re very selfish. Your ego gets involved. You want to be a Buddhist monk, but only Buddhist monks get to be Buddhist monks, and I don’t think I am that. You’ve just got to dig inside you. He’s a real person, and he was also trying to do a very difficult thing. He’s dealing with a bunch of greedy, avaricious pirates who are way worse than him, so he has to keep them saying, “No, have patience.” They’re saying, “I’m getting sick and tired of hanging on.” They just want to kill people, drink, get stoned, have sex and have money. How you organize that is very difficult. It’s very difficult politics. If you analyze what you would do if you were Silver, you’d have a bloody rough and tough time. He does as good as he can do.
How were you able to get into the mind-set of someone with such contradictory personality traits?
IZZARD: I think most of us are actually like that. It’s written slightly larger because he is John Silver and there is $500 million at stake and everyone’s wanting to kill each other, and it’s a life and death struggle. But, if you just look at the gossip pages online, that garbage that almost takes over human life. That’s not an American thing. That’s a human thing. That happens in Britain, that happens in Russia, and it will happen anywhere. When people are not being generous, they fall back into gossip and bickering, which is part of all of us. To tap into that, all you’ve got to do is start feeling less generous. That stuff is all swimming underneath. The story drives him forwards and backwards. He flies by the seat of his pants. The high point for Long John Silver is almost it he middle of the film, when he does the flag of truce. After that, it actually goes downhill because they laugh that he has a bank account, which is very rare. Silver is an intelligent bloke and an ambitious one. You’ve just got to take ambition and greed and smash them together, and it’s probably at the center of most people.
What was it like to work with a real parrot?
IZZARD: It was curious. I wasn’t worried about being upstaged by the parrot, but I didn’t want to get too parrot-centric. Parrots have to act into the wind. They’re just standing there and trying to be parrots. Because bird feathers move backwards on their body, if there’s a big breeze coming up the wrong way, the wind blows all the feathers the wrong way, so they will turn around and face into the wind. That was a practical problem. You could only do scenes that faced the direction of the wind. If you started turning, he would turn with you and, in the end, he’d be facing backwards while you were talking forwards, and that just looked bizarre. I’m sure that if you were really a pirate, you wouldn’t worry about it, but in the camera, it looked bonkers. That was the big problem. The other one was that the parrots get attached to you, so you have to be positive and confident with them, but not friendly. You can’t be friendly. If you’re too friendly with them, then they get to like you and then they won’t leave you. It’s a slightly fine line, acting with parrots. I was happy to be in a number of scenes with them, but I didn’t want them to just take over the film.
Is there something that you learned, while making this film, that surprised you?
IZZARD: Some of the very experienced actors didn’t have that many lines, but they’re still very good and qualified people, and a number of them were saying that this was the greatest time they’d ever had. I felt that it was my job – and I’ve studied this on George Clooney, from the Oceans movies – to lead from the front. I worked out that you can and should set the tone from the top. As I had the role of John Silver, I was always trying to make sure that everyone felt included, and hopefully that worked. When you haven’t enough time or budget, and it’s really hot and really cold, you can still live a life. We had a great adventure, just in the making of Treasure Island. It is an adventure, and we had an adventure. You can do that, as long as you give a damn about other people. That’s what I learned.
Syfy is airing Treasure Island as one long, 4-hour film, but in the U.K., it across two nights. Do you think that will change the viewer experience, at all?
IZZARD: This is the Godfather of pirate movies. I’ve actually seen it both ways. In Britain, there has become this model of grabbing people on Sunday night, and then you drag them through to Monday night. But, there’s always a slight drop-off over the next night. We did a screening for the crew in London and we had a half-hour break in between. By the end of the first movie, you’re going, “What happens now?” When The Godfather came out, it was too long, but then it became a classic. I think that’s what we’ve got.
After doing so much comedy in your career, how have your goals, as an actor, changed in recent years?
IZZARD: Well, I don’t know if my goals have changed in recent years. I think my opportunities have changed. Now, I’m being offered Long John Silver in Treasure Island, and a film called Lost Christmas in the U.K., which will hopefully come out this year and which I’m really pleased about. I’ve just been offered Mockingbird Lane, the pilot (for The Munsters reboot) with Bryan Singer and Bryan Fuller, in America. I wanted to be a dramatic actor when I was 7. That’s all I wanted to do. I don’t think I really knew that comedy existed at 7. I just thought you laughed. But, I worked out that acting existed, and then I realized films existed, so I just wanted to do that.
As the comedy started taking off, I started saying, “I want to do dramatic roles.” It’s almost like a schizophrenic career, which drives agents and managers nuts. But, I refuse to do a lot of comedy things. I just want to do dramas. And now, people are believing me and trusting me, and I’ve gotten better at my dramatic craft. Drama and comedy are different, and you need to know what the differences are, which I now know. The bottom line of comedy is to be funny, and the bottom line of drama is to be truthful. You can be truthful and funny, but if you’re not truthful in a drama than the audience leaves you and goes, “I don’t believe in what he’s doing and saying.” You try to do that, in every scene.
I’m very happy with Treasure Island. There are a few scenes in there which I go, “I didn’t land that like I should have,” but there are also some where I thought, “I’m very happy with what I did.” And, to be working up against these other actors is great. The change recently is that I’ve gotten better at my game. I know where what I’m doing now. Now, I can start to really grow, dramatically. Hopefully, people are seeing and sensing that. Some are actually giving me the chance to do that.
Are you a science fiction fan?
IZZARD: I am a big science fiction fan. I’m a big imagination fan, which actually ties in with sci-fi, which is the place of imagination. I loved Harry Potter, particularly the end films. I haven’t actually read the books. I’m a dyslexic person, so I avoid books. I did read a couple of Isaac Asimov books, but there are so many books out there which I haven’t read because I’m just such a slow reader. At the moment, I’m going through Netflix, with Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’m a fan of the future.
I do have a big vision. I’m a transvestite, and you have to work out how you can get transgender admitted into society. I don’t have a problem with the vision thing. I’ve had to have one because I’m trying to carve a place for myself, in the future. I like fantasy stories and science fiction stories because within that, hopefully, there is a truth. Game of Thrones is very interesting. I just started watching that.
In the past, we do see our present and our future. Humans keep behaving the same. I was big fan of The Matrix, particularly the first one. I got a bit lost in the other two. Those stories that are gritty and edgy and have human sensibilities, I love living through those. For a lot of people, it gets them out of their normal lives, which might be not that exciting, and it’s a place of crazy fantasy. My life has almost become like a sci-fi film, in a way, but one that I’m controlling and it’s okay. I’m very happy with where I am, at the moment.
With this film having been such a success in England, do you any interest in maybe doing a follow up?
IZZARD: Yes, we’re already talking about Treasure Island 2. It’s a dangerous thing to do a follow up to a classic. You can fall flat on your face. But, we would like to do one, so we will see how that progresses. I do believe that there was TV series that actually only happened in Australia, but that was about John Silver and his continuing exploits. I think it does actually have legs, so I would like to do another one.