Stand-up comedian, actor and now film writer Eddie Izzard has a lot of strings to her bow, including, famously, running way more marathons than most folks. That included 32 in a month during lockdown in the UK, raising £280,000 for charities supporting disadvantaged and vulnerable people, a task in which George Clooney joined her for the final stretch.
She (Izzard now uses she-her pronouns) also runs quite a fair bit in her latest film, Six Minutes to Midnight, a WWII drama co-starring her good friend Dame Judi Dench. It’s based on a remarkable true story about a finishing school for German girls on the English coast that was home for much of the Nazi high command’s daughters as the first rumblings of war sounded.
Izzard, who co-wrote the feature, stars as a teacher, Thomas Miller, hired to work there, who is then implicated in a plot to smuggle the girls out. This involves a lot of running, both from the cops and from Nazis, so Izzard got to use her marathon skills. “If I’m going to give myself this role, the fact that I’ve become a person on the run is no bad thing,” she laughs. “The fact that I suddenly hair down the seafront, I think people might have thought before ‘Oh, really?’ And now they go, ‘Oh, yeah’. So I’m just drawing from a skill that I have in real life. So yeah, I’m quite happy to be fighting and running.”
All this stuff was there and I just thought, wow, there’s a film just begging to be made on that
Izzard spent 11 years of her childhood growing up in Bexhill, where the film is set (though it was shot in Wales), but she didn’t hear about this remarkable story until much later in life.“When I got known, I was made patron of the local museum,” she says. “And the curator told me about [Augusta Victoria College]. He showed me the school blazer’s badge, which has both the British flag and the Nazi flag, and Himmler’s goddaughter attended. They’d listen to Hitler’s speeches on the radio, and they’d Sieg Heil. All this stuff was there and I just thought, ‘wow, there’s a film just begging to be made on that.’”
Izzard and co-writers Celyn Jones and Andy Goddard, the latter of whom directed the film, took this kernel of staggering truth and created fictional characters, imagining what might have happened in the fateful days before they fled back to Germany. Dench plays the British headmistress who dotes on her girls, who may or may not be in league with the Nazis. Izzard’s teacher is caught in the middle, with British police officers investigating his allegiances. It’s a plum role.
“I’m doing what A-plus listers do, which is they buy a book up and they say, ‘let’s develop this script’, but they’re probably not going to write the thing,” Izzard notes. “But I wrote this role for me. I call it personal nepotism. But you know, it’s the way forward, and stand-up comedy is the epitome of it, because you write everything you say and everything you do. It’s giving yourself as much stage time as possible.”
I always wanted to make films. I just took 40 years to get around to writing one, because first of all had to get my dramatic acting ability up
A film lover through and through, Izzard infamously broke into legendary British film studio Pinewood as a young gun, not unlike Steven Spielberg, who did the same thing but with Universal Studios. “I always wanted to make films. I just took 40 years to get around to writing one, because first of all had to get my dramatic acting ability up, so that I could play the lead in a film and carry it.”
The next step of her ever-widening career is to both write and direct a movie, and she has plenty of ideas up her sleeve, though lockdown was not on her focus. “Writing is a tricky thing for me. So I’ve always put it off rather than doing it,” she says. Teaming up with Goddard and Jones really helped. “I didn’t trust my instincts.”
One shocking twist we won't reveal is pure Izzard, though it was her co-writers who suggested making Dench British, rather than German. “Then she can carry the audience, the idea that she’s beguiled by the National Socialists and trusts them. Can she survive that? Or is she just lost to those ideas?”
Izzard appeared alongside Dench as Bertie, the Prince of Wales to her monarch in 2017 historical drama Victoria & Abdul, but they’ve been mates for a long time. She says the Dame is not at all into her ‘national living treasure’ status and is just about as down to earth as you could imagine. “I brought my tour manager from my stand-up life on set, and I asked Judi if we could visit her in her trailer and she’s like, ‘would you like a chocolate Hobnob [a British brand of biscuit]?’ She’s just very real and relaxed, and that’s how she likes people to be.”
It seems Izzard is much the same, with no time for grand ideas about oneself, which is why she has taken her time to put pen to paper on a screenplay, with the next step to direct her own project. “You realise you’ve got to direct to make your stuff into exactly the vision that you’ve got. So I have to get to that point. I knew I couldn’t direct before. And I knew I couldn’t write until I was ready to write Six Minutes to Midnight, but now I’ve got two films in my head that I need to pull out of me. I need to just fire up and get going, because the clock is ticking.”