Victoria and Abdul is the new period drama based on the real story of an unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria and a young Indian clerk named Abdul Karim. We caught up with one of the film's stars, Eddie Izzard, about his role as Queen Victoria's son Bertie, the evolution of human rights and why everyone's playing Churchill these days.
“You know, when George Bush Junior was President of the United States, he’d say the most insane things. And you could understand if he made a mistake and went, ‘Oh, hang on, let me rephrase that’, but he never did it! He’d say, ‘You’ve got to put food on your family’ and he never went ‘Whoa whoa whoa, you’ve got to put food on the table, for your family”. And it’s such an easy fix, but without the fix, it’s just madness”
Eddie Izzard chatters about the potential dangers of having our conversation recorded as I switch on my dictaphone. The man’s mind is going a mile a minute as he jumps from subject to subject, reference to reference. He’s surreal, easily distracted, amused and amusing, and I feel like I’m watching him do a stand-up routine.
Eddie at the Los Angeles premiere of Cars 2. Image via Shutterstock
But we’re here to talk about his new film, Victoria and Abdul—a period drama directed by Stephen Frears about the monarch’s unlikely friendship with an Indian clerk. Judi Dench stars as the intimidating Queen Victoria and Eddie plays her petulant son Bertie, Prince of Wales.
“How could I not get involved? I mean, Judi Dench and Stephen Frears—you’re not going to say no. They could say to me, ‘You’re playing a blade of grass’, and I would’ve said yes.”
With Stephen Frears, Judi Dench and Ali Fazal at the premiere of Victoria and Abdul
The role of Bertie, he tells me, is far from his comfort zone. It’s not the sort of thing where he’d see the script and naturally gravitate towards this character. In fact, the only thing they seem to have in common is similar age.
“He was an egotistical child who basically shagged his way around Europe, behaving badly and waiting for mum to go away so then he could become king. He was the one character who could tell mum to p**s off.”
Eddie as Bertie, Prince of Wales
“People don’t generally know who he was and he gets confused with Edward VIII a lot. He’s known for the fact that he had a lot of sex with people and he even had a chair made for having sex in—did you know that? You should Google it. But it’s not part of this film.”
Far from it. Though not without its funny moments, at the heart of this film is a timeless message of love and tolerance which hits close to home at a time when there’s so much tension between different cultures and religions in the world.
“I don’t think the film was built in that way but it’s about love between two people who look very differently, come from very different backgrounds but in fact they’re just two human beings who seem to get on and help each other get through life, so it’s a good message for people to take in”.
Judi Dench and Ali Fazal as Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim
“There are certain ideas that are giving permission to people to hate each other. A lot of us are still getting on with each other, but as long as Donald Trump is still there, it’s going to encourage hate crimes in America. Brexit hate is also a negative force.”
“Films like this are a counterbalance—especially when the news is all negative, negative, negative. Then film is something positive that you can grab hold of out of a sea of negativity, in the end changing bad leaderships and giving good leaderships—that tends to be the best thing, to change the world.”
But is the world actually changing? Are we growing and evolving as a species and learning from our mistakes? Eddie seems to be dubious.
"We are just the same people we were 10,000 years ago, but we got somewhat better"
“There’s 10,000 years of civilisation—and have we moved on? That’s what I find interesting. Compare and contrast. I look for the similarities. I think human beings are exactly the same—what we were 10,000 years ago and what we are now."
"Our brains wouldn’t have changed—it takes millions of years of brain development and human development, so we are just the same people we were 10,000 years ago, but we got somewhat better. Human rights are slightly better. Less kings, hopefully, more democracy.”
As an openly transgender person who came out 32 years ago, Eddie cares deeply about transgender rights and is pleased that things are moving forward, saying that “his sexuality is still sort of catching up with him which is nice”.
Eddie at the 2016 March for Europe in London. Image via Shutterstock
“It’s to do with the number of people being out, it being talked about, people getting the hang of it—it happens in a number of different ways. I’ve just talked to someone in Australia and they’re still arguing about marriage equality! Ireland’s already got it, America’s got it, we’ve got it, lots of places have got it."
"So it’s better than it was. More countries are already there than ever before. Hitler would be pi***d off. I think it’s pi****g off the extremists, pi****g off the haters.“
This brings us to the topic of childhood experiences and how big of an impact they have on developing into a good, tolerant person later in life—something that Bertie, future King Edward VII, didn’t really experience. He was singled out, pulled apart, had no other kids to interact with and saw his mother for only 15 minutes a day. “It’s not a positive way to bring up a child”, says Eddie.
Edward VII. Image via Britannica
“If you think what Diana did with her kids….she went against years and years of a stultifying, blocked in kind of way of doing things and said, ‘No, have fun, go to funfairs, do things, muck about’—that’s what’s needed in childhood to have a proper human existence”.
As Eddie’s phone starts going off in his pocket (“Ooo, my leg’s dinging”), I sense our time is coming to an end and quickly ask him if there are any other historical figures he’s got his heart set on playing.
“I still want to play Richard III. I’ve got to get my Shakespeare going. So I’ve got to do Iago first, I can’t go straight to Richard III, that’s a bit ninja.”
"Churchill was so all over the place and got things so wrong a lot of the time"
“Everyone’s playing Churchill now and no one’s playing [Clement] Attlee who created a whole lot of things, because he was more closed off and didn’t do crazy things, whilst Churchill was so all over the place and got things so wrong a lot of the time: The Dardanelles, Norway… he became Prime Minister after he just screwed up in Norway almost exactly like he screwed up in The Dardanelles”.
“Even he found that amazing. I think he wrote that in his book but then left it out, he said: ‘I can’t believe they’re not blaming me for Norway’—because he was in charge of it. He’s really the King Lear of the human existence.”
Victoria and Abdul opens in cinemas across the UK on September 15
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