Eddie Izzard on the Scene-Stealing Ensemble of Galaxy Quest

Galaxy Quest. Photo: DreamWorks

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One of the best Star Trek movies isn’t really a Star Trek movie. It’s Galaxy Quest, an inexplicably star-studded sci-fi comedy about the nature of fiction and the power of teamwork. Galaxy Quest is about a group of washed-up actors who now make their living on the convention circuit for their old TV show, Galaxy Quest. What they don’t know is that an alien race, the Thermians, think their show is real. The Thermians have modeled their entire society off Galaxy Quest, even building a doomsday device without knowing what it might do. When a more warlike and duplicitous race of aliens hears of this doomsday device, they attack, and the Thermians reach out to the heroes they’ve seen in the “historical documents” from Earth.

Comedian and actor Eddie Izzard takes inspiration from history as well. His new show Wunderbar — which heads to the U.S. next month touches on Henry VIII, Hitler, and all of the despots in between. Izzard performs in four languages: English, French, German, and Spanish. Which isn’t easy, especially the way Izzard does stand-up. His style is discursive, wandering in and out of the narrative until hitting the punch line. Izzard recently had a nice ramble with Vulture about Galaxy Quest, whether acting is the same thing as lying, and the late, great Alan Rickman.

What appealed to you about Galaxy Quest?
It’s the guys of Star Trek going on an actual adventure. We know a little about the personal relationships of the original Star Trek [cast]. There was some frustration that came to public notice after the series had finished. It’s like we’re seeing them, and they actually go on an adventure. And they are so crap. The characters they’re playing are so fucked up and real. They’re played by such a cast. Everyone’s so great. I hope they enjoyed making it.

It’s such a stacked cast.
Tim Allen. I’m British so I don’t know him as well. He had a show where he played a carpenter or something?

Home Improvement.
I haven’t seen that, but I got the impression that it was kind of a mainstream thing. He plays the main guy, and it’s incredible casting. He does it really well. I don’t know if he’s been given other roles like this — where he can play against himself, or how he’s perceived in the American consciousness. He plays it really beautifully. Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub, Sam Rockwell, it’s just beautiful. Enrico Colantoni plays Mathesar with such a weird and great choice of voice — the singsong voice, because he doesn’t know how tone should work because he’s actually a moving elephant/octopus. I love the whole conception of it. It just lands really well.

Academy Award winner Sam Rockwell is playing such a sleazeball.
Sam Rockwell is stealing [scenes], but everyone is stealing. This is the interesting thing. Sam Rockwell, even his mustache is stealing looks. When Tony Shalhoub starts having sex with one of the creatures, and it turns from human to its real shape, he goes, “Oh, that’s not right!” Great lines coming out of him.

They’re all stealing, everyone who’s got lines. They interact, so everyone is stealing from each other and it’s all balanced. Sigourney, having played such kick-ass lead females, to then play this complete bimbo who only repeats what the computer says? It’s great.

Everyone gets a moment in the spotlight.
It’s something I think Americans do better than us, although Edgar Wright is changing that. It has this multiple-ending ending, like Back to the Future had, where it ends, and then they crash and it ends, and then the bad guy comes back and they kill him, so that ends. And then they have the new series on television. So it’s multiple feel-good endings. I think people who know it rate it right, but more people should know it.

It was actually one of the movies that my husband and I bonded over when we first started dating.
Very good. That’s a wonderful thing. Anything that people match up on, that’s great. Parents and kids can even bond over [this movie]. It defies generations.

I think this was the first thing I personally saw Alan Rickman in.
Alan Rickman, I knew him and he’s gone. Gone too early. Not only did he play the ultimate bad guy in Die Hard, but playing the Half-Blood Prince in Harry Potter.

I was doing Broadway; it’s going well. We’d go out every night with the cast. A lot of us hanging out, and he turns up. At the end of the night, I say, “I should get this, or should we split this?” I didn’t know what the protocol was. I ask him, “Are you doing very well with Harry Potter?” And he says “Yeah, I’m doing fine.” And then he says, “The next episode is Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” And he looked at me and said, “And I am the Half-Blood Prince.” I didn’t know he was doing that well, but he must be if he’s the Half-Blood Prince, so I said, “All right, you’ll get the bill.” I liked the fact that he was reveling in being the Half-Blood Prince. It’s a beautiful arc for him in, what, seven movies? He’s just a bad guy, until he’s secretly the hero. I love it.

His character in Galaxy Quest has one of the bigger arcs, too. From hating his catchphrase to saying it sincerely when his fan dies.
He is so pissed off. It must be nice to play a pissed-off actor who’s done Richard III. I just think there must be a joy in that.

And Tony Shalhoub is so chill. He’s just so, Yeah, wow.

If we have two poles — where Alan Rickman’s surly actor is one, and Tony Shalhoub’s chill/along-for-the-ride guy is the other — where do you fall in dealing with fans, with fame?
Well, you see, I’ve never had a TV series. I’ve never had a series that got canceled, and then I had to live off that thing. And I kind of arranged it that way; I’ve just lived on my wits. Anyone who recognizes me and gets my stuff, I don’t get any of that crazy stuff: “Hey, say that thing!” I had some weird catchphrases that came up. Well, they weren’t catchphrases — they were in one show and then I moved on. They’re just out there in the ether. But if people come up to me, it’s nothing too in-your-face.

And that’s where you want to be — sometimes recognized, sometimes completely ignored?
Is there anyone who’s creative that doesn’t want to make it work and get known for doing it? I definitely wanted to do things that people might notice. And I worked at it. My girlfriend asked me once, “Why are you doing this? Is it just for fame?” And I thought, Hmmm. That’s very interesting. And I realized it’s for your peers. The praise of your peers. People that you like, and they say, “Hey, I liked what you did there.” That’s better than anything.

One of the themes in Galaxy Quest is cultural divide: translation snafus, and generally not being able to understand each other. You’ve done comedy in French and German. Have you encountered any problems in translation or cultural divides you couldn’t cross?
I actually do Spanish as well. I’ve got four languages running at the moment, Arabic and Russian to come.

I have a joke that only works in German. I’d say some people didn’t get it because they were too young. I’m talking about King Henry VIII in this show Wunderbar. He’s a very English king, but if you explain your reference people get it. So I go, “Henry VIII, Heinrich der Achte. A huge man, sehr groß und fett. He ate everything, alles gegessen. He ate all the pigs, alle Schweine gegessen. He ate all the cows, alle Kühe gegessen. He had the sheep, alle Schafe. He ate, except one sheep, ein Schafe. He did not eat, who was sehr cool, very cool. He wore Sonnenbrille, dark glasses. And he had zwei Jahre im Detective Schule gemachen, he’d done two years in detective school. And his name was John, John Schafe. Isaac Hayes did a song about him.” I’m doing a John Shaft/John Sheep joke, and I love it because it’s so bloody stupid, [and it] took me 45 seconds to get anywhere with it. And because the lights in the club I was playing in Berlin were half on, I could see people stare at me. I could pick out which ones were thinking, Oh God, I have no idea what he’s talking about.

But normally, everyone gets everything. Everyone always says there’s a different sense of humor in every country. That is not true. There is not an American sense of humor, a British sense of humor. Because the American sense of humor … is that an extreme comedian? Is that Saturday Night Live? There are multiple senses of humor, [including] a more mainstream sense of humor and a more alternative sense of humor, in every country. So all I’ve got to do is hook up with the alternative-sense-of-humor audience just like how an alternative band hooks up with the alternative-music scene in every country. Monty Python’s already proved that this audience exists, so I just go out and find them and invite them to the show. I just go in with universal subjects. Talking about human sacrifice, everyone can go, “Why the hell did we do human sacrifices? Why did someone ever say, ‘The weather is bad; the crops have failed. The gods obviously hate us, so we’re gonna kill Steve?’” In every language, everyone gets it.

The idea of shared history being a universal topic is interesting. Because in Galaxy Quest, the aliens think the TV show is a “historical document,” but really it’s fiction. And the movie posits that fiction is the same as lying. But in reality, the line between history and fiction is much muddier than that.
Yes. And also history is with the victors. Whoever wins the battle gets to write the history of that time. Then later on, historians like to go back and say, “What really happened is this.” I’m very interested in [U.S. Civil War general and president] Grant. His history hangover was quite negative until recently, about 20 years ago. Even though he did screw up his presidency, certain aspects of his presidency, as a general, he did well. He was different than Lee, but very good.

Thematically, the movie links acting with lying, and lying with violence. The evil aliens and the humans are the only ones who can lie, and they’re also the more militaristic groups. Even the Galaxy Quest motto of “Never give up, never surrender” is much more aggressive than Star Trek’s “To boldly go …”
Do you feel like that’s the message coming out of it? Because I don’t think that’s quite true. I think it’s intriguing that if you never ever lie, you could look at a play or pretending as lying. That’s interesting. To link that into the idea that Galaxy Quest is more warlike than Star Trek … See, in Star Trek they were trying to find out things, and then everyone kept trying to kill them.

[Laughs.] Yeah.
They had phasers on stun most of the time. But I assume Galaxy Quest had their phasers on stun. I think they were the same gig. “Never give up, never surrender” — that’s a thing for life. I don’t think violence is attached to that. But I do think self-defense is attached to that. I think [chaotic evil alien antagonist] Sarris is a liar.

What’s the difference between lying and acting? Some people think of acting as telling the ultimate truth, others think it’s faking. That’s the great debate between actors.
I think the difference is between lying and pretending. Lying is when you tell a lie in order to gain an advantage. Pretending is when you pretend and can show it to someone. Pretending to play a character that’s mirroring society, and within that they can tell the truth. So it’s a different thing. If you call [pretending] a lie, I think that’s confusing the issue. It would be tying yourself in knots. It’s great to have fiction because you can mirror society and show us at our best and our worst, and hopefully you can learn something from it or be entertained. I think the core of it all is entertainment. And if you learn something, that stays with you.

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Eddie Izzard on the Scene-Stealing Ensemble of Galaxy Quest