For Eddie Izzard, Syfy's Treasure Island has "teeth"

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Dec 17, 2012, 3:16 PM EST

Somehow it seems so right that Eddie Izzard—comedian, transvestite, actor—is playing a bald-headed incarnation of Long John Silver, the villainous, one-legged pirate on Syfy's Treasure Island, which premieres Saturday, May 5, at 7 p.m. ET in a four-hour movie event.

"It's a story that anyone can identify with," said Izzard. "What would have happened to you? Because [Jim Hawkins] finds the map and it's his story of, 'Should we go on the adventure to...' which is like going to the moon. Going to the Caribbean in those days is like going to the moon now.

"We worked out the treasure was the equivalent of something like $500 million, 300 pounds, about $500 million," he said. "Imagine there's $500 million [on the] moon and you've got to find, like the Millennium Falcon or Han Solo. Could you go and get it? It's one of those stories. So you do get caught up in it, and it just gets nasty. And it's about death and blood and life and finding yourself and what would you do in those situations? And it doesn't end with a Hollywood happy-go-lucky thing."

As far as taking on Robert Louis Stevenson's well-known creation, according to 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, he keeps shifting the ground. Sometimes it's pushed upon him, but sometimes it's him manipulating and moving," he said.

"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.' So Winston Churchill was not only a rat, he was a double rat. 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 1940, because of setting up against the Nazis, he's become our greatest person ever."

Stevenson based Long John Silver on a friend who was an editor, a journalist and a poet "who actually wrote the Invictus poem. So the writer of the Invictus poem, which is the one that influenced Nelson Mandela when he was in prison, is in fact the basis for Long John Silver. And it's about the indomitable spirit which is in that poem. So this spirit, this changeability, this determination to get the gold and the treasure," said Izzard.

"That's the essence of Silver, and that's the story we wanted to do. And 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. I wanted Silver to be this engine behind this that's just determination to go. And I'm a very determined person. I'm a determined person, and I like to bring that to my characters.

"If you know anything about me as a transvestite who's gotten this far in my career, if you remember all the transvestites you know who are out, transvestites who are doing okay in their careers, it's not a big group," he said. "So obviously I'm determined. I run marathons. I'm going into politics. I do productions. I've played Hollywood Bowl. I do gigs in French language. His fallibility, it 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 fight the devils within us. And to be weak and to be greedy. It's a potential for all of us there."

Izzard admits that he's used his own life experience to help him create Silver's darker side. "Within watching Silver I tried to appeal to my demons. Because I know that I have done things in my life which I'm just, 'I shouldn't have done that, and I'm ashamed of that. That's no good,' and 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."

Izzard's odd route to complex Long John Silver is a fascinating one. "I went the big curvy route through comedy, and as the comedy started taking off, I started saying, 'I want to do dramatic roles.' So 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," he said. And in fact, he garnered great reviews for his work on the FX series The Riches, as the father in a family of con artists hiding out in a gated community.

"And now people are sort of believing me and sort of trusting me and I've got better at my dramatic craft. And they are different, drama and comedy is different. You need to know what the differences are, which I now do know. The bottom line of comedy is to be funny, the bottom line of drama is to be truthful. ... And you can be truthful and funny, but if you're not truthful in a drama then the audience leaves you, they go, 'I don't believe in what he's doing and saying.' And you try to do that in every scene," said Izzard.

"With Treasure Island, I'm very happy with it. There are a few scenes in there which I go, 'I didn't land that like I should have.' But there are some which I think, 'I'm very happy with what I did.' And to be working up against these other actors is great," he said. "We had a great adventure just in the making of Treasure Island. It is an adventure, and we had an adventure."

Syfy's Treasure Island also stars Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings), Donald Sutherland and Toby Regbo (Harry Potter) as Jim.

Do you think this new Syfy version of the classic will have "teeth"?

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