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Valkyrie - Bill Nighy and Eddie Izzard interview

Bill Nighy in Valkyrie

Interview by Rob Carnevale

EDDIE Izzard and Bill Nighy (pictured) talk about playing German war heroes in Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie and how much they previously knew about the extent of the plot to kill Hitler – and how near it came.

The pair also discuss why they decided not to adopt German accents for the movie and why Bill sub-consciously developed a nervous tic as part of his portrayal of Olbricht.

Q: You’re quite a history buff, aren’t you? You throw various lines into your act. Is World War II a particular interest?
Eddie Izzard: I feel I am encyclopaedic on World War II. My dad took me to D-Day beaches when I was a kid. I was there four years ago – every five years they have a remembrance on D-Day beaches and I would have liked to have been there and done my bit. As Tom Cruise said in an interview yesterday, and Bryan Singer too, that everyone wanted to, essentially, kill Nazis. I mean, it sounds a bit extreme, but you do, you think these are the… evil’s an over-used word by a previous President who just got into a helicopter recently – but if anyone’s evil, they got it, the top guy, you know. The SS, that was it… that was evil and you just wanted to kill them.

Q: So, were you familiar with the Valkyrie story beforehand?
Eddie Izzard: Yeah, I knew about the plot, the bomb in the briefcase, I knew about that. I knew that when things went wrong, a number of them were executed with piano wire and it was filmed. And I’ve been to that place – it’s just a simple building but a lot of people died there. So, it’s great to… you know, we’ve grown up with The Great Escape and if you’re from the UK, or America, you’ve grown up with these films where we went and did this thing to the Nazis, but German kids didn’t grow up with anything. But now they’ve got a film, an international film, where they can watch Germans trying to kill Nazis and I think that’s great for them. Hopefully they’ll like it.

Q: Were you a World War II buff?
Bill Nighy: No, I’m not a World War II buff. I know a little bit about it, I was taught the other side of the story in school, so it was unfamiliar to me, the idea of a German resistance, and yet it was considerable. My character, Friedrich Olbricht, for instance, it’s suggested, was involved with the resistance from as early as 1937, which is an incredibly sustained period, therefore, of personal heroism on his part, because he risked the lives of everyone he was associated with, including his children. I knew there was a bomb and a table, I knew that Adolf Hitler didn’t die, but that’s about as much as I knew.

It was a revelation to me, this script. It was a great script, as you can see from watching the movie, but it was almost all new information, apart from those bare facts. And I think it’s really important because like any good story, it tells you that it wasn’t all black and white. In fact, it occurs to me that what happened in Germany could have happened anywhere. Anti-Semitism and Fascism have a long, mysterious, bewildering, poisonous and vile history and it’s not exclusive to the Germans. It was the extraordinarily weird and surreal set of circumstances that led to this lunatic being delivered into the Chancellorship of Germany.

These were very honourable military men, they were not members of the Nazi Party… they had sworn an allegiance to Hitler, because they required to do, in order to just continue their lives – but they were appalled and disgusted, not only by the Nazi Party and the obvious vileness of that, but the fact that their Commander-in-Chief was an incompetent nincompoop and they were losing men. And, you know, Stauffenberg came from nine generations of military men – he was like the epitome of what was German then and what being a soldier meant.

Eddie Izzard: I would take issue with just one little bit of that, Bill [laughs]. Unfortunately, for my mind, I wouldn’t say he was incompetent. I would say that he was a sociopath… which I prefer to call anti-sociopath because, you know, they don’t seem socio at all, these sociopaths. But Hitler went around with kids and he was obviously, you think, friendly with kids. And you can see it from the photos of the time, he was going out, he was asking them questions and with his dog Blondie and all this kind of thing. And anyone who wasn’t on his side, he was happy for them to be killed in the most merciless ways. It’s completely sociopathic behaviour. And they [the Nazis] were, unfortunately, very organised, very driven, and Goebbels was very clever. These were not unintelligent people. And that was the bloody trouble… they spent so much time and effort on this. Most people just want to live their lives and, as politicians, they’ll make some decisions and try and make their lives better… but these people were just desperate for power. He is a cracked personality.

Q: Everyone that met him first-hand, they always say how charismatic Hitler was…
Eddie Izzard: Well, yeah. I mean Hitchcock did this with all his bad guys – they’ve got to be charismatic. We do think of him as building himself up in Germany by being evil… but he didn’t actually show that side. He went round writing books saying we’ve got to deal with the Jewish people. He said very negative things about the Jewish people, but he would spend a lot of his time once he became a politician saying: “I will be strong for Germany, you will get jobs and work and stuff.” And that seemed pretty positive after the ’29 crash – because the Nazis did come up in the ’20s and then went down towards the late ’20s because the Weimar Republic started getting its thing together. But then the ’29 crash sent unemployment spiralling and they came back in.

Q: And even then, they never got 50 per cent in a legal election, did they?
Eddie Izzard: No, until they went to these referenda, the endless referenda. Germany no longer has referendums because of what Hitler did. Because once he got in and removed all the Communists, by putting them all in prison and started shooting Social Democrats, there was really no opposition at all. He said: “Do you like what I’ve done?” But people were not allowed to say “no”, for one thing, and were getting jobs and whatever. So, if you disagreed and went on strike you went to prison. And everyone was just saying “yes”. And things were coming round because they were using certain economic methods to get everything going. And that was part of the problem, and what led to Time Magazine giving him Man of the Year in 1937.

Q: We know what happened to Stauffenberg’s children, they survived. What happened to Olbricht’s children?
Bill Nighy: I believe that Olbricht’s children survived also. As we know, the Nazis were pretty merciless and they did kill a lot of people who were on the periphery. Olbricht was a very – well, they all were… they always say: “He was a family man.” Well, who isn’t?

Q: Did you give him that nervous tic that he has? Was that something of yours or was that documented?
Bill Nighy: Er…I have a coffee problem. [Laughs). Actually, this is odd. I’m not aware of it until it’s over. So, it certainly wasn’t a conscious thing. I have no sense memory of what happened when I was there. It’s not because I go into any fancy altered state or anything, it’s just because I’m getting old. But, you know, I must have made a decision, because, like any actor, I’m meticulous about that. So, it was in order to act in the moment – this sounds so lame, go directly to Pseud’s Corner – but in the moment, I stand by it in as much as it was there to express a part of the story.

Q: And a man living right on the knife-edge?
Bill Nighy: Yes, exactly.

Q: Can I just ask about the accents? Were you relieved not to have to do the normal Nazi accent or disappointed?
Eddie Izzard: No, I’ve done two films with German accents and I find there is a way you can do it so it’s not too overblown. We’ve seen a lot of films that way. There are fewer World War II films with people just doing it in English. And of course, as the director, Bryan Singer, was saying, when German people were talking to other German soldiers, they weren’t hearing accents, they were just hearing someone speak the same language, so I think it gives an immediacy for British audiences, for American audiences, just to see it in that way. But I didn’t mind either way, they just chose that way. I thought it was going to be with German accents, so…

Read our review of Valkyrie

Read our interview with Tom Hollander and Jamie Parker