Shiver me timbers! The original pirate heist caper, Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, gets a muscular, edge-of-your-seat reboot on Syfy with Eddie Izzard — yep, the cross-dressing Brit comic — as that notorious peg-legged plunderer Long John Silver. The four-hour epic, which also stars Elijah Wood, Donald Sutherland and newcomer Toby Regbo, has already won big ratings in England, where it ran as a miniseries. Syfy airs it all in one night. The plot: Young Jim Hawkins (Regbo), who is in possession of a map to buried treasure, takes a swashbuckling voyage to the West Indies, little knowing that the ship's cook (that would be Long John) and the seemingly benign crew are actually cutthroat buccaneers determined to get to the gold first. Izzard gave us the lowdown on his killer role.
TV Guide Magazine: This Treasure Island reminds us how truly frightening and bat-crap crazy pirates actually were. Somehow they wound up getting a good rap. What's up with that?
We certainly have softened and romanticized them, haven't we? It's probably the Disney effect, though I must say I went on the Pirates of the Caribbean [theme-park ride] and had a very good time! The truth is, pirates were drunken, murderous bastards who didn't give a f--- about anyone but themselves and would not hesitate to rip you up. They were extremely well organized, like mafia gangs. In fact, our approach here is much less classic Treasure Island and much more GoodFellas.
TV Guide Magazine: Despite that, your trademark sass shines through. Was it tricky keeping Long John on the right side of camp?
I don't play him for comedy, yet he's funny because he's so matter-of-fact about murder. For him it's such a practical choice, especially when one is going for a treasure that would be the modern equivalent of $500 million. [Laughs] I think a lot of people might kill for that.
TV Guide Magazine: You look like you're having the time of your life. Is this gig a fantasy come true?
Absolutely! Being in great big sprawling dramas is all I've ever wanted to do since I was 7! It was a wonderful honor to be offered the part, especially for someone who is known for comedy. I've had to push for good, serious roles since I was in school. Finally it's working out for me. I guess I have the fine-wine approach to show business.
TV Guide Magazine: Was this project as physically hellish as it seems?
We went from the extreme cold and snow of Dublin to the boiling heat of Puerto Rico. But the hard part was doing it all on one leg — for me and Long John. He runs, he falls, he can't get up. We play this leg thing for real, not just for looks. It was bloody hard, but I kept battering through. And, thanks to a good osteopath, I survived.
TV Guide Magazine: What's tougher, traipsing through jungles and sand dunes on a peg leg or acting with a scene-stealing parrot?
Let me tell you about that bird. I was forced to do all my scenes with him facing into the wind. He did not want his feathers ruffled.
TV Guide Magazine: How was it going bald?
It's a curious thing. Not everyone has the proper skull to pull it off but, unfortunately, you don't know that until you have shaved your head and by then, well, it's too late. But I am proud to say my skull turned out to be quite lovely, thank you very much.
TV Guide Magazine: Stevenson never wrote a follow up to Treasure Island, yet there's talk you plan to do one anyway. Isn't that a bit cheeky?
One has to be careful. I can't reel off a list of sequels to literary classics that have done well, but that won't stop us! We're already working on it. It'll probably be set in the Mediterranean so we can work in the Barbary pirates. Only four of us are left alive at the end of this one, but there are new places we can go, especially with the relationship between Jim and Long John. They're buddies, they're foes, they're like mentor and student or father and son. Long John loves Jim but is also prepared to kill him. [Laughs] I think they have big adventures ahead!
Treasure Island airs Saturday at 7/6c on Syfy.