Off to see the Izzard

Cross-dressing comedian Eddie Izzard on big breaks, serious roles and talking crap.

Published December 11, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

With his taste for raccoon eye shadow, blinding lamé suits and platform pumps, Eddie Izzard commands the stage with erratic style and hyperactive verve. His keen mind is a wonder, allowing him to go off on mental tangents that brilliantly (and often nonsensically) segue among disparate topics like world history, pop culture and "The Star-Spangled Banner." A name attraction in his native Britain since the early '90s, it wasn't until his 1998 HBO special, "Dress to Kill," that Izzard finally became a commodity in the States. The Emmy-winning one-man show was recently released on DVD for the first time. On it, Izzard is at his irreverent best, offering ruminations on the strategic use of flag-planting in British colonialism, the failed marriages of Henry VIII, the building of Stonehenge and the genesis of Engelbert Humperdinck's name

In recent years, Eddie Izzard has parlayed his popularity into a thriving film career, opting for dramatic roles in independent films like "Shadow of the Vampire," "Velvet Goldmine" and "The Cat's Meow" (in which he played Charlie Chaplin). His latest big-screen effort is "All the Queen's Men," a World War II comedy about a bumbling group of soldiers (led by "Friends" star Matt LeBlanc) who disguise themselves as women in order to infiltrate a female-run factory housing the Nazis' Enigma code machines. In the film, Izzard playfully exploits his drag persona as a combat-shy cabaret diva who gives his squad a crash course in the fine art of cross-dressing. An actor of surprising naturalness and versatility, Izzard frequently takes on theater projects, and his portrayal of Lenny Bruce in the London production of "Lenny" earned critical raves.

How do you explain the allure of dressing up in women's clothes?

It's not an allure, it's just a sexuality. It's the only way I can express the feminine side of myself as a member of the transgender community. If you have an outwardly biological bloke's body, then that's the only way you can move toward where you feel more comfortable. I mean, women can already do it -- they can be tomboys and that's no problem.

When did you first decide to incorporate transvestitism into your act?

I came out when I was 23, and I got into stand-up when I was about 26 and that started taking off when I was about 29. In 1991, I told the press because I thought, Well, my stand-up's taking off in Britain so I better tell them so they can't reveal it. Then I just started talking about it onstage for about a year and the press thought that it was some sort of gag. Then I thought I better wear some makeup so I'm not scared of being able to do that. The people started saying it was a whole gimmick. It was very bizarre. I was hugely fearful of the impact it [coming out] would have on my career. I videotaped the first-ever gig and it was 60-40 that I could've lost the career at that point.

How did initial audiences react to your onstage persona?

Well, they were sort of OK. The first five minutes, they all went, "Wow, what the hell's going on?" Then after five minutes they just got on with it; I could've been wearing an elephant suit. It didn't really matter. The comedy was still the same. I talk surreal crap and that never changes.

Your role in "All the Queen's Men" plays up your transgender image. Was that a selling point for you or just incidental?

Yeah, I think that was a selling point. They wanted me to play this part, which was initially a gay transvestite, and I said, "Well, I'm a straight transvestite, so why don't we bring the character more toward my end?" In the end, we ended up making him a bisexual transvestite, and I thought, OK, because he was supposed to be something of an action transvestite who had been in the military and then kicked out when they found him wearing his wife's clothing. When the director [Stefan Ruzowitzky] agreed to go with that, I thought I'll go do it because when I first came out, I never thought I'd be able to play an action transvestite in a film and get paid for it. Plus, I'm also kind of fascinated with that period and I wanted to be in the army when I was a kid.

As someone who's fiendishly in tune with American pop culture, what was it like acting alongside one of the "Friends"?

It was great. I haven't done comedy in my films. I've generally chosen dramas in my films and theater work because I always wanted to be a dramatic actor. I had a great time working with Matt [LeBlanc] and it was also quite weird working with someone who had such good comic timing since I'm used to working on my own.

From "Velvet Goldmine" to "Shadow of the Vampire," you've made some pretty unorthodox film choices. How do you usually pick your projects?

Well, initially, and even still, I don't really have a choice of everything in the world. Quite often when something comes around it tends to be like, "Do you wanna do this film or not?" And if I say no, then I just have to wait around another few months for something else to come up. I take money out of it. Money is not the driving thing; that's where you lose it.

Is it frustrating not having your pick of projects or are you happy with the roles you get offered?

In the sense that you always like to have the choice for every single film, I'd love to be in "The Lord of the Rings," but I was probably touring at the time and didn't even know it was being made. [Laughs] You have to deal with it.

What do you see as the major differences between American and British audiences?

There's no difference.

Did you feel any pressure to refigure your material in order to adapt to the sensibilities of American audiences?

No, the audiences I play for can all string a sentence together. In fact, American audiences prefer it if you just keep it entirely British and they can work out the slang and everything. The trick is, don't change a thing.

Why do you feel the need to keep returning to the stage?

Well, it does teach you a hell of a lot because you do it night after night. But if you land really good theater roles, you get better film roles. Film is my first love. I'm not a theater person, really. I do a hell of a lot of time onstage just performing my stand-up. Because I'm coming from comedy, if you do deliver a good theater role, then hopefully producers and/or directors will go, "Hey, I heard you did good in that." And therefore it could put you on a more believable dramatic track.

Your most mainstream films like "Mystery Men" and "The Avengers" have tanked at the box office. Do you aspire to star in a blockbuster or is that not really a priority for you?

That's not a main priority, but I do. I am a very mainstream, popcorn-eating watcher of films. That's not necessarily a problem because I wasn't the controller of either of those two films. But even if I was in control, it might have happened the same way. [Laughs] It's better for me to come this way [from comedy] because people say, "Plug him into a comedy and try to make that $100 million straight off." I needed to prove that I could hold something dramatic and that's what I've been trying to do. I have to pay my dues and earn my spurs, but I'll get there cause I'm a relentless bastard.

You're obviously very proud that "Dress to Kill" is finally coming out on DVD. Does this particular show hold any more importance for you compared to the other one-man productions you've done?

It does in the fact that in America it won a couple of Emmys. That was very nice, because in Britain I don't get any awards for the stand-up shows. We don't have such an idea of having comedy specials, or any specials for that matter. It was a breakthrough show for me.

While you were performing this show, did you have any idea it would garner so much attention?

Not particularly. Having played in a number of different countries and found that at certain points things break through, it tends not to be a particular show. Rather, it's more like how much time you spent and at which point everyone decides to buy into it; a number of factors come into play. The show I did in New York was somewhat different from the one I did on the West Coast where Robin Williams came in and helped produce the show. Then HBO put it on and opened it wide.

Describe the process of preparing for your one-man shows. Do you start out with a specific theme in mind or do you just go where the jokes take you?

The second one. I have no process. I start a new tour with the old tour. I never write a show; it's always improvised from whatever comes into me that night. Any show is a constant work in progress. I'm constantly chucking out old stuff which is boring me and improvising new stuff. Then I'll develop that and a week later I'll think, Oh, there's another bit I can add to that. It's a constantly moving process. About five to 10 minutes of my show is improvised, but only five to 10 minutes.

This seems very little, but interestingly, when I was playing Lenny Bruce, I managed to get hold of many tapes left to his estate and he said he did the same thing. It's good to know that I'm in the same ballpark.

In the case of "Lenny," was it very daunting to play someone of such iconic proportions?

Lenny was very daunting, but it was a good challenge because it was dramatic and comedic -- one of those crossover roles. No stand-up has ever played Lenny, as far as I know, so that was a great challenge. It was a very arduous experience. It really was draining because you do have to die eight times a week for three months.

How did you prepare to inhabit the role?

Well, with any character, I sort of pull them to me. Knowing a lot about Lenny beforehand, and then just going further on in my research, he started from a more mainstream position than I did. His early television stuff was so broad, it was kind of reminiscent of Jerry Lewis and the childlike characters he used to play. "Lenny" went beyond comedy and into reading out the transcripts of the trial. So, I just put myself in that position. If I had lived that life, how would it be for me? It's actually very difficult to do stand-up in someone else's style. I could do a facsimile of Lenny doing his stuff, but I also found that I had to refine some of his other comedy -- especially his early comedy. It was quite a weird experience. I could never be exactly Lenny, but I had to give the essence of Lenny, like when I was playing Chaplin.

You spent a lot of your early childhood years moving from country to country. What impact do you think that had on the content of your comedy routines?

Being from Yemen, you can't help but be interested in everything that's going on now -- otherwise I'm just getting rid of my birthplace. It does give you a global perspective, but I still just talk about crap.

Religion and politics are two recurring themes in your act. Do you have any thoughts on how President Bush is handling international relations post-9/11?

In a short one-line answer, I don't know quite where he's going. America is the Roman Empire, so I think the Bush administration could do whatever the hell they want and no one can really stop them. So keep your fingers crossed.

How did you develop this voracious love of history?

I've always been fascinated by history. It's a family thing, really. My brother and my father are both history buffs. It could be that we have a history genetic thing going on. [Laughs] Also, I realized that nobody was using it in stand-up, and there was just tons of stuff lying around. It makes you look really intellectual, even though I'm just talking crap.

By Ian Rothkerch

Ian Rothkerch is a New York writer.

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