A bit of an Izzardography...

If Robbie Coltrane can play the Pope, then I can dress up like Marilyn, reckons Eddie Izzard as he extends his talents to a spot of straight acting.

Here comes Eddie Izzard, funniest man in Britain, walking through Covent Garden towards the Dme , one of those bistro places where it's all grenache and croissants and change in a saucer. Oh, he's dyed his hair red. His case is swinging, and he's stopped. Mobile phone out. Natter, Natter, natter. In he comes. Waitress? Cappucino and a bucket of toast, please.

Eddie Izzard is a man in a hurry. He's been making up for lost tim ever since a succession of shortsighted teachers stymied his creative ambitions. Only actors become actors, they said, and only writers become writers. It's like throwing the dice, you see: a double six for you and a double four for you. But it's not just luck, the young Izzard came to realise, it's har work plus ideas.

Eddie was ready for success at seven, when he sw his first play, The Boy And His Cart. He was still ready at 18, attending Sheffield University and delivering sketches and routines at the Edinburgh Festival. But when does discovery come? Maybe not until you discover something about yourself, something that really, you already knew.

"I came to London and came out as a transvestite," states Izzard through the froth of his cappucino, "after endless fucking mind-churning. I was on the dole, couldn't work, spent a year inside watching telly, trying to adjust psychologially. But having the guts to come out as a TV has been my greatest gift because I analysed everything on my own. In my head. There's no support network as there is for gays and lesbians. TV is all stuck in the '50s, underground. The only books are written by people who sound like they're apologising: 'Oh no, I'm not a transvestite.'"

"My analysis was that the world thinks I'm an abomination. I don't think I am, so let's spin this around. There have been TV people for millions of years, so fuck it. I'm a confident person now. Everything else I do is a doodle by comparison. Stand-up comedy or straight acting, nothing can be as hard as coming out, in make-up, in the streets, or as hard as wearing a skirt and heels that are - ooh - a bit too high."

So after years of living dangerously, Eddie came out big-time. He'd do street performances in Covent Garden wearing a tea cosy and talking bullshit to anybody. But a crowd would gather, "because I can talk endlessly. You don't need to ask me any questions. I can go on and on, word rapping".

Eddie grew up in the Middle East, Northern Ireland, South Wales and Bexhill-On-Sea, more or less a concentration camp for the terminally bewildered.

"Eleven years penal servitude. I worked in the De La Warr Pavilion (Behill's fabolous '30s complex) and sarcasm was my main weapon, because you could not shoot the old people. They'd say: 'This tea's not hot.' So I'd take it back, put it under the steamer nozzle and bring it to nuclear temperature and they'd be siping it: 'Ooh ooh ooh.' They couldn't complain. My ambition then was to come back one day and sell the Pavilion out."

These days, his engagements diary is an overachiever's wet dream. Izzard's career has been on an upward curve since he set up his own club, Raging Bull, and shows little sign of stopping. The day we met, he was about to open in Cryptogram, David Mamet's new play, set in late-'50s Chicago. He was recommended for the role (Del opposite Lindsay Duncan's Donny) by Alan Rickman. "I thought he was great in Die Hard and then we met him at a benefit. It was weird, but he thought I could do it. The director Gregory Mosher has got a reputation for using odd people. He puts Madonna in Speed The Plow."

In three days, the rest of Izzard's year was mapped out, "My character happens to be gay but it's bot intrinsic. It's not daunting, either, I see it simply as another challange. I want to get established like Robbie Coltrane who can do Cracker or Black Adder and be beleivable in both. Great crossover. I might do it and maube people will say: 'He's a pile of shit.' But if it's: 'O no, he's alright,' I can do more straight stuff. I don't want to be restricted by comedy."

During the play's six-month run, Izzard will also be working on refining his Channel 4 sitcom The Cows, a Gary Larson-esque project in which the cattle get chatty, demand the vote and... well, we'll have to wait. Although he'll direct The Cows and might do the voices with Steve Coogan, Izzard still treats television with suspicion. He's only made four appearances on the box, and nows that familiarity can breed contempt.

Then it's America, off-Broadway. "My head's been in America forever," concludes Izzard. "It's because of that English thing - 'it can't be done, don't try it' - whereas in America it's: 'There it is, go do it'." So he went off and did street performance in New York and Memphis, and, of course, he wowed them at Montreal in the Just For Laughs Festival, so he's got the taste.

"Billy Connolly managed to break it in the States, but he plays for 2,000 people. I wouldn't mind 50,000. I'm absolutely ready to crack America."

He could pull it off. Unlike the majority of British comic talent, Izzard's "bollocks on top of more bollocks" could work in the States since his performance isn't a million miles away from Richard Pryor, Steve Martin and Robin Williams - everyday surrealism turned into reality with the assistance of a knowingly comlicit audience.

Today, Izzard prides himself on running pretty much a one-man ship. As master of his own destiny, he's never had a plugger or an agent, books all his tours, talks his own deals. He lost ten grand in getting Raging Bull going, but that hasn't stopped him setting up Ella Records, an offshoot of his Ella Communications (christened with his mother's middle name), because of his belief in a band called Wasp Factory (who are playing the VOX stage at the Phoenix Festival on July 15). "I love their energy and anger and that's all I should say about them, I'm interesed in making things work. Entrepreneur? I'm a 'creativist' and the music business is a hugely creative area, the most exciting business of all because it all happens so fast. Oh baggy... oh Bikini Kill... oh riot grrrl...oh punky thingy... oh it's all fucked up."