LA City Beat| 09.11.03 | Nathalie Nichols | thanks Erica for the pics
Eddie Izzard eyes me boldly as we sit down at a shady table in the courtyard at the Chateau Marmont hotel on Sunset. The Emmy-winning British standup comic, stage/screen actor, and burgeoning one-man enterprise is in L.A. for three days to do press for Sexie, his first world tour in three years, and today has been a whirlwind: guest-DJing on KCRW-FM’s Morning Becomes Eclectic, doing phone interviews, and fielding dinner invitations. But right now he has only one thing on his mind: my skirt.
“That slit up the front is brilliant,” he says, pointing out the left-of-center gash that runs from the knee-length hem to mid-thigh. He considers the effect for a moment. “I should get myself one like that. It would show off my football thighs,” he concludes. “Yeah, I’ll get a suit made with the skirt slit like that.” He briefly turns dreamy, as if imagining how he’d look in such an outfit.
Yes, Eddie Izzard has a thing for women’s clothes, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. At a time when America’s common humor denominator – like so many pop-culture medians – dips ever lower, he’s building up career steam in the U.S. with his smart, absurd, rapid-fire stream-of-consciousness wit that’s really only superficially powered by his rock-star-esque transvestite mystique. His solo shows – of which the rapidly-sold-out Sexie is the seventh in a decade – weave arena-style sets and lighting with jokes about world history, comparative religion, animal behavior, macabre doings, and … jam. His live appearances in the States have been relatively limited, but his popularity here has burgeoned since HBO aired his 1999 Dress to Kill special. Soon after, such Izzard-isms as “executive transvestite” and “cake or death?” entered the lexicons of fans ranging from teenage Buffy enthusiasts to counterculture scribes to dusty old character actors and beyond.
Still, what I like best about Eddie Izzard is that, in this ever-more-macho world, he’s a girlie man, and proud of it. Although if one didn’t know that he wears loads of makeup, sky-high heels, and women’s attire on stage (and wherever else he wants), you wouldn’t guess his girlie-mannishness by looking at him on this sunny late afternoon. He’s in “bloke mode,” as he calls it, almost your average shlubby Hollywood guy, his ginger hair short and scruffy, dressed in jeans, blue sneakers, a casual black V-neck sweater with orange armbands, and sunglasses atop his head. The only transvestite-y things about him are his slightly ragged garnet fingernail polish and gold woman’s watch.
Released late last year, the Dress to Kill DVD has sold nearly 100,000 copies. Anticipation has been high for the DVD of Circle, his 2000 tour (coming September 23 on Anti, a subsidiary of L.A.-based indie music label Epitaph), and he starts a sold-out six-night run at the Wiltern on Monday. But with his recent Tony-nominated turn on Broadway in Peter Nichols’s offbeat, emotionally wrenching dramedy A Day in the Death of Joe Egg and a critically acclaimed role as Charlie Chaplin in Peter Bogdanovich’s 2001 film The Cat’s Meow, Izzard’s proving himself more than just a cross-dressing laff riot.
Lots of straight men wear women’s clothing and even makeup, but the vast majority do it behind the shutters or locked in the basement. Izzard is so far out of the clothes closet, he refers to himself as a “male tomboy” or “male lesbian” – which sounds like a sardonic twist on that bad old ’70s sensitive-guy pickup line, “Baby, I’m just a lesbian trapped in a man’s body.”
The straight drag tradition carries from the Greeks on down, through B-movie maker Ed Wood and rock acts from the Rolling Stones to Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band, the New York Dolls, the Cure, Poison, Motley Crue, et al. Still, L.A.’s own musician/scribe Falling James Moreland to the contrary, not even many show-biz blokes – to say nothing of average joes – get dolled up for, say, intercontinental airplane trips.
Yet, Izzard is comically conflicted about being the maverick. Commenting on soccer star David Beckham, he says with mock petulance, “He paints his nails, apparently. Which I thought was my thing. And I thought: ‘Bastard!’” Then again, he adds, “I want someone else to say they’re a transvestite. So many guys are wearing makeup. Well, I’d like some of them to [admit it]. Fucking, it’s a bit lonely.” Pause. “Actually, I’d probably hate it.”
~ Action Transvestite ~ He may have the playing field virtually to himself, but the possibilities Izzard carries just by being comfortable with his sexuality are thrillingly infinite. It’s admittedly a dream-big perception, but the more people out there openly representing different points on the gender spectrum, the quicker stereotypes can break down. Which could foster better understanding of the complex transgender world, as well as more acceptance, in this Puritanical society of ours, that sexuality is rarely so neat as fitting Tab A into Slot B.
Izzard doesn’t think he’s threatening to men or women, although people of both genders have responded negatively. “If you’re a weak character – a male or female – you will attack things,” he says dismissively. Still, his stage clothes project a tough femininity, his full makeup a kind of mask, which together seem like protection. Putting on clothes that reinforce your power, whatever force you feel you’re tapping into, is like clamping on armor – whether you’re a performer alone on stage or a woman walking every day in a man’s man’s man’s world.
Izzard mixes it up simply by being a man in women’s clothes in a man’s world. However, he maintains, “It is not for me to say” whether his stilettoed stance can clear a path for all transvestites. “I was trying to create enough space for me,” he says. “And if anyone else found it useful, that’s great. I certainly created a big fucking space for me. I can sort of wander around.”
Where gay drag is about creating a believeable illusion of femininity, or a parodic one, Izzard blends boy and girl, enhancing the masculine with the feminine. Which may be out of necessity: He’s definitely not built like a girl. He has a boy’s squarish body and face, and in person he doesn’t appear anywhere near as femme as in the print ads for Sexie. They feature a leather-skirted Izzard straddling a giant Harley, one sleek stockinged leg snaking sensually out and planted like an erotic kickstand in a tall stiletto boot. Looking impossibly hot and dangerous, he gazes at himself in the side mirror while applying lipstick like a pro.
“I had to fight for the thigh,” he says, sipping his Diet Coke. “I said, ‘I need this thigh.’” He felt the motorcycle, with its connection to pop-culture symbols from Marlon Brando to Lara Croft, was a fine conveyance for his “action transvestite” persona – the “running, jumping, climbing trees” lad who likes to snowboard, flies airplanes, and dreams of someday piloting a Spitfire on tour … all while possibly wearing makeup and something eye-catching, if tastefully cut.
Thus, it was essential for Izzard’s different facets to be properly represented in the ad. Which can be tricky, he reveals.
“Certain things I can’t wear,” he says. “If you’re very girlie, you can wear kind of boysy things, and that mixes with the girlie. But if you’re very boy-shaped, you’ve got to flash the girlie parts of you that just say ‘girl.’ So this really works,” he says, tracing a line up his thigh, “but this” – he twists in his chair to peer at his jeans-clad calf – “is too … well, actually, I like the calves better now. Because I’ve got these Prada heels which are quite high.”
~ A Daredevil in His Element ~ Accentuating the girlie parts certainly makes Izzard stand out on stage, but he’s memorable more for how his humor pings recklessly through fascinations with language, technology, movies, sports, and whatever random things catch his magpie-like imagination. In fact, although he was “out” as a transvestite in early 1985, he didn’t mention it in his work until 1989, and he didn’t perform in a dress until 1992.
His humor is brainy but street-smart and attuned to the crowd – perhaps partly due to his early experience in the mid-’80s doing comedy-stunts in London’s Covent Garden with a pal from Sheffield, where Izzard briefly attended university before he began writing, producing, and acting in comedy shows. Influenced by the likes of Lenny Bruce (who he portrayed in a Sir Peter Hall production of the bioplay Lenny), Spike Milligan of the Goons, and Steve Martin, he developed a style that blends observation, pantomine, and Monty Python-esque silly takes on true facts into a highly changeable, personal – though not all confessional – tapestry, of which his transgender state is only one thread.
His comedy performances have the breathless, seat-of-the-pants giddiness of a daredevil who relishes being in his element. As befits an action transvestite, he works without a net from start to finish. Owing to mild dyslexia, he crafts material in his head and on stage, not from notes or a script. (How ironic, then, that one of his two Dress to Kill Emmys was for Outstanding Writing in a Variety, Music or Comedy Program, the other being for Outstanding Individual Performance.)
As an example, he cites his idea to talk about “the day that fire was invented. I’ve been trying to mold this really arduously,” he says. “Because I like that: The day before fire was invented – you know, there must have been a day before, when it was freezing. And then, the day after” – he rubs his hands together like a person enjoying the warmth: “‘This is a lot better!’”
Patterns emerge as Izzard goes along. “It’s like sculpting, where you don’t know what you’re getting when you’re making it,” he says, molding the air in front of him with curlicued flourishes. “I’m just constantly sculpting with no real fixed plan, and just seeing what comes out of it. And going, ‘Ah, this seems to be like that; this seems to be smooth; let’s put a bit more over here; shit, you’ve got a sculpture!’”
In person, Izzard’s extroverted stage persona is evident, but toned down. He speaks softly and, though he talks with his hands, his gestures aren’t as theatrical. Yet, though he routinely takes risks in shows – far-ranging digressions, accidental dead ends, occasional clunkers, all of which he somehow manages to pull back and wrap up neatly – he may be more daring off stage. At least, that’s what I think after he tells me he came over from Europe on the Concorde wearing a short skirt, high heels, and fake breasts.
“That was great,” he enthuses. Along with the euphoria comes a typically Izzardian worst-case scenario: “I can do this here in the West and just about get away with it,” he says. “If I started going into Second World countries, Third World countries, people would go yayayayay!” He conjures up an invisible firing squad. “So I don’t know how far I could push this. It’s quite good to have gotten this far.”
Truly, he’s much less likely to deal with a Third World airport firing squad than such relatively minor hassles as “immense heat and makeup. It all gets a little tricky in this kind of heat, and I haven’t quite worked out how to do it.” Hmmm, maybe that explains the bloke-ishness. “But generally, I can wear what I want, as long as I have the balls to wear what I want.”
~ Working the Costume ~ Appropriately enough for someone who’s man enough to embrace his girlie-ness, Eddie Izzard has a rock-star sheen when he’s in front of an audience, or a camera. Still, it’s a weird sort of glitteriness, a combination of swashbuckling frontman and cable-TV history buff. He curses lots, dresses flashily, seems somewhat untrustworthy, and is gleefully irreverent. Among his many riffs on religion is a Circle bit involving Popeman and his faithful sidekick, Altar Boy. Wearing leather bondage pants, a sparkly black shirt, and a necklace of rhinestone stars, he energetically acts out the Papal pair using “Jesus disks” to shoot vampires out of the sky, then manically singsongs “All I’m talking about here is blasphemy … blas for you … blas for everybody in the room” as his whole body wiggles with goofy energy.
His numerous riffs on the Royal Family are very punk rock in a “God Save the Queen” way, mixing sarcasm with serious political and social concerns. Still, he wrings a lot of subtlety out of those lines, making him more, say, Clash than Sex Pistols.
“I steal everything from rock ’n’ roll,” confesses Izzard, who’s shown on the Circle DVD intro getting his face done by a mechanical arm a la Herbie Hancock’s classic “Rockit” video before bursting out of the dressing room in a pyrotechnic fireball. “But comedy is a mind gig, and rock ’n’ roll is a feel gig. In comedy, you’ve got to have total focus on the person who’s doing it.” Such limitations both concern and challenge him. “In standup particularly, [artists] have been coming on with a microphone, black curtain: ‘Hello … .’ And you just talk about this and wear whatever. So I thought I’d just try to fuck with everything. You’re working the costume, you’re working the story, you’re working every facet you can.”
Izzard is elaborating on how the sprawling stage presentation for 1997’s Glorious didn’t translate so well to video when I shift in my seat, and he breaks off, again distracted by that wardrobe thing.
“Oh, that’s interesting how you cross your legs – with a skirt, you have to hold it down,” he observes after I unconsciously hold one side of the slit to keep the material from wrapping around my leg. “When I was wearing a skirt, I couldn’t quite figure out how to do that. But you just have to hold onto it while you cross your legs. I didn’t pick up these tips,” he says. “Thank you.”
~ Coming Out to Play ~ What, his mum never clued him in on the femme-attire survival essentials? Well, no – she died when he was young. Izzard was born in Aden, Yemen, on February 7, 1962, to a father who was then an accountant for British Petroleum, and a mother who was a nurse/midwife. (Izzard calls his company Ella Communications, using her middle name.) When he was a toddler, the family moved to Northern Ireland, where his mom died of cancer when he was six and his older brother was eight. That tragedy was followed by miserable-to-dealable turns in different boarding schools, until, as a teen, Izzard discovered the giving-and-getting bliss of performing for an audience.
“There’s a child that got lopped off when my mum died,” he explains. “And I can play with that child. But like, maybe Peanuts and Charlie Brown, maybe like Calvin and Hobbes or The Simpsons, the kid has adult sensibilities.”
His sense of play gives him a fanciful charm and strange innocence – even when he’s rabbiting on about loosing a monkey with a gun in Charlton Heston’s house, Jesus getting decapitated by a flying dinosaur, or babies being put on spikes. But the oft-recited fact of his mother’s death also points to Izzard’s underlying vulnerability, another part of his appeal. He mentions that learning to fly an airplane was a way of “reclaiming,” of overcoming a fear of flying. Yet if being on stage helped him reclaim, say, the sense of belonging he lost after his mother died, it only works because . . . he’s fucking really funny! Not to mention, he’s as focused on his audiences as he wants them to be on him.
Other than what he brings up on stage, however, Izzard doesn’t reveal much about his personal life. He’ll gladly talk about his adventures in airports and lingerie inequities and being freaked about piloting after JFK Jr. crashed, but, although he allows that he has a girlfriend, he’s guarded about such things, for a variety of reasons.
“Certain people in my family, or the people I’ve had relationships with, they say, ‘Look, I’d rather not be judged on you; I want to be private,’” he says. He does talk about his dad, who’s OK with it. “But, yeah, there is a certain protection,” he says. “But then I also tell everyone that I’m a transvestite” – an intimate enough revelation to guarantee intrusive loony-bin reactions, from hostile to harmless – “and, Christ, what else do they want?” He says this without rancor, yet still waves his hand slightly, as if mitigating the harsh-sounding words.
Besides, Izzard clearly values his fans, and not just in the feed-my-need moment of being on stage. He sends personal updates and does chats on his beloved website, stays after shows to sign autographs, and lingers after the official hours of an in-store to scribble on DVDs ’til his hand practically falls off.
Yet, even as his empire grows, some fan encounters still catch him by surprise. After disembarking from the Concorde in New York in girlie mufti, he says, “I went up to Immigration, and I was ready for a fight. Because, born in Yemen, as well, wearing makeup and a skirt. But the woman was a fan. She said, ‘Are you touring? Can I have an autograph?’ So, I gave her a ticket.”
~ World Domination ~ The cult of Izzard may be bigger than he realizes, or he may be willfully oblivious. After all, he need only utter the word “jam” to get a laugh from devotees. But he’s driven by a veddy British sense of wanting to conquer all known territory. Although Izzard’s as likely as any comic to revisit favorite shtick and worry some topics like a dog gnawing on your favorite Prada heels – random lists of things God created, obscenity-laced renamings of Popes, various characters (the Queen, God, etc.) driving around flipping people off – he isn’t content to tread water.
“I want to do stuff that’s rated on a world level,” he says. “Because I always thought I couldn’t, and for years it didn’t come out, and then it did seem to come out. So I want to try and really push it, because when you get in a comfort zone, it’s bad.”
The Joe Egg role proved a knockout in that regard. The emotionally gripping, grimly hilarious play costarred Izzard and Victoria Hamilton as a couple coping with the myriad difficulties of having a vegetative daughter. With a script that called for ad-libs when the parents reenacted certain scenes from their tale, the piece was uniquely suited to Izzard’s talents – to the point where his digressive tendencies nearly hijacked the production one night during its London run, leading Hamilton to firmly, if affectionately, chastise him.
Another way to keep himself out of the comfort zone is to continue pursuing film roles. Since 1996 he’s had parts in such flicks as Velvet Goldmine, Shadow of the Vampire, and the aforementioned The Cat’s Meow, his most notable to date.
He’d like to do more movies, but, “It’s not the sort of thing where I’m sending people running out with flags saying, ‘Eddie Izzard would like to do a film. Please reply.’ I need to set up my own films. I can’t go up for roles at this point in time,” he says, jokingly citing a lack of “A-list” standing. “I’m just hacking my way up that mountain. But I’m a relentless bastard. And I’ll just hack my way through until someone goes, ‘Well, that’s quite good.’”
In the meantime, he’ll doubtless continue to travel the world, perhaps someday soon wearing a smart new suit with a cunning off-center slit.“When girls wear the boy stuff, it’s seen as empowering,” he says. “[But] really sexy clothes have a power only in the way that drives men kind of crazy. If a man puts that on, it’s not seen as powerful.” He ruminates. “But it could be. It could be. But it would have to be used in the same way that women use those clothes with men. And I actually think I know how to do that. Or I could get there. But I haven’t gotten there yet.”