Acting up
Eddie Izzard is one of our finest comics, a one-off who has also conquered crowds in New York and Paris. Now Britain's best-known transvestite is playing Charlie Chaplin in a new film - but why would a first-rate comedian chase acceptance as a second-rate actor?
Emma Brockes|Monday May 17, 2004 | The Guardian

Fans of Eddie Izzard will be familiar with his habit, put to comic use on stage, of tailing away at the end of his sentences. Today they serve a different purpose. Hunched in a chair in his publicist's office, he talks for a bit and then peters out, averting his eyes and sinking into himself with flinty disinterest.

"Are you in a bad mood?" I ask.

"No," he says stonily. "I'm in pain." He has hurt his leg. His chin tips up in what might, in happier circumstances, look cute, but today looks like an invitation to sod off. We pick disconsolately at a bowl of almonds and try to talk through the atmosphere.

Izzard doesn't perform when he doesn't have to. After 10 years in the game, he is tired, perhaps, of gratifying people's expectations of how outrageous comics and transvestites should be. Nevertheless, if one imagines that the 42-year-old might be a little more camp or jolly or silly in the flesh, it is because he has said, many times, that when developing his stage persona he never had to "train to be a character because that character is me. It's just a big me, a very odd me."

The big, odd Izzard was the hottest thing on the comedy circuit in the late 1990s, a "blokey transvestite" as he puts it, who was brassy and beautiful and very, very funny. His rambling jokes made him a superstar, to the extent that people are still telling them now. A riff about religion began, "A lot of people in the Church of England have no muscles in their arms," moving on to, "now, the sermon today is taken from a magazine that I found in a hedge ..."and concluding with his impression of what the Spanish inquisition might have looked like if it had been run by the Anglicans: "Cake or death? Cake or death?" He conquered New York, winning two Emmys for his stand-up show, and had a crack at Paris, in French, which made everyone love him all over again. "Bonjour," he said. "Difficile or quoi? ... Fucking bizarre. ça va?" The audience loved him. But that was a while ago now.

In 2001, Izzard made a film which is only just being released, something he has "pushed" for in the face of studio reluctance. The delay seems to do with uncertainty about its value. The Cat's Meow, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, speculates on the details of a famous party that took place in 1924 on the yacht of William Randolph Hearst, at which a guest died in mysterious circumstances. It's a Gatsby-ish setup in which Izzard plays Charlie Chaplin, Kirsten Dunst his lover and Joanna Lumley, in the final bizarre casting twist, the writer Elinor Glyn, whom she seems to have modelled almost entirely on Miss Babs from Acorn Antiques.

As the guests revel and shriek and exchange long, hammy glances, one expects Mrs Overall to stagger behind them with a tray of macaroons. Izzard's performance is one of the subtler on board - his Chaplin is smooth and predatory - but it still makes one wonder why he wants to trade being a first-rate comedian for a second-rate actor.

Izzard disagrees that acting is the thing he does second. "It was the thing I wanted to do first, I just didn't get the chance. So when I was 10 I wanted to be in films." For a short while, he wanted to be an accountant. He likes adding things up, he says. But he got kicked off his accountancy course for failing his exams. (He begged to do resits, but they wouldn't let him.)

So he became a street performer and for 10 years strove to make it as a stand-up, while resisting the temptation to settle for a job in children's TV: "Death," he says. Generally, things don't come easily to Izzard. He says sketch-writing is perhaps his most natural talent, but not stand-up. "It was all do or die. I kept trying and regrouping, trying and regrouping. And it kept not working. I felt like in a thousand years I wasn't going to get anything going."

But why, given his talent? "It was probably because I was trying to get there, wherever there is, very quickly. The speed was more important than the quality. I'm not a natural, really. But if I work and work and work and work at something, I find I can do it good and then get better and better. Some people are instinctive, but I'm analytical."

He is analytical to such a degree that, despite the occasional fade-out, he explores each thought with the thoroughness of, well, an accountant. He has theories about everything, the most widely publicised being on European integration. It's a trait he associates with his transvestism. The impulse to wear makeup was initially so alarming and unwanted and alien to him that he had to force himself to explore why his desires ran so apparently counter to his well-being. He came up with all sorts of notions about gender and the habit of exploring a subject to its outer boundaries stuck. "I just lay down on the bed with the curtains closed. And the brain protects you, actually; it's like a bad car crash. It has walls around the thing that disturbs you and will not let you concentrate on it. I kept bashing away. If you take a hammer to it, eventually you can get behind. You say, OK, why do I feel this? Is it a perversion?"

When he eventually came out, his father, who used to work at BP and was stationed in Yemen when Izzard was born, was cool about it. Izzard's mother died when he was six and he was sent to boarding school. "It wasn't," he says, "a good time." Still, he reckons his experiences have made him a better actor. If this sounds like a Pollyanna-ish spin, it is immediately flattened by Izzard's unsmiling delivery. "I know that if I just keep at it, I'll be able to get to places where ... there's just not many accountant-street-performer-stand-ups who do gigs in French and are transvestites. I've experienced all this stuff, so if I pull it in, and am truthful about it, then I should be able to hit a place where people go, 'Oh'."

Comedy is about the size of the laughter, while drama is about the "fatness of the silence". The former is more entertaining, the latter more gratifying. "Drama is a complete meal, vitamins, proteins, carbohydrates. It's a slow burn thing. It's got an arc. Comedy is more like coke."

This statement will be anathema to many of Izzard's fans, a disappointing collapse into a world he might have been expected to take the piss out of. The quality of his acting is not in doubt - he was, to be fair, nominated for a Tony award for his stage performance in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg - but he seems far too cool to have embraced the luvvied-up world. I tell him that I don't understand why he wants to be a part of it. He gives me a levelled look.

"I don't believe that competitions are important," he says, "but I got nowhere for 10 years, I don't intend to go back. Tactically, if you're a transvestite, a blokey-looking transvestite, you're trying to break through behind everyone else, so you've got to play every card that you possibly can. Because then I might get better roles and catch up with where I'd hoped I'd be when I was seven and wanted to be a child actor. I'm just way behind."

Despite being able to fill huge theatres, there seems still to be a need for acceptance. Izzard says: "I have to play the game. I mean, I'm a transvestite, I shouldn't exist."

The last time Izzard was verbally abused in the street was in America, when he was on tour. He was coming out of a club when a group of men started cat-calling him. Did it shock him? "Shock isn't the right word." He sighs. "It's just a change of mode. If someone is going to attack you with hatred, you have to get into attack mode. I shout back a lot of abuse. Then there's a potential for violence and you have to work out what your options are."

He has only ever been hassled by people who don't recognise him from the telly, he says. "If you're a transvestite and you get known, people let you off. It's like when racists say, 'We don't like black people but you're all right mate, because you're really good at comedy, or you're a good footballer or whatever.' The people who have attacked me haven't said, there's that comedian. They've said, there's a transvestite."

Does he think attitudes towards transvestism have changed in Britain since he started out? "People have said amazing things. I was in Liverpool and some builder - builders would normally give you hassle - this builder said, 'Hey Eddie, where's your lippy? And I said," - he puts on a quivery voice - "Oh, I, I haven't got it. And he said, 'D'you wanna borrow mine?'" Izzard almost smiles.

In a weird way, he says, it's a gift. People are always confiding in him because he wears his weakness on his sleeve. It allows him to talk to women differently. He had a girlfriend but is now single. "People know that you've struggled, that it can't be a walk in the park." He used to think he was half-male, half-female, but after analysing it further, now thinks he is "all boy, plus extra girl". He is butch and aggressive and boastful and all the other things traditionally perceived to be male. He is also thoughtful and moody. He had to stop himself from being put out when Grayson Perry, the artist and cross-dresser, won the Turner Prize and ruined his schtick as Briton's only famous transvestite.

We go into the foyer for pictures. "I'm sorry I was so spaced out," he says. The head of the PR agency walks past and says hello; Izzard flashes him a huge smile. It disappears almost immediately.