What's it all about Eddie?
By Mike Davies, The Birmingham Post | Oct. 21, 2004

Having made his West End stage debut at the Ambassadors Theatre with his award winning one man show back in 1993, Yemen born Eddie Izzard has since gone on to become the world's best known cross dressing, make-up wearing heterosexual stand up comedian.

However, since taking the lead in the world premiere of David Mamet's The Cryptogram, again at the Ambassadors, a year later, Izzard has increasingly been pursuing his childhood ambition to become known as a serious actor.

Following the Mamet, in 1995 he earned critical acclaim in the title role of Marlowe's Edward II at the Leicester Haymarket before making his film debut alongside Bob Hoskins and Robin Williams in The Secret Agent. Following this came minor appearances in The Avengers and Mystery Men alongside progressively more substantial roles in glam rock drama Velvet Goldmine (in which Izzard was, ironically, one of the few men not wearing a dress) and Shadow of the Vampire.

Most recently he turned in a stunning performance as Charlie Chaplin in Peter Bogdanovich's criminally underrated The Cat's Meow and a gloriously excessive turn as Lussorioso in Alex Cox's delirious adaptation of Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy.

It's only a matter of bringing together timing and the right role before an Academy or BAFTA nomination comes his way.

It's slightly ironic then that the film for which he's getting his widest commercial exposure to date doesn't actually feature him on screen at all. Instead, Izzard provides the voice for the Psammead, the mischievous wish-granting fairy who's the neuter pronoun in the live action film adaptation of E Nesbit's turn of the century children's classic Five Children and It.

And, ad libbing like crazy, it's a voice with a decidedly strange accent.

"I wanted my voice to have this European thing, which came into my head when I was reading it," he explains.

"He's 2000 plus years-old, so he must've picked up a few accents on the way. It's somewhere between French and Italian though I felt he became slightly more English when he was drugged and off his face!"

Not everyone felt the same way, however. "Well there was a certain pressure from America saying it wouldn't work and people wouldn't understand a European accent. But I was kinda stiff, and I said if it's not going to work, then get someone else. My response was that everyone found this guy with an Austrian accent saying 'Hasta La Vista, baby. I'll be back!' very groovy people, so it just shows Middle America can swing with anything it wants to!"

But while he had fun playing with the voice, Izzard confesses he was disappointed that, recording separately, he didn't get to go on set.

"I wanted to be there," he pouts. "And I wanted to play the father coming back in the aeroplane as well. I thought it would be quite nice if 'It' was actually their father, as if it was all in their heads and it was their creation that came out of it, and it was a projection of their father. I thought that was quite a nice tie-up, but it was already cast so I couldn't do it."

Not being on set also threw up problems of judging how to pitch the performance without actually seeing the images to which it would be playing.

"It was a little difficult," he admits. "But I've just done a Disney film called The Wild, which is pure animation, and I forced the director on that to read it back to me and play with me. On animation films people will often record totally separately, so you just go in and do your lines, sometimes even out of order. Personally, I'd rather get them in altogether, so they're bouncing off each other, getting emotion off each other. Anyway, I sat down with the producer of Five Children and fired all this stuff at him, and then ab-libbed off it as well. It just gave me freedom to go crazy. I think I've done the Enigma Variations of E. Nesbit!"

For all the difficulties though, it seems Izzard's taken quite a fancy to this animation lark.

"I want to make my own series," he reveals. "There's this character called Pants Cat I've worked on for years, I want to make him into an animated thing because I felt it would be a great way to get my comedy out without having my face all over it. I did him at my first show, Live at The Ambassadors. I was talking about a cat - as I've never had one - and I said he was good at doing laundry, as he was Pants Cat! I just came up with this stupid superhero cat.

"We did a few cartoons of him, but I never quite got the look I wanted. Also animation costs a hell of a lot, but I've kept hold of the copyright so I just have to engineer myself into a position of clout,or get enough money to develop it. At the moment I'm still in the cult area where some people love my stuff, and some go 'Who is this guy? Is he a toilet cleaner?'"

He's being unduly modest. Izzard is sufficiently well known within Hollywood circles to get himself a cameo as a holograms expert for two scenes in Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Twelve ("one talking to Catherine Zeta-Jones on the phone and the other talking to George Clooney and Brad Pitt) where he also got to play rooftop poker in Rome with Pitt, Elliot Gould, Michael Douglas and Don Cheadle.

"I came second in my first game," he beams. "George doesn't play; he says he has a bad mojo that makes you unlucky. So he was leaning on people, giving them this bad mojo, then he did it to me and I won a huge hand!"

Eddie will also be seen playing legendary rocker Gene Vincent in the John Turturro directed big screen musical comedy Romance & Cigarettes opposite Susan Sarandon and Kate Winslet while earlier this year he announced that he's making a documentary about his own life. To be titled Diva 51, and featuring footage shot over the past three years, it follows Izzard through his exhaustive efforts to crack America, as both a standup and an actor, culminating in two Emmys for his standup and a Tony nomination for his Broadway performance in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg.

Exploring the roots of his comedy, his driving ambition and transvestism, Izzard cheerfully admits "there's an element of my wild and large, rollicking ego about doing it" but while obviously seeking wider recognition for his talents at the same time he says he's actually quite happy that he enjoys a level of fame several notches below that of his Oceans Twelve co-stars.

"Jack Nicholson said 'always be number two'. I like that idea of hanging back, because you're always trying to go forward. It's not that I would get those roles and would get that fame anyway, but I like the analogy of being able to buy a packet of crisps in shops; being able to switch on and switch off.

"Now that I've proved I can hold a character I'm also picking and choosing very carefully. I was offered a lead role in a romantic comedy, which I do want to do. They offered me half a million, but I said no because I didn't like the script. In the end it is a business, but I'm happy to turn that down and keep to my plan and wait for the perfect role."

Five Children and It opens tomorrow

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