Secret Agent
He was the alternatives' alternative, the TV who never did TV. So how did Eddie Izzard end up as a Hollywood leading man?
text: Tim Clark
photography: Terry Richardson | thanks Marian!

arenamag4.jpg (52249 bytes)

There's nothing crueller than meeting a personal hero for breakfast. You want to be cool, easy, flowing. A dash of scintillating, a side order of worldly charm. But as your colleagues know too well, you are habitually a sullen mute until lunchtime, at the earliest, with all the wit of an ironing board and the empathy of a wart hog. Mornings are shite.

Nevertheless, on your way to breakfast in Soho with Eddie Izzard, you berate yourself. Here's a chance to meet a comedy original, whose delirious shows exhibit none of the grating manifestations of ego that blight so much stand-up. You know, the love me, love my hunger stuff. This one's the kind of bloke you imagine you could be mates with. And what's a bit of slap between mates?

So, what a great way to start the day, you say. How lucky am I? What a great job I have. And that's true. So you try smiling at the world. A passing courier, temporarily paralysed with fear by this, nearly cycles under a bus.

You get settled in the appointed cafe, its sole occupant, and await Mr. Izzard. Scaffolding across the front of the building has turned this cheery gaff into a lightless pothole. There's techno playing, and you realise you might have to kill something to lighten your mood.

Later, straining to transcribe the interview tape, you'll wish you'd killed the techno, followed shortly by yourself, but for now you contemplate the wonderful thing that is Eddie Izzard. A man with talent and plans coming out the wazoo: tours, videos, movies, European unity...

A chancer with heart, he seems to have leapt fully formed into the limelight, instantly accorded - as if by divine right - the same quality of affection that has always been due, say, Spike Milligan. It wasn't effortless, of course. Back in the days, he paid his dues as a street performer in Covent Garden. "I was abyssmal."

He is not entirely bonkers. He studied accountancy. ("That's why television and film suit me, they're combinations of technology, creativity and finance," he says.) But he is that serendipituous thing: the Happy Outsider - a lifeform that's perennially amused by human affairs, by God, by lawnmowers, by people thinking him odd. But then there's strangeness everywhere, if you know how to look for it. Izzard's home overlooks the vast Kensal Green Cemetary, last resting place of James Miranda Barry, Inspector General of the Army Medical Department, who at death, in 1865, was found to be a woman.

At this point Eddie swirls in, wide awake, ravenous, with the air of a go-getter already on his third or fourth appointment of the day. I know that if I'm ever moved to consider it, I'll never wear leather pants as successfully as he is now. Especially at breakfast.

And we're off, ordering juice, coffee, scrambled eggs, abnd talking about his role alongside Ewan McGregor in Todd Haynes' upcoming film Velvet Goldmine. After last year's whirlwind Eddierama of New York shows, French shows, huge London shows, hosting a four-hour Channel 4 night, the Izzard - Lust for Glorious video, appearing on Letterman, playing a Russian diplomat in the movie version of Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent, is he easing up? Not noticeably. "I've got my whole career planned up to death," he has said.

To that end, this year sees him in the movie remake of The Avengers (co-starring Ralph Fiennes, Sean Connery and Uma Thurman) tearing around in a Mini with Shaun Ryder blasting Emma Peel with Uzis, plus the aforementioned Velvet Goldmine.

It's a glam rock thriller (produced by Michael Stipe) whose shifting time frames - from mid nineteenth century through this century's Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties (in no particular order) - render the script something of a stylistic loop-the-loop. Not to mention the fact that one scene has Andy Warhol, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe together in Max's Kansas City.

"I play a control freaky, businessy manipulative, sleazeball band manager," says Eddie. "Plenty of good front, y'know, 'Gonna make you a star, I am the man.' My character challenges the previous manager to an armwrestle for control of the rock star. And in every scene I get to wear a different suit."

Which leads, sort of, to discussion of Eddie's idiosyncratic dress sense, on and off stage.

"All my stuff's off the peg. This," he waves blokeishly chipped plum nails at his leather trews and jacket, "is a woman's suit, but looks like a man's suit. That's because women stole the suits from men. And I'm wearing it, so therefore I am cross-dressing even though people think I'm wearing it as a bloke. Therefore it just proves how stupid the whole thing is."

"Cross-dressing is about socks," he points out. "I wear women's socks." Pause. I try not to look baffled. I try not to look under the table. It's at moments like these you think "He's 'avin a larf." But he's not. He's actually quite serious.

"It's not about the clothes, it's about being a tomboy." Why? Does he think being a boy is too limiting a role?

"Mmmm." In between mouthfuls of scarmbled egg. "Boys, we're just blocked in. By stuff that's distinctly male-oriented. Girls are blocked in different areas, like job glass-ceilings. Girls are blocked by the glass ceiling of our trousers."

Floundering, I comment that in my business, magazines, they're everywhere.

"Glass ceilings?"

No, women.

"Do you think women have got a better sense of smell?" he asks. "I've got a bad sense of smell."

I consider faking a coronary to give myself time to regroup.

Eddie chats the same way he mimes on stage. A shrug, a raised eyebrow, a shuffle can conjure up terrorists or giraffes, but it's such a harum scarum ride, you don't participate in the driving, you just hang on for dear life.

I try to steer the conversation towards more solid ground: his much vaunted pan-Europeanism, his espousal of a single currency, and doing stand-up in Paris, in French. Bit of a fanatic about Europe, is Edward. And the only British stand-up to attempt performing in a second language (he took marathon intensive French lessons during his New York season to prepare for the Paris gigs).

"Well, as a New European, you just do it. War time was good for that, just doing things. Jobs. Inventing things. Like Velcro. No, that came out of the space programme."

Did he have to script his Paris shows more closely than usual, maybe cut out some of the ad libs?

"The French shows didn't feel different, well, except for every word coming out of my mouth. That's not true; le weekend was the same. There's key words I translate. After that I just use my French."

And he rattles off the examples of "lawnmower" and "Grim Reaper" in French. I pounce on these, so we might further pursue questions of gender here. Why are all French slang words for willy also feminine? Hunh? It's a fairly deadly conversational gambit he doesn't rise to, but instead, around a mouthful of scrambled egg, launches into an impression of James Mason and Sean Connery having a bit of a chat in French.

"I've got a big motorway in my head," he then says, waving toast. "I can go sideways, and come back in a different direction."

Personally, I'm experiencing something of a similar sensation.

"I do go off on tangents just to entertain myself. But there's always bits that interconnect. Human beings react to a structure, we get moved by story-telling.

"Some critics say I'm 'just funny'. I love talking crap about toasters. And I like playing toast. Though with my videos, which are an at-home gig, it's got to kick out of the screen more. It's got to be more interesting than toast."

(Here there's a bit of Eddie humming as he plays with the tape recorder, concluding "It's not very well designed, is it?")

Does he share in men's fascination with technology? Given that he's such a playful control freak, I some how imagine a home strewn with toys and gadgetry. His Soho office, I later discover, is a riot of inflatable furniture, multi-coloured bric-a-brac and bead curtains and lava lamps. And he is passionate about football and cars.

"No, I used to be an addict of toys, and what if robots really took over our lives? Made all the decisions..."

Oh god, here we go again.