Crazy Eddie

Famed transvestite Eddie Izzard has lost the lipstick and gone butch. But he's still typically insaaaaaaaaaaane!
story: Kevin Sampson |Photography: Donald Milne | Black Book Spring '02| thanks Marian

It's only when Eddie Izzard stops throwing his arms around, pours the wine, and settles down that one realizes that he's actually quite wee. This should not come as a surprise. It's almost de rigueur for men in showbiz to be several sizes smaller in the flesh. Ask Prince or Mick Jagger. Ask Tom Cruise or Matt Dillon. Somehow Izzard's sheer bravura and insane energy on stage or on screen makes him a giant. But in fact, in person, he's a titch.

With no fewer than three new movies set for release and an extended theatrical run in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg underway, Izzard is in good heart. Joe Egg is playing at London's Comedy Theatre and Izzard has just replaced Clive Owen, star of Croupier, in the lead role of Bri. Izzard is superb in the play, hitting that mark between comedy and despair with intuitive ease.

At the moment, however, Izzard is in his baskstage dressing room, looking a lot less flamboyant than we're used to seeing him. Not only is he dressed in jeans, but there is nary a trace of his usual frippery - no hair dye, mascara, lipstick, or nail polish. Izzard is even sporting a scruffy goatee. The UK's most celebrated extrovert since Quentin Crisp is more Joe Normal than Joe Egg.

"I'm going through a butch phase," he says with a grin. "Challenge me," says the grin. "No," says the author.

Izzard was wearing a resplendent tangerine getup by Gaultier when I last saw him performing at the Hammersmith Apollo in London a couple of years back. At that point, he was the master of comedy bollocks - the art of endless and indelible stream-of-consciousness spieling on any and every subject. He would rave on about the Grim Reaper: Why does he still use a scythe? Why not just get himself a nice little lawn mower? Izzard seemed taller then - even accounting for the stilletto heels.

Since that performance, he has appeared in numerous movies: Velvet Goldmine, The Avengers, and Sid & Nancy director Alex Cox's take on Revengers Tragedy. This spring Izzard stars in The Cat's Meow, the latest picture show by the director who did The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich.

The Cat's Meow is a period piece about a love affair between Charlie Chaplin (Izzard) and young starlet Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), who was also, at the time, William Randolph Hearst's mistress. Chaplin never truly capitalized on his celebrity until the 1920s, when he became a regular guest among Hearst's pleasure-seeking set. It's a story of sexual intrigue, curruption, scandal, and cover-up - sort of like Chinatown with Chaplin in the Jack Nicholson role. Izzard mimics Chaplin so brilliantly one wonders whether he's taken Method to its maniac limit. He shrunk himself for the part.

Where Izzard empathizes with Chaplin - and where Bogdanovich presumably sensed a kinship that would lead to such a mesmeric screen performance - is his sex life. According to the gospel of Eddie, Chaplin sacrificed the bounties of a decadent Hollywood to stay on top of his profession. Izzard himself didn't have sex until he was 21. He became a transvestite shortly thereafter. Though he's charmingly evasive, it seems that, like Chaplin, the near-neurotic energy that drives Izzard's genius steered him away from earlier sexual longings. He was a reluctant Lothario - Chaplin, too.

"Imagine it," Izzard begins. "This guy comes from the lowest form of poverty imaginable in London to the most impossible riches in Hollywood. And he becomes paranoid that it will all go away if he stands still for a moment. So he just keeps his head down, keeps working, never ever turns down a role or takes a holiday."

Izzard, who seems almost to accept that his sexuality is a facet of his celebrity, is well attuned to the conflicts of supply and demand in sex. Generally speaking, he is in enormous demand, but he limits the supply. He considers himself to be a "male lesbian" - a guy who likes to dress as a woman and fuck them, too.

In parting, Izzard reveals that he's always wanted to be an actor. He had never even heard of standup comedy until the 1980s, though it was as a standup comic that Izzard first achieved success. Even now, he associates acting with his formative years in school plays: the girls, the costumes, the makeup, and the attention.

"My mother died when I was six," he says. "I'd demanded a lot of affection from her. And I suppose it's no coincidence that I first started volunteering for school plays after her death. I sensed that I could get approval and affection that was now missing from the audience. I wanted the audience to love me."

Eddie Izzard plays Charlie Chaplin in The Cat's Meow (Lion's Gate), opening April 5.