Eddie moves into a butch phase

by Nick Curtis | Evening Standard | 12.11.01

Interviewing Eddie Izzard, the nation's favourite cross-dressing comedian, is hugely enjoyable, but you wouldn't call it easy.

Eddie Izzard: frocks have gone

His conversation is rather like his stand-up act: a freeform, associative, amused and amusing ramble. We have met because Izzard is replacing Clive Owen in the West End revival of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Peter Nichols's savagely funny, autobiographical account of life with a severely handicapped child.

During a simple lunch of chardonnay and cigarettes, Izzard's conversation ranges over indolence and self-improvement, transgender politics, telling jokes in foreign languages and the injustice of a world where boy bands live while George Harrison dies.

Izzard's brand of whimsical observation has put him at the top of the comedy tree. He can sell out West End theatres and stadiums here and abroad, and is the prime choice to host gigs like the last Amnesty International benefit, We Know Where You Live.

The part of Bri, however, represents his latest bid to go beyond comedy into serious parts. "I've been looking for crossover roles," he says, "trying to push into dramatic work. My first ambition was to be an actor rather than a comedian." After early, unevenly received leads in Mamet's The Cryptogram and Marlowe's Edward II, Izzard hit a synergistic jackpot with the role of stand-up burnout Lenny Bruce at the Queen's Theatre two years ago. Rumour has it, too, that Nichols wrote the part of Bri, complete with his mordantly funny monologues, for a comic back in the Sixties.

"He does love comedians," says Izzard of Nichols. "He was in Ensa with Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey, and there is room for improvisation in the character. But I'm trying to avoid that, to play down the gags, push for that blackness and go for the truth of the character."

He seems keen to prove himself, not least because he's joining a cast of heavyweight thesps - Prunella Scales, Victoria Hamilton - who are already well established in their roles. When he performed The Cryptogram, Izzard says he treated it much like any other gig, often dashing into the theatre and onto the stage just in time for his first cue (much to the surprise of his co-star, Lindsay Duncan). Now, he says, he's beginning to understand the different rhythms of stand-up, theatre and film, and to work on creating a character: "My Bri will be different from Clive's. He'll be a man who has been through his own Summer of Love, and found that life hasn't quite worked out like he expected: he's married, he's a teacher, he's got this child." The hippy roots of Izzard's Bri are showing already, in a freshly grown goatee. Has the facial hair in turn influenced Izzard's rehearsal garb of jeans, Tshirt and (flat-heeled) boots? "I'm going through a butch phase," he explains, adding that his transvestitism waxes and wanes, and that a frock rarely goes well with a beard.

I wonder if he's happy with his role as Britain's most visible transvestite? "Yeah, very much so," he enthuses. "If it helps me to dress the way I want, or helps others come out, I'm very happy being visible." He thinks he may have contributed slightly to a greater acceptance and understanding of the whole transgender world. "The other day I was walking past a building site, and one of the blokes shouted, 'No lipstick today, Eddie?' I said no, I'd forgotten it, or something, and he said, 'Wanna borrow mine?'" Izzard marvels. "I mean, to get that from a builder ..." He won't say, though, whether he's in a relationship at the moment. "That's where I go all Daniel Day Lewis on you. There's this curiosity - who am I sleeping with, whether I'm gay - and it's the one thing I'd prefer to keep private." For the record, Izzard has always dated girls in the past, and tends to call himself a "male lesbian".

Apart from the romance issue, Eddie Izzard is remarkably forthright. When I interviewed him in 1995, he confidently predicted that he'd move into films, and attributed his desire to perform, with brutal honesty, to a need for affection created by his mother's death when he was six. Six years on, he stands by that assessment of his emotional motivation, and he has indeed moved into films. After memorable bitparts in forgettable fare like The Avengers and Mystery Men, he contributed a brilliant cameo as a German actor in Shadow of the Vampire ("I played him as someone who thought he was great, but was basically rubbish"), and has three new films out this year. He plays Charlie Chaplin in Peter Bogdanovich's ensemble piece The Cat's Meow, he's in Alex Cox's Liverpudlian reworking of The Revenger's Tragedy and he will play - yes - a transvestite alongside a dragged-up Matt LeBlanc in the Austro-German wartime movie All the Queen's Men.

Currently, Izzard is also developing film projects of his own: "Originally, I thought I'd write, direct, produce, star - everything, like I did with plays when I was at university. But then I realised that you end up being rubbish in at least two of those roles, so I'm looking for a writer to evolve ideas."

He seems driven, I say. "Nah, I'm really lazy," he ripostes. "If I didn't push myself I'd just end up at home, watching telly or reading the back of cereal packets." He describes his career, with an impressive lack of arrogance, as a series of meagre successes after years of abject failure: "I was shit at street theatre for about a year, and then I was shit at stand-up for the first 18 months. When I started acting I was pretty shit, but I think I'm less shit now." He seems touchingly pleased by a preview of The Cat's Meow that describes his performance as "surprisingly impressive".

And, as if he weren't quite busy enough, "lazy" Eddie Izzard is planning a massive European tour for 2003, which will end up at Wembley but start in Berlin. Which means that he's planning to learn German in the space of 18 months, the same way he learned French for a string of gigs in Paris. "There are so many languages I'd like to learn to perform in - Russian, Italian," he says. "And I'd love to be able to perform in the country where I was born."Where's that, then, Eddie? "Yemen," he says.

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