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Lock up your shoes, Izzard's out to conquer the world one step at a time
BY SUZANNE VAN ATTEN
If you don't know who British comedian Eddie Izzard is yet, you will. He's a man with a plan, and he's got the gonads -- not to mention the stilettos -- to back it up.
Currently playing a hammy silent-film star in Willem Dafoe's quirky creepfest, The Shadow of the Vampire, Izzard has also played a number of character roles in other bits of Hollywood fodder like The X-Men and The Avengers. But it was in Velvet Goldmine (1998), a baroque orgy of flash, trash and rock 'n' roll set during London's glam rock era, that Izzard first attracted American filmgoers' attention as the flamboyantly androgynous band manager.
The role wasn't a huge stretch for Izzard, at least not sartorially speaking. A heterosexual transvestite in his personal life, Izzard was one of the few actors in the film who looked like he actually belonged to that world.
Though his movie career is only in its infancy, Izzard may soon be the hottest thing in stand-up since Chris Rock. Already a star in Britain, he finally gave American TV audiences a taste of his freewheeling cultural commentary with his Emmy Award-winning HBO special "Dress to Kill," which first aired two years ago. Ruminating on topics that range from England's global myopia and the birth of the Anglican Church to the discovery of the Heimlich maneuver and America's disdain for history, Izzard gently pokes fun at everyone's cultural peculiarities in a way that underscores the universality of human nature.
Type in Izzard's name on the Alta Vista search engine, and more than 94,000 pages pop up.
"94,000? It's gotten into a dangerous area," Izzard says, suddenly perking up in what had been a pretty low-key telephone interview from New York. Among those 94,000 Internet pages is the comedian's own site, an ambitious endeavor that he's actively involved with, plus many fans sites named things like "Cake or Death" and "So ... Yeah," which pay tribute to some of his bits. So intrigued is Izzard by the power of the medium, he's been know to log in on list serve discussions about himself.
"I used to get on and write comments and stuff, but then I found that I was going a bit nuts. I would get on and there would be pages and pages and stuff, and then you lose your mind a bit," he says.
It's revealing that Izzard expresses regret over not being able to determine where his cyberfans live. Why? It would clue him in to concentrated areas of popularity, helping him plot his late-2002 tour (which will include Atlanta, he says). Though he concedes that it sounds a bit "Machiavellian," Izzard is carefully cultivating his career. To that end, he's devoting the next two years to acting before returning to his stand-up roots.
"I want to carry on working, you know. I don't want the thing to sort of drop off and go, 'Oh yes, where is he now? He now works in a chip shop in Kent, selling underwear to dead people,'" he says. "People say, 'Why don't you do this, why don't you get a distribution deal? You can sell way more and get your profile higher and higher.' But I'm happy to keep it just edging up ... and that way it has longevity, and you don't sort of have people saying, 'God, not that guy again!'"
He may lampoon Britain for its lack of global vision, but Izzard has his eye on worldwide dominion. He's already done his one-man show in Paris -- in French -- where stand-up is virtually non-existent, and he's learning German so he can do the same in Germany. Adapting his routines to different cultures isn't much of an issue, he says.
"The audience I try and get in are these sort of aware, thinking, stringing-a-sentence-together type people, so you can talk about philosophy, religion, things that happen in Britain that don't happen in France, things that happen in France that don't happen in Britain," he says. "Having worked with German, French and Austrian people on the films I've done recently, I know that every country has several senses of humor ... You just have to hook up with the right people. Monty Python have already proved it by being liked in many countries, but obviously not liked by everyone."
Not surprisingly, Monty Python was a major influence for young Eddie. Determined since boyhood to get into the acting biz, Izzard's efforts to land roles in school plays were fruitless. "Films seemed miles away, so I thought, 'Well, I'll do sketch comedy like Python and try and get on television like they did, and that was sort of my main goal."
After college, Izzard performed sketch comedy for three years, then spent four years as a street performer. "Then I realized stand-up was the happening comedy industry, the one that was feeding into nighttime telly, and I had to be in that."
It didn't come easy. "It was about a year-and-a-half between the first two gigs where I did one and it was terrible, and I just thought, 'I don't know what I'm doing. I suppose I should do workshops.' And even in those I was slow. I couldn't get the hang of it. I couldn't write it, this was the big problem. But eventually I managed to get in there and ad lib it, twist it around and now I can do it. And now I really love it. "
Having established his stand-up career in Britain, Izzard was anxious to test his acting skills. He got the chance with a West End production of Lenny Bruce, which had critics breaking out their thesauruses, looking for new ways to say brilliant.
"It was a good crossover role for me. It had comedy and stand-up involved in it, and no stand-up [comic] had actually played Lenny Bruce, which was interesting. You can't fake stand-up on stage. Then it had the whole dramatic side of his life. I'm looking for that in film roles as well."
Izzard hopes his next film, The Cat's Meow, will put him another step closer to that goal. Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, it's a circa 1920s, fact-inspired story about events surrounding a party aboard William Randolph Hearst's yacht, during which Hollywood mogul Thomas Ince was shot and killed. Starring Kirsten Dunst as Marion Davies and Jennifer Tilly as Louella Parsons, the Lion's Gate release features Izzard as yet another silent film star -- Charlie Chaplin.
As for Izzard's openness about his alternative lifestyle, it's less a political statement than it is a personal one.
"If I do anything positive for transgender, I'm doing it for me, and if it spins off to other people and it's positive, then that's great because I'd like everyone to come out, everyone -- gay, lesbian, transgender -- just to get out. I think if everyone suddenly came out who has alternative sexuality, people would go, 'My god, I didn't know there was so many!' Then everything would just sort of chill out."
Though somewhat insulated by his celebrity from negative reactions to his unconventional lifestyle, Izzard endures his share of criticism.
"So ... yeah, the classic thing that normally happens is one person is asking me for an autograph while someone else is shouting insults at me. It sort of sums it up as, 'Hey, this feels good! Hey, this feels bad.'"