Eddie Gets Dramatic  by Max Bell

The hair is tomboy-cropped, bleached-out orange. The shoes are unisex trainers. The jacket is a butch black-leather drape. Today Eddie Izzard, self-styled transvestite, is unvarnished and low-heeled. OK, he's wearing minimal make-up, but only because he's on a photo shoot in a blacked-out East End studio. He might almost be in civvies until he gets under the lights, grabs a microphone and rocks off to the side, cigarette trailing from left lower lip. The smile fades to deadpan and Izzard goes into the zone.

Eddie Izzard: "I've been looking for a good theatrical role for ages"

He's thinking about Lenny Bruce, the ground-breaking comedian who incurred the wrath of middle-American prejudice and paid the ultimate sacrifice in 1966. He was found cold, blue and naked in a bathroom with only a syringe for company. Heroin? There was no autopsy. Record producer Phil Spector said Lenny had 'died from an overdose of police'. In his foreword to Bruce's autobiography, How To Talk Dirty And Influence People, critic Kenneth Tynan described Bruce as 'the man who went down on America's conscience... we miss him, and the nerve-fraying, jazz-digging, pain-hating, sex-loving, lie-shunning, bomb-loathing life he represents'.

Eddie Izzard is about to play Bruce on stage. Portraying the man he calls 'the godfather of alternative stand-up' is a risk for him but he's always enjoyed a challenge ever since he rode a unicycle around Leicester Square while free-associating his 'bollocks on top of more bollocks and nonsense' for non-plussed passers-by.

'I've been looking for a good theatrical role for ages,' he muses, over cheap white-paper-bag ham sandwiches. 'Stand-up comes with the "Oh you can't really act" baggage. This is like a comedy with dramatic edge, which I need. I phoned the director Peter Halland, said, "I want this part," and he said, "Good. We want you." The original scriptwriter, Julian Barry, suggested they check me out. Americans detect a bit of Bruce in what I do. It's because of the riffing and the chunks of Thespian I talk. History with a spin. Obviously he riffed way more than me. At the end of his career he wasn't looking for comedy anymore, he was just reading out the court transcripts of his obscenity busts. He was saying things that were even more important than making people laugh.'

Bruce did for comedy what Bob Dylan did for folk music. In post-beatnik America, he didn't push the envelope, he delivered the letterbomb. 'He got nailed on the swearing,' Izzard reckons, 'when the stuff about religion, drugs and sex was far more potent. I think there was a conspiracy to get him in California and New York and it worked because he ran out of money to pay his legal bills. The key to his notoriety was his profanity rather than him using words like cocksucker. He became "dirty Lenny" whereas now he'd be "angry Lenny".'

When this play, Lenny, first opened on Broadway in 1971, it was hailed as a 'dynamite stick of theatre'. Of the film that followed, directed by Bob Fosse, Dustin Hoffman said, 'This is the best part I've ever had.' Izzard concurs: 'Yeah, he was perfect, being Jewish and small and dark. It'll be harder for me. Maybe I'll do it in Glaswegian. No, I love doing American and if I'm terrible I won't be going to Broadway. And I really want to go to Broadway.'

The idea of an Englishman in New York, bringing it all back home, appeals to Izzard. He quotes Jonathan Miller on Bruce's 1962 appearance at Peter Cook's Establishment Club in London, saying that Beyond The Fringe was a satirical pinprick, but Bruce's act was a bloodbath. It was so peppered with outrageous references to then verboten topics such as VD, cancer and the guilt-free joys of masturbation that Lenny's work permit was later blocked by the Home Secretary. 'There was a real social and political sense to what he was saying,' says Eddie. 'That's why I think he created alternative comedy, something that was non-gag-orientated but completely irreverent.'

After Lenny, the deluge. A blizzard of Izzard over the next few months  but it's all work, no personal revelations. In his autobiography, Dress To Kill, Eddie entirely evades divulging affairs of the heart. He doesn't skirt around the skirts. And he kisses and tells about stealing lipstick from Boots in Bexhill. He admits 'comedy is a good way of getting girls' and we know he's a sexy dyslexic who likes women, but significant others have not been spotted. 'I could say, "Oh, I'm shagging a duck," or whatever, but the personal stuff that papers thrive on doesn't interest me. Even the transvestite thing is boring now because I've done that to death. It's public domain, who cares? Maybe if I went back in and came out again, but I don't want to be like what's-his-name in Jamiroquai and his girlfriend. I don't want to be in that place. I'm more like Daniel Day Lewis who's famous for talking about nothing. And then one day he got married.' Which is not to say that Izzard lives a reclusive life on the Harrow Road  although he does admit, 'I spend a lot of time on my computer. I've just got the complete Encyclopedia Britannica and I'm going to learn the lot. I want to know about everything. I'm an obsessive.'

He's also damn busy.There are four films in the pipeline. In The Criminal he plays a forensic scientist with an RAF moustache and a raincoat. It's a large cameo. 'Think The Fugitive meets North By North West. I die in that one. Which is how I judge my parts. Doesn't matter how serious the role, it's whether I die and do running.' In The Mystery Men, he does both. It's a comedy about crap superheroes which he didn't much fancy doing, but his agent made him because it was in Hollywood and featured Ben Stiller, Paul Rubens and Greg Kinnear.

'I've always been confused about the differences between Los Angeles and Hollywood,' he ruminates. 'If you say you're filming in Hollywood, people go, "Aaah!" If you say you're in LA they go, "Oh". Anyway, this time I play a character called Tony Pompadour with a huge Brian Setzer quiff. I wore funky clothes and I got to meet Tom Waits.' Again it's a pivotal cameo. So when does he get to carry a film? 'I'm not quite in that situation yet. I'm wheedling my way through, but I'm not ready. The trouble with films is they come back to haunt you when you've forgotten all about them. So far I've been lucky. When things have gone wrong  say The Avengers   it wasn't my fault. Of course, if they've gone all right, I slipstream in casually and say, "Oh yes, I was in that," and people say, "Good, well done, have this sausage."'

His two most recent roles exercise him more. In Circus, a gangster film set in Brighton, he explores his darker side. And in The Shadow Of The Vampire he plays opposite John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe. 'I'm the dickhead who goes to the vampire and says, "I've got this house, a really nice property, I think you'll like it. Oh, what big teeth you've got. Oh, what a big castle. Hey, how do I get out of here!" I'm a Twenties estate agent, basically. I should have the equivalent of a German mobile phone, a can on a string. Funny how in vampire films no one will go near the castle except the postman. "Yeah, I'll take it on horseback. No problem."' In any case, he wants to sink his teeth into lots more films. Celluloid is his obsession. 'They're just too much fun to pass on. Film is what I wanted to do when I was a kid. What could be better than sitting round a blazing torch swapping stories with John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe. In Luxembourg.'

As he gets into his car to go to a meeting, I ask if he ever takes a holiday. 'Not very often. My dad used to say to me, "You don't deserve a holiday because you're doing exactly the kind of work you like to do." I suppose that's stuck with me. Mind you, he did used to say that when I was doing absolutely f*** all.'

From the Evening Standard Online