There's more to Eddie
than meets the eye
From moody memories of his childhood in Wales to the insider gossip of Hollywood fame, Eddie Izzard is a raconteur supreme. On the eve of his latest big movie release, he talks to Rob Driscoll about playing super-villains and koala bears and surviving love-hate relationships
EDDIE IZZARD has ambitions. He wants to do comedy in a field, Glastonbury-style. He wants to appear on The Simpsons. And he'd like to make a film, wearing a dress.
Not in a big, political, out-and-proud transvestism kind of way, however. "I've done one film where I wore a dress, but the film I need to do has to be something where the dress is incidental, and has nothing to do with the story - a bit like in my stand-up, where I try and talk about being a transvestite in an oblique way," he explains.
"I try not to be preachy about the transgender thing. People can be aware of it, but without feeling it's attacking or embarrassing them. I want to take away the scary element."
There's more to this guy than dressing up in women's clothing, however. He is arguably Britain's most original, erudite, intellectual and constantly surprising stand-up comedian, yet so much more. At one point he was even being proposed as the next Doctor Who, while Hollywood has already embraced him in a clutch of eclectic roles, from Charlie Chaplin to a cartoon koala bear. This week, he plays a far-from-formulaic baddie in the frothy comedy spoof My Super Ex-Girlfriend, opposite Uma Thurman.
It's all a long way from Skewen, West Glamorgan, where Izzard spent his formative childhood years. "The smells were very distinctive," he says enigmatically of the Welsh period in a somewhat nomadic early life. Born in the Yemen, he'd previously lived in Belfast before his family moved to South Wales in 1967, when he was just five years old.
"I cycled back there when I was 14, from Sussex, so I guess there was always a certain pull. But my Mum died when I was in Wales, so they weren't the happiest of times.
"I went to school in Porthcawl, which I never realised was a holiday town, because no one was holidaying there when I was at school." He pauses, looking a tad mournful. "It was tough..."
His mother's death clearly hung heavily over the young Izzard. " I wouldn't be able to list marvellously happy times," he says.
"I had really happy times in Northern Ireland, and then Mum was ill, and she died, and of course you do associate places with events in your life. But I do remember listening to a lot of Tom Jones on the radio, in Porthcawl, and I've now met Tom Jones a whole bunch of times, which is really weird."
He returned to Skewen recently, "back to the same house where I lived, 13 Cefn Park, though it might be No 6 now. It was all very bright and white and they were a happy household, so it put a positive final image on it. And the back garden looked a lot smaller!"
He loves the fact that he has lived in a number of places. "Wales is part of my life, and I do like people. So I've done gigs in Cardiff and Swansea and all the way down the West Coast, and Powys. I have a good feeling about Wales now, and I'm really pleased they have an Assembly.
"So at the time, I had a tough time living in Wales. But I did my first ever stage role there, playing a raven, which got a laugh, accidentally. It was the school play, and my Mum made this raven outfit. I got a laugh, and I don't know how."
Now 44, Izzard is at his professional peak, yet also at a crossroads; after years of being coaxed by Hollywood to be something of a more permanent fixture, he's decided to stay in Los Angeles for a while to make his mark in movies. "I tell agents and managers there are certain things I'm not going to do," he says.
One thing he's not keen on doing is playing the "bog- standard" bad-guy, which is why he leapt at the chance to do My Super Ex-Girlfriend, which reunited him with Uma Thurman - they'd worked together eight years ago in The Avengers, the doomed big-screen remake of the cult TV series.
"Uma's an unusual lady - even starting from her name!" he laughs. "But she does launch herself into the project. She commits unreservedly. I'm not like that. I have to spend time shifting around before I commit. If I'm not happy, I won't commit. Uma was very helpful. She was throwing out technique to me - she's done this since she was a child, whereas I'm a young kid in film terms, even though I'm older than everyone else."
The new movie is a broad comedy, a glossy, affectionate send-up of the current superhero craze, with Thurman starring as Jenny Johnson, a seemingly typical New Yorker who has a sideline job - as the superheroic G-Girl.
The trouble is, Jenny doesn't have the temperament to be a superhero, as it interrupts her search for the perfect boyfriend.
Izzard co-stars as her arch- nemesis, Professor Bedlam, who was once her teenage sweetheart, and now he is bent on revenge, determined to rob her of her superpowers.
"What I enjoyed about Professor Bedlam is that he's not your typical superbaddie," says Izzard. "His goal is to neutralise Jenny, not terminate her - in the movie, I refer to Switzerland as an analogy."
The Switzerland line was Izzard's own, but he insists he wasn't running wild and free with ad-libs. "I wouldn't need to, as the script is by Don Payne, who's worked on The Simpsons, of which I'm a huge fan," he explains. "And I would love to work on that show myself. Not as me, necessarily, but I just love doing voices."
One recent voiceover that proved extremely successful was his contribution to the Disney animation movie The Wild - he played a very English-sounding koala called Nigel. "We came in second to Madagascar - it was practically the same plot, but people seemed to like what I did on that.
"When it's me in a movie, I try not to do too many comedy roles. My Super-Ex Girlfriend is comedy, obviously, but as a rule I try not to put my stand-up on to screen."
So what does Hollywood make of the defiantly non-categoris-able Izzard? "I think the industry and the people that know me in a cult, alternative way seem to know I exist," he says. "They seem to hold the stand-up in a high regard. They know that I starred in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, on Broadway, and was nominated for a Tony." He also won two Emmys for HBO's TV special Dress to Kill, his US breakthrough one-man show, in 1999.
"They're curious, they're vaguely aware of me," he smiles.
He's being unnecessarily modest. By the sound of it, he gets barrel-loads of movie scripts. What attracted him most to the Professor Bedlam role in My Super Ex-Girlfriend was the character's very credible, human mind-set. "He has a love-hate relationship with Uma's character - he wants revenge, but really he loves her."
Has Izzard ever taken revenge on a failed romance? "I've tried to end relationships in as equitable way as possible," he muses. "Because I like to get on with people. I worked out the only way to stop loving someone was to hate them. It's just a hellish, chemical release in the brain. Hatred seems to be the only thing strong enough to kill love, and that's a dangerous thing, and I have gone through that situation - and behind all the hatred, there was still love. You need space, too, to get away from the person."
Get him to talk about comedy, and he's just as serious. He's on a veritable mission to change the way we all perceive comedy.
"Just look at early Benny Hill - he was doing some very interesting stuff," he says. "My whole family had quite discerning comedy tastes, and in the '70s we recorded episodes of his shows, and he was doing stuff on surrealist painters and European television - but then he got locked into some of the characters that worked big time, like the scantily-clad women and the chases. He was in a pressurised space and the plot got lost. He also spoke French. The French love him."
The French love Izzard too; he's done many of his gigs in France, and in their language. In many respects, he's a thoroughly modern European, and is keen to extend his boundaries there. He has no immediate plans to do any more tours - the Hollywood stint is uppermost - but he has big visions of how his comedy should be presented in the future.
"I'll do stand-up forever, and I will tour, but right now I like to play 100 or 300 seaters in Los Angeles, or wherever I am. I like 10,000 seaters too though, and I don't just want rock'n'roll to be able to play wherever it wants to. Why must comedy be restricted?
"I feel comedy needs to do gigs in fields. You sometimes get a comedy tent at a music festival, but you're competing with a huge thing - music. They're doing feel gigs, you're doing a mind gig. I reckon if you've got three or four comedians on, from four in the afternoon until the night, that should work. Then maybe put some music on afterwards."
Izzard's just made Low Life, a TV pilot comedy with Minnie Driver, about a family of crooks who assume the identity of an upper-class clan in the Deep South. He's also completed Across the Universe, an ambitious musical film centring on the anti-war protests of the 1960s, by ever-controversial director Julie Taymor (who directed Anthony Hopkins in Titus).
Next up will be Ocean's 13 - a reprise of his small role Roman Nagel in Ocean's 12. "I enjoyed hanging up with those guys last time, though it was only for a couple of scenes," he says, those guys being Clooney, Pitt, Damon and co. "I think (producer) Jerry Weintraub wanted to throw me into the mix - I got to know him on The Avengers.
"You can't make a huge mark in a couple of scenes, but they must have liked what they saw, as they've written me back in."
As for that elusive role in a dress, maybe we'll have to wait a bit longer. "Do you know what though?" asks Izzard. "The most dangerous thing to do is just go out in the street wearing the dress, and be everyday about it.
"In rock'n'roll, people were throwing on dresses back in the '70s, but that just comes under a theatrical banner. And when I did it on stage, I thought there'd be a big reaction, but people just think, 'Oh, that's just a thing.' It's actually popping down the road to buy a bar of chocolate - that's the more radical statement."
My Super Ex-Girlfriend is released in cinemas tomorrow