It took Eddie Izzard a decade to become a success in stand-up comedy, and now it's taking him years to be regarded as a serious actor as well. Darrin Farrant explains.
It's a look bound to turn heads almost anywhere, but in the lobby of an Essex hotel catering mainly to the conference crowd, it causes collective whiplash. Eddie Izzard arrives on a midweek afternoon, wearing full make-up and dressed in a smart, black top and matching black skirt with coloured swirls. His high heels clack as he walks across the tiled floor.
The knot of businessmen discussing Manchester United stop their conversation mid-sentence. The cleaner polishing the tables pretends she is looking for something and swivels around. One woman at reception just stares.
But Izzard doesn't seem to notice. It's just another day for the British comedian and actor, and one of the world's better-known transvestites.
It took him a decade to become a success in stand-up comedy, and now it's taking him years to be regarded as a serious actor as well. This year, however, there has been a breakthrough - a Tony award nomination for his performance as Bri in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg - and the pain of all the knockbacks and failed auditions is starting to fade.
For the moment,
though, his career as a thespian is on hold. Tonight in Melbourne marks the
world premiere of Sexie, his new stand-up show, which will then tour Australia,
New Zealand and the United States before hitting London's West End.
Over the past couple of weeks, in small towns across England and Wales, Izzard has been honing the show. It's his usual blend of surreal and just plain observations about life. It's a low-pressure way of warming up for an artist who often, quite literally makes it up as he goes along.
Izzard does not believe in rehearsal or even trying out his jokes or comments on friends and colleagues before he does them live. So in the early phases, each show can be radically different, with as much as a third of the material changing from one night to the next.
"The editing process usually happens while you're actually doing the gig. Very bizarrely, when I come off, I can't quite remember what I talked about. There are certain things where I go, 'Oh, yeah, I talked about that', but then the next night I forget to do it again."
It's not that the 41-year-old hasn't attempted to follow the practice-make-perfect method.
"I film everything, to try and work on things, but then I never watch the tapes," Izzard says. "I can't be bothered 'cos it takes me two hours or an hour and a half to watch some shows. On your day off, listening to the same shit you're going to talk about that night, even if it's a good show, it's not that easy."
Sexie is not about sex, according to Izzard, but something much more interesting: the state of being sexy. As a transvestite, it's a topic close to his heart. These days it might be OK for female columnists to admit they lust after him, but there was a time not that long ago when Izzard didn't feel attractive at all. "That was in my 20s really. I'd lost my sexual confidence at 13, when puberty came and said 'there's a bit of acne, now sort yourself out'.
"So I came out and I was a celibate for three years. There was a safety thing in that, so I didn't have to go up to women and get that rejection stuff or worry about it. But then I thought I'm missing out on this thing, which is the sexy, fun thing, the flirting and all that.
"I mean, trying to get a look together for a bloke in a dress is tricky."
Some casting directors have not been able to get past the concept of the "transvestite stand-up comedian" when he has applied for dramatic cinematic roles, and he knows that some of his forays into film have not been impressive. But the Tony nomination has changed all that.
"I'm off the bloody mark at last. Now I think that'll filter through. I'm still not top of the A list. It's still going to be a lot of hacking my way up through the B list. C-plus, maybe? Or D-minus?"
Eddie Izzard is on tonight and tomorrow at the Melbourne Concert Hall.