Out magazine, 1998
When Eddie Izzard met Henry Rollins, they got on like a full house on fire. Indeed, so keen were they to meet, that Izzard rushed straight from casualty (getting stitches for a cut finger) and Rollins cancelled a scheduled flight to Amsterdam. And then, once they met, they wouldn't shut up. So why did we ask England's leading surrealist transvestite comedian to interview America's tattooed and muscle-bound king of the hard rock/spoken word crossover? Well, we figured they were linked by intriguing similarities and contrasts. They both began their journeys to theatre-filling, bollocks-talking pre-eminence in the early 80s, in equally unlikely ways: Rollins howling out the rage of an abusive childhood in legendary Californian 'straight edge' (no drink or drugs) punk band Black Flag; Izzard bolstering his grant as a street entertainer and working out the nature of his attraction to women's clothes. Through the rest of the decade, they slowly progressed to states of independance, Henry going solo, gaining plaudits for his early spoken-word CDs and shows, publishing his own books; Eddie compering his own much missed comedy club, Soho's Raging Bull. Their workaholic ways have led to sudden explosions of success in the 90s; the Yank getting signed to Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks label, the Brit booking enormous runs in theatres that no one thought he could fill. Now both have the ultimate status symbol of fame firmly in their sights, making smooth transitions to film (Henry the veteran of seven movies including 'Heat' and 'Lost Highway', Eddie establishing his acting credentials with 'The Avengers' and 'Velvet Goldmine'). And now, just as Rollins' punishing work schedule has helped make him a huge draw over here, Izzard is cracking America as 'The New Python'. Also, both have attracted much attention for their sexuality. While Eddie constantly finds himself explaining why a straight man wants to be feminine, 'outing' the cartoonishly macho (and straight) Rollins has become a favourite US cult pastime - a subject he is hilarious about on his latest spoken-word album 'Think Tank'. But, mostly, we saw this as a summit meeting between two major talents. Live mass-audience raconteurs who, with the sainted Bill Hicks dead, and Denis Leary and Alexei Sayle seemingly lost to dodgy movies and TV adverts, are currently the two best radical stand-ups in the world. Oh: and if, as they constantly threaten throughout their meeting, Eddie and Henry decide to work together, we are going to be so chuffed.
ROLLINS: Is this tape on? Great....'cos Iwanted to say that when I watched your video, what I found interesting was that you were funny, yet there were no jokes. It was very liberating to watch, like when you set up that opening monologue with James Mason and Sean Connery....I just loved that.
IZZARD: Sean is easier to do. And sometimes it...wanders off. And suddenly, I'm Sean Connery's brother or cousin or distant relation and then it comes back and then I'm James Mason. I did this show in France, and....actually, I was going to ask you about that Henry. Have you ever wanted to do spoken word in a different language?
ROLLINS: Hur. I can barely handle English.
IZZARD: Well, I went over there and thought I was doing these great impressions of Sean and James Mason doing French movie dialogue, until a French guy pointed out that their films were always dubbed. So it was a complete f---ing waste of time. Still, it was a f---ing buzz - the hardest thing I've done. Anyway, a question: do you think spoken word is different to stand-up ?
ROLLINS : The term 'spoken word' kinda got thrown upon me. I started doing these shows with very little pretence, and really no concept of what it was going to be called. I was just going up there an'......not exactly goofing off, but sorts just going off. I've always been good with crowds. As a kid I could always hold attention in a room with a story or a joke or an impression. Music is a struggle, 'cos I'm not really a singer - I just gotta thing to get across. Acting? I do the best I can. But the talking shows, or whatever it is I do up there - that was like a fish to water. Of all the stuff I do, that's the stuff I'm really made for.
IZZARD: In a competitive way, it's annoying that you're good, having come from music. You're doing stuff thats positive for the image of stand-up, or whatever the f--- it is. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's serious. The image of stand-up in America seems pretty crap. When I was over there, everyone kept saying to me "You're not a stand-up, you're a monologuist. Don't be a stand-up. It's not a good image". They see stand-ups as the guy who goes "Hey! Where are you from?". The image of a stand-up in Britain is somewhat different....
ROLLINS: I think the image of stand-up in America has been given to Americans through Johnny Carson giving people like JayLeno and David Letterman a break. Then there's sitcoms - funny, funny, funny, break. Funny, funny.....next show. I really gravitated towards 'Monty Python' when we were growing up because there was way more surrealism going on there. You gotta get the whole tune to get the joke. It's not some quick little fast f--- - it's the whole evening. I'm through with this budda-bing-budda-boom comedy, unless it's Rodney Dangerfield, 'cos he's just so old-school and he does it so well. I always liked the Lenny Bruces - guys who had a story to tell, they made you laugh and they made you think. And - an' I hope I'm not making you uncomfortable here - that's why I loved your stuff. "He's not doing dick jokes. He's not doing dog jokes. If you're sharp enough to get on the boat with him, he's taking you to this awesome landscape he's created". I really admire the guys who play without a net. There are so many ways you could f--- up and lose an audience with what you do. My heart went out to you. 'Cos comedy is easy, if you're going to go for dick jokes and tit jokes. But what you're going for.....I can see why you get the reviews that you do. It made me really interested to meet you.
IZZARD: I think we ought to do a gig together.....
ROLLINS : That would be fascinating.
IZZARD : Do you find a big difference between European and American audiences ?
ROLLINS : Sure. In the UK I can be more subtle, and the response is immediate. I love playing Scotland too, 'cos you can be real hard on 'em. I was doing Glasgow last night, an' I said "You got really beautiful women up here, they don't need make-up or nothing". They were all cheering. Then I said, "But look at you men; what a f---ing tragedy. You're so ugly that you all look like f---in' murderers!". And instead of kicking my ass they're going "YEEEEAAAHHH!!!!". I don't get into that stuff too much, but as long as the crowd knows you're on their side it just jams.
IZZARD : You can get a hard time in Scotland for being English. I was doing shows on the street in Glasgow some years ago, and I would just come on and say "I'm from Yemen. So don't give me any ofthis England-Scotland shit". I got #163;40 one day.
ROLLINS: I wanted to ask you: are there writers that you like? Writers you grew up with? Do you read?
IZZARD : Nah. I'm mildly dyslexic. If you see my writing it's as scrappy as shit. I find it really....I'm a really slow reader. Y'know when people say, "I read a book last night"? Well that would take me three weeks. That's why I do pop-culture stand-up - it's all from the television. History Channel, Discovery Channel, CNN, sitcoms, films... I know you don't watch much television.
ROLLINS: No. I don't have one at home. I watch it in hotel rooms and it's mostly documentaries, anything you can learn from. Sitcom? I don't care so much.
IZZARD : The book thing is an annoyance to me - that I haven't read more. And also fine art. It kinda intimidates me. Which is why I wanna do Shakespeare - it scares the s--- out of me.
ROLLINS: Yeah, you have to run towards it. It's what helps you get better, going for things above your reach. That's why I went for movies. I'm not really an actor. But I wanted to find a way to use all those years onstage, and harness it on film. I think I turned a corner this year and I'm getting the hang of it. It's taken me a while to stop saying my lines after the guy finished saying his, and start acting.
IZZARD: Did you always want to do films?
ROLLINS : No, never thought of it. They cameto me. In '88 this guy sent me an amazing screenplay and asked me to be in his student film. It was a thing called "No Not One", one of the best scripts I've ever read, and I've read a few. I said, "Dude, I'm not an actor. I don't wanna be the weak link in your chain". He said, "No, you can do this, trust me. If you don't like it you can leave in a week". I learned so much, and then more parts came up. With the band, I could be like, "I'm gonna kick your ass tonight". Same with the spoken word. With the movie thing, I was passive. I had no feeling of power in any of the parts. I was trying to get through the day without getting busted for being a non-actor. Without the Hollywood police hauling my ass into non-actor jail.
IZZARD: I imagine people generally line you up for tough-guy roles. But I think you'd make a great vicar. If Tarrantino had played a vicar in 'Pulp Fiction' it would've really freaked people out. In your video you do Jehovah's Witness. With those big glasses on, you get a whole different side out.....
ROLLINS: I got to play a really uptight, nerdy scientist this year. I like playing good guys in movies. I mean, I'm not in any high demand in Hollywood, so I get the medium-sized part where I'm the psycho hockey-coach, the psycho bartender, the convict, the security guard, the cop. The henchman, y'know, the thickneck. But a lot of people see the music I do - which is decidedly visceral heavy-duty s--- - and then come to a spoken-word show expecting me to yell at them for an hour and a half. Then they come up to me afterwards holding their sides and saying "I never knew you had a sense of humour". I mean, I could see you doing a really great serious role....
IZZARD: Well, that's what I'm trying to do. I've actually blocked all comedies. I just wanna do straight roles. That's why I grew a beard and took off the make-up - I don't wanna be boxed. Just to have more options.
ROLLINS : In Hollywood, they sure wanna take away your options. Whenever they have a SWAT team in a movie, it's always one of about three guys, the ones with the bad skin and the intense face, with the cool receeding hairline. It's the SWAT guy! Y'know, "Call Rumpy. He's always a good scary guy". And those guys kinda let themselves in for it.
IZZARD: You mentioned earlier that you played Moscow. Are the mafia still all over it?
ROLLINS: When you do a gig in Moscow, you play a Mafia venue, you eat in Mafia resturants. You get hit on by Mafia prostitutes, you are offered Mafia drugs. We're talking metal detectors going in, heavy dudes who are loaded.....it's like being in a movie. I loved it, because the people I met reminded me of the people I read about in Dostoyevsky novels. This warm, passionate, open-armed thing I've encountered whenever I'm in the Eastern Bloc. When they party, everything gets destroyed.
IZZARD: It must be like the Wild West.
ROLLINS: Yeah. With everybody singing Ramones songs.
IZZARD: Do you get paid?
ROLLINS: Oh yeah. You just gotta do it with the Mafia or you don't. But I'll go anywhere. I'm doing my first spoken word shows in Moscow next week; then it's Tel Aviv; then Egypt, though not for shows, just to see the Pyramids and the Nile. Last year I spent my time off with Black Sabbath here in England, 'cos I love those guys. Then I went from Birmingham to London to Frankfurt to Nairobi. Then I flew out to the Tanzanian border and lived among the Masai for a few days. Then I flew to Madagascar and lived alone on the Indian Ocean in a hut on fish and dried coffee for a few days. Then I flew to Johannesburg and the vibe bummed me out. I didn't like it there. Racism. It's not a fun place. Let me ask you something: When you do your thing, none of it seems conceived at all. How much work goes into that? And if you do a several-night run at a place, do you do that same idea every night?
IZZARD: Yeah. I never write it down because I'm a lazy writer. But I have a set-list. It just says "European History" and I go into it. And sometimes, on different nights, I'll do totally different material on the same idea. If I've just started a show and I haven't played for a while, I get the bit of paper out of my back pocket and say "I got a letter from my mother", and find out what I'm doing.
ROLLINS: Haha! You bastard!
IZZARD: You've said that you're a storyteller, but do you embellish them? I started off trying to tell the truth, and I couldn't really get the comedy. So I started lying. Telling them I'd been a waiter in Vietnam, surreal s--- like that. And then I went back to the truth.
ROLLINS : I just exaggerate - crassly and obviously. "The guy's 800 years old and keeps his balls in a sock". Stuff like that, but it's basically the truth. And a lot of attitude. For the first hour I'm just burning off all that excess fuel so I can reach the altitude where I can move more efficiently by burning less. The place where some of the stuff might not be so funny. I was talking about this documentary of WW1, which showed the first documentary footage of shell-shock victims. And it was so hard to watch. People twitching, going blind, not coming back. And I made the point that, after years of John Wayne and Rambo, we've had the taste f---ed out of our mouths. We are now sick. We should be coming back from war traumatised. Instead we come back smirking. This programme showed what war does to people who are not f---ed up like we are, and there's nothing funny in that. Then I cut 'em some slack and we laugh again.
IZZARD: I've seen stand-ups in Britain who can talk about realer subjects and keep the laughter coming. They stay serious but lighten it with bizzare images within this hellish vision. And that's where I'd like to get to.
OLLINS: Yeah. I was talking last night in Scotland about how much I like kids. I said, "Girls are pretty, women are beautiful, and children are also beautiful - until they're about six and start thinking and then I'm just hacking them to pieces and loading them into my car". They were like, "What the f--- was that?". I said, "Yeah, little kids are great because you can dismember them so easy with a butter-knife 'cos the flesh just comes right apart. I gotta trunk full of 'em in my back yard". You say it with a straight face and....it's funny, but it weighs a ton. I call it ten-ton humour. You're laughing while you're going, "Ohhh! Why'd you go there?", and it's a nice edge to walk.
IZZARD: Okay. Last question. It might be heavy-duty and it might not. About my sexuality....I came out and talked about it and it was a tough f---ing area to go into.
ROLLINS: Why? Are you straight or gay or bi or what?
IZZARD: I wouldn't call myself straight because when journalists write it up they always say, "He insists he's heterosexual". But I fancy women. I've been open about it.
ROLLINS: So you don't make it with guys?
IZZARD: No. It just doesn't work for me. That's why I believe it's just some genetic chromosome thing.
ROLLINS: That you have a feminine element in you that manifests itself in the clothes?
IZZARD: The clothes thing is just because I look very blokeish. If I looked like a woman I could wear a tracksuit all the time. For women there's a fun thing they can do, which is dress up for a night. I get the same kind of feeling. I find it fun and sexy. A male tomboy is the closest I can get to it. The tomboy who could play soccer but also dress up and go out. But anyway, I know that you're not in contact with your parents. Have you ever thought of talking about that onstage?
ROLLINS: Yeah. I've talked about my parents. Not on record, actually. It was a super-unhappy childhood. I was molested by one of my mom's boyfriends, and my stepbrother used to run some pretty heavy physical trips on me. I didn't do anything wrong and it didn't warp me for life. It's just one of those things you crawl out of and go, "Whooh! Man, that was f---ed". When you're eight and a man's putting his tongue in your mouth after he's beaten the s--- out of you while you're naked......it can f--- you up.
IZZARD: I have a theory. My mum died when I was six, and I think that a lot of performers.....well, I - have a surrogate affection thing, which is the audience.
ROLLINS: Yeah. I'm always afraid to tell the audience, 'cos I don't want 'em to think I'm being patronising. But I really love the audience. One kid can make my week by saying that I got them off dope. Those 20 kids that stick around after a show - that is my family. That's why I'm never nervous before I go on stage. That's why I talk for three hours. I wanna take 'em all home. They're the only people I need. Your point is valid. I'm filling a hole.
IZZARD : Did you know we're both Aquarians ?