Sunday Times PicInterview: Jasper Gerard meets Eddie Izzard

Sunday Times | Dec. 2, 2001 | (thanks Claire and Sarah for the pic)

Comedians were the new cool. Then Ben Elton collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber while Paul Merton flogged mobile phones on television and the new breed suddenly looked about as funky as Jimmy Tarbuck playing pro-celebrity golf.

And then there is Eddie Izzard. As other once-radical comedians joked all the way to the bank via the inanity of light entertainment and advertising, Izzard just grew hipper. For when away from the stand-up arena, he is not sitting on the chat-show sofa but quietly crafting a career as a serious actor.

Indeed, for those who know him for his imaginative sartorial style — he is, m’lud, a transvestite — his ambition is to be a leading man. Oh, and an MEP — yep, I’m serious: he monitors the (mis)fortunes of the euro daily.

No chance, then, of him ending up an Elton. “I was conscious of that,” he says. “I feel if I lose all that money by not doing that stuff — and adverts pay crazy money — then it forces me to work harder creatively. It’s taken me so long to get here, what is the point? I say ‘no’ a lot.”

Instead, he has said yes to numerous stage and celluloid roles. “As an actor I am still struggling to make the C-list,” he insists, though even in America, where he lives for part of the year, he has bagged two Emmys. “I still have to prove myself in a dramatic role before I am offered many things.”

His forthcoming stage role is hardly a thigh-slapper: he plays the father of a mentally handicapped boy in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg at the Comedy Theatre.

For such roles, being known as a comedian is not helpful. “Yes, which is why I am building my acting career slowly. When I first became known in stand-up, it was in a culty way.”

He may be modest but he is also a man powered by ambition. Izzard still simmers about how at public school he was never cast in the play. “I have since tried to work out whether I was just crap,” he says with an intense smile.

We meet in a bar in Islington, home territory for Izzard, though I suspect he could hold his own in a pub in Chingford. Today he looks more Mr Byrite than Miss Selfridge, in black jeans, black top and even a goatee, putting one in mind of a gnarled Ewan McGregor.

His manner is more masculine still. If you suspected he might make John Inman look butch there is no trace of campness. He has a girlfriend, which I guess qualifies him as straight — or, as he would have it, “straight lesbian”, since his fantasy is to be a woman making love to another woman. (Don’t worry, my head spun too, but he does explain later.) “I’m in a blokey phase, but I still want to give myself room for manoeuvre. Directors have said to me: ‘Yes, your stuff’s great, but I’m not going to use you’. They think, ‘Oh, he’s a transvestite, what am I going to do with that?’” Ah, the T-word already. I feared raising this might be tricky; instead, it’s hard to get Izzard off the subject. Being the second transvestite to become famous (he says he was preceded by a well-known cross-dresser in New Zealand) lent him a unique laughter point when he started. Now it is a distraction.

“It is going to stick around until more generations of transgender people come out,” he says. Being gay may have cachet in certain circles — theatre — but society still gets its knickers in a twist about cross-dressers. “There is a perception that certain uplifting things go with being gay, but transgender is still (in) a difficult phase. Yet it is way better being where I am now and not having to lie.”

Aged four, Izzard suspected that he was not entirely like other boys, and at 15 was caught shoplifting lipstick. He dismisses armchair analysis that this could have been sparked by the early death of his mother and a brutal teacher who helped him through his grief with regular beatings.

His urges drove him to despair. “I am really quite shy, and I had very low sexual self-esteem. I went through a greasy-haired, spotty phase.” He only gathered courage to come out in his early twenties, when he discovered a transvestite help desk virtually next door to where he lived. “I thought it must be karmic,” he says, “but it was probably just Islington.

“I also thought: ‘That’s it, no woman will want me’, and I was celibate for three years.”

This gloomy period suddenly lifted when Izzard confessed all to his father, a senior executive with BP in Yemen at the time. “His letter to me was lovely,” says Izzard, quietly. “His job may have been traditional but he has a sort of a hippie philosophy: do what makes you happy.”

So is Izzard Jr happy? “Yes, since then I’ve been very content. I have a slightly compressed emotional state; I never get delirious because it might all end tomorrow, but I’ve never got really depressed since, either.”

Having made peace with himself, he could devote himself to work, which he has done without a break for 14 years. If he is frustrated that “closed-minded studio heads” won’t cast him as a romantic lead, the intriguing thing is that women seem to find him highly attractive. Just as fame opens doors it lowers drawers (look at Chris Evans’s incredible romantic back catalogue). But Izzard’s vast female fan club is proof that women’s fantasies are more extensive than the square-jawed bozos offered them by Hollywood.

He is inspired by the example of Sir Ian McKellen, who as an actor is very good and as a man is very gay, and openly so. “We need more to come out as transvestites and people would think, ‘Oh, that seems all right’. At the moment it is like it was for gay men in the 1950s: ‘So what is your career, having sex with men?’ ‘Er, no, I’m a banker, actually.’ ”

I ask if he feels frustrated if he does not dress up as a woman for a long time. “It is a little bit straitjackety, sometimes I feel in a girlie mood,” he says, swigging a glass of wine manfully.

Unlike most forms of sexuality, being a transvestite seems sadly solitary: it is not about looking sexy to others but becoming one’s own sexual fantasy figure. Isn’t that narcissistic? “It is not about ego but it is about fancying yourself.” But then he adds, a little later: “I certainly don’t fancy myself.”

So doesn’t transvestitism lead to inevitable disappointment: the most handsome man will never look like the most beautiful woman, no matter how skilfully he applies the lippy.

“Absolutely. But isn’t it in everyone’s lives? Don’t lots of men want to end up looking like Steve McQueen?” Perhaps, but their looks are hardly an obsession: they can barely be bothered to look in the mirror. Transvestites, I would hazard, don’t have that luxury of indifference. And with such difficulties, work must seem an attractive escape.

Anyway, that’s enough complicated desires. I mention Europe and he burbles away with even greater animation. A rampant federalist, he is Bill Cash in reverse, though more engaging. Has he, a Labour donor, been disappointed at the party’s meandering journey towards the euro? “Well yes, I would like us to be in there taking part. What are we going to be doing in 50 years? Europe will have become a great superpower and there we will be on the sidelines: ‘No, we can’t be a part of it, we won the war.’ Er, did we?” His complaint about national currencies is delightfully idiosyncratic: “In Sweden I bought caviar and got confused about the money and ended up paying 10 times more than I thought. Or a Greek taxi driver tells you, ‘That will be 60m drachmas, please’, and you haven’t a clue if that’s right.”

More loyal to Tony Blair on Afghanistan, he credits him with steering America away from “carpet-bombing the world”, and still, perhaps naively, thinks the prime minister will persuade President George W Bush not to walk away from the country once the terrorists have been smoked out of their caves.

He was also inspired by Blair’s conference call to save the world before lights-out. “If we don’t do anything about Aids in Africa, in 150 years’ time they will look back on us like monsters. It will be like the potato famine all over again.”

Yet Izzard’s views are essentially new Labour. Unlike the (old) Ben Elton, he celebrates the growth of the middle classes and the greater cohesion they have given society. “I am a great realist,” he says.

Does he think about going into politics? “Yes, I do,” he replies instantly. “I would have to give up this first,” he says, meaning showbiz, but he has already shown himself to be highly versatile.

“I would be more interested in representing Britain in Europe than in domestic politics.” He realises he would have to “work my way up”. As Glenda Jackson discovered, there is a tendency when faced with celebs-turned-politicos “to say, ‘Oi, you’ve won an Oscar, so shut up and sit over there’ ”.

Despite his Europeanism and burgeoning success in America, Izzard remains deeply British. The sex stuff is merely a minor part of it. He is keeping alive a great tradition: the British iconoclast who does it very much his own way. And you can’t get cooler than that.