Where He'll Stop, Nobody Knows
British comic Eddie Izzard comes back 'round to the U.S. with his freewheeling style and, um, fashion sense.

By PAUL BROWNFIELD | LA TIMES | 06.11.00latimes.jpg (293572 bytes)
(LA Times pic not included in online article..
.thanks Sukie and Stuart)

     SEATTLE--Eddie Izzard was talking about his comedy and his cultish fame and his upstart movie career. This was around midnight in a downtown Seattle restaurant. Izzard was drinking wine and cutting into a wood-smoked piece of chicken, but he would not touch the bread. Izzard puts on weight if he's not careful, and on his current comedy tour, which is called "Circle," he is working out daily with a woman named Helen Murphy. She's a judo expert who doubles as his makeup artist, because in addition to being a comic Izzard is a transvestite, and he's important enough now that he doesn't have to apply his own eyeliner or lipstick--day or night.

     Earlier in the evening, Izzard had finished a different sort of workout, what he calls going onstage and "talking crap." In plain terms, the 38-year-old British comedian had opened "Circle" at A Contemporary Theater to about 400 patrons. For the last several years, the wearing of women's clothes and the talking of "crap" have prompted people in cosmopolitan American cities to do something they rarely do--pay good money to go out and see a comedian perform. In a theater.

     Izzard's shows are the verbal equivalent of plate-spinning: He talks very fast and in tangents; he acts out absurdist playlets starring figures from history, religion and pop culture. Izzard, who burst onto the scene here with the 1998 show "Dress to Kill," is also a talented dramatic actor with smallish movie roles on his resume. There is more on the horizon, with various meetings set up this week in L.A.

     But I wanted to ask about his mother.

     The subject slowed Izzard; his voice got softer, his answers more clipped. When he told me she had died of cancer, he was eating his chicken with greater focus, and it was apparent the topic, unless forced, wouldn't go much further. Onstage, Izzard is bold and witty and fun, a very engaging and out-there presence. Offstage, he is more removed, more business, sometimes betraying a hard-won arrogance. If Izzard is both willing and able to show off his intellect in front of large groups, he is more emotionally guarded one-on-one. He's better at talking about work. Work and Hitler. Hitler, in fact, is a kind of all-purpose touchstone for Izzard. Of his mother, who died at age 41, he says: "Hitler was older than that. Why should Hitler live longer than my mother? It's chaos theory, [expletive] happens."

     Izzard is handsome and stocky; all he has to do is not shave, and he can become what he calls "blokey." His eyes can go all haunting and evil; last year, Gear magazine posed him in a bowler hat and suspenders, staring up at the camera with a menacing eyeball a la Malcolm McDowell in "A Clockwork Orange." The resemblance was striking, and such nuanced villainy is right up Izzard's alley. "I wanna play Alan Rickman in 'Die Hard,' " he says.

     Tonight--because how many comics know how to dress anymore?--Izzard had performed in a tight-fitting unisex shirt from French Connection, women's pants from a London shop called Joseph, and women's boots. He had put on bright red lipstick, eyeliner and eye shadow, and his hands gave off a gleam from his silver nail polish. After the show, Izzard changed into a black T-shirt, but he left on the boots and the makeup, and now as he sat there, not really wanting to talk about his mother, the face paint seemed a further layer to scratch away at.

     Izzard's mother was a nurse, and she died in 1968. She gave birth to Izzard in Yemen, in the Middle East, where Izzard's father had claimed a posting as an accountant for British Petroleum. After Yemen, the Izzards moved to Bangor, Northern Ireland.

     In a brief, Dickensian autobiography that appeared in the program for "Live at the Ambassadors," Izzard's first one-man show, Izzard describes the events in his life before and after his mother's death this way:

     "Before she died she and dad decided that the best way for the family to continue was for me and big brother to go off to boarding schools. Hey great fun! I asked if I could get posted to a refinery instead. So at the age of six I went off to St. John's boarding school in Porthcawl, Wales. It was run by a very pleasant man called Mr. Crump who we nicknamed 'the man from hell who we all hate.' Seeing as my Mum had just died I decided to cry relentlessly for about a year. Mr. Crump would help me along with beatings when he could fit them in. In 'Oliver Twist,' Oliver asks for 'some more.' At this school I spent a lot of time with a full bowl asking if I could have a lot less. The school had a very cleverly worked out system where good food was turned into sick. Their most classic dish was macaroni in warm milk which looked the same going into the stomach as it did coming back out."

     By Izzard's account, he survived five boarding schools in England and Wales by molding himself into "someone who could argue well. I was swift and cunning, selling kids crayons at school." He says he does not resent being sent off to school. "Single-parent male families [were] unusual at that time, and [my father] had a career now, as opposed to being a filing clerk like when he started." Of his father, who now lives in the English village of Bexhill-on-Sea, Izzard says fondly: "My dad gave me enough space. 'As long as you're happy'--this was his maxim. A very pithy philosophy. . . . I'm like my dad. We can both talk a lot of crap."

     Two years ago, "Dress to Kill" played New York's Westbeth Theater for months, then headed west, to San Francisco and Los Angeles; by then, Robin Williams had come aboard as producer and cultural attache. In his thick British accent, Izzard did things like read aloud from Pol Pot's daybook: "Death, death, death, lunch, death, death. . . ." Americans were charmed. Since 1993, when Izzard debuted "Ambassadors" in London, he has filmed all of his one-man shows and gone about the tiring business of selling them in various countries. In this way, Izzard eventually got HBO to license "Dress to Kill" last year.

     There is talk that the pay-cable channel will acquire "Circle" too, though the show doesn't feel quite the revelation "Dress" was, and Izzard is much better enjoyed live. The current tour, which comes to the Henry Fonda Theatre in Hollywood from Tuesday through Saturday (Izzard was last here in the 99-seat Tiffany), is playing to bigger houses in new markets. (Later this month, "Circle" heads to the 1,500-seat Town Hall in New York.)

     In Seattle, on opening night, Izzard ruminated on the curious resemblance between Tom Selleck's "Magnum, P.I." and all Iraqi men; mad cow disease; and Pope John Paul II's recent contrition over the Spanish Inquisition. ("It was entirely too inquisitive," Izzard imagined the pope saying. "It was supposed to be the Spanish Casual Chat.")

     As always, it was a performance suffused with relentless ad-libbing and the appearance of ad-libbing; mostly, he gets onstage and goes, with a rough idea of where he's headed.

     Izzard credits his dyslexia for helping him to be creative and to "think sideways." "The way I got it . . . was an absolute gift," he says. "I have a theory that the majority of creative people are dyslexic, because they see shapes in the clouds and they see people on chariots, and the moon and the stars and they think sideways and people think, 'That's a nice image.' But in school you've gotta think linear. I couldn't write, my spelling was phonetic." For example, he couldn't spell the word "marriage." He spelled it m-a-r-i-g-e, "because what else do you need?"

     For an encore, Izzard walked out and enacted a hilarious scene that never took place in a "Star Wars" movie. This one had Darth Vader in the commissary aboard the spaceship Death Star, trying to order the penne pasta from a surly worker behind the counter, some slacker telling Vader he had to have a tray to stand on line.

     Vader: "Do you know who I am?"
     Kid: "Do you know who I am?"
     Vader: "I am Vader. I can kill you with a single thought."
     Kid: "You'll still need a tray."

     During the encore, Izzard was given a start when a guy in the audience called out for the Disappearing Cornflakes Trick. Izzard played dumb, but the guy, it turned out, was a juggler who had traveled in the same street performer scene as Izzard in the 1980s.
     "What we did was failed tricks, bad tricks," Izzard says of the Disappearing Cornflakes Trick and others like it, performed in London's Covent Garden. "When it worked, it was quite funny in a boneheaded way. So we would take a bowl, a magic bowl, put in the cornflakes of death, add the milk of death." As the magician's assistant, it was Izzard's job to gobble the cornflakes down, his face obscured by a "magic cloth," his only utensil a "spoon of death."

     Izzard's act these days has earned him comparisons, most often, to Monty Python. Izzard himself points to Python as an influence, but also to Steve Martin, Lenny Bruce and Spike Milligan, who along with Peter Sellers performed in the 1950s BBC radio series "The Goon Show." Izzard calls Milligan "the godfather of alternative comedy for the world," and he plans to end the "Circle" tour, in a nod to his forebear, in Milligan's hometown of Rye, England.

     By then, Izzard will have been on the road for nearly a year, an exhaustive journey that began almost immediately after he concluded a three-month run starring in a London production of Julian Barry's 1971 play "Lenny," a biographical work about the groundbreaking comic. "Mr. Izzard gives us not only Bruce's nerve but his nerves," the Times of London's Benedict Nightingale wrote, in a review that was much less enthusiastic about the play itself.

     In England, Izzard is big, having played "Dress" to a crowd of 11,000 in Wembley Arena, but in other parts of the world things are different. Izzard, you could say, is worshiped--worshiped and, in a parallel universe, nobody at all, really. Everywhere he goes--Australia, Iceland, Holland, Canada--he does scores of interviews and is received by adoring audiences, but they are audiences, say, of 300 people at a clip.
     "It's enormously draining," he says of his touring. "I have to go to every [expletive] country and build it up from the ground. . . . I like playing different places, I like communicating this completely bizarre crap to people, but it does take an awful lot of grind. A lot of bands will tour as much, but at least they can have a bit of airplay to support it."

     But Izzard is just as quick to credit the London comedy scene for having helped developed his stamina--first as a street performer, and later in the clubs, where he spent many a night living in taxicabs, doing show after show.

     "In Britain we make money in the clubs. We have 85 to 90 clubs in London. New York has five clubs, L.A. has five clubs, we have 90," Izzard says. They are, he adds, part of a vast network of pubs with rooms upstairs designated on different nights for comedy.
     "There are enough places to play that you can get up to speed so you can be a really good comic if you want to be. They tried to get a scene going in Ireland. There's a great wit built into the Irish culture. But the idea of going to the pub and having a really good laugh . . . was not part of their psyche."

* * *     Today, such is the paradox of Izzard's cultish fame that he simultaneously plots how to build his global profile via the sale of videos and DVDs and refuses to specify where around London he lives.

     "The transvestite thing, that unlocked something [in people]," Izzard says. "I need people to have a life and then see the show. If I become their life then . . . no can do. People tell me things they don't tell anyone."

     Recently, he elaborates, David Dimbleby, a venerable, Tom Brokaw-esque BBC newscaster, was moved to tell Izzard that he lies to people about his height. "He told me that he was 5 foot 11 1/2," Izzard says. "He said, 'I tell everyone I'm 6 foot, but I'm telling you I'm 5 foot 11 1/2. I don't know why I'm telling you this.' And I [said], 'Well, it probably seems a bit stupid lying about half an inch of your height.' "

     Onstage, he does not talk about what he often talks about in interviews--his transvestism. Indeed, the subject has become Izzard interview boilerplate: He fancies wearing makeup and women's clothes, has since childhood. But he is not gay. "It's the third millennium," he says tonight. "The word 'transvestite' is outmoded. It's a very second-millennium word. I'm male lesbian, wearing what the [expletive] I want."
     And yet, emphatic as he is on this point, Izzard does not entertain too many questions about his current personal situation. He says that he has a girlfriend but won't, for instance, discuss whether his transvestism affects their sexual roles. "It is quite a confusing thing. It is quite a complex issue," he allows. "It's kind of easier if you're not going out with someone.

     ". . . It's an area that I don't really want to go into," he eventually concludes. "It's great copy . . . but I would like to keep our thing separate from this."

     On screen, Izzard will next be seen in December in "Shadow of the Vampire," starring Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich. The movie, which screened at the Cannes International Film Festival, is about the making of the horror classic "Nosferatu." Izzard plays Gustav Von Wangenheim, a "bad" actor in the production. It's not a starring role, and Izzard, faced with Dafoe in full vampire regalia, was presumably not permitted the luxury of talking crap.