Mirror, mirror on the wall... Eddie Izzard: ' One day they'll hopefully start to think: Mmm, Marilyn Manson, lots of make-up, anti-all-American … this is where Eddie fits in'.

Picture: Debra Hurford Brown

Why Eddie Izzard wants to be Sean Penn
(with a dash of Sharon Stone)

Aidan Smith finds the darling of surreal stand-up comedy gets serious about an alternative career as a Hollywood actor

FOUR times he mentions it, apropos of absolutely nothing at all. Each time he’s talking about something completely unrelated, like Curly Wurlys or football or why he performs stand-up entirely for himself, even when he’s doing it in front of a sell-out gathering of 11,200 disciples. Then suddenly he saddles up his new hobbyhorse – and he’s off. This is Eddie Izzard, but his obsession on this occasion is not transvestism, it’s something much more esoteric. That’s right, it’s Europe.

Quite often, Izzard wishes he was Sean Penn and now and again he wants to be Sharon Stone, but I can’t help feeling that the person with whom he most wants to trade places is Edward Heath, banging the drum for a brave new Europe. Here’s an example of how he can turn a conversation around: he’s dyed his streaked blonde hair jet black for Lenny, the play about the life of Lenny Bruce which has been running in London’s West End, so I’m wondering, perfectly innocently, if he might keep it that way after the curtain comes down on the show.

"Dunno, it depends whether the play will transfer to Broadway but I’m doing a stand-up tour next and now we do different tours for different countries and Scotland and ... the Stone of Scone – am I pronouncing it right? – now that’s a cool thing and you’ve got your own parliament now which is another cool thing and under the umbrella of Europe it’ll be really cool because I’m a huge European and I’m serious about this because if we don’t get on the bus we’re f****d. Basically."

This is how Izzard talks: fast, with the attention span of a gnat, a Noo Yawk accent appropriated from his thespian role – and the minimum of punctuation. He’s a human firework in a stream of consciousness – no, wait, that would make him a damp squib, which he’s not. Come to think of it, he doesn’t talk so much in a stream, more a raging torrent. And he’s not just any old penny banger, either. He’s a Roman Candle. No, I think he’d prefer to be a Catherine Wheel.

We’re in a cafe close to London’s Queen’s Theatre, where Izzard has been getting better reviews than the play. He’s smoking and supping lager but skipping food because he has problems keeping his weight down. He’s dressed entirely in black, such a slimming colour. "I have a very slow metabolism so I have to work very hard to stop myself turning into an immense balloon," he explains. "Some people can eat a horse a day, a horse a minute, but I can’t eat anything. I buy fruit knowing I should eat that, but I end up just watching it rot."

But stress must burn off some of those pesky calories, for Izzard gets very stressed: in fact, he even gets stressed talking about stress. Before we leave the subject of his hair, he tells me how his new colour has been a nifty disguise, enabling him to go about the business of being Britain’s finest stand-up pretty much undetected. A private person and a control freak, he says adulation makes him uncomfortable. "It’s like, I mean, you’re trying to do this or that or you’re on the phone and even if you’re in a real problem situation, the person on the other end will say something nice and that’s cool, but what do you say back? ‘Yes, I am great’?"

Is it that tough being Eddie Izzard? He’s intelligent, articulate, compassionate and not short of a few bob. He’s got a multi-faceted career. He’s got a big potato face which makes you laugh, even if the inspired jibberish he spouts doesn’t (it usually does). He’s a Monty Python nut and a gadget freak, but not remotely laddish. At 37, he’s still single, and many women’s idea of a dream date. So what if he might spend longer in the bathroom than them?

Izzard recently declared he’s "all talked out" about his transvestism. But he’s not, or at least not today. It impacts on everything, not least the career, and his dream of becoming a Hollywood he-man. No, really.

He might have made his name with free-association comic rambling but Izzard yearns for the straight-jacket of a script for a serious movie with him in the lead role, and Lenny has been part of his grand plan. "Hopefully it proves I can hold down a dramatic role," he says. "I’d love to do the stuff Sean Penn does. There’s not a direct line from me to him, I know, but I’m going to drive there anyway. It’ll take time. Robin Williams got that acceptability with Dead Poets Society and he started out in Mork & Mindy."

But Williams doesn’t wear a dress, Izzard sometimes does. "In America, they don’t really know diddley about my TV, so I’ve got to have a different mindset there. Same in France, where they don’t even admit that TV exists. The French are so Fifties about sexuality. The men say: ‘This is my mistress,’ and I’ve even heard some women say: ‘My role is in the kitchen.’ I was interviewed on French radio once and the host introduced me as ‘la sexualite anglaise.’ I thought: ‘Hello? I think you’ll find France has this.’

"But I know I’ve created a burden for myself. The adjective ‘transvestite’ will follow me around until I achieve a certain profile, and everyone says: ‘Oh, that! We all know!’ I don’t know if I’ll achieve that in mainstream Hollywood. I’m going to have to do those little, quirky roles in the big films, then one day they’ll hopefully start to think: ‘Mmm, Marilyn Manson, lots of make-up, anti-all-American ... this is where Eddie fits in.’ Basically, if you’re black, gay, lesbian or TV you have to be one step ahead of the guy who says: ‘I’m a bloke, I’ve got muscles, put me in the movies.’"

Izzard realised he was a transvestite at the age of four. His mother died when he was six. He insists the two events are not related. "Her death did cause me to become a performer, though. I’d lost my mother’s love at a young age. Then I saw a play and the applause the actors got knocked me out. It was the surrogate affection thing." He decided to tell his father when he was 29, at a football match, and, of course, it totally stressed him out. "I thought: ‘Do I tell him at the start or the end – but what if we lose?’ But he was cooler than cool about it." He admits, though, he should have been born a woman.

"I’d have been a lesbian. As it is, I’m a male lesbian. I fancy women, you see. I’ve tried fancying guys but it doesn’t really work." Izzard has always been coy about whether there is a significant other in his life; his standard response is that he prefers being "kind of loose". But who does he confide in? "I’m a lone wolf, a wolfess, a transvestite wolf. No, I’ve got it: Little Red Riding Wolf!" He seems pretty pleased with this typically Izzardian hop, step and jump, so he orders himself another Kronenberg (he’s a European, you see).

"I have confidantes of both sexes," he continues, "but I like girlie chats the best. You can see the guys distancing themselves from this stuff: they’re brought up in such a way that you can’t actually show any interest without getting your head kicked in." So wither Nineties Man? "I don’t see him out there. The current generation were brought up with football and fighting and respect just doesn’t go out to the guy who’s wearing the great dress and the good heels."

But Eddie Izzard: The Testosterone Years, did they ever exist? "Of course they did. As a kid I was a male tomboy – climbing trees and experimenting with make-up. I love football but my last big scrap happened when I was 13. I had no technique for fighting. I just used to close my eyes and do the windmill thing with my arms."

While he waits for the biggie, movie-wise, there are four films on the way, two British, two American, including Shadow of A Vampire (the story of the making of Nosferatu) and Mystery Men. "That one’s set in a future world where everyone is a superhero and I play Tony P, leader of a gang called The Disco Boys. It’s a nothing part but I get to wear fantastic clothes – huge heels." But even if he does become the new Sean Penn or the next Sharon Stone ("I met her once, she was great – very Sharon Stone"), Izzard vows he’ll never give up stand-up.

"It’s just too much fun," he says. "I do comedy for me, no-one else, but I think all creative people are selfish like that." He recently played Wembley Arena and that less-than-intimate, 11,000-plus audience. "The show lost the personal touch but I gained that whole event thing." So he’s a megalomaniac, then? "Megalomania is right up there – but also stupidity. In the end I was doing this stuff with just the eyes." Bet that went down a storm in row ZZ. "It did, it kicked."

So does he make it all up as he goes along? "Sort of. If it was just random noises and stories about going into shops and finding antelopes in them, I’d have a problem ... and I wouldn’t get to Wembley. But my stuff has gone from stupid to ... politics." And so we’re back where we began, with Izzard harping on about how we must all become one big, happy European family.

"I’d like to have a go at a political career but at the moment I’m doing this," he says. And while he has been a talking head on Question Time, it was not one of his greatest gigs. "Someone said I was very uninformed, but it wasn’t my job to know everything. My pure argument was that we’ve had 2,500 years of murdering people, which has used up a lot of energy – let’s put that into something creative."

It’s quite simple, really, he wants us all to live together in harmony – men, women, and all the rest.

‘I’m going to have to do those little, quirky roles in the big films, then one day they’ll hopefully start to think: "Mmm, Marilyn Manson, lots of make-up, anti-all-American … this is where Eddie fits in’