Not just a pretty face

Lenny Ann Low | Sydney Morning Herald
January 20, 2009 - 4:28PM

FOR a globe-trotting comedian and self-confessed "action transvestite", Eddie Izzard's current goal seems as unlikely as it is admirable. Having achieved childhood dreams to be a stand-up, act in serious plays and films and, of course, dress as a woman, the 46-year-old Yemen-born comic has turned his multi-talented gaze to politics - specifically, standing for a position in the European Parliament.

"Right-wing governments do not care," he says. "Care is not their first port of call. The economy is. It's trying to incentivise people, the trickle-down theory. The Conservatives. The Republicans. I believe it should flow down, gush down. Why does it have to trickle down? Why do some people earn millions and some people earn pennies? I want more people to earn a better living. And I believe in care and common sense and people trying for a better world."

These are surprising words from a man most people associate with absurd and free-wheeling stand-up routines. An increasingly respected dramatic actor, whose latest role is opposite Tom Cruise in the World War II action-thriller Valkyrie, Izzard's comedic outlook on the world, on history, religion, social politics, gender roles and, of course, beekeepers freaking out when they realise they're covered in bees, is aeons away from the hard-headed nature of politics.

Just think of his 2000 stand-up riff on Darth Vader getting into an argument with a cafeteria worker while ordering penne all'arrabbiata in the Death Star canteen ("For I am Vader. Darth Vader. Lord Vader. I can kill you with a single thought!" "Well, you'll still need a tray.") and the just-as popular internet-based Lego animations a 15-year-old American teenager made to accompany it.

How would a man, hailed as "a national treasure - the David Attenborough of stand-up comedy" by The Guardian, fit into the EU's corridors of power?

Pressed on this point, Izzard, a long-time member of the British Labour Party, says he is not certain he wants to give up comedy and acting for full-time campaigning and affairs of state but he remains vehement about effecting change.

"No one wants to play in the European sandpit, really," Izzard says. "It's not an easy place to go to, because you get attacked. But I just see it as the future. If we get the European Union wrong, we're screwed."

A history buff who got his pilot's licence to conquer his fear of flying, Izzard is fluent in French, almost-fluent in German and Russian and at present eyeing Spanish, Italian and Arabic. He is more than fashionably interested in causes such as ensuring a minimum wage around the world or eradicating dictatorships such as Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe.

"Vision-wise, this is what we do as humans. We gradually learn to work together. It's civilisation. I do gigs in French in Paris and I'm going to do them in German in Berlin, and then Russian in Moscow . . . I'm the only idiot who's probably going to do all that, so I may as well get out there and talk to people and find out what they're thinking in different countries. I'm in the right place to do that."

After a 12-year absence from the West End stand-up stage, he has just completed a five-week run of his latest show Stripped after a 34-city tour of America. He's in bloke mode at the moment, off-stage and on, with "just a bit of eyeliner" and manicured nails hinting at his preference for female dress. Izzard says he would happily be a woman but, because he looks more like a man and fancies women, he is a male lesbian.

"I'm more like a butch lesbian and a femme lesbian crossed together."

He describes his frocks, fishnets and high heels, attire he first experimented with in secret when he was a teenager and then began wearing in public during his early 20s, as his clothes, not women's clothes. He's more frequently seen in men's suits these days.

"I don't have to wear a dress all the time," he says. "I just wear what I want. Anyone who has a problem with that can get stuffed."

Women on the whole have no problem. Izzard's husky, slurry voice is as seductive as his feminine-edged masculinity is sexy, while ageing, and some carefully clipped facial hair, has given his soft features a dashing craggy edge.

He has legions of female fans, some of whom send him erotic literature and marriage proposals, and he says he likes "hot and strong" women with a generous bosom, perhaps to compare with his fake breasts, scored from Uma Thurman's body double when he starred in The Avengers.

Born in Aden, then a British colony but now part of Yemen, Edward John Izzard was the second son of Dorothy Ella, a midwife, and Harold John Izzard, an accountant with BP. The family moved to Northern Ireland when he was one before shifting to south Wales four years later. It was there, when Izzard was six, that his mother died from bowel cancer at 41. His emotional world collapsed and, with his older brother Mark, he endured years of raw grief at a strict boarding school. It wasn't until he was 19 that he felt able to open up to others.

He has had many relationships - and refuses to discuss them - but has said he is prone to destroying them because "I don't want to lose people, because I have experienced such loss before". Fatherhood, he hopes, will come before he is 50.

As a boy he wanted to be a professional footballer and join the army (he loved plain food such as potatoes and "in the army they peel potatoes") but it was while studying accounting, finance and mathematics at Sheffield University that he dabbled in stand-up. Failing the course, he switched to street performance and then tried comedy clubs. His first gig was in 1986 at the Banana Cabaret in Balham, London, where he got one laugh. But Izzard pushed on.

For years he battled middling success until in the early '90s he was nominated for a Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In 1993, he landed a four-week season at the Ambassadors Theatre, London, which was extended to 13 weeks and won him the British Comedy Award for top stand-up comedian.

He won two Emmy Awards for his stand-up show Dress To Kill and appeared in films including Velvet Goldmine, The Avengers and The Cat's Meow (as Charlie Chaplin). His role in A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg on Broadway earned nominations for Tony and Drama League awards and won the Drama Desk Award and Outer Critics' Circle Award for outstanding actor in a play.

He "artificially slowed down the stand-up side" to concentrate on acting and appeared in Ocean's Twelve and Ocean's Thirteen, My Super Ex-Girlfriend and lent his voice to animated characters in The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian and Igor. He plans to make a feature film spin-off of his popular, though now cancelled, American TV series The Riches, co-starring Minnie Driver.

"I have, hopefully, the fine wine approach to a career as opposed to the [clicks fingers] instant one. Some people are, 'Hey! I'm 16, I'm brilliant, I'm doing this,' and they can do it. And maybe they don't know how to do anything else, but they just know that when they stand there it all seems to click. Whereas I was never a [click] person. I was someone who wanted it and everyone said, 'Well, actually you're crap, ha ha, you can't.' I had to keep pushing and pushing. I am very, very, very, very ambitious. In Britain it gets slightly frowned upon but it depends on what you're doing. Gandhi was ambitious, Nelson Mandela was ambitious, Barack Obama . . . you don't have to be just dragging money out of people. You can be ambitious and hopefully trying to do something positive, something useful.

"For me, I like entertaining people, I like doing drama, I want to do politics, and hopefully put something in there that's useful. I get paid to do the entertainment, but I try to do as good work as I can."

His latest work is Valkyrie, a Bryan Singer-directed thriller about Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (played by Tom Cruise), the aristocratic army officer who led the real-life failed plot to kill Hitler in 1944. Izzard co-stars as Nazi General Erich Fellgiebel, head of communications at Hitler's military compound, the Wolf's Lair.

Does he think Cruise's presence glamorises the role?

"Don't forget he did Interview With The Vampire and Born On The Fourth Of July. He has done very well with his commercial films but he has pushed to do the stuff that's stretched him, pushed him out there. It was good for Germany, for the people to see this and have Tom Cruise playing a German doing it.

"Stauffenberg is looked at in an ambivalent way in Germany. They are slightly reluctant to take him as a hero because it's someone saying, 'OK, we went and did this to try to stop the mad guy who was the gangster.' And this should help things."

When does the voice inside Izzard's head, that keeps pushing him, allow him some rest? "I just tried it recently. I had two weeks off and I was driving around and I got stuck in my own head a bit too much. How do you make the European Union work in a perfect way? You can't solve that in a day or an hour, so my brain just goes around and around with bits of ideas, not actually moving forward. I have to keep working, do physical stuff, occupy my mind.

"I'm just getting going now and I'm not planning to stop."

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