The Radio Times
Chrissey Iley meets Eddie Izzard
(thanks Sarah M.)
He's a stand-up, spans masculinity from macho to camp, and aims to be an action transvestite, a hero in heels. So why's he acting straight? Photograph by Jason Bell
The first time I met Eddie Izzard, last summer, I was excited about the prospect. I saw him as a kind of exotic, erotic curiosity; he was billing himself as a male lesbian. His stand-up comedy has always been peppered with gorgeous nuance; insightful and flowing. His look was the fey, high-heeled sex god, but what could be more macho than a man who makes you laugh?
I was actually with Lulu when I met him at a party in the Electric Cinema in London's Notting Hill to celebrate the completion of his stand-up video, Circle. Although the room was filled with lusting females, he chose to talk to us, mostly about his noble European belief that comedy is the language of international connection - laughter is what we can all share. That's why he'd just done shows in Paris. That's why he wanted to learn Spanish, even German.
He did seem to be giving Lulu a lot more attention than me, which made me think that as well as being so noble, he's also a networker who feels comfortable with the beautiful and famous. He does have the kind of persona that expects adulation. His blonde British publicist is never far from his side, making sure that if he has a whim, it's going to receive five-star service. His American manager is another high-powered blonde who fawns over him.
He works hard. He's been busy with rehearsals for the newly opened Broadway run of Peter Nichol's acclaimed A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg, in which he plays beleagured father Brian. Then there has been the American TV chat-show circuit, and plans for his world tour, which starts in Australia in August, moves on to New Zealand, the USA and Canada, reaches the UK in November, then transfers to Europe (and othe languages) in 2004.
On top of this, he's just made a western, for which he grew a beard, and he played Charlie Chaplin rather well in Peter Bogdanovich's tale of Hollywood scandal, The Cat's Meow, which has its British release later this year. And in what seems to be a true epiphany moment, he's also starring in 40, a Channel 4 / Company Pictures venture about a group of people whose lives intersect at that stressful 40 time.
He's never done television drama before, and 40 is a challenging place to start, being infused with emotional insecurity, sexual inadequacy and pain. It has an ensemble cast, including Joanne Whalley, Kerry Fox and Hugo Speer, but, while it might have its piquant moments, it's certainly no Cold Feet.
Izzard plays Ralph (aka Ralphie) Outen, a brash, flash, advertising executive who's testosterone-fuelled, literally. He has to inject himself with it before multiple sex sessions because he needs a little help with his performance. You couldn't get less fey, less lipstick.
"I had to audition my ass off to get it," says Izzard when we meet in the lounge of New York's Soho Grand hotel. An unsettling combination of stocky and scrawny, at 5ft 8in he's not as tall as you might imagine. He's wearing a nondescript brown jumper (which does nothing to define his body shape), black trousers, and the only stuff lining his eyes is a pale red rim called lack of sleep.
"I look blokey, which works for me as an actor," he says. "It works against you when you're a man who wants to look like a woman. But I thought the part of Ralphie was well within my age range, not necessarily a huge leap. I've been open about being a transvestite, but I don't want that to get in the way - like this man is from Captain Camp - so I've done everything I could to muddy the waters."
He may come over soft-voiced and gentle, but Izzard's a man who's always wanted to act - and, it seems has had an enduring fantasy of being the leading man, the hero. Not that Ralphie's heroic, but he certainly does get to have a lot of dysfunctional sex. "When I started going into drama, I thought if you turned up for a part like Ralphie and were wearing make-up, they just wouldn't get it. So I have to be disciplined and say I won't be in dress mode for the moment. I'll be in bloke mode."
He stares into the middle distance. Is it fatigue or complete detachment? Certainly he's had to disconnect from that feminine side, and I'm not sure if the result is that he's had to detach somewhat from himself. Does he miss shopping for makeup? I feel awkward as soon as the words are out; it's impossible to be girlie with him. He gives a dismissive answer and looks bored, asks for coffee and drinks it black.
Though he's now 41, he filmed 40 when he was exactly that age. Did he identify with the screwed-up relationships, the age when you look back on things and ask whether you could have done better? "People talk about midlife crisis. What the hell is midlife any more?" he retorts. "I had mt midlife crisis in my 20s, when I came out. That was a crisis. Now I'm at a stage where I don't see crisis, because I dealt with it 15 years ago."
He makes it sound very neat and pragmatic, but perhaps realising that's what I might be thinking, he tells me that it was a longer struggle. During his 20s, he was mostly street performing. There was no overnight glow: "It was ten years of doing sketch comedy that gave me stamina." He rationalises that his lack of crisis is now because what he did earlier was really scary. "Being of an alternative sexuality was a gift, really. The way I dealt with it made me strong."
But is there a different struggle now? Does he feel he has to choose between stand-up and acting? "I always knew I wanted to act from the age of seven." He's full of childhood specifics. Especially about how he found ways of taking to the stage. In 1969 - when he was seven - he played one of several street urchins in a school production of Beauty and the Beast: "I think it's psychologically interesting how I approached it. I didn't get a decent role, so I said my street-urchin line, "Oh, Beauty, don't go", very quickly, before all the other kids, so it quickly became a solo line. That got a laugh." He says his timing has always been instinctive. He loved the stage because he liked what he calls "the fatness of silence". In another minor role, playing a policeman, he was handcuffed to the main character and learnt how to manipulate the space so that he became the centre of attention. Now, at last, he's the male lead. Yet still, when he says," That got a laugh," he says it with eye-glinting pride.
But, as a child, acting was not about the thrill of dressing up as a raven in black tights - it was, in part, the usual boy's dream: "How can I be a pirate, a pilot and a bank robber and get away with it?" But mostly it was all to do with his mother's death, when he was just six. "I think acting was substitute affection," he says.
Whatever empty space he might have been looking to fill with the love of the audience is now full. "My mother's attention is gone, and the audience is here. I think it's quite healthy. You do something creative and they laugh. It's not that the audience is my mother, but it's appreciation, affection. It's, "We like you for doing that well." Never in my head is it linked to my mother. I have made her into some sort of angel, some positive force. She was a nurse, so she was very nurturing."
But if the audience/mother dynamic is what drives him now, in the beginning Izzard didn't seem particularly driven at all. He was born in Yemen, where his father an executive with BP and his mother midwife. After losing her to cancer, Eddie was sent to boarding school in Britain. It was multinational, with boys from Iran, Venezuela, India, Pakistan, Germany, so he always had this sense of being an outsider, connecting with other outsiders.
He first tackled coming out as a transvestite while at Shefield University, where he studied accounting and financial management. (He had applied on the assumption that all student bodies had a heavy presence at the Edinburgh Festival; in Sheffield's case, he was wrong, and he didn't finish the course) "A psychiatrist at the time told me he'd sort something out. I waited. He never did. I asked him again about the appointment and he said, "Oh, I'll get right onto it," and nothing ever happened. It was criminal really."
He launches into a monologue about what happened after Sheffield. Basically, he watched Australian soaps on TV for a year. "I worked it out once and I realised that that year I watched seven weeks of television. Imagine that. I love watching telly. Intially, though, I didn't want to be on it." He draws an analysis about being on TV not being as scary after you've taken the risks and come out as a transvestite. But what I'm sure attracted him to doing this TV series was the potential of the character, Ralphie. It's the opposite of everything you might expect from gentle, rambling, camp Eddie.
Ralphie is macho, selfish and rampant. Izzard tells me that his new thing that he's "an action transvestite, a boy-racer, girl-racer thing. My grandad had a motorbike for years." He paints a picture of his grandfather, a voracious reader and late-developing lothario, and segues into the perfect soundbite: "Yes. I can be Captain Transvestite. My look will be Carrie-Anne Moss from The Matrix. Ralphie's job - certainly I could identify with that. I would have liked to have done that. I still would. Imagine if you're trying to land an account called transvestism. Action transvestite. It's a big mother f***er of a term, but it says so much. So I do identify with his head space."
Ralphie hits his midlife crisis because he's lived to excess. "I haven't done that" says Izzard. "I tend to get my ideas from the other end. I have this analogy of canoeing down the rapids, and the rapids are life, and if you sit in the boat, the boat could dash you against the rocks. You look at the canoeists and they paddle faster than the river. My thing is that you should actually back-pedal."
But isn't that a way of avoiding life rather than embracing it? "No. you're still doing the life thing, just doing it more slowly. I do move very slowly, and that way you see things more clearly. I'm the inverse to "grab the thing that's coming. Jump on the next boat".
Does he think his year of watching television was a kind of meditation, a gestation, then? "What a lovely way of looking at it," he exclaims, engaged for the first time. "Meditation in a course of popular culture, Australian daytime soap. Yes. I was watching other people go by on the river. I was watching the telly, and people on the telly were canoeing past."
I admit to being baffled by the canoeing story. But Izzard doesn't want to be thought of as too weird, too off-centre, so he counters with "my taste is very commercial and mainstream. I'm popcorn-eating. I liked The Generation Game and The Matrix, and that's why I just made a western. That's what 'action transvestite' is about. I want to do action movies."
It strikes me as more sad than odd that Izzard, who's been described as one of the greatest stand-ups in the world, would rather be Vin Diesel - or is it Tom Cruise? He's gearing up for his world tour, though, with Uma Thurman's breasts. He found them when he had a part on the 1998 film version of The Avengers (Thurman played Emma Peel).
"Her stunt double had to have extra breastage to match up with Uma" he says. "And I said to the wardrobe department, "Hey guys, I've been looking for a pair of these. Can you put me down for a pair? They're not Uma's, but they're a homage to Uma." Does he still have breast envy? "Oh yeah". He has launched many times before into a ho, ho, ho rant about how he loves women so much he wants to be one.
I'm slightly suspicious of the way he wants us to believe he's got it all sorted now: "Having the midlife crisis at 20-something, it's the way to do it, I really recommend it". But what else happens at 40 is that people sometimes decide the time is right for kids. He is, of course, vague. "Having children is something I'd like to do at some point. The male part of my psyche tells me I've got a bit of time." He's equally vague about his girlfriend: "I have this whole thing which I've repeated a number of times - I'd rather my relationships not be part of a write-up." I wonder if his relationship with her is still on, then? "It's all there, depending on your definition of "is"," he says. "Isn't that what Clinton said?"
The more cryptic he becomes, the more direct it makes me. Did he come out as a transvestite to his girlfriend, or did she know? He mumbles, then offers: "I told people very early on and there was never any regret about that. When I was at school I was into football and I was a real action boy. I didn't want to be in the choir because it was sissy. I fancied girls, so I had it completely suppressed.
"I've never found a guy that I've been attracted to. Aesthetically I can think Johnny Depp really works, but I don't know what I'd do with him." It's a pragmatic downplay. "There was one time when I really wanted to talk about it. It was just before I went on stage and there was a conversation about sexuality and I dropped it in: "I'm a transvestite." Nobody even noticed. One of the first people I told properly said "it's like suddenly learning you speak German.""
But he looks as if he doesn't want to speak any language at all. Not while he's busy spanning the extremes of desperately macho and severely camp, not when he's on a mission not to be pigeonholed - except by himself as the action-hero transvestite. Whatever demons he dealt with in his 20s never surfaced as a 40-something crisis. They were all disguised in power suits. They've all been translated into ambition.