Eddie Izzard is back in the saddle
By Tom Lanham, Alameda Times Star| Nov. 15, 2004

HIS legend precedes him. Born in Yemen, raised in Ireland, then Wales, Eddie Izzard used to steal lipstick as a child. He wasn't sure why. By age 24, he was a failed sketch comedian living on the dole in London, and during a full year off work he admitted the truth to himself: He was a heterosexual transvestite, a straight guy who just happened to enjoy wearing women's clothes and makeup.

He sported nothing but fancy dresses for six liberating months, and began incorporating his sexual orientation into his one-man standup act. Fans were fascinated, and now the 42-year-old is the toast of the UK, Europe and America, where he won two Emmys for his HBO special "Dress To Kill."

Izzard also became a star of stage and screen, appearing in David Mamet's "The Cryptogram," Marlowe's "Edward II," and revivals of "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg" and the Lenny Bruce study "Lenny."

He chewed up the scenery in films like "Velvet Goldmine," "The Cat's Meow," "All the Queen's Men" and the upcoming "Ocean's Eleven" sequel, "Ocean's Twelve."

This week, three of Izzard's earlier shows -- 1994's "Unrepeatable," "Definite Article" from '96, and '97's "Glorious" -- were released stateside on DVD, following his recent "Circle" set (and setting the stage for the unleashing of his last tour, "Sexie," on DVD later this year, all on Anti).

Lately, he's been nabbing roles that are, ahem, much less of a drag.

In Dutch director Jan Kounen's new adaptation of the Wild West-set Moebius graphic novel "Blueberry," Izzard traded high heels for harness boots as the movie's villain Prosit.

"And it was a great bloody Western, filmed for over three months in Mexico, a month in Spain, a month in France," recalls the comic, lunching in the cafe of San Francisco hotel a couple of weeks ago.

In town for hush-hush "work in progress" shows at Cobb's Comedy Club, he was dressed in decidedly butch attire: oxfords, rumpled tan business suit, dress shirt unbuttoned at the neck. He had a moustache and sprouts of a beard framing his lantern jaw.

His trademark rapid-fire wit rockets to the surface.

Because Kounen lives in France, Izzard dubbed "Blueberry" a "baguette-y Western" instead of a spaghetti Western.

"... My character was written as a stereoptypical bad Nazi, and bad Nazis just go" -- his voice bristles with a clipped German cadence -- "'I did zis but I'm not sorry! Ha ha ha!' But I made him more of a charismatic liar, like 'Not me! I vasn't dere, vhy vould I do zat?' Because someone who's out-and-out scum would get shot instantly in that society. They would've just blown him away."

To master the role, Izzard took horse riding lessons -- in Spanish.

"And I don't speak Spanish, so it was very primal, with a lot of mime involved," he says. "And I didn't find that it smashes your bollocks, as it should do -- I loved it. You have to make love to the saddle, is what they say. And you do have to get that grinding motion going."

In another drama made for BBC TV, "40," Izzard plays an unscrupulous advertising exec who gets his comeuppance when it's discovered that he secretly has cast an ex-porn star in his latest glossy campaign.

"So that's that, I lose my job, and it's not a very feel-good film," he notes.

He adds that he had trouble relating to the movie's midlife-crisis theme because he had his mid-life crisis in his 20s, when he was walking around with makeup on, being a transvestite.

"And once you come out with that, you tend to deal with all your problems at that point. And it's not like a phase that one goes through -- I've been a transvestite since I was 4. And I suppose a midlife crisis is about 'Why am I doing this job?'-type career choices, but I wasn't doing any career until I came out, then I got into my career at the end of my 20s. So if you're gonna have a crisis, having it in your 20s is the crisis itself."

He bounds fluidly from this topic to animals -- which he often anthropomorphizes in his act -- to fellow mammal-mocking comic Richard Pryor, to cartoonist Gary Larson, then to flicks like "Finding Nemo" and "A Shark's Tale."

Lending voices to animals, he says, "gives you kind of an objective viewpoint on humanity." Hence classic Izzard gags like his father-son discussion on original sin: "'Father, I have poked a badger with a spoon.' 'Now that, my son, is an original sin!'"

Historical figures permeate Izzard's work, but he shies away from current politics. "Nothing too topical, because if you talk about Bush, everyone's gonna say something about him," he reasons. Which is why this Renaissance man walks out fully prepared to discuss the Renaissance, or any subject that strikes his fancy that particular ad-lib night.

No script, no list of possible subjects. Which is a good part of Izzard's allure. All of his shows have a sense of spontaneity, that teetering-on-the-cliff feeling that anything could happen as he hurtles through his routine at breakneck speed.

Izzard is glad both Broadway and Hollywood have grown accustomed to his lipsticked mug. It gave him the opportunity -- for "Lenny" -- to hear rare standup tapes courtesy of Bruce's estate, and to channel Charlie Chaplin for the historical murder-mystery "The Cat's Meow."

He says he read a lot about Bruce and Chaplin and tried to bring their characters to his character and see where they crossed over: "I feel like I don't really know the rules or technique of how to film and stage act, so I sorta watch what other people are doing and make up my own rules."

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