Flamboyant comedian Eddie Izzard is crossing over to his serious side
SeattleTimes.com | 09.02.03

Fans of Eddie Izzard who hold tickets to "Sexie," his upcoming live show at the Moore Theatre, should thank their lucky stars.

Except for some $20 nosebleed-section seats, Izzard's Thursday through Saturday gig in Seattle is sold out solid. And from the way Izzard talks, it may be a while before he performs here again.

"I'm gonna tour now, and then not tour for five more years," says Izzard. The clever British spieler is known for his insightful, ricocheting ruminations on human, mythic and animal life, from the Stone Age to the present — and for his flashy cross-dressing. (Onstage he often accessorizes a sleek man's suit with stiletto high heels and glittery mascara.)

But wait a minute, here, Eddie: Didn't you just say you now play to 10,000 people a shot in outdoor arenas around Britain? And haven't you just released a new DVD of your last solo show, "Circle" — which you performed here in 2000 at ACT Theatre to a fawning throng? Aren't you at the top of your stand-up game, old bloke?

Ah, yes, all true. But, explains Izzard by phone, "I need to get some momentum going as an actor. They'll be slower at hiring you for the good roles if they just think, 'Oh, he's busy doing comedy.' "

There's the rub: Though he's won a sizable cult following here (and around the English-speaking world) for his kaleidoscopic stand-up commentaries on the quirks of the cosmos, Izzard yearns to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor.

Very few former stand-up comics of note (Robin Williams pops to mind) have pulled off the nifty trick of moving with ease from jester to tragedian, clown to crown. But Izzard has a good shot at it.

"I love stand-up, it's my rock," he remarks, in softer tones than his motor-mouth, matey-Brit stage voice. "But I do wish to play parts where there's no comedy at all."

That wish is coming true. Izzard, 41, scored New York critics' prizes and a deserved 2003 Tony Award nomination for his fine-tuned portrayal of Bri — the desperate, angry, conflicted father of a severely disabled child in a recent revival of the Peter Nichols play "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg."

Also impressive: Izzard's underappreciated turn as Charlie Chaplin in Peter Bogdanovich's 2001 film, "Cat's Meow," and his work as Lenny Bruce in a 1999 London run of "Lenny."

He also appears in a new futuristic film version of the ripping Jacobean revenge drama, "A Revenger's Tragedy," as the son of a dastardly duke (played by Derek Jacobi). Directed by Alex Cox (of "Repo Man" fame), the movie debuts in Seattle at the Grand Illusion, Friday. (Izzard and Cox will be on hand to introduce 11 p.m. screenings Friday and Saturday.)

But so far, at least, Izzard's not ditching the comedy biz, which he broke into with a solo act at the 1981 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

"I have no other actors up there, and I have to keep people laughing all the time," he reflects. "If it's a good show the endorphins are released for me and the audience. And it's fun, and stupid and clever and twisted and weird and upbeat and odd, hopefully."

In his show "Circle," Izzard included former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher among his targets for witty comic abuse. In "Sexie," does Izzard mouth off on current politicians and the war in Iraq?

"Yes I do, but not hugely on the point," he responds. "There's a kind of obviousness in me taking a certain position. As a British person born in Yemen, I'd rather talk about the Koran and Mohammed and where Islam comes from, and how close it is to the Jewish and Christian religions. I like to compare and contrast East and West because I believe human beings are about 90 percent the same and 10 percent different. And we fight all these bloody wars over the 10 percent difference."

Plenty to focus on

At the Moore, he'll also cogitate on topics Izzard fans will recall from the earlier "Circle" and "Dressed to Kill" shows: dinosaurs, superheroes, Greek myths, greyhound races and life as "an executive transvestite."

Izzard provokes full-out belly laughs in his act, and cuts a gaudy stage figure. But in an interview, he doesn't crack wise or cut up, and admits to being a quiet, rather reticent person in private. Asked why so many accomplished funnymen are low-key in civilian life, he shares his own theory.

"I definitely developed comedy as a social tool to use in the classroom, and make myself more popular," says Izzard, who lost his mother at 6, and spent much of his youth in British boarding schools. "I could make people laugh a bit, so I started working on that. But when you go professional and have to be so funny onstage, you tend to stop using humor when you get off. If you sit around with friends and do your comedy thing, you keep hogging the limelight or tearing people apart."

Though Izzard could make a good living from comedy tours and video specials alone (his many celeb fans include Bob Newhart, Brad Pitt and Elvis Costello), he's an ambitious thespian who hankers to star in "Macbeth" soon. As a guy who never took acting lessons, he's had a lot to prove to formally trained peers.

One chance to do so came when Bogdanovich "threw the role (of Chaplin) at me in 'Cat's Meow.' " He liked the idea of giving it to an English comedian doing well in America," reports Izzard.

The actor did copious research for the movie, which considers the hazy relationship between publisher William Randolph Hearst, actress and Hearst mistress Marion Davies, and Chaplin.

"I acquired a lot of theories about Chaplin, which I tried to play out. I think off-screen Chaplin was enormously shy, and he was trying to learn how to chat up women. I had to dump everything I'd seen him do on film, and play Charlie trying to get laid, basically."

The plum role of Bri in "Joe Egg" brought Izzard acclaim in London and on Broadway, and fresh challenges. Though Bri is smart-mouthed and funny, he's also racked with guilt over the pathetic state of his young daughter and the erosion of his marriage.

"Joe Egg" (which ended its limited Broadway run in June) required the kind of emotionally complex performance which, Izzard insists, "I've always felt I had within me, and now I feel up to speed and able to dig it out. It can be hellish and horrible, but also fascinating. But that's what people want to see up there — reality."

It's not been easy, though, for Izzard to lead his loyal comedy fans into darker dramatic cul-de-sacs.

"In 'Joe Egg's' first scene, Bri, a teacher, is talking to his class and it kind of looks like a stand-up routine, but it's not," he says.

"On Broadway I would come on, and the audience would start clapping and talking back to me, like in my stand-up shows. I ripped my throat out telling them to shut up, then I got this athletic whistle, and blew it to get them quiet. I had to make it clear I wasn't being Eddie up there, but Bri."

Yet he still enjoys being Eddie — a flashier, sassier, louder version of the real Eddie Izzard — enough to spend six months touring "Sexie" to Australia, the U.S. and the U.K.

And what about that title: "Sexie"? Is this solo show bawdier than his previous ones, which were less randy than the seductive promo ads suggested?

" 'Sexie' is just a name, really," Izzard answers. "It's the state of sex as a positive thing. It's a state of mind that's fun and open."


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