After 20 years of working clubs, doing live theatre and getting bit movie roles, British stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard is finally being taken seriously - as a dramatic actor, that is.
As rumours swirl that the intellectual funny man may get a best-actor Emmy nomination today for his new hit TV show The Riches, Izzard has emerged as a tour de force in whatever genre he decides to dabble in.
This weekend, the 45-year-old Izzard flies to Montreal to headline stand-up shows on Friday and Saturday at the Just for Laughs comedy festival. It's his fourth or fifth year in la belle citÚ - he can't remember which - and it's a gig the comic says he never turns down because, as a passionate linguist, he loves to parler en franšais whenever he gets the chance.
"I come back because it's French and it's English and I can practise my French on unsuspecting shopkeepers whenever I please," says Izzard, who admits to studying languages (he also speaks "survival" German) up to four hours a day.
Once referred to as the "Lost Python" by John Cleese, Izzard says he wanted to act since he was 7. He toiled in clubs around Britain through a good part of the eighties, honing his comedy routines and taking them to North America and through Europe in the nineties. In 1993, he finally hired an acting agent (in addition to his comedy agent) to land him meatier dramatic roles. Small parts in films such as The Cat's Meow and Velvet Goldmine came his way.
But Izzard's big break in the United States came in 1999, when his comedy act Dress to Kill was shown on HBO. Izzard went on to win two Emmy Awards in 2000 (for performance and writing). And in 2003, he was also nominated for a Tony as best actor (play) for A Day in the Death of Joe Egg on Broadway.
Soon after, Steven Soderbergh came calling with small parts in Ocean's 12 and 13. "Those films were a lot of fun," says Izzard, of working with the likes of George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Don Cheadle.
"But it was also a little frustrating, because you feel like you get to base camp at Mount Everest. But then everyone else is going up Everest, and I'm thinking, okay, you climb up Everest. I'll do a couple of scenes and then go away."
These days, the film roles he's landing put him at least halfway up the mountain. Propelled by the critical acclaim of The Riches, which also stars fellow Briton Minnie Driver, Izzard is now getting substantial face time in big-budget movies such as Julie Taymor's Across the Universe (due out in September) and Bryan Singer's film about a plot to assassinate Hitler, which also stars Tom Cruise.
Famous for his flamboyant transvestite leanings ("It is my manifest destiny to wear a dress on all seven continents," Izzard once remarked), he has now placed some restrictions on his choice of attire so as not to harm his burgeoning career.
He describes himself as a straight transvestite or male lesbian, but says society has still been slow to embrace his predilection for makeup, heels and skirts.
"I am a transvestite," he says. "I wear whatever I wish to wear [when performing live], just like a woman can choose to wear pants or a dress. But it's not drag. I refuse it to be called that. It's simply a dress."
Like Izzard, his fans also tend to be free-thinkers. "My audiences are generally more alternative audiences," the comedian muses. "Thinking, alternative, inquiring minds come to my gigs. And if they're not that bent, they tend to run away screaming at all my weird references."
In The Riches (which airs on FX in the United States and Showcase in Canada), Izzard plays Wayne Malloy, the patriarch of a con-artist family of "travellers" who find a couple killed in a car accident and assume their identities. Wayne, his wife Dahlia (Driver) and their three kids move into the Riches' massive home in very upscale suburbia in Baton Rouge, La. The youngest son has a preference for wearing girl's clothing - a part of the script Izzard insists was there before he got involved - which means Izzard has now become "technical adviser" to the youth.
Compared by critics to Weeds and The Sopranos, Izzard says The Riches is all about digging under the perfectly manicured lawns and finding the hypocrisies and dirty secrets of those who seem to be living the American dream.
"This show holds a mirror up to American society - all the lies and the bullshit," says Izzard, who was born in Yemen, but grew up in Ireland, Wales and the south of England. "I love the role because it's all about exploring the underbelly of so-called established, civilized people. It's just great stuff to sink your teeth into."
A born raconteur, Izzard's style is heavily influenced by Monty Python, and his free-wheeling comedic delivery is full of twists and surprises. A fan of the Discovery and History channels, and an ardent researcher on Wikipedia, Izzard says his craving for information is insatiable.
"I never get tired of looking for information that will help me try to explain the world [comically]," says Izzard, who cites Jesus Ministers to the Dinosaurs as one of his more inspired routines. "I then try to do so, by talking through all this endless rubbish. I've always had a rather schizophrenic career that jostled between surreal comedy and drama. I always hoped the two sides would cross over. With The Riches, it finally seems to have happened."