Interview: Who’s a sexie beast?
Having conquered New York in a straight drama, Eddie Izzard is ready for a change.
So it’s back to stand-up and dressing glam, he tells Stephen Armstrong
(Sunday Times | 06.14.03)

When I knock on Eddie Izzard’s door in a funky backstreet north of New York’s SoHo, I should be prepared. I know there is a photo shoot going on. I know that — for his new tour — Britain’s most famous transvestite is feeling very feminine. When he answers the door in a miniskirt and fishnets, however, it still takes me by surprise. Although I must admit, writing as a heterosexual man, he’s a fabulous 41.

Which is pretty much a metaphor for interviewing the man. Everything is out there. As a journalist, you get so used to interviewees parroting stock phrases and hiding behind some half-witted media training that, when you encounter someone like Izzard being so effortlessly honest, your immediate response is: “What’s he up to?” But then, as the hours tick by, the wine slips down and the wit, warmth and wisdom continue to flow, you start to believe in him.

Perhaps it is Izzard’s honesty and his pain that attracts such adoration from his public. The facts are brutal. By the time he was 10, he had wrestled with more demons than your average exorcist meets in a lifetime. He was born in Yemen in 1962, where his father was an oil-industry executive. His mother died of cancer when he was six, and shortly afterwards he was sent to the first of a series of boarding schools, where a teacher tried to beat the grief out of him.

He knew he was a transvestite at four, but waited until he was in his twenties before coming out gradually, finally confessing to his father when he was 29. “We’d just watched Crystal Palace lose, so I was a bit nervous, but he was fine. His job may have been traditional, but he has a sort of a hippie philosophy: do what makes you happy.”

Currently single, he’s been attacked in the street for being gay, although he has always made it clear his tastes are heterosexual. “I love vampy, va-voomy women. I like curves as opposed to that strange needle shape.”

It’s this honest, confessional style that spurs such love. The British barman at the cafe we visit to talk walks up to me afterwards and grills me about how Eddie is doing, like a mother asking after her son. “Why’s he here anyway?” he asks. He’s in New York, I answer, to play Brian in A Death in the Day of Joe Egg, which transferred from the Comedy Theatre to Broadway in March. It is part of his plan to add to his bow the string of serious acting, a string so taut and dangerous that it has cut clean through the career of countless hopeful comics. For him, however, it seems to be paying off. He has gathered so many awards and nominations in New York that it’s starting to look rude — a Tony nomination for best actor (unsuccessful), the Drama Desk award, and the Outer Critics award for best performance, as well as rave reviews from the New Yorker, Time and the Post.

As part of this ambition, he’s been wearing jeans and T-shirts for the past four or five years, “going through a blokey phase”, as he describes it. Now, however, he’s touring again — with a show called Sexie, which starts in Australia and heads to the UK via Canada and America, arriving here in December. “Being girlie is hard to do while I’m pushing the acting,” he explains. “If I turn up in make-up, there’s always a sort of ‘Why are you doing this?’ Especially in America. People think it’s to do with being on stage. I say no, that’s me, that’s my sexuality. It’s got nothing to do with the comedy.”

It’s a relief to find him introducing the T word. Even though he is sitting in front of me in fishnet tights, I still feel a little awkward about bringing it up. So I finally tell him that I think it looks very elegant. “When you first come out, it’s just like trying chocolate for the first time after waiting 20 years, so you gorge yourself on it,” he says, by way of dodging the compliment. “When people first come out as a TV, they get that 14-year-old-girl- in-a-disco look, which is a bit much. Eventually it settles down.”

So what made him decide to out himself? “Because it seems the strongest way to go forward,” he replies simply. “Although, if I’d become successful at 17, I wouldn’t have told anyone. If you can walk down the street in women’s clothes, you can do anything. You go into shops and people are like: ‘You wanna f*** my sweets?’ ‘No, I want a Mars bar.’ ‘You gonna f*** it?’ ‘No, eat it.’ ‘You wanna eat a Mars bar?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘It costs money.’ ‘I’ve got money.’ ‘You’ve got money?’” It was the combination of difficult sexuality and the horrors of puberty that got him into comedy in the first place. “I’d always wanted to be an actor,” he confesses. “I was trying to get into school plays, but couldn’t. Then I discovered Python, there was a form revue and I got my first laughs. I remember the power. I was miming someone batting, I was getting all these visual laughs instinctively and I thought: ‘This is good.’

“Then I hit a low sexual self-esteem phase — big, spotty and hairy. Although I’d been transvestite, I hadn’t told anyone. I fancied girls and I was a big boy racer, climbing trees and getting mucky. And then girls started at my school for A-levels. I was telling jokes, getting laughs and thinking: ‘Ah, I do exist.’”

From dropping out of university, he went into street theatre, then stand-up and now back to acting. The acting is important. “If I had to choose between them, acting and comedy, I’d choose film,” he says, breaking a million comedy hearts. “I’d love to be Carrie-Anne Moss in The Matrix, or Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven. I want to be an action transvestite.” I laugh.

“It’s true,” he insists. “I was a chief scout. I had all the badges. My dad was the most amazing scout leader. We were canoeing down rapids, climbing mountains in the Brecon Beacons and potholing with 100ft waterfalls. That’s why I was thinking of going into the army, which people think I’m lying about, but it’s true — I like running about, shooting guns and things. I’m hugely fascinated by guns. You shoot something and it explodes, it’s thrilling. It’s the changing of energies.”

But could he really leave the comedy behind? “I’m a dealer in endorphins. In comedy, it’s hit after hit after hit. But drama is more satisfying. Comedy is like a line of coke, but drama is a really good meal with good wine and great conversation. You might even have changed your mind by the end of the evening.”

So he prepares to head back to the theatre to warm up. He has a cold and feels tired. Slow down, I caution. He laughs. “I wrote my first play at 17 and I took off when I was 30. I’ve got 13 years of ‘What the f***’s going on?’ behind me. I’m working hard to build up enough goodwill in case I really mess up and do something godawful. They’ll say: ‘All right, well, we’ll cut your money and you can work your way back up.’ I co-wrote this sitcom called Cows, which was deemed not to work, but I had enough momentum that people let me keep going. You have to get good, then kill it, then do it different ways, go to Iceland, go to Australia, learn to fly — I just want to keep adding things. I’m doing one of the Wembley shows with a sign-language interpreter.”

But what about the ultimate challenge, what about kids? “I would be the perfect one-parent family,” he quips. “I could give make-up tips and football tips.” Then he gets serious. “Having children is something I would like to do at some point in the future. The male part of my psyche tells me I’ve got a bit of time. It’s the genetic continuation of the human species, which, on the whole, I think should be saved.”

And he’s off to get ready for Joe Egg, striding boldly down the street, fending off the stares with his broad shoulders and confident swagger. But a New York dusk is beginning to settle, and underneath the cocksure gait, if you look at him in a certain way, you can still see an eager boy, desperate to get into the school play, desperate to make his schoolmates laugh, shouting out his secrets to keep the bullies away. And you think to yourself, with a sudden twinge of pain: “I hope he’s going to be all right.”

Sexie tours UK arenas later this year. Booking opens on June 17

Booking hotline: 0870 442 0331 or visit