Crazy, 'Sexie', Cool
LA Timtes | 09.16.03 | thanks CL
Eddie Izzard, who happens to be a transvestite, has built an unlikely career
out of spouting the absurdities that fill his mind.
By Hugh Hart, Special to The Times
He's calling it "Sexie," but Eddie Izzard says his latest performance piece might just as well be named "Elbow."
"I like the one-word thing," Izzard elaborates. "I once did a show called 'Glorious,' but it wasn't me glorious, it could have been fall-of-the-Roman-Empire glorious, or glorious before the fall. 'Sexie' might be the state of sexy or the mental attitude of something sexy. At the moment, in Britain we've got this thing about documents that are being sexed up." To his point, no single phrase would encapsulate the madcap range of this British comedian's one-man show, which plays a sold-out, six-day run beginning tonight at the Wiltern.
Outfitted in blue jeans, black shirt and mauve nail polish, Izzard takes a sip of diet cola on the patio of a Sunset Strip hotel. He then veers into a three-minute monologue about British weapons expert David Kelly, who was found dead in July under mysterious circumstances after being identified as the possible source of a report claiming the government had "sexed up" reports about Iraq's chemical stockpile.
"This is a long-winded way of ... what were we talking about?" Izzard concludes. "Sex. So sexy could be to do with that. Actually, it's got nothing to do with anything. It's just a name. I could have called the show 'Elbow.' I could have called it 'The Chicken Garden' or 'Seven Tons of Garbage.' "
In any event, the Tour Currently Known as Sexie allows Izzard, fresh from his Tony-nominated performance in "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg," to hold forth on pretty much anything that crosses his mind. "I will try and be as sexy as possible and talk about Muhammad. Idi Amin. Greyhound racing. What else am I talking about? Horse
whispering, cavemen, the first day fire was invented and breasts. I think those are very sexy things."
Title notwithstanding, "Sexie" has little to do with Izzard's own, somewhat complicated sexual orientation. He's a heterosexual transvestite. Today, he's dressed down - no high heels, no lipstick, just those nails. A comment on their color leads Izzard to reminisce about his brief shoplifting career. "I used to steal lipstick when I was a kid. I always thought if I bought it, they'd point and say 'Why, you, a boy - buying makeup? You must be a bad transvestite!' At 15, I got caught, and the police said, 'We can search your house.' 'OK, I'll show you everything. I've got heroin.' 'No we don't want heroin, just the makeup.' "
Izzard got off with a warning and continued to conceal his interest in cross dressing until he was 24. By then, he'd tried and failed countless times to get cast in the student plays staged by the private boarding school he attended. He had also memorized the entire Monty Python canon, but that didn't help him succeed as a sketch
comedian when he left school.
After flopping four successive summers at the Edinburgh Festival, Izzard moved to London and did nothing. "I spent a year there on the dole, just watching television," he says. "That's where I came out as
a transvestite. Six months I wore a dress every day. That was healthy. Then I said, 'OK, I've done that, now where am I going with my career?' "
Izzard became a street performer. He learned how to "ramp up" a crowd by acting as a carny barker for his own escape stunts. "I'd go out to Covent Garden and talk a lot of rubbish to this invisible audience.
Gradually people would pull up and I'd say, 'We're going to do a show that's going to be disgusting, children will be stabbed in the head and it's going to go downhill from there. If I were you I'd just go.' That's when people would stick around."
Mixing comedy and drama
After four years in the parks developing his impromptu verbal gifts, Izzard in 1988 tried stand-up. Three nights a week, he churned out a stream of material based on the daily headlines. Izzard quickly became a darling of London's alternative comedy scene and by 1997, he'd crossed over to America, winning two Emmy Awards for his HBO special "Dress to Kill."
On a parallel track, Izzard hired a separate agent to secure dramatic roles once he'd established himself as a comedian. "Apart from the confidence to be up there [on stage], everything else is different between stand-up and acting," Izzard says. "Stand-up is more like cocaine, this speedy drug, this three-minute rock 'n' roll song. The
endorphin release is just beautiful, and I like doing comedy for that. Drama is a slow-release thing, like carbohydrates, protein and vitamins."
In 1994, Izzard appeared in the world premiere of "Cryptogram" written by the famously fussy auteur David Mamet. "Every full stop is a full stop, every comma is a comma, and don't forget it," Izzard recalls. "From the age of 7, I wanted to be an actor, so if they said you've got to dump everything you learned to do this, that's what I
did. I just dumped all the comedy. Then the director Gregory Mosher said to me, 'You know, there is comedy in this thing.' I was trying to separate the two."
Limiting the laughs
He also starred in a revival of "Lenny" and in 2001, after completing his "Circle" stand-up tour and portraying Charlie Chaplin in Peter Bogdanovich's period film "The Cat's Meow," he replaced Clive Owen ("Croupier") in a West End re-staging of "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg." Izzard realized skeptics were ready to pounce. "People believed
I could do the comedy, but could I do the drama? The result was somewhat mixed in London because I stepped in very quickly there, but I had a proper rehearsal time when we brought it over here, and I seemed to nail it in New York."
In fact, the entire production nailed the pathos and humor residing in Peter Nichols' 1968 drama, which chronicled the stressed relationship between the parents of a disabled child. The play earned a 2003 Tony nomination for best revival of a play. Izzard, co-star Victoria Hamilton and director Lawrence Boswell all received nominations of their own.
"That role sort of gave me everything," Izzard says. "At the end of Act 1, we had a certain latitude to ad lib some comedy, but as the director said, we always had to keep one hand on the 'wheelchair.' We could never lose sight that this was gallows humor to get away from the fact that we had a mentally disabled child. By the end, when I
was on stage in 'Joe Egg,' I was able to make 'em laugh, and pull 'em right back and stop them laughing." Izzard takes a rare pause. "Then I could push it back in and pull it right out again. I never knew I could do that."
One might think Izzard's scripted theater experiences would temper his seat-of-the-pants approach to stand-up. Hardly. He writes down nothing, not even a list of topics or notebook scribblings. The completely unscripted "Sexie" lives entirely in Izzard's head. "I can't write as fast as I can think, so it just doesn't come out right
when I try to write things out," Izzard explains. "I have to be in front of the audience. They're the script editor. You get into a zone where I can feel the place to put the comedy. They react immediately - yes that's working, no it's not."
To prepare for "Sexie," Izzard did some thinking out loud for audiences in Scotland and Wales and studied the Koran, borrowing the work-in-progress notion from Lily Tomlin. "I could go in there and just say 'Chickens! What's with chickens? They run around and you cut their head off and they keep going. Does that happen with lions? And
would we respect them? We wouldn't be so scared of lions. Or maybe we would, because that would be really freaky.' "
For all the absurdist caroming and careening that drive Izzard's performance, much of his humor is grounded in hefty historical references. In "Circle," for example, he lampooned the Crusades. This time around, Izzard has been boning up on the Koran. "Muhammad took all the good bits [from the Bible] and put it in the Koran, and people don't know that. So I thought, let's go and talk about that."
Then there's Izzard's movie master plan, which involves graduating, as he jokes, to Hollywood's "C list."
But before all that, Izzard is looking forward to a return to the campus that nearly squashed his schoolboy dreams. "I'm going to go back to Eastbourne College and record this show in the very same theater where I sat there watching 'The Sound of Music' thinking, 'Why can't I be in this play? I can't get any bloody plays!' I went
back there recently wearing skirt and makeup. They were OK with it, because I'd gotten a certain level of profile in the U.K., so I was the famous twit coming back. I wasn't the sad transvestite. I was the successful transvestite, which is where, I think, you've got to be."
Where: The Wiltern, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.
When: Today-Saturday, 8 p.m.
Contact: (213) 380-5005, (213) 480-3232
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times