Sexie Eddie

20 July 2003 | thanks Peggy |
Eddie Izzard stood down from comedy to concentrate on his serious acting career. But he missed the frocks as he tells Janet McAllister.

It's 1am on a Sunday morning and Eddie Izzard is in a Chinese restaurant somewhere in Wales enjoying a wine at the end of his meal. He's tired, having finished a show after travelling all day from Scotland, and so his drawl is excessively languid. The work of a cross-dressing comedian is never done. There's a film career to work on, a couple of Emmy awards to polish, questions from New Zealand to answer.

So, what is he wearing then?

"This isn't a sex line!" he laughs down the phone. "You have to use your imagination. But very little."

On a crowded performing circuit, the quick-witted Izzard stands out in stand-up comedy. After all, dyslexic transvestites with SAS fixations are rather scarce. And when John Cleese calls you "the funniest man in England" and the LA Times goes further and slobbers over you as the "funniest man in, well, pretty much all of the known universe", there can be no hiding your lip gloss under a handbag even if you want to.

But Izzard, who describes himself as "a lazy person with a huge drive", works to please himself as well as the punters. Until his current Sexie world tour started this month, he'd been away from live stand-up theatre for three years, pursuing a career as a Serious Actor. And doing very nicely, thanks.

Serious highlights to date include playing Charlie Chaplin opposite Kirsten Dunst in historical whodunit The Cat's Meow and being nominated for a Tony award (theatre's answer to the Oscars) for his performance in Broadway play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg.

Izzard, 41, is equally serious about being glam however. Far from being a stage gimmick, his transvestite sexuality - like his fabulously alliterative name - is for real. He's not into fluffy pink cardies and tiaras though; Trinity in The Matrix or Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is more his style. "Action transvestite" he calls it. Or sometimes "male tomboy" or "male lesbian" - he's not gay and not particularly camp. If he ever played sweet transvestite Frank'n'Furter in the Rocky Horror Show, he says his mad scientist wouldn't create a male hunk but "some voluptuous woman, like Raquel Welsh in the '70s".

He's tried to pass as a woman himself but his stocky, broad-shouldered frame and strong jaw so obviously belong to a man that shop assistants still addressed him as "sir".

These days, he often leaves off the skirts for PVC trousers matched with high heels. "I've got footballing calves - I have to wear heels three inches or higher otherwise they don't really work," he says.

Try to work this one out: the man is more of a "gadget freak" than a fashion diva even though he's a transvestite who wears couture by Jean-Paul Gaultier.

"It's confusing –- it confuses me, so if everyone else is confused I can understand it," Izzard says. "The clothing and makeup is the only way I can express any feminine side of myself . . . If I looked like Marilyn Monroe, I wouldn't need to dress up, I'd just wear a tracksuit." Or maybe combat boots to express his "blokey" side. He's been through a "tactical phase" of blokiness lately, in pursuit of film roles.

"If you walk in with high heels going for the role as a bank robber no one's going to give you the part," he reasons. But as he's doing stand-up again - although it's only a temporary break from film work - it's back to his favourite Prada heels and nail polish. His wardrobe will be restricted only by the weather. "We'll have to wrap up warm. So not enormous amounts of fishnets then."

Because Sexie is following winter - comedy season - around the globe, Australia and New Zealand officially get to see Izzard's new stand-up show before anyone else. But before heading down to the Antipodes, Izzard's done "a small tour of Britain to get my feet back under the table of stand-up and work out which way I'm voting". Hence his presence in north-west Wales.

"They're way out of the way, so they find it fun that you come," says Izzard.

He could be talking about New Zealand. His stream-of-consciousness patter, which links "religion, sexuality, teapots, squirrels and pigs with guns, weird surreal stuff and truckloads of history", goes down a treat here. He remembers some "good gigs" at the 2000 Laugh! Festival and obviously others do too; extra shows have been added to next month's Sexie run due to popular demand.

During that visit in 2000 (his first) he met Georgina Beyer and "your MP with dreadlocks". An overwhelming memory of his time in New Zealand is "hearing about how your political system works".

He obviously needs to change tour guides. Peter Jackson would be top of his list - Izzard is a Lord of the Rings "big nut fan" and even wanted to be in the film. Although not as Gollum, "because he's an animated character and it's very difficult to play pixels".

He's risen to the challenge to voice another animation though: "It" in an upcoming film adaptation of the children's book Five Children and It, starring Kenneth Branagh. Izzard's squeezing in recording sessions between world tour gigs.

As well as The Lord of the Rings, Izzard obsessions include the Monty Python comedians and Spike Milligan, who was stationed at Bexhill-on-Sea for a time during World War II, where Izzard grew up 30 years later. (Milligan homages are everywhere in Izzard's oeuvre - a chapter in Izzard's autobiography Dress to Kill, which mentions an early Shakespearean role he played, is called "Julius Caesar: my part in his downfall".)

Before moving to Bexhill-on-Sea, Izzard was born in Yemen and spent his early years in Northern Ireland. The son of a nurse and a British Petroleum accountant, he remembers the mid-1960s as rather idyllic, probably because compared to what came after, it was. When he was six, his mother died of bowel cancer, the family moved to England, and he was sent to boarding school with his older brother.

"Seeing as my mum had just died I decided to cry relentlessly for about a year," said Izzard during his first West End show in 1993. "Mr Crump (the principal) would help me along with beatings when he could fit them in."

At 15, Izzard was stealing lipstick (he's now signed to promote a MAC lipgloss called "Sexie"). Before he was 16 he was an army cadet and he wanted to be a professional footballer. At 19 he was harassing friends into helping him stage a show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. But it took a decade of slog as a street entertainer and comedy club performer before he was properly noticed. The drought broke with a Perrier Award nomination for best comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1991 followed by a string of awards, an invite to 10 Downing St when Tony Blair became British prime minister in 1996 and superlative reviews on both sides of the Atlantic.

How does Izzard stop from getting a big head about such honours? "Have to put it in a vice," he quips.

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