'Je vais dans un autre direction'
11.18.2002 | Telegraph.co.uk

Eddie Izzard is not just about to mangle four languages on a world tour - he's making his Broadway acting debut. Jasper Rees meets him

A tradition of the Eddie Izzard interview is that you note what he's wearing. So let's get it over with: today it's black trousers, black brogues, black leather jacket, white shirt, goatee. Not a feminine article in sight. There is no make-up or nail varnish. It's presumably on dress-down days such as these that people tell him, as they do, that he's not really a transvestite at all. "Which is a strange place to get to," he says.

Five parts thespian to one part stand-up: Eddie Izzard

The feminine half of his brain wants to tell me about his skincare regime. Not that interested, Eddie. "No, but it's an interesting thing," he insists. "Clarins, this French company, have got a men's range, but they call it facial rock rescrub blood spray, and it's the same stuff as smooth enhancing beauty balm."

You have to crack the whip with Izzard, or he can saunter off down the flowery byways of free association. That's his job, after all. You're on the Arts page, I tell him. Let's talk about acting. He may have a new DVD out, his first in four years (it's called Circle, and the show was shot in New York), but he's also in three new films, a television drama, and is taking a play to Broadway. That's five parts thespian to one part stand-up.

We've had 10 years of Eddie Izzard. As of this year, he's had 40. It's a big birthday, and a big year. In Peter Bogdanovich's The Cat's Meow he plays Chaplin spending "two days on a boat trying to get Marion Davies [Kirsten Dunst] into the sack". "I understand Chaplin's lack of self-esteem because I had that. He's thinking, I've got to perform my way into bed. It's kind of based on my own experience."

Then there's A Revenger's Tragedy, modernised from the Middleton play by Alex Cox, and Blueberry, a French western based on a cult graphic novel.

Eddie Izzard: 'I'm a male lesbian. I don't only fancy women, I want to be a woman'

He has had trouble getting to grips with film acting. "I was shit in my first five films for technical reasons. The camera says you've got to go right over against the wall, scrunch up, put your leg over there, push this person down on to a mat, and then be real in all of that. And I couldn't do it for ages."

Theatre is an altogether different area. As Circle shows, the stage is his home. But he is not used to the discipline of parroting other people's lines every night. In March, he reprises on Broadway his role in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. The first half of Peter Nichols's autobiographical play about parents caring for a severely disabled child played into Izzard's hands, with its experimental stand-up routines. He sounds thrilled that Victoria Hamilton started to compete with his improvisations. "I didn't know where she was going and I thought it was good that it was freaking me out."

But you don't get that with every play and every co-star. When he so much as changed a bit of business with a hunting knife in David Mamet's The Cryptogram, Lindsay Duncan told him not to. "We are totally different in training. I watched us in a film they made about Mamet and thought, God, she's amazing. I'm so crap. It was quite a slap in the face."

Acting is the reason he kept his mug off television all those years ago. He wanted to ration his appearances so that he would be taken seriously in small-screen drama. Only one problem: "I just wasn't offered anything."

On Channel 4 in January he stars in the three-part drama 40, in which he gets "tons of sex scenes", though not with his fellow leads Joanne Whalley and Kerry Fox. After all those years in a dress, will the punters take him seriously as a bed-hopping heterosexual? "I don't know. Ask them. I'm a straight transvestite. I'm a male lesbian. I don't only fancy women, I want to be a woman. So I'm totally into women! There's just no part of women that I'm not into."

Cross-dressing brings us to Shakespeare. It's about time he had a go at one of the fools. "Nah, hate that. Fools should be played by serious actors. I never understood the fool's role. It's like the Malvolio part in Twelfth Night." He's not a fool, Eddie. "No, but he's a twit." So who do you want to play? "I want to do Richard III. People say first you should start with Iago. If you're talking about the baggage I can bring to it, Iago is good because what I bring to a theatrical role is something completely other. I haven't been to drama school, I did accounting, I learnt street performing, and I've done gigs in French. So you go into a theatrical role and if I can pull it out right, if I'm with a very good director, you can get to a very interesting place."

He adds that Iago "is a schemer. I have to scheme. Christ, if you're going to come out and say you're a transvestite and not lose your career, you've got to scheme like crazy. I can play him. I can fuck it up, but I might come up with something that's, like, wow. But I will do the ballsy choice."

The more immediate ballsy choice is next year's world tour, in which he will attempt to perform to audiences in France, Italy, Spain and Germany in their own language. In Circle, he proves that he can joke in American (not as easy as it sounds, otherwise all his compatriot peers would be huge out there too). But this is merely the next scary dare. The ultimate would be to perform in Arabic in his birthplace, Yemen. "It is a real flashpoint. I haven't been back since I was a kid. I've probably got to do gigs in Cairo or something and work my way down."

I wonder if it's his mild dyslexia that somehow helps him to see past vast obstacles with such nonchalance. He theorises that dyslexia is "a gift of a lot of creative people who don't know it: they think sideways".

He already has an entente cordiale with Parisian audiences, and a grade B German O-level. But Italian? "I can only say 'insalata di spinaci' and 'bicchiere di vino rosso'. You just learn them and then do them. You can make fun of the fact that you can't do it very well. In Paris, I said, 'C'est difficile quand faire un spectacle dans un deuxième langue parce que si on fait un faute en anglais je peux dit quelquechose bêtise et je fais un tourne à trois points. Je vais dans un autre direction et c'est fantastique. Mais dans un deuxième langue, je tourne à cinq points ou à sept points."

That is a verbatim transcription. Trust a transvestite to take the French language and entirely expunge the feminine article.