(thanks to Mimi for scans and typing up the article!)

Djing whales, dinosaur pianists, monkey snipers and Jesus – who could it be but Eddie Izzard? But as his hit New York stand up show gets a DVD release he’s more interested in telling us about his serious acting career, his views on Europe… and Uma Thurman’s ‘spare breasts’.

Interview Laura Lee Davis
Photography Frank Bauer

‘Initially, I just wanted to talk crap, but now it’s all become a much more pressured thing.’ Eddie Izzard is offering no great revelation in saying this. In the past 15 plus years, he has become a leading statesman of British Comedy, ‘talking crap’ on stage, on television, for the benefit of Amnesty International, and in the home of millions on video. His latest video/DVD, ‘Circle’ is destined to be a huge Christmas hit; filmed in June 2000 in New York, it sees Izzard reach new heights of perfected crap-talk, marrying a sexy high-heeled stage presence with a flurry of fantastical musings. However, just talking crap doesn’t get you much success; it’s the beautiful insights and the delightful unaggressive way in which he delivers this crap which make Izzard unique, and which draws endless interested enquiries from the rest of the Time Out office – lusting females, admiring males, and vice versa – before the interview.

I ask him if the subject matter of ‘Circle’ could be summed up for you, dear readers, in a handy Eddie Pie Chart. ‘If it’s floating in my brain and I can get it to come out so it goes somewhere interesting, then I’ll say it,’ he shrugs. ‘This show is a kind of mish-mash. But there are themes, stuff I wanted to look into: space, comparing religions, the idea that Jesus is actually in more religions than I realised...all that, mixed with a lot of junk.’

Striding about in leather trousers so tight even a Hamburg-era Beatle would wince, Izzard does his comedy thang, accumulating thoughts which, silly as they might initially seem, quickly form a universe you’d much rather exist in. His warm, plummy English voice adds an authority to the proposition that whales are DJs and that dinosaurs played piano in wild-western saloons. However, even his surreal assessment of the world touches on home truths. He filmed this two years before the Washington sniper struck, but there is still a chilling relevance to what is otherwise a wonderful exploration of the possibility of monkeys carrying guns. Does he like to scratch particular itches in front of different audiences?

‘Hmm, not really. My theory is that all humour is the same whether they’re English, Icelandic, French…Plus, the people I’m playing to can all string a sentence together; they’re BBC, Channel 4, A&E [Arts & Entertainment] channel watchers. They’re self-policing; people who can’t tell you the plural of “cat” probably ain’t coming.

‘America is a curious place. I do like their get-up-and-go, their pioneer spirit. After all, these were all the people being held down over here who said to themselves, “fuck it, lets go to America”, leaving a whole load of Europeans behind going “oh no, I can’t put my socks on”. I just think that now, those pioneer-spirit American’s can’t stop, they keep making more guns. Plus, I like the idea of a monkey loosing off a gun, and I loved it when the monkey then became quite FBI about it all’.

Swinging about on the stage, Izzard’s effortless transformation into a cheeky chimp with a firearm is so convincing, even he gets excited by the comic twists. ‘It’s amazing how the audience will hold the character for you. You know, so when Jesus comes down to earth and walks into the dinosaur bar, and I go over to be the dinosaur in the corner playing cards, the audience have held Jesus in their mind over by the swinging doors.’ There are also exchanges between God and Jesus, in which Izzard tries to fuck himself over by throwing in lines to fox his characters. ‘When I say [as Jesus], “so what does mum think of this?”, it was just after I’d come from New Zealand where they were filming “Lord Of The Rings”. So I threw Gladadriel in as Jesus’s mum. I though the idea of God being married to an elfin queen was nicely fucked’. He smiles resignedly. ‘But no one got it’.

He chooses to perform material that makes him laugh first. Over a bottle of wine in rainy Shoreditch, he is as engaging, amused and amusing as he is on stage. He has just done ‘Parkinson’ and says he spoke to fast, apparently a trait from his early comedy-club days when you had to get your lines out without giving the would-be heckler that small window of opportunity through which to shout ‘cunt’. However, now as established an actor as he is a comedian (and someone who has on occasion used his celebrity status to raise political and ideological issues), Izzard believes it is his bravado which has granted him such a receptive an open-minded public. ‘I try to do things that are ballsy. It works for being a transvestite: if you are going to exist in terms of that sexuality you need to be ballsy so people have to go [in Pythonesque nerd voice] “I can’t fucking stand those people, but fair play to him…” And also, if I do “Joe Egg” or “Lenny” as opposed to some fluffy production which is just like my stand-up show then people can see the challenge. Gigs in French! People do accept that can’t be easy!’.

Before now, Izzard has gone through customs in heels, boobs etc. He says the US customs seem to accept the profession of ‘comedian’ means this weirdo isn’t someone they need to use all those guns on. The DVD of ‘Circle’ has extra footage of Eddie in America. When I met him at an early screening if the show, he was very excited about his stroll around Times Square in a pair of fake breasts. When he first ‘came out’ as a cross-dresser in the mid-‘80s, he used to stuff a bra. He then acquired Uma Thurman’s ‘spare breasts’ (well, those of her action double) after filming “The Avengers”. ‘Then recently I thought, I have so much breasts envy, why don’t I just buy myself a pair? But I’m not quite sure where to go with breasts yet, it’s such a big work-in progress still.’

It might take balls to stand on stage and tell jokes, or to dress in female clothes, but Izzard is clearly undaunted by mass disapproval: he’s a renowned Europhile who not only celebrates the Euro, but believes in the United Countries of Europe. In recent years, Izzard has performed in Paris doing French-language shows, and in his forthcoming mammoth tour of 2003, he hopes to play similar shows in Germany, Italy and Spain. Oh well, in an infinite universe, there has to be a flipside to Stan Bordman doesn’t there?

‘I’m going to do Germany, but I can’t get promoters terribly interested,’ Izzard muses. ‘They don’t see cash tills, they see hard slog! I’ve played Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, Holland and France, but I’ve never done Germany. I know how to do it. I need to get into a small place for at least two months, maybe four. I’d probably need to do it at a theatre with a late-night slot after another show, to keep the running costs down. I’d just do it and I’d be shit and no one would come, and then I’d be better and some people might come, and,’ he pauses, ‘I just imagine if it does break through, because I’m designed to do it, in some relentless bastard way – that it’ll be frigging amazing!’

Eddie Izzard stops short of wanting to become a Member of European Parliament. He quite likes the idea of being an MEP, but he confesses that the subject matter has such a dull reputation, he can probably have more impact staying in his current occupation and talking about it from a distance. ‘Even I’d say, “Thanks for that, now let’s watch telly: who’s trying to get out of this building? Ah! It’s “I’m A Celebrity, Hang Me!” I’m fascinated by Europe and even I find all that literature incredibly boring.’

He likes the fact that Blair has just had a ruck with Chirac. He believes getting stuck in is the way to go, rather than staying on the sidelines, feeling ignored. ‘I love Europe because someone’s got to love it. Otherwise we’ll just carry on saying, “The Germans have no sense of humour and all the French, all 60 million of them, got on one tractor and insulted me.” I think we need to develop mobile phone software so we can translate each other’s language on the spot. It’s hard to be positive about it, of course it’s easier to knock it down, to say “Oh no, let’s not do Europe because of…cabbages…the Queen…World War II…”. I see this unification as a pay-off for 50 million people dying in the Second World War.’

Izzard is also going into Europe in ladies’ clothing on film. One of four upcoming movies in the bag is the wartime comedy, ‘All The Queen’s Men’, in which he starts alongside Matt Le Blanc as a spy who has to infiltrate an all female code-breaking factory. In February he appears in Alex Cox’s ‘A Revengers Tragedy’ with Derek Jacobi, and in America he has already hit the screens in Peter Bogdanovich’s ‘The Cat’s Meow’. ‘It’s a “Hollywood Babylon” story around William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies, Charlie Chaplin and Louella Parsons,’ he explains. ‘Basically, it’s Chaplin trying to get off with Marion Davies for two days. Bogdanovich saw me in this New York show [‘Circle’] wearing a lot of make-up and talking crap and thought I could play Chaplin. I have to hand him a medal for seeing that one! I think he went on the basis that I was talking about God and Jesus and being an English comedian.’

Additionally, you can expect to see Izzard playing a German villain in a French western called ‘Blueberry’, and in a forthcoming ensemble drama, ‘40’. (‘I play Ralphy, a flashy advertising wunderkind. That was great fun.’) And don’t forget that Broadway run as Bri in ‘A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg’ following its success at the Comedy Theatre. ‘I did the play here because I wanted to get it to Broadway. That was part of my contract, so long as Peter Nichols was okay with it, the reviews were all right and the box office was okay.’

Do you enjoy the freedom of playing someone else rather than Eddie Izzard: comedian?

‘When I was seven I wanted to be an actor. When I realised film existed, that’s what I wanted to do. I couldn’t get any acting roles at school, but I also liked comedy and got some laughs in a classroom review when I was 12, so I winded up going that route. I was in Edinburgh Festival like, forever – ’81 to ’93. When I started the stand-up stuff in ’88, I decided to get a dramatic agent to push in that direction too’.

‘If, in the end, someone said I had to choose between them, I would have to choose film. I just love it. You get to play like a kid again, showing this range of emotion, meeting these diverse people. It’s the biggest train set in the world, whether it’s high or low budget. I asked, in the States, if they thought I was kind of C-list now. I was told there’s and A-list and A+ and the rest are just in the mud. But after “Joe Egg” here, I got “40” for which I had to audition my arse off and smash up the room. I feel like I’m in the playground now. Before I was just an exotic curiosity.’

So you think in a couple of years’ time you’ll be regarded as an actor who does some comedy?

‘I think that will take about eight years, maybe eight and a half’ he smiles. ‘Because I’ve got that big tour next year and then I think I’d like to tour every five years or so. I want to do stand-up forever now. I love going back to it, even though it’ll always make me feel good to do other stuff that scares the shit out of me too.’