Izzard King (02.13.00/thanks Maria!)

British comic Eddie Izzard packs a tonne of attitude into his little rubber skirt

By Bill Taylor
Toronto Star Feature Writer

`A MALE TOMBOY': Eddie Izzard brings his latest one-man show, Circle, to Toronto later this month.

So, Eddie, what are you wearing?

His sigh could blow the phone out of your hand.

``Oh,'' says Eddie Izzard, ``just clothes. Really. Nothing special.''

Still, it's a fair question to ask a man who has turned his transvestitism into a theatrical prop, especially when a British review of the show he's bringing here at the end of the month speaks admiringly of ``his little rubber skirt.''

Two years, almost to the day, after his one-man standup comedy show Dress To Kill was an out-of-nowhere hit here and in the U.S., the North American tour of his new show Circle kicks off in Toronto at the Bathurst St. Theatre Feb. 29 through March 4.

After Circle opened in London last fall, the Guardian critic wrote: ``When the lights go up on Eddie Izzard . . . the crowd roars in a way that few comedians will ever hear. The woman to my left begins to squeal . . .''

On the phone, Izzard is low-key, soft-spoken, contemplative, wholly unlike his comedic persona which, affable and chatty as it appears to be, has a demonic gleam in its massacred eye.

This is not a drag act. It would be far safer and more comfortable if it were. This is a man - he has described himself as ``a male tomboy . . . I fancy women'' - who simply prefers to wear women's clothing.

He'd played Yuk Yuk's here once prior to Dress To Kill, he says (he's vague about dates), as well as ``two Vancouver comedy festivals and two or three Montreal festivals. No one was really bothered and then I came back last time having done New York and having a New York Times thumbs up, and it was kind of vroom . . . the jump was quite staggering.''

Izzard, who just turned 38 (he shares a birthday, 150 years removed, with Charles Dickens), is gearing up for Circle tour by driving around southern California, ``getting away from everything, chilling out.''

As he begins to describe it, the show at first sounds less like comic hijinks, more the stuff of deep scientific and philosophical debate.

Its theme, he explains, is ``the big subject of the universe, all the circles . . . the planets, the globes, they all go around in orbits. The space-time continuum is curved . . . I'm trying to fit everything into that - well, sort of - but also talking about things that have nothing to do with it.

`I don't prepare at all . . . I've tried that. I started going into things and the audience goes, `Snore' '

- Eddie Izzard

``Classical thinking and trying to answer the questions of the universe but in the middle of that, talking about taking drugs at the Olympics and why it should be compulsory.

``The pissed Olympics. No one is actually competing that hasn't been certified as taking quite a lot of either drugs or drink and then they have to run the hurdles while they're completely off their faces.''

So much for science. Though armchair philosophers might still find food for thought, once they've stopped laughing.

A man in nail polish and ``a little rubber skirt'' cracking wise about the space-time continuum. It would be a rare audience who didn't find something unsettling in this.

But Izzard is almost dismissive of the creative process.

``I don't write shows and then go out and do it. I tend to develop them as I tour. This show is already half changed.

``With standup, I know I can do it so . . . it's kind of a lazy way of working.

``I don't prepare at all. I don't want too much detail. I've tried that. I started going into things and the audience goes, `Snore.'

``You need almost a kid's breakdown of a subject. You hit the salient points and then you can use them. Those are things I do when I'm vaguely trying to get myself together. If not, I just get on stage and start talking away and then, once I'm going, once I'm moving, it starts working.''

Lazy or otherwise, Izzard has risen in the space of a few years from the rigours of busking in London to the point where no less than John Cleese has called him ``the funniest man in England.''

After working the streets and doing standup at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, he hit the big time in 1993 with a one-man show in London's West End. Three ``sequels'' cemented his reputation there but it was Dress To Kill that won him a worldwide audience.

He's also made an impression as a straight actor. His movie roles include Vladimir, the sinisterly dandyish Russian in The Secret Agent. On the West End stage, he's played the lead in David Mamet's drama The Cryptogram and the title role in Lenny, Julian Barry's play (directed by Sir Peter Hall) about '60s shock-comic Lenny Bruce.

Izzard has been the subject of a profile in The New Yorker (``Yeah,'' he says, ``but Britney Spears had the front cover of Rolling Stone'') in which the roots of his transvestitism were earnestly probed . . . ``by becoming the mother, you've lost all want, all need . . .''

He has his own ``official'' Web site (www.izzard.com). There again, so does Afghanistan's militant Taleban regime.

(Izzard spots a tangent to shoot off on: ``Those crazy guys. They just don't like women. They'd really dig me . . . the Taleban wear skirts anyway. They'd say, `Come in, you play here, it'll be fine . . .' I think I'd be shot.'')

He's been pinned under the analytical microscope, even when it was focused on someone else.

A Sunday Times of London story last year about Samuel Beckett opined: ``It's also unlikely that the . . . rambling speculations of an Eddie Izzard could have happened without the high comedy of Beckett's early novels, Murphy and Watt . . .''

Izzard is bemused. ``I haven't read a huge amount of Beckett . . . I feel without a Spike Milligan, I wouldn't have existed. That I feel firmly.''

Milligan was one of the masterminds, with Peter Sellers, of The Goon Show, the surreal 1950s British radio series that gave comedy several new directions to explore.

Izzard has found a Beckett link, anyway.

``He lived in France. He spoke French and I do a standup in French, which I'm very proud of. I tell people. No one quite understands. You have to tell people twice.

``I say, `I do my standup in French' and they go, `Yeah.' And I say, `Really. I do it in Paris.' And they're, `What, you do it in French?'

``It's the scariest thing to do comedy in a second language. It goes down well but the difficult thing is that standup comedy isn't their tradition.

``They have a tradition of one person on stage, one-man-show sketch comedy . . . three-minute character, blackout; three-minute character, blackout; three-minute character, blackout.

``I'm doing something different. I'm talking to the audience.

``My theory is that comedy is distinctly human and not nationalistic. There's no French sense of humour. The Germans do not lack a sense of humour. A guy in Libya will laugh at the same thing a guy in downtown New York will, as long as they have a joke or comedy set in front of them with enough reference points that they both get.

``I'm trying to prove it by going around and playing to French people. And they do get it.''

The Izzard family had its origins in France.

``That's what we believe,'' he says. ``The izzard is a mountain goat that lives in the Pyrenees. The implication is that they were weavers.

``They apparently were Huguenots, French Protestants who had to get out of France because they were all working too hard. It was economics, not religion. It's similar to Northern Ireland.

``If the Catholics and Protestants both have a strong middle class and everyone's doing fine then you don't have a reason to start killing each other. But if some people are on the poverty level because they're of one faith, then that gets them pissed off.''

Izzard was born in Aden, which arguably makes him a Yemeni.

``I wonder,'' he says. ``I've never been back. Fighting keeps on jumping up and people being kidnapped and stuff and you think, `Oh, I'd better wait a bit.' It is somewhere I have to go to.

``You just don't want to butt into the middle of guerrilla fighting and say, `Excuse me, can I technically be a citizen?' Bullets going ping, ping, ping . . .''

As for his ``straight career,'' he was anxious, he says, ``to prove I could do dramatic acting and not just to have to do comedy parts. It comes from the same place but . . . it is a bit of a parallel career and at some point it dovetails in a perfect part that seems comedic but is quite dark.

``I can't tell where that's gonna be but I've just got to keep plugging away and putting the work in, putting more work into the dramatic side.

``I did want to act before I wanted to do standup, way before I wanted to do standup.

``I know I can do standup so I've just got to fight my way through the ranks in acting. Which is as it should be.

``I'm beginning to think, `Oh, I did that well. That scene was good.' But I'm not totally on top of it yet. I'm slow. I'm not a natural.''

Nor is Izzard used to the tunnel vision of some moviemakers.

``I just didn't want to be, `Oh, he does comedy, give him a comedy part,' and you go into this comedy film.

``Hollywood keeps saying, `Well, okay, we understand you don't want to do comedy but what about doing a . . . comedy?'

``They just can't hear the words. They don't wanna hear them, they're saying, `This is too hard, it's impossible to deal with, just do a f---ing comedy!' ''