British stand-up Eddie Izzard first made a splash on this side of the pond with his 1998 HBO special Dress to Kill, which introduced America to Izzard’s outrageous, rambling, self-deprecating (and occasionally cross-dressing) Monty Python-esque style. Since then, Izzard has juggled comedy gigs in huge arenas, film (My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Ocean’s Twelve, Mystery Men, Prince Caspian), TV (the cult hit The Riches opposite Minnie Driver) and a Tony-nominated performance as the father of a disabled child in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. Now the multitalented Izzard is returning to Broadway for a summer run as lawyer Jack Lawson in David Mamet’s Race. Izzard first tackled Mamet in the original London production of The Cryptogram, and his attention to language makes him an ideal match for a play filled with fast and clever banter on a serious subject. Just before his first performance at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, we checked in with Izzard about his affinity for lawyer-speak, his future political career and the ongoing World Cup.
How does it feel to return to Broadway?
It’s good to be back. It’s a slightly different way of coming in, in that it’s just after the Tonys and all that stuff, but it’s a good role to come for.
A lot of people felt you deserved a Tony for [the 2003 revival of] A Day in the Death of Joe Egg.
I won the Drama Desk that year, and then [Brian Dennehy] won the Tony [for Long Day’s Journey Into Night]. Obviously the Tony gets more press, but there’s politics involved and whatever. It gave me somewhere to go even if I didn’t win. I was very happy with what I did with that role. In the end me, Stanley Tucci, and Philip Seymour Hoffman all got nominated but didn’t win, so I thought, “Well, this is still a pretty good group to be in.”
Did you decide to return to Broadway specifically for this piece?
Yes. The offer came in and I’m playing a lawyer in a play that’s very interesting, with all these racial politics. I’ve just come off the UK elections because I’m standing for election [for Mayor of London or Member of European Parliament] in 10 years in the UK so I was very involved in campaigning [for Britain’s Labour Party]. A lot of lawyers end up going into politics because of the precision of the speech, so I found that very interesting training.
What was your campaigning experience like?
They shove cameras in your face everywhere you go, and say, “Why are you here? Why are you supporting the Labour Party and where do you feel the future of things is going to go?” You have to be very precise, and that’s the same in law.
As a politician, what are you hoping to achieve?
One of the problems in politics is vision. If you’re just there administrating, that really isn’t what people want. They want a direction in which you’re heading. I’m a pretty good communicator and good at setting up systems that haven’t existed before. I don’t want to leave it to the bleeding-head right wingers!
Would political office mean the end of your acting career?
I’ll have to put everything into deep hibernation. But I could go up for election, then after four years everyone’ll say, “We don’t want to see him again” and then pick [acting] back up.
What’s it like to work with David Mamet? He has a reputation for telling actors that everything they need to know is already in the script.
He does give stage direction within the way he writes, which actually makes things easier. When you get Shakespeare you think, “Well, which way am I supposed to do this? What was he actually meaning?” With [Mamet] the guy is actually there in front of you. He is very much saying, “Just let the play serve you.”
You’re best known as a stand-up comedian, but this is a very serious role.
Drama is my first love.When I first started as an actor, that’s all I was aiming for. I sort of went in this big curvy direction with comedy, but since around 1993 I’ve been, in a schizophrenic way, developing comedy and drama separately—and it confuses the hell out of agents!
Why is race an important subject matter to investigate?
Racism is a bizarre thing. We’ve had wars about race, and apartheid, and wars over [religion]. Race shouldn’t make any difference whatsoever. If we were attacked by monsters from outer space or something I’m sure everyone would drop the whole race thing and come together very quickly and say, “Who the hell are these bloody monsters?” [Laughs.] It confuses me because I went to a boarding school where there were loads of different skin colors. It’s a fascinating subject, but one that would be great if it could go away.
Is there any truth to the rumors about a possible film version of The Riches [in which Izzard and Minnie Driver played con artists who move to suburbia]?
There are a million hoops to get through and [in this economy] the idea of scaring up money for an independent film got really tricky. It’s still a possibility. There were ideas going around but no actual script. Even if we picked up with the family a few years down the line, we could pick up new fans and keep the old ones.
You had a memorable scene as Mr. Kite in the 2007 Beatles musical Across the Universe. Any interest in doing a musical for your next Broadway gig?
Not really a big Broadway musical. I might do something with music—my mother was a singer—but that’s not my next project. It’s there in the back of my mind, but I think it’d take months of training before I could do anything.
You grew up playing soccer. Are you still a big fan?
I’m a fan as long as we win.
What’s it like spending World Cup season in a country where the sport isn’t hugely popular?
I want America to understand what world football can do. In America, soccer is seen as a middle class game, but it’s really working class—kids kick around cans in the dusty streets in South America and Africa. It’s the whole world coming together and meeting and challenging each other, like the Olympics but more simple. [Soccer] is one of the few sports where players aren’t genetically disposed—which is not an American trait because Americans are all about meritocracy and “Anyone can do whatever they want, and anyone can be president” and so on. With basketball, if you’re not tall, you’re not playing, and for [American] football you need to be huge. You can be tall, wide, small or thin and be good at soccer.
Speaking of sports, last year you ran 43 marathons for the charity Sports Relief. Sounds pretty intense.
That’s the “action transvestite” for you. The Sports Relief people in the UK ask celebrities to do challenges, and they usually want it to be non-sporty people because it’s more of an “Oh my god, that person’s doing that” idea. I told them I’d do it and I don’t think they believed me. Once I did 15 marathons, it got easier. It’s that “stay the course, keep fighting” thing. I’m quite good at setting up things and doing them as long as I’m motivated. If I’m not motivated, I won’t get out of bed.