Interview: Eddie Izzard


Emmy winner, multilingual orator, marathon master, “the lost Python”, and future MP? It’s difficult to encompass the towering ambition of Eddie Izzard and even a ten-minute conversation with him feels an all-too-brief invitation to experience the immense intellect of the greatest living comedian.

How can one person run 43 marathons in 51 days, sell out stand-up tours in the blink of an eye, share the big screen with Clooney and Cruise while simultaneously making no secret of his ambition to stand as a member of the British or European parliaments? Not only is the 45-year-old the most inventive, most popular and most globally marketable comedian of his generation, he’s also one of the most intriguing characters in British life. Sarah Thompson’s documentary Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story might shed some light on the man behind the freewheeling comedy persona while upcoming live DVD Stripped shows Izzard back to his absurd, astute best after a miniscule – and, compared to most of his peers, negligible – but discernible dip in quality since his Emmy-winning heyday.

As he takes the Stripped tour on the road in UK and Europe, Lewis Bazley is granted ten minutes with the heir to Python, discussing arena audiences, acting and his political ambitions.

How do you approach different audiences and venues? You’re touring UK arenas with Stripped at the moment but in January, you’ll become only the fourth stand-up ever to perform at the historic, cavernous Madison Square Garden in New York City.

It’s a very interesting subject, this. A lot of people, and I don’t know which side you’re on, but most journalists I’d expect to be on the side of the fence that says ‘Don’t play arenas, we don’t like it’. I understand that viewpoint but as you move up from a 100-seater to a 500-seater, to a 2,000-seater, intimacy is still what you want. I believe you can get it in arenas and that’s what I’ve been striving for.

Does it feel different for you onstage in one of these huge venues?

It does, you can see a lot more of the audience, obviously. My Twitter screens are playing before the show starts so people can actually Tweet at the show, and people from other countries can write messages in, so that’s a different aspect. The thing that [US president Barack] Obama did – if you watched the crowd at Chicago, the 100,000 of them, they were looking at these six screens, showing his head and shoulders, and he brought everyone into it. The trick is, don’t try and push all the energy out there because you’ll never do it – you’ve got to pull all the energy into you. If you think of the Beatles at Shea Stadium – it wasn’t a good gig, it was a great event but no-one could hear anything. It took time for these stadium gigs to get to the level of what U2 might do now and arenas are just standard fare now for rock ‘n’ roll now but before people might have said: ‘That can’t work’.

Are there a certain amount of arena shows you need to do for it to feel as smooth and natural as possible?

At least 100, I think. By the end of this tour, I’ll have done 60 and it’ll be 100 during the next tour. You need to have your material down – it doesn’t let you drop in and just busk it! (laughs) But the more relaxed and playful I get, the more I’m ad-libbing, the more I just forget there’s 11-15,000 people out there. I want [stand-ups] to be able to play [arenas] as well – I think it gives us a higher top-end.

In what sense?

We don’t have the biggest film industry in the UK but we have some amazing stand-ups and I want us all to go to America and I want there to be reams of European stand-ups going over. The Beatles had Hamburg and, if you want to find the best environment to do stand-up comedy in the world, it’s London. There’s 70-80 clubs and there have been for the last two decades. It’s an amazing number; New York only has about 15. It’s kind of accidental, but you’ve got South African, Australian, German, Dutch comedians coming over to play and I love that that happens. So I just want us to… not invade the world, but infuse the world, like a tea!

You mentioned Obama and you’ve always been very upfront about your views toward Europe, social mobility, class – are you still set on the idea of moving into politics yourself?

I said last year I was going to stand in ten to 15 years, so it’s nine to 14 now – that sounds a bit weirder, which I quite like. It might be better for me just to be an activist like Bono and stay outside it, because you do have to kill your career, or at least put it on some massive hold. Eventually when you get to a certain age you can’t be a politician because you haven’t got the energy… but then I could possibly, potentially, go back and do a final decade of gigs, and I intend to have energy. I intend to keep running from now on and I want to be at peak fitness at 90, this is the crazy idea I came up before I did the marathons. We should look at training as part of breathing, same as eating and drinking.

When you do embark on a political career, where on the spectrum do you think you’ll be positioned?

I don’t want to just leave it to the right wing, I’m going to stand up for social democracy, what I believe in, and radical moderates. The idea of ‘for the many, not the few’.

Where did your political ambitions stem from?

I was always a political animal but I didn’t know what I politically felt – so I was very quiet politically all through my 20s. My dad voted Labour but he was really a social democrat; I was too, so I didn’t feel socialist. ‘Socialist’ and successful never quite went together for me, I couldn’t strive to be that and be socialist! (laughs) I like the safety net for everyone but I also like enterprise so I thought I must be a social democrat. I didn’t want to have to keep moving the goalposts in terms of where I stood – Churchill did that twice and I don’t think he actually did it well, most of his career was actually a screw-up, I think, but 1940 was a brilliant year.

What do you think of the assertion that “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain”? Often attributed to Churchill but thought to paraphrase a quotation from 19th century French historian Francois Guizot.

Well, Thatcher certainly didn’t have a heart, that’s for sure! (laughs) She had a stone for a heart because God shoved it in there when he’d run out of time! (laughs)

Well, you’re in your 40s now…

I am… I didn’t do either of them, really – I had my midlife crisis in my 20s because I came out as being a transvestite (laughs). I will always, I hope until the day I die, want everyone to have as good a chance as they possibly can. That seems to be the most logical thing to do. I think the Conservative thing to do is to let the people who can make money go and do that and then it will trickle down – and I always think:’ Why trickle down?’ Who the hell said trickle was great? Surely it should be flow down! People making money, being enterprising and creating wealth – that’s great – but have the safety net because a lot of people start out in a very tough situation, unlike, say, Mark Thatcher! I think I’ve stayed exactly the same and always tried to analyse where I am – I’ve always been into enterprise but I’ve also just raised a large amount of money for charity, so hopefully I’m putting my money where my mouth is.

With the marathons, and your admission that exerting yourself is a vital part of life – do you think you set yourself different challenges every year? You’ve done the shows in French, the stand-up in America, the acting, now the running – is there a desire to continually meet a new challenge?

I didn’t have the running as an ambition, but the rest of it all was just ambitions when I was a kid. You want to be a fireman, an astronaut, all this multiple thinking you do when you’re a kid, and at seven, acting suddenly became a passion. It was due to the loss of my mother, I think, and the substitution of an audience. But I couldn’t get the straight acting going, they weren’t giving me the roles, so I discovered Python and writing, and giving yourself the roles, so I thought: ‘OK, comedy, that’s what I’ll do’. And that’s all I was going to do, I was trying to get a TV series at 25, and be a comedian forever… and that then didn’t happen, so when it eventually took off, I decided: ‘No, I’m going to do acting too’.

Do you view your acting career in a different way to your stand-up?

That hasn’t been an easy run. That’s been 15 years of pushing on that and now the roles are getting better, and now I’m getting better at the roles – which is a logical chicken-and-egg thing.

We’ll see you on screen in the new year in the TV adaptation of John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids – how was that experience?

I play a character called Torrence, who’s a sort of flirty sociopath (laughs). I hope I’ve delivered it right – it’s the weirdest thing I find with acting: with stand-up you know you’ve done something right…

Because people laugh?

Yeah, and within half a heartbeat. But with [2008 film] Valkyrie, it was a year-and-a-half before I knew how I’d done, with Triffids, it’s going to be about nine months, so I really just like to see my scenes and think: ‘Oh, that’s alright!’ (laughs) My problem in the past has been to think: ‘Right, I’ve nailed it’ and then go back look and realise: ‘That is not nailed’ (laughs).

Written by Momo in: Interview |

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