On Ellis Island, a Kinship With the Huddled Masses

[from nytimes.com]

ON a breezy, clear summer morning, Eddie Izzard — the British actor, comedian, transvestite and aspiring politician — took a trip to Ellis Island. He’d wanted to go ever since he first set a stiletto-heeled foot in this country in the 1990s, but never got around to it.

“I would have absolutely been one of those people who got on the boat to the New World,” said the goateed Mr. Izzard, 48, who is starring on Broadway in David Mamet’s “Race,” and whose documentary about his life, “Believe,” was just nominated for an Emmy. “And if they didn’t let me in, I would have jumped overboard.”

This time, Mr. Izzard, who is spending the summer in New York during his Broadway stint, was determined to see the centerpiece of American immigration, which is why he was on a late-morning ferry, slathering sunblock on his neck and savoring the skyline. He had traded his girlie wear for black jeans, boots, blue blazer and sunglasses, and wore only a hint of foundation on his face. Not that he looked like he’d just stepped out of the Nebraska cornfields; still, for the moment anyway, he might have been just another tourist taking iPhone shots of the Statue of Liberty.

“Funny that France gave that to the United States,” he said, admiring the statue. “What did the U.S. give them in return?”

It was a good question. But then, most of Mr. Izzard’s observations are dead-on. That is a large part of his acclaim; he’s known for his political and historical humor, for his accents and mimicry, for leapfrogging from topic A to topic Q, for being, as John Cleese once anointed him, the “Lost Python.”

He is also known for his social conscience (he has raised more than $400,000 for a British charity) and his athleticism. He is a marathon runner and is contemplating triathlons (“Animals in the wild are lean, and I think we should be, too”).

He speaks and performs stand-up routines in German and French (he uses the A.T.M. in French “to keep my brain working) and is planning to learn Russian.

And his politics are passionate; earlier this year, Mr. Izzard, who is a Social Democrat, voraciously campaigned for the Labour Party across England, Scotland and Wales. He plans on running — “standing,” in British parlance — for mayor of London or a seat in Parliament “sometime around 2020, if not bang-on.”

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more engaged visitor on the 27.5-acre island; he wanted to see and do everything. “We’re here, we might as well,” he said, slipping a headset over his ears. “Look at that,” he said, reading a display. “Those in first class were allowed to walk right off the ship. Those in steerage were stopped. I never knew that.”

He wandered up the stairs and into the Great Hall, the soccer-field-size room where new immigrants waited for admittance into the country. Mr. Izzard, who was born in Yemen and raised in Northern Ireland and England, moved from exhibit to exhibit, taking in everything: a gurney (“in England we call that a trailer”), a buttonhook used to inspect eyes for infections like trachoma.

He glanced at a manifest of impossible-to-pronounce last names. “This would be a funny bit,” he said. He pantomimed an immigration officer holding a clipboard. “Here we are at Ellis Island. ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Smith.’ ‘What?’ ‘Smith.’ ‘Again?’ ‘Smith.’ ‘O.K.— Yacjgdaw.’ ‘You?’ ‘Jones.’ ‘What?’ ‘Jones.’ ‘Wazinskawnsky.’ It’s the reversal.”

Every so often a fan approached. “Aren’t you that bloke who did all those marathons?” “I love you in ‘The Riches’!” “ ‘Dress to Kill’ is my favorite!”

Mr. Izzard was polite, asking their names, where they were from, posing for pictures. Still, he seemed slightly hesitant, as if he were embarrassed by the attention — odd for a guy whose iPhone screen saver is a shot of himself in heavy makeup, a sparkly shirt and elbow-length black gloves.

When a reporter suggested his fans see him on Broadway, he demurred. “They only have a few days — go see a big musical like ‘Billy Elliot,’ ” he said. “If you have more time, see my show.”

After a while, he abandoned the audio tour — it was difficult to follow, the walkways weren’t well marked — and latched on to a group tour with Jesse Ponz, a park ranger. Mr. Ponz explained the history, pointing to the medical facilities where those who were refused admittance were kept, as he led his charges through the bowels of one building and into another. Mr. Izzard was rapt.

“Did people escape?” he asked, nodding toward New York Harbor.

“We’ve heard of that,” Mr. Ponz said. “But the current was pretty strong.”

“It’s like Alcatraz,” Mr. Izzard said. “People said you couldn’t swim, but now they have an Alcatraz triathlon.”

A woman piped up. Actually, she said, prisoners in Alcatraz were allowed to shower with hot water so they wouldn’t acclimate to the cold water.

“Did you hear that?” Mr. Izzard said later. He was almost glowing. “You never know what you’re going to learn. That group was exactly like the people who came over here. A mix of everybody.”

At the end of the tour, Mr. Izzard thanked Mr. Ponz, who, as it happened, is a great fan. He offered to take Mr. Izzard around privately, and Mr. Izzard happily accepted. As they wandered around the museum, the two men debated the merits of disco versus punk, the War of 1812, Winston Churchill (Mr. Izzard, who is dyslexic, is listening to a Max Hastings Churchill biography), capitalism and immigration.

“I don’t know what it’s like in the U.S., but immigrants in the U.K. do the jobs the citizens won’t do,” Mr. Izzard said.

Five hours later, Mr. Izzard was heading back to Manhattan, with a little less than 120 minutes to spare before he had to be on stage.

“I do find history fascinating, I find people fascinating, and I’m quite good at standing somewhere and taking out all the new stuff and imagining people coming in,” he said, looking at the city unfold before him. “And I would have been with them.”

Written by Momo in: Interview,Race |

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