Eddie Izzard knows precisely why he wanted to become a performer, be it an actor or standup comedian or, for that matter, a street performer entertaining passers-by for spare change. When he was 6 years old, Izzard was living in South Wales with his parents and older brother. Before that, the family had lived in Yemen (so exotic) and Northern Ireland (so green), but in 1968, they were based out of grimy, industrial South Wales. It was, however, a rather lovely existence. Izzard's dad, an accountant, had been a hippie and would-be Communist in the 1950s; his mother the nurse took care of people for a living; and he and his brother were just two happy little kids gorging themselves on ice cream and innocent trouble.
But in March 1968, Izzard's mother died of cancer, and that "rejiggered everything." Soon enough, Izzard and his brother would be sent to boarding school. They were children forced quickly into adulthood, and Izzard would spend the better part of 1968 in tears. Later, after discovering the thrill of an audience's applause and affection, he would often say he ended up making people laugh for a living because only as an adult did he realize how much of the child in him he had left behind.
"Initially, I got onstage purely for the attention, love, affection, and it was to do with my mum dying, I'm pretty sure," he says through the crackle and hiss of a cellular phone. "I did a play before she died, and I can remember not being that bothered. I played a raven, and I was a pretty good raven as ravens go. I didn't want to get typecast, maybe that was it. But then she died, and it was not long after I saw this . . ." He pauses, as he often does when talking about his mom. "Actually, it was a couple of years after, and I remember seeing this play and thinking, 'Oh, I really want to do that.' I remember the audience's affection and my mother's affection, because she was a very giving and loving mother."
It may have taken him some 20 years to realize his ambition -- so many years of studying accounting, acting in school theater productions, practicing his "cutting-edge shit" on street corners -- but Izzard now basks in adulation. Last September, this 38-year-old dyslexic, lipstick-and-skirts-sporting self-proclaimed "action transvestite" bested Chris Rock, David Letterman, Billy Crystal and Conan O'Brien when the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences handed out its Emmy Awards. For his standup special Dress to Kill, which aired on HBO, Izzard won two golden statues: for writing and performance in a comedy special or variety show. It was akin to the National Football League handing out its Most Valuable Player award to a place-kicker. Like the man says in his 1998 autobiography Dress to Kill, published only in the U.K., he ain't exactly a household name, especially not in this country. Not yet.
"I used to be -- not a household name, but a garden-shed name," he insisted. "Trowel."
Trying to summarize one of Eddie Izzard's standup routines is like trying to describe a dream four days after it happened. It makes sense to no one, not even the person trying to recount the story. And then, uh, he talked about how cats aren't really meowing, but they're actually, uh, drilling for oil behind the couch. Uh, get it? No? How about this? Eddie said that bees make honey, so do spiders make gravy? That's funny, isn't it? C'mon. Wait 'til you get to the part about how Hitler clearly never played Risk as a kid. Adolf should have known: "You could never hold Asia." One can no more condense Izzard's routine into an edible morsel than one can shorten a John Coltrane solo. Brilliance can't be reduced to sound bites.
But it is now his desire to abandon the stage, for a moment, and leap onto the screen. He dreamed of making movies from the time he was a child, though he thought only the special and blessed were allowed to glimmer in the cinema. Fact is, he never really wanted to do standup, an endeavor at which he's made a quite decent living for nearly a decade. He wanted to be Steve McQueen, Sean Connery, Michael Caine . . . or, at the very least, Oliver Reed. He wanted to star in The Great Escape, jumping his motorbike over Nazi barbed wire. He wanted to stumble onto the set of Local Hero or sprint along the beach like the lads in Chariots of Fire. He wanted to be a star -- or, barring that, "a lead character actor," a familiar face.
Earlier this very morning, Izzard had auditioned for a part in a film he describes as being a cross between The Usual Suspects and The Thomas Crown Affair, though he's not sure how the audition went. The material was so complex, rife with flashbacks and flash forwards, that it took him three read-throughs to get into the part. "We'll see what happens," he says, sounding like a man expecting the worst.
"I am a film nut who wanted to do films from the age of 10, and I would have earlier if I had realized that films were something you could do," he says. "I just thought they were there and that gods do them."
Since 1996, he has appeared in a handful of films, usually in roles so small one needs a magnifying glass to see them. He showed up in Christopher Hampton's 1996 adaptation of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, played Sean Connery's mute henchman in The Avengers, appeared as rock-star agent Jerry Divine in Velvet Goldmine, and swaggered as a disco baddie in Mystery Men -- all of which amounted to mere minutes of screen time.
Slightly larger is his role as "bad, hammy actor" Gustav von Wangenheim in E. Elias Merhige's just-released Shadow of the Vampire. But it's a role nearly lost in the showdown between John Malkovich as director F.W. Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck, a vampire slumming it as a method actor in Murnau's film Nosferatu. Though he's larger-than-life onstage -- like a jazz musician riffing about, tossing out a thousand setups 'til he stumbles across the perfect punch line -- Izzard fades into the background in Shadow, but such a fate is to be expected. With Malkovich chewing the scenery and Dafoe chomping on bats and beauties, even giants are bound to be devoured.
"People keep saying nice things to me about Shadow of the Vampire, but I don't feel I really did anything," Izzard says. "I wandered around."
But he's just finished shooting two films in which he has rather large roles: In All the Queen's Men, he appears as a cross-dressing lounge singer who teaches a group of British Special Forces officers (led by an American, Friends' Matt Le Blanc) how to dress and act like women in order to infiltrate a female-run Berlin factory. In Peter Bogdanovich's forthcoming The Cat's Meow, about the murder of Hollywood mogul Thomas Ince aboard William Randolph Hearst's yacht, Izzard portrays Charlie Chaplin -- ostensibly the original target of the bullet, as Chaplin was rumored to be carrying on an affair with Hearst's mistress.
Had Izzard sought out comedic roles from the very beginning, perhaps he'd be more than a garden-shed name in this country already. But his is a muted sort of ambition. He craves success, especially in the States, but has long insisted upon taking a circuitous route to achieve fame. In England, he resisted doing too much television in fear of becoming overexposed; here and abroad, he's taken small parts in oddball films (some of which haven't even made it into theaters), wanting to pay his dues before cashing in. For fans of his standup, watching him creep around the edges of the movies in which he's appeared is frustrating. Where he explodes onstage, he seems to disappear on film.
"If I said, 'I want to do comedy roles,' I think I might have gotten bigger roles quicker, but I said I didn't want to do comedy roles," he says. "I wanted to really pay my dues and get under the skin of a dramatic role so that another actor might say, 'Well, that was good work.' The comedy thing hits really big, but people want to see you do only that. When Jim Carrey or Robin Williams or Steve Martin moves into a serious role, there's a reluctance from the producers and studios and marketing people.
"If you do that extreme comedy -- comedy that is very druggy -- people want to see more of it. The beats of a dramatic role are much slower, and the bottom line of comedy, especially in standup, is to be funny every 30 seconds or whatever it is, and you have no structure. You're totally relying on just hitting the funny, so you get excessively funny. It's a bit like rock 'n' roll: You have three-minute songs that grab, as opposed to a symphony that might have high points and low points and take you through moods. A dramatic role is much slower, and people want to see you" -- his voice rises and speeds up -- "go and do that thing and getmegoingnow! The reason I didn't want to do a sitcom and wanted to bag the standup as much as possible is because you end up with this place where people are reluctant to see you in a straight role. Hopefully, there are a lot of people who might have heard of me but really don't know what I do. They're like, 'Didn't I see you on a chat show?' They don't know what I do, which is great. It leaves you a blank sheet."
Izzard first arrived on U.S. shores as the ultimate oddity: a straight man from Britain who liked to wear women's clothing and was in possession of more makeup than a crazy aunt. But the clothes never made the man: His sexuality was and remains a moot point to the audience; he's funny, but not to look at. He always knew he wanted to dress like a woman -- nothing strange about that, not when you're a male tomboy, an action transvestite. His father recalls that even at a young age, Izzard was fascinated with his mother's stocking tops. The kid was 4, but he knew: He was a woman trapped in a bloke's boxy body, and he fancied women, so he must be a, well, male lesbian. (For a while, Izzard even thought of having Little Eddie chopped off, but he decided to skip the knife and head straight for the Versace.) He was stealing lipstick at the age of 15, and finally came out in 1985, at the age of 23; he would tell a British newspaper of his lifestyle six years later. Izzard told his dad during a soccer game he was a trannie, and the old man said it was fine by him.
In his first comedy special -- Live at the Ambassadors, recorded in February 1993 -- Izzard is nearly unrecognizable, sporting a blue blazer, blue jeans and brown cowboy boots. He looks very much like a man who should be standing in front of a comedy club's brick wall, albeit a man wearing blood-red nail polish. And he sounds very much like a man struggling to make up his bits on the spot; it's less standup act than rambling, freeform monologue.
His 1994 show, Unrepeatable, is a bit more in focus but long on familiar topics: advertising ("Wash your clothes . . . or no one will shag you"), laundry ("You always have to sacrifice a few socks and a pair of pants to the God of Laundry"), food labels ("This jam was made by groovy people out of fruit that agreed to be in the jam in the first place -- free-range fruit"), and politics ("I'm a revolutionary liberal . . . I think, 'Storm the House of Parliament, kick the fuckin' doors in, get in there, and say, "Look, we'll pay for the damage"'"). Watching those early tapes -- which are available at Izzard's eponymous Web site, along with tee shirts and caps and concert programs -- is like looking at old childhood photos; he's still soft at the edges, still covered in the comedian's baby fat.
"I've worked it up into a thing now, but standup was not easy," Izzard says. "It took me a year and a half between the first two gigs. I never thought I was gonna do standup. I liked being funny, but I think I can have a germ of creativity and just work it and work it and work it and get it into shape. I must have had a sense of humor -- I think my family has a sense of humor -- but being able to be funny now, like just trusting I can work something into funny, I sort of take that for granted."
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He hit his stride with his fourth special, 1997's Glorious: As he likes to say, the surreal had given way to the surreal and observational, which, at last, had given way to the surreal and observational and historical. A bit about the death of Princess Diana morphs into a protracted bit about The X-Files, which leads to a mention of his mother's death, and somehow it all ties together. He begins talking about Noah's Ark and the Siege of Troy, gets around to insisting that Achilles should have put his vulnerable heel "in a fuck-off block of concrete," then somehow ends up on a long discussion about vacuum cleaning. By the time of Dress to Kill, Izzard had become James Mason narrating a History Channel documentary starring Monty Python, only with Izzard as John Cleese and Michael Palin and Graham Chapman and so on.
In the end, Izzard has hit upon the great secret of standup: For the audience to be entertained, so too must be the man delivering the goods. Izzard is the rare comic who looks to be having a better time than his audience; he nearly levitates on the stage, bouncing about in shiny finery. There is no rage in his humor; he has no demons to exorcise, unlike, say, one of his idols, Richard Pryor. The anger was vanquished when he came out as a transvestite. Now, beneath the makeup and Versace, there is only a brilliant little boy in search of the ultimate giggle.
"The child of 6 got locked up and lost to the world when my mum died," he says. "I worked out how to open the lid on the kid who can come out and play, but with all the knowledge of my life. The idea of playing in the head is almost like opening out your brain, and my brain tends to move quite fast. That's why I have difficulty writing. I can't type as fast as my brain can move, which is really nice. I'm very pleased that my brain does that, and I suppose if you think about it too much, you begin worrying it might go away. It zips around, and I think because of my dyslexia, I think laterally instead of vertically, which makes for interesting sideways connections. It's fun jumping around, and it's also fun when it starts happening, and I am not controlling it.
"You just let go. It's either a Star Wars or Buddhistic thing. You just let go, and the brain and mouth link up, and I'm not really controlling it, but I'm trusting it. I know you can let go, and pretty often you'll hit something funny. I can almost see the synapses of the brain spinning around. In Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger has this scene where he's beginning to decay, and the guy who runs this seedy motel is knocking on his door, saying, 'Hey, what happened, buddy? Cat die?' And Arnold has all these answers in his brain, and he chooses, 'Fuck you, asshole.' That happens in comedy, too. You have this mass of options, and you make this choice in the split of a second. You can get a really fantastic one out, and you don't know where it comes from. You haven't been actively working on it. You just . . . let go."