Eddie Izzard: The tough transvestite who can take care of himself

From New York to London, from stage to screen and from abusive passers-by to amorous brickies, Eddie Izzard can handle most situations. James Rampton battles with serenading bagpipe players for an audience with the cross-dressing comic who has four films on the way

Sunday 23 May 2004 00:00 BST

I don't play it terribly starry because you can lose it up there," says Eddie Izzard downplaying his recent success Stateside with characteristic modesty over a Diet Coke in a central London bar. "I don't want to buy into that; if you start believing it, then going out and buying a packet of crisps the next day becomes boring. You send out for crisps. I'm sure Elton John doesn't buy his own crisps. I want to be able to buy my own crisps."

After an insanely popular US national tour last year, in which he sold out 50 arena dates across the country, Izzard has just returned from New York where he's been performing in a queues-around-the-block-and-hundreds-of-autograph-hunters-at-the-stage-door-afterwards triumph. And that was after winning two Emmys for his stand-up show Dress to Kill in 2000, and picking up a Drama Desk Award, the Outer Critics Award and a Tony nomination for his performance in the lead role of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg on Broadway last year.

Izzard, who still remembers the time just 15 years ago when he was a street performer pretending to escape from a jumper, is clearly pleased as punch about the gongs. "I was doing crap shows to two men and a dog - if I was lucky," he smiles wryly at the memory. "The last award I got for acting was from the Eastbourne Gazette in the Best in Schools section for playing a Nazi thug in Cabaret."

And there are likely many more awards in the pipeline. Izzard is capitalising on his live popularity with a slate of forthcoming feature films, including The Cat's Meow, a Peter Bogdanovich movie in which he gets to play Charlie Chaplin in a real-life tale about a weekend aboard the deluxe yacht of William Randolph Hearst.

And that's only the beginning. As well as The Cat's Meow, in the next few months we can see Izzard in: Five Children and It, a family film in which he stars opposite Kenneth Branagh; Blueberry, a French "baguette Western" with Michael Madsen and Monica Belluci; and Romance & Cigarettes, where he plays - if you can believe it - a choir-master in an impressive cast-list that also features Christopher Walken, James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon and Steve Buscemi.

In addition, Izzard has just been signed up to play an explosives expert and mingle with the likes of George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Julia Roberts and Matt Damon on Ocean's Twelve, the sequel to the box-office smash, Ocean's Eleven.

While he clearly has immense drive - he is fitting in this interview on the single day he has between returning from New York and jetting off to schmooze producers at Cannes - it is impossible to say what exactly it is that has propelled Izzard from that place to this.

Without slipping too far into cod-psychiatry, it would appear that Izzard's passion for performing may at least in part stem from the death of his mother from cancer when he was just six. Born in the Yemen in 1962, where his father worked as an accountant for BP, Izzard was packed off to boarding school at a young age.

"I guess Orson Welles's mother died when he was six, as did Madonna's," the comedian reflects. "But I don't think it has to be a death of a mother; it could be any parent or just a dysfunctional family where the parents can't give love and you are craving it.

"That's how I see my audience, a surrogate affection machine. It doesn't necessarily have to be comedy, either. It could be drama or music, anything where you want that love back."

There were other issues Izzard had to wrestle with as a youngster. He says he realised by the time he was four that he was a transvestite, but it took him until the age of 29 to come out. "It seemed the strongest way to go forward," he explains now. "If you can walk down the street in women's clothes, you can do anything. The only way you change people's minds is by engaging them in discussion." *

He started by telling his father. "We'd just watched Crystal Palace lose, so I was a bit nervous, but he was fine. His job may have been traditional, but he has a sort of a hippie philosophy: do what makes you happy."

Just two days later, Izzard came out on stage for the first time. He now admits that, "I was way nervous. When Ellen Degeneres came out in the States, her show was cancelled soon after. I was well aware of the stakes. There was a distinct possibility that it could have killed my career there and then.

"My first joke at that gig was, 'If you're a stand-up, it's good to be a minority because then you've got something to rail against. If you're black, you can rail against white supremacists; if you're poor, you can rail against the rich. But if you're a white, male, middle-class stand-up, it's shit. So thank God I'm a transvestite.' It went down a storm.

"I then talked about Daleks, and that was the crunch moment. If they hadn't laughed about the Daleks, then it was career over. They would have said, 'As a transvestite, you can't do that joke.' But fortunately, they laughed again." And have been doing so ever since.

Ever modest, Izzard dismisses the idea that he might be some sort of role model. "That's a very dangerous place to go. I'm only a role model for me. I needed one, so I made myself my own role model. I didn't come out in order to say, 'Aren't I wonderful?' It was to give myself space. If anyone slip-streams in that or teenagers say, 'I'm coming out too,' then great."

Very occasionally when he cross-dresses, Izzard gets hassled in the street. "People shout, 'What the fuck is that?', and I immediately reply, 'Hitler would be proud of you.' People aren't expecting a confident response. If you pull away, they see fear and think, 'Let's take the piss out of this kid.'

"They're scared people who don't understand things. Hatred comes from self-hatred. But I always respond when someone shouts. It's important to rip into those people. It's a matter of personal pride and righteous anger."

Once, however, Izzard's righteous anger did get him into trouble, as he was beaten up by a gang of thugs in Cambridge. "That was a key moment because I stood my ground," he recollects. "It was a stupid thing to do because they could have had knives, but like Cool Hand Luke I didn't go down.

"The fight only lasted 30 seconds, but later it became a 20-minute stand-up routine. I took them to court and won £200 in damages. I had made my point and went off and blew the money on cheesecake at a Happy Eater. I should be known as Tough Transvestite Who Can Take Care of Himself."

The vast majority of people, though, are completely cool about Izzard's cross-dressing. "Most just say, 'Live and let live'. I was walking past a building site in Liverpool and a brickie shouted at me from the scaffolding, 'Hey Eddie, where's your lippie?' I said I'd left it at home, and he replied: 'Wanna borrow mine?' Moments like that make everything worthwhile."

A few weeks' earlier and an ocean away, Izzard and I are jammed in the St Andrew's, a Scottish theme-pub just off Broadway in New York. The walls are adorned with pictures of famous Scottish golfers and we are in the midst of New York's "Tartan Week" - which appears to be little more than a cynical marketing ploy to sell those ludicrous tartan hats with orange wigs attached. Suddenly, as if by magic, a brawny lad whips a set of bagpipes out from underneath his kilt and starts playing a very loud version of "Flower of Scotland".

The main reason for this celebration is that the lad has spotted who I am with. Ex-pat Celts suddenly start crowding round my drinking partner, eager to blow him away with the skirl of the pipes, tell him their favourite jokes or in some cases just to be close to him. There's only one word to describe the occasion: surreal.

Izzard, however, seems to take the experience very much in his stride. Indeed, I would not be at all surprised to hear the occasion spun into very funny stand-up routine. In the US, Izzard is becoming more and more accustomed to being the centre of attention.

As we wander around New York late at night, he is mobbed on every street corner by people wanting autographs and photographs. We have landed up at the pub after another storming performance by Izzard at the British/ Irish Comedy Invasion in Greenwich Village, a month-long festival in which comics from over here are dazzling audiences over there. Izzard's performances precipitate the sort of whoopin' and hollerin' usually only witnessed in the audience of The Jerry Springer Show.

With this level of recognition, Izzard could clearly choose the easy life - a light-hearted television sitcom, for instance - but the role of Chaplin in The Cat's Meow is the latest in a series of challenging roles on screen and stage that indicate he is avoiding the path of least of resistance. While not quite the clown who wants to play Hamlet, he nevertheless clearly wants to be taken seriously as an actor. He is anxious to be recognised as something more than, as he puts it, "that transvestite comedy guy".

"I'm trying not to take the easy route," he asserts. "My whole thing is about not winging it. I try to make my performances interesting rather than predictable. I don't want people to say, 'Oh, he was just grinning all the time.' If you hit it big in comedy, you do get stuck. Audiences are reluctant to accept you in anything else because they want their hits of laughter. But I think I'm getting there now. People in Hollywood do give me the time of day now."

The day we meet up again in London, Izzard is dressed in a leather jacket, with a dark shirt, trousers and shoes. That - and the goatee he is sporting - indicate that he is decidedly in "boy" mode today. And that will remain the case as long as he is auditioning for movies. According to Izzard, "If you're going up for a Hollywood film, you'd better stay in boy mode because producers don't have wild imaginations. If it's a competition between this straight-up bloke and another guy with this weird extra thing, then it might count against you. If you want to play Hannibal Lecter or an expert sword-fighter, you don't turn up in full make-up."

Part of Izzard's attraction as a stand-up is that he seems to be giving of himself on stage, and he has exactly that appeal as an interviewee. You do not feel he's putting on a persona or trying to conceal things. He's remarkably frank about his life.

Here, for example, is how Izzard quite unguardedly characterises his sexuality. "I'm a straight transvestite or male lesbian. It seems we are beyond the idea that I am gay and hiding it. If I had to describe how I feel in my head, I'd say I'm a complete boy plus half a girl."

That does not mean, however, that he would have a sex-change operation. Izzard reveals that, "If I looked more girly or beautiful, like Julian Clary, I would do it. But the way I look, everyone would know I was a bloke who had had a sex change. Besides, it would confuse things because I do fancy women, so I would change from a straight male transvestite into a lesbian."

A sex-change would also prevent him from one day fathering children. "I would be the perfect one-parent family," Izzard says. "I could give make-up tips and football tips. Having children is something I would like to do at some point in the future. The male part of my psyche tells me I've got a bit of time. It's the genetic continuation of the human species, which, on the whole, I think should be saved."

For all Izzard's candour, one area remains out of bounds: his love life. You can ask until the cows come home, but don't expect him to reveal anything about it, beyond the confession that, "I love vampy, va-va-voomy women. I like curves as opposed to that strange needle shape."

All inquiries about whether he is seeing anyone at present are met with a courteous but un-budging response. "I like to keep my private life off the radar. That's where I go all Daniel Day-Lewis on you. There's this curiosity about who am I sleeping with, and it's the one thing I'd prefer to keep private."

Now 42, Izzard has packed a dizzying amount into the last few years, but loads of performers do that without managing to be a tenth as hypnotic as this most unusual man. Just what makes him so special? It's a dreadfully overused journalistic phrase, but it really does apply in this case: Izzard is one of life's originals. He has remained so fascinating for more than a decade because he is constantly challenging himself to change. A protean figure, he is never predictable. He lives by the motto: adapt or die.

"You've got to keep moving and twisting to remain interesting," he observes, taking a final swig of that Diet Coke. "Some performers get to a position where they just do the same thing over and over again and it's like wallpaper. But people soon get bored of wallpaper. If you just stand still, it's a problem. You've got to be prepared to screw up. If you take risks, people will respect you."And will serenade you with bagpipes in pubs right around the globe.

'The Cat's Meow' opens at cinemas nationwide on Friday 4 June

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