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He's just a sweet transvestite
The return of the Izzard king
Peter Murphy, 28 Nov 2003
The term Stadium Rock has become such a fixture in the pop lexicon it now serves as shorthand for a whole genre of music. The notion of Stadium Stand-Up remains a relative novelty however, so it’s still news when Eddie Izzard’s Sexie tour sells out such cavernous venues as Wembley Arena and The Point in Dublin. But Izzard, one of Britain’s biggest comedy exports and perhaps the only openly transvestite performer your mother might approve of, sees no reason why his mode of entertainment shouldn’t compete with U2 and The Stones. Forget that old chestnut about comedy being the new rock ‘n’ roll – or rock ‘n’ roll having deteriorated into old comedy – at root level, the two forms share a common uproarious and sometimes transgressive spirit.
“I don’t see why comedy should be excluded from arenas,” Izzard maintains. “They said that about rock ‘n’ roll initially, and now when a band plays an arena it’s nothing, so I think we should all be playing arenas – if you want to.”
Not that Izzard’s Sexie set-up is some kind of Zoo TV with more gags. He’s adamant that the environment should not overly dictate the presentation of the material.
“I’ve got a big fucking screen behind me, (but) I’ve done regression of technology as well,” he explains. “The screen should be vertical because stand-up is pretty vertical, and we only have one camera rather than five because I don’t like the feeling of going into arenas or stadiums and feel like I’m watching television in a big bar or a field. If I move about the stage the camera will pan with me, so hopefully everyone in the building will feel like they’re all watching the same thing.”
Every comedian talks about the bowel-voiding fear of ‘dying’ on stage; does the risk of failure increase exponentially as the venues get bigger?
“I think psychologically in your head there is that potential,” Izzard says, “but in fact as soon as you get over ten people…the truth is as soon as you’re playing to a thousand, that’s insane, 10,000 is just a continuation of that insanity…you just gotta live it out there, you can’t go out a bit sheepish, which I did on the first gig at The Docklands and I thought, ‘Oh god, I better kick this into gear.’”
Since the last full scale tour Izzard embarked upon he has become something of a phenomenon stateside – an unlikely development until one considers that the Pythons played the Hollywood Bowl.
“Exactly, it’s not rocket science,” Izzard says. “You just gotta go there. U2 did it. You go there and you keep endlessly stamping around and eventually it gets through to people, with the help of a hit record say, or I had an HBO special that was definitely a step up the snakes and ladders board, got it to a whole bunch of people who I would have had to take ages to get around to. They get humour. It’s not Middle America – I don’t even know if there’s a Middle Ireland or Middle England or Middle Iceland – but I do get open-minded thinking people, crossing over into people who have lungs and brains and stuff.”
So why is this production entitled Sexie?
“No particular reason. Because I work outwards in, I have to come up with a title first, so you can call it anything. I could call it Elbow, but Sexie seemed more sexy, it wasn’t the idea of me (being) sexy but the state of sexy. I did a show called Glorious two or three shows ago and it could be fall of the Roman Empire glorious, or in a kind of JRR Tolkien way it’s whatever the fuck you want it to mean. Like people said (of Lord Of The Rings), ‘Oh, it’s like the Nazis,’ and he said, ‘No, you can read whatever you want onto it.’ So, it’s just a title that you can hang clothes on.”
Ah yes, the clothes. Here is one case where it might be easier for the artist in question if he were gay or bi. That Izzard is a hetero transvestite seems to unsettle a lot more people than a full-blown drag artist like, say, Ru Paul.
“Yeah, I’m not a gay performer in that way, my stuff is just Python-esque,” Izzard concedes, “I just happen to be a transvestite, which is a bit on-the-nose for a lot of the world still, they just can’t quite deal with it. I don’t have to wear that to do the comedy; I could wear an elephant suit, no make-up, some make-up, come on naked – which would be a bit extreme – I think it just gets in the way, but it’s the third millennium so I think we should be open and honest about it and not running and hiding behind bushes.”
As a cross-dressing teenager did he have any role models? Bowie or Bolan or the Rocky Horror crew?
“Bizarrely no actually, because New Romantic was when I was at college and even that I didn’t really associate with. Boy George I suppose was the one I looked most keenly at, but all the rest of them, it seemed rather surface. With the glam rock thing there was, ‘These people could be gay or bisexual,’ and I thought, ‘Well that’s not really me’. I didn’t want to do it as fashion or as a hip thing, it had to be real: ‘I am a transvestite, I’m going to wear this on the street’. It’s not part of the comedy; I don’t need to wear it to do the comedy. I’m not allowed to wear it when I’m playing someone like Charlie Chaplin (on film). Doing stand-up is the only time I can wear whatever I want, so I may as well wear make up all the time. Which gets confusing when people think that is what it’s about.
“I’d much rather be just straight,” he continues, “it’s a lot fucking easier. It’s a fucking palaver being a transvestite, I’ll tell ya! But seeing as I am, this gives me the space to wear whatever I want, whenever I want, just like a woman can do. I’m asking for those rights, and then I’ll try and do comedy or drama to the best of my ability, but they’re not actually connected.”
So, Eddie Izzard doesn’t do heterogeneous, a fact borne out by Mongrel Nation, the rather quirky and fascinating Discovery Channel series he recently fronted, which traced the mingled bloodlines coursing just under the skin of the British Empire. What convinced him to get involved with that?
“I’d been asked to do documentaries before and it was the first one that was right, where I was emotionally or intellectually (thinking): ‘How can we be this pure English thing?’ And of course we don’t want a pure English thing, because that’s like a pure Arian thing. One, it’s racist, and two, inbreeding equals suicide on a cultural level. So of course we don’t want to inbreed ourselves into stupidity, and I was trying to get that the strength of the mix is what’s important, purity of the breed is a load of bullshit. That’s why mongrel dogs are very clever and pedigree dogs are stupid as a plank of wood. I’m very big into being a world citizen, and the small-mindedness of looking at it the other way around has been very prevalent and easy to sell, I think. And so when this came up, it was what I believed anyway: Norman, Anglo-Saxon, Friesian…or as I was saying, fangly-jangly Saxons!”
Izzard of Odd: Eddie on stage and screen
A glance at Eddie Izzard’s stage and screen resume suggests he’s far surpassed the dilettante stage and is becoming quite the character actor. His most notable roles include turns in Todd Haynes’ glam-slam Velvet Goldmine, The Avengers, the daft superhero yarn Mystery Men, Peter Bogdanovich’s Charlie Chaplin pic Cat’s Meow, Shadow Of The Vampire, and more recently, a part in Alex Cox’s Revenger’s Tragedy (“Alex is kind of bonkers; I like his grand schemes and his energy and he’s quite a strange and curious gentleman”). On stage, Izzard has done improv, acted Mamet and played Lenny Bruce, the latter being one of his most demanding roles.
“It was quite heavy actually,” he recalls, “I mean, in the end I just got very ill on that show because you have to fuck up and die eight times a week. The one thing that was interesting playing Lenny, he’s quite a long way from me except for the fact that we were both stand-ups. No stand-up had played Lenny Bruce before; that was the central core of my thing. When I played Chaplin he was much more athletic and slight and fantastic gymnastically and could ice skate like an idiot – that wasn’t really me.”
Dustin Hoffman and Robert Downey Junior had already delivered pretty definitive portrayals of those two men on screen. Was that daunting to follow?
“Yeah, I mean Dustin Hoffman is a Jewish American and so much closer physically to Lenny, so I played my other card on that and said hopefully I can get into the centre of him through the ad-libbing. Lenny used to do stuff just to make the band laugh, and I used to do stuff to make the other actors laugh, so I felt that was in the true Lenny tradition. With Chaplin I was seeing where he and I met, because he was an English guy who wanted to go and do America and so was I. What I look for in characters is to take half of me and half of them and smash them together and see where we get to.”
Izzard shared a set with Willem Dafoe, John Malkovich and Udo Kier on Shadow Of The Vampire, possibly three of the weirdest actors on the planet. How was that?
“That was great fun. John is John on and off screen, there isn’t really a difference, it’s almost like living a film off screen, because he’s very charismatic and fascinating and great fun. Willem would turn on this huge character and then would switch off and is very earthy off the screen. But it was fantastic to be in a castle right on top of a hill in Luxembourg in the middle of the night, and it was raining, I was sitting with John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe, and I sort of said, ‘What did your parents say when you said you wanted to act?’ And everyone went through that and said what it was, and it was very…like we were all students or something. I can’t remember what anyone said, but it was a beautiful moment.”
Eddie Izzard brings his Sexie show to The Point on November 30.