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Actor-comic Eddie Izzard just wants to be loved

Wednesday, Jan 31 2001
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Eddie Izzard knows precisely why he wanted to become a performer, be it an actor or stand-up 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 stand-up 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 stand-up 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 till you get to the part about how Hitler clearly never played Risk as a kid. Adolph 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 stand-up, 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 flashforwards, 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 Izzard is larger-than-life onstage -- like a jazz musician riffing about, tossing out a thousand setups till he stumbles across the perfect punch line -- he 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.

About The Author

Robert Wilonsky

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