Eddie Izzard may not be the household name in the U.S. that he is in his native England, but he's developed a following here as both a wry, award-winning stand-up comedian and a sought-after character actor. A veteran of the stage and numerous one-man shows, Izzard recently won a pair of Emmys for his latest stand-up special, Dress To Kill. He recently completed what may be his biggest role to date, playing Charlie Chaplin alongside Kirsten Dunst in Peter Bogdanovich's The Cat's Meow, and Izzard has also appeared in such films as Velvet Goldmine, Mystery Men, The Avengers, and Shadow Of The Vampire, the new horror-comedy inspired by the making of F.W. Murnau's classic horror film Nosferatu. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke to Izzard about Lenny Bruce, breaking into America, and the difficulties of being a transvestite in an insufficiently jaded world.
The Onion: Looking over your career, it seems like you've basically played two kinds of roles: villains and historical figures. Why do you think that is?
Eddie Izzard: Villains, because I chose to. Historical figures, I've played pretty much by accident. I just wanted to play shitheads, actually. What I don't want to do is play comedy roles, so that was basically the reason I've played all these shithead parts, these historical characters. I guess I've played at least three or four by now. I'll have to figure that one out, actually.
O: One of the films in which you've played, if not a historical character then at least a character based on a real person, was Velvet Goldmine, which received weirdly mixed reviews in America. Do you feel like that film was better understood elsewhere?
EI: I'm not sure. It got a bit of a weird landing everywhere. I think some people were expecting a film more specifically based on real characters, where it would be the story of their lives. But actually, it wasn't really based on those characters, and the way [writer-director Todd Haynes] did it, it wasn't really that sort of thing. So I think some of the people who were fans of those people [David Bowie and Iggy Pop, the ostensible models for the leads in Velvet Goldmine] were a little disappointed. But I think that in a way, Todd might have just wanted it to stick around as a cult film that would be around for years and years.
O: When did you begin pursuing acting seriously?
EI: It was 1993, but I started wanting to be an actor when I was seven.
O: What happened when you were seven?
EI: I saw a play at school and it all just sort of clicked, and I thought to myself, "Right, I'm going to do that." But I was successfully stopped from doing that, really, as if it were some kind of court injunction, until 1993, when I finally got an agent and I could say, "Let's go ahead and do this."
O: Where did comedy fit into it all?
EI: With comedy, it was something I loved, and I didn't realize that you could do it professionally. So when I was seven, I decided that I wanted to act, so I started auditioning for plays, and I couldn't get any roles, not even in the fucking chorus. So it was going nowhere, but then I made someone laugh while I was doing sort of a sketch thing when I was 12, and I thought, "I like comedy, and I seem to be able to make people laugh, so let's do that." And then I discovered Monty Python, and I discovered I could do it for a living, so I figured I would dump this straight acting thing and do stand-up comedy, where I could write and give myself the biggest part.
O: Other than Monty Python, who were your big comedic influences?
EI: Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, The Goons, their radio stuff, that was a big influence, and I knew it influenced Python as well. And then, when it came to stand-up, it was a Scottish comedian, Billy Connolly. Woody Allen... I listened to his stuff, as well as Steve Martin's stuff. Lenny Bruce's stuff is kind of separate, in that it's hard to get into it if you're British, because he has so many references to American politics and American pop culture in the '50s and '60s, which are kind of hard to understand when you're in Britain during the '70s and '80s.
O: It's interesting that you mention Lenny Bruce, because you played him on the British stage, and you've both refrained from the whole joke/set-up/joke type of thing.
EI: Yeah, there are certain similarities. On first inspection, there are a lot of big differences. When you look at Lenny's stuff, he started out with material that's even broader than minereally mainstream, if you look at the early stuff he did on American television. But then he really went through a sort of road-to-Damascus type of change, and started doing this stuff where he was like, "Fuck the money," and he became Lenny Bruce as we know him. Which was a lot more hip and a lot more funky. There was a lot more adult language, and the drugs started fueling things, and he would be improvising things on stageand I improvise as well, which is where we sort of link up. He would do historical material and religious material, which I sort of do as well, and then he started getting attacked, and his work became a lot angrier. It wasn't really that angry up front, but I think drugs fueled things, and when the police started pushing, I think that's when he became really well-known, and he thought it was kind of a fun aspect of being a rebel. But then they started nailing him to the floor, pushing him and pushing him, and they basically killed him.
O: You've played Lenny Bruce, and you're playing Charlie Chaplin in The Cat's Meow. Both of them were persecuted relentlessly for their beliefs. Do you see any other parallels between the two?
EI: That's interesting. I'd never really thought about linking up those two. Chaplin took off in a different sort of way. The parallels between Chaplin and Bruce are that the U.S government really sat on both of their heads. They killed Lenny, but Lenny was almost a willing participant in it, wasn't he?
O: He seemed to embrace the role of the free-speech martyr.
EI: Technically, he could have really beaten [his persecutors], but he never did, and I can't really work out why. I think that drugs must have played a role. They got him on a technical thing, on swearing, because all the political stuff, what he was saying about the Kennedys and religion and all the tacky political stuff, that's what they wanted to get him on. But he was protected by the First Amendment, so what they ultimately got him on was saying "cocksucker." They shouldn't have gotten him on that, but it wasn't a big enough thing for him to really go to the wall for. He did die, but then again, he got to be the Jesus Christ of stand-up comedy.
O: It seemed like both were, at least in a way, victims of American Puritanism.
EI: I think Chaplin was a victim, pretty much, of J. Edgar Hoover, who just wanted to get him out of the country. And it took 30 years to do so; he actually got him out when [Chaplin] was on holiday. This whole idea that anyone remotely liberal must be a Communist can only really come from a young country.
O: Are you at all intimidated to be playing a person as beloved and internationally known as Charlie Chaplin?
EI: Not really, because I've already looked into his work back in 1989, and I didn't really get it. It just doesn't work on television, and it doesn't really show that much on television, either. But then I watched his films in a movie theater, and they really work. He was possibly the best-known performer in the world, really, but he didn't design it that way. It was just the right man at the right time in the right place, and the rest of the world just opened up to him.
O: Do you feel like the time you've spent in America helped you understand Lenny Bruce any better?
EI: I think it must have, to an extent. You actually get to understand Lenny better by studying '50s and '60s American politics and pop culture, because then you can understand his words, which obviously came from living in America. You don't have to experience America to get Lenny, but it helps.
O: When was the first time you visited America?
EI: The first time I ever visited America was back in 1987. I was actually working, doing a bizarre street-performance gig in Memphis.
O: What did that entail?
EI: I would get on a five-foot unicycle and hang from a pair of handcuffs. I did it in front of the U.S. Marines.
O: What was your first impression of America?
EI: I had a lot of impressions of America already, because of the prevalence of the Hollywood-media system. So when I got to actually go to America, it was a little like being in a film. That's the odd thing. I suppose going to Europe might be like another American film, like Roman Holiday or something. And going to Memphis, that was sort of a weird place to land.
O: Were you at all surprised by the reception your comedy received in America?
EI: I wasn't surprised, but I was very pleased by it. I'd already proved that it could work. There was this big thing about going to America, because no comedy people had really made it in America from Britain; everyone kept failing at it. And I just said, "I'm going." It took some time to set up, but once I did it, people came. And at the start, it was Europeans and some Americans, and I knew that I had to get the Americansand particularly the New Yorkersin there. You can go in and play and just get a bunch of Europeans who happen to be working or visiting there, and you think you've made a big impact, but in reality there are only really 60 Americans there, which sort of defeats the purpose. We made a point of trying to get American people in there, to get American newspapers to review it so the word would get out. But I was very pleased. I wasn't hugely surprised, because I'd had Americans come up to me in Britain and say, "This will work in America." And I said, "Yes, I think it will, so I'm going to take it out there." I would have been more surprised if it hadn't worked. You know, people in England say that Americans have no sense of irony, which just isn't true. Middle Americans have no sense of irony, just as middle Englanders and middle Canadians have no sense of irony. It's not so much location as it is a mindset.
O: There's a notion that European acts have to achieve success in America to really "make it," to be considered truly popular, rather than just, say, a European phenomenon. Do you think that's a good thing or a bad thing?
EI: It just is. Wherever the empire is, that'll be the place where you have to make it. America is a country that's just sort of progressed via a series of jumps, most notably the World Wars. That's what sort of made America the empire that it is. WWI, for example, allowed America to dominate the film industry, to step in and say to Europe, "Okay, we'll come in and distribute films to you guys." I think America is the equivalent of the Roman Empire at this point, but it could change. The one-language thing certainly helps. But having to break into America certainly is annoying, and it is sort of something I've got a chip on my shoulder about. But if it wasn't America, it'd be someplace else.
O: You recently won a pair of Emmys in America for your latest stand-up special [Dress To Kill]. Did that feel at all like validation for your work?
EI: Yes, it sort of did: I can't really get the same award in Britain, because specials don't really exist there. We have Christmas specials, but that's it. We don't have year-round specials. Dress To Kill didn't win any awards there, so to get validation for it anywhere is nice. It was like America saying, "Yeah, this is okay." The essence of America is based on a kind of pioneer thing, that you have to set your mind to something and go after it, and I tend to work that way even though I'm still a European.
O: So it's a sense of manifest destiny.
EI: Yes, it's my manifest destiny to wear a skirt in all countries.
O: That's another thing about America: It's supposed to have fairly rigidly defined gender roles.
EI: I would have to say that it's pretty much the same in Britain. You know, there's this idea that everybody in Britain is putting on a skirt, but there's still a huge amount of antipathy that I could go out and find. You know, I've gotten to the stage where I'm well-known enough that people can kind of overlook it, much in the same way race and ethnicity get overlooked.
O: At what point did people stop dwelling on your dressing in women's clothing?
EI: I don't know. I think people just got bored with it. I think that's good. I think we need to get to a state where people just find it boring. But there are still people who are like, "You're what? I didn't know about that!" And then you go to countries like France, where it's still very '50s when it comes to stuff like that. But there are also hip kids in those places, as well. It's sort of how you play it, and my thing is to play it down. If you place your sexuality up front, then it tends to be more of an issue. My thing is to just sort of say, "This is what I do for a living, and I just happen to be a transvestite."