DVDTalk Interview - Eddie Izzard
by Jeremy Kleinman
It is surprising that so many people are unfamiliar with one of the funniest comedians working today- Eddie Izzard. Although Eddie Izzard has had notable roles in such films as "Mystery Men," "Shadow of the Vampire," "Velvet Goldmine" and "Cat’s Meow" the familiarity with his stand-up comedy genius has been limited to those fortunate enough to see his live tours or who have seen his HBO specials. Now on DVD "Dress to Kill" is nearly two hours of standup - and rarely, if ever, misses its mark. People unfamiliar with Eddie Izzard’s material will be surprised and impressed how simultaneously funny and intelligent Eddie Izzard is.
One of the most impressive aspects of Eddie Izzard’s stand-up performance is the wealth of topics covered intelligently, including the murderous tendencies of Pol Pot, Stalin and Hitler, the endearing noble qualities of Shaggy and Scooby Doo, the formation of a melting pot in the European Union, the arrival at Plymouth Rock, the formation of Stonehenge, and the advancing of the British Empire through the cunning use of flags. Perhaps the funniest of topics covered in "Dress to Kill":is religion, as Eddie discusses the origins and policies of the Church of England (the Church of England inquisition - "Cake or Death!" is hilarious), the origin of religious traditions like Christmas trees and Easter eggs, and the painting of "The Last Supper".
Recently, I had an opportunity to speak with Eddie Izzard, who after a whirlwind tour of the US, where he attended several DVD signings, was back on his native soil. In person (or rather on the phone), Izzard is as naturally witty as he is in his standup. He was so engaging, I could have talked to him for hours. Now I can't wait until he hits the road again with another stand up tour and look forward to the American release of 'Circle'.
You've made some very impressive American films and British films. What are the differences in your perspective from making an American film and a British film?
Well, I've only made one pure American film, which would be "Mystery Men" which was "studio" in a way because it was shot at Universal and it was in LA. The main difference I found with a 'studio film' is that everyone was very professional but it was more like a job and it was clear after the movie, everyone was going to move onto something else. It was more like how television gigs would be in Britain. Often when you've finished a film in Britain there isn't as much "when will your next project be?" because there's less gigs around in Britain. I think it's different in France and European countries. France is quite particularly- The French have a lot more films per year that get made than in Britain, way less than America. Everyone's very good in Britain, I find crews are fantastic because they're at the top of their game, everyone is very sharp, very quick, very on the ball and like that. Actually I grew up with a chip on my shoulder because of the fact that things couldn't happen in Britain or wouldn't happen in Britain.
As regards to the critical output, I wouldn't know how to say the difference because some of the film which one would think or look at as an American film, like Shadow of the Vampire, had an American director, American producers, Wilem Defoe and John Malkovich but was shot in Europe. The same with Cat's Meow, the same with All the Queen's Men. All the Queen's Men is American money but a German producer so it becomes a world film and it distinctly differs from the LA experience that I had. When you're shooting in England or America, the English and American crews work out similar ways, but in Europe, all crews work in different ways. French crews work in a very specific way-they have certain rules and systems. In Germany it works slightly differently, and Austria probably similar to Germany. Italy, probably different again and so if you do a European film like the Shadow of the Vampire, which was shot in Luxembourg, right in central Europe, right between Belgium and France and Germany and it was a mixture of different methods. It was quite a bit unusual because no one knows exactly who's been put in charge with what. So I covered a range of things there, but I like doing them all. I love film. I just love film. I've wanted to be in it since the age of 10 and I just love being on films. I'll go in on days off. I've done that since I began.
So the "Creeping Kid" bit (from Dress to Kill) is a true story?
Yes, absolutely! The bit about Pinewood Studios- creeping around there- yes absolutely. I was 15 and had gone away from school and went all around the Pinewood, broke in, crapped around and went home. I lacked the balls to go into the Bond studio and say "I want a job on this!" I know how to do that now, but at the time, I didn't know how to do it.
Are you finding that acting is getting in the way of being a stand-up comedian, or is being a stand-up comedian getting in the way of taking the acting roles that you want?
Well at this stage, I feel I've proven I'm something at stand-up comedy and I feel that I have yet quite to prove- though I'm getting better- my dramatic acting. I have yet to really nail it to a tree and say "Here it is!" I would suppose that being a transvestite gets in the way of being an actor. That's when people say "Ah! You're a transvestite so you can't play these roles," and, "no, I want to play these roles, I just happen to be a transvestite- it doesn't really matter." They all affect each other- they are all baggage, except for standup comedy- nothing affects that because that was the first place that I managed to get over the line. Everyone's either quite happy to accept me in standup comedy or the fact is that I'm so confident in that area because I've done so many gigs, I've played so many terrible venues that I have carved my name in stone and so nothing's going to phase me in that area. Film acting was my first love and I never actually wanted to be a standup comedian. I love being a standup comedian now, but being a film actor was my first love. People ask "can you choose one over the other?" and I think if it came down to the wire, I would choose film actor, because as a stand-up comedian you can't do comedy or drama or dramatic comedy or a mixture of all emotions, and you can't get the locations or play all around the world with lots of different people, so film acting has everything, but I still love standup and I'll still do it forever.
Now that you got to play a romantic lead in The Cat's Meow, do you prefer those kinds of roles to the eccentric bit parts like you had in Mystery Men and Circus?
Are you kidding me? (Sarcastically) No, I'd rather play bit parts than big dramatic roles where you get the girls. No absolutely, this harkens back to when I was a teenager at school and I was asked when I auditioned for plays "Well, what part are you after?" which I thought was a bizarre question and I said "you know the big leading part where the guy gets the girl, he has all the action and he's on stage all the time, that's the kind of part I'm looking for, and the guy said, "Well how about playing the jailer?" So I thought "Alright, I'll play the bloody jailer again." So absolutely, I'm looking for a top lead- I'm looking for lead parts but to be honest, I'm obviously not going to get the Tom Cruise parts- that's quite simple, that's quite logical, so I can look at that and do that but I want to play lead character actor parts, which probably is sort of the Kevin Spacey roles where you can be dramatic and still have a grand role and deliver. Actually I still want to do action movies as well, but I'm an action transvestite so all that kind of stuff I want to do, but I kind of want to have my cake and eat it and have another cake, - it's a bit weird.
Have you had occasion to meet the Queen?
The Queen (laughing) no. I'm a republican…not in your political sense of the word but in the monarchist and republican-sense I'm a non-monarchist, so I'm not desperate to meet the Queen. I met Charlie and actually I met Charlie and I met Andrew..Have I, God yes I have. And Charlie I'm okay with because he has a trust for unprivileged kids who are setting up businesses and he's thinking outside the box -- he's got organic farming going on his house. I like his style, I think he's got a lot of heart, I think he's human. I think the Queen needs to- she needs to do something. I've turned down royal command performances, I don't want to do that kind of stuff but I'm happy to do the Prince's Trust because I think it's a very good idea
Have you heard from Englebert Humperdinck at all?
No, but people tell me he lives in LA and he's still going. That piece is all supposed to be- I had Prince Phillip in there, the mad racist Prince Phillip. He was the guy who was down there initially, but when I got to America, I thought, maybe everyone would quite know who he was, so it ended up as Englebert.
Do you have a DVD Player?
Oh my god do I have DVD players, I have them coming out my ears, I even have a portable multi-region DVD player.
What are some of your favorite DVD's?
Moulin Rouge is one of my favorites, it's really good because it showes how Baz Luhrmann works, really works - he'll workshop it, he'll write scripts, he'll perform scripts with the guy he co-writes with and the DVD showed a lot of those steps. I liked how it showed most of the musical numbers from different angles- he did a lot of work on that DVD, which is what I've tried to do with my DVD's which is why I've been rather slow coming out with them. I didn't want to just chuck them out. You know those really crap DVDs which have the extras that are sort of non-existent except for one bit that says "other films that you would like if you liked this film" which is such a cop out and I hate that so I wanted to put extras in like the trivia track that I've put on the new film ["Circle"]. I thought I'll put on a trivia track because I talk all this rubbish about all this stuff, and it's all based on truth. All these facts- all these films are based on truth and I kind of like that and so I just want to keep experimenting with the DVDs to see where I can go.
Also of course I love The Lord of the Rings DVD, oh my God! I was also pleased with the Cat's Meow that I did because it had extras on it- some old bits of film and the documentary that Peter Bogdanovich's daughter did, putting extra bits like that just makes it so magical. The only thing, honestly, that pisses me off about DVD's is that you should be able to hold the bottom- Remember when they brought out CD's and said "These you can touch, you can put jam on them, you can hit them with an axe"…You remember that? And then you couldn't touch them- it's just like vinyl…and then you've got mini-discs in a little plastic case- Why can't DVD's be in a plastic case? What is the big problem? I get the feeling they make them like this so people will scratch them and have to buy new ones!
Is the version of the "Circle" DVD to be released in the U.S. going to be the same as the British DVD in terms of special features?
Yes it will. There is one thing that will be repeated [from the "Dress to Kill" DVD] and that's Dress to Circle which was the French show, but that was half of Dress to Kill material and half of Circle material, because my shows tend to metamorphasize- they roll over- they are a work in progress. When I recorded that one I was between shows, so I try to advertise it so people will realize its on both DVDs, but apart from that it will have everything that is on the British DVD.
The "Dress to Kill" DVD had what I thought was a great, really honest commentary track. Is there a similar track on the "Circle" DVD?
Absolutely yes. There is also a commentary track on that French show, but it is a bit bizarre because it is in English and French but we have a whole ton of languages on the English one, so when the Circle DVD comes out in America it will probably have six or eight languages or something.
What are your plans for the next show?
I don't know. Because I tend to be a work in progress, I don't know quite where I'm going to go, I mean, I never write them beforehand, they tend to unravel and evolve when I'm touring. But its very difficult for me to say where I'll go and what subjects I'll end up talking about. I'm constantly trying to expand my mind and trying to be more accurate with my facts and what the facts are that stuff is based on. I'll just try to make it better.
Do you feel any pressure either to stay away from or try to find some humor with respect to Al Qaeda and the September 11 attacks?
No, not really because "Circle," which I've just brought out in England and will probably come out next year in America was recorded in 2001 so that was before the Al Queda thing and I was talking about religion- I was talking about the "Big Five" as I called it- Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and what was the other one, Catholicism, not, Christianity- is that, yeah that's it- was that it? Anyway, the "Big Five" and I put Sony in and RCA in there as well as religion, which didn't really make sense, and I talked about that because I am fascinated by that because I think they are all ideas of humans, I don't feel that there's any guy with a beard upstairs was passing down, and then this horrendous thing happened on September 11, so I will still talk about that, but I don't feel that there is humor in it. I feel that at the moment, it looks like George Bush is going with the Sharon idea which is "okay, you hit us, we'll hit you," and then they'll come back and hit America and America hits Al Qaeda, and then Al Qaeda hits America and it just goes on and on and on. All the talking- bizarrely with Palestine and Israel it looked like they were almost in agreement and it unravels till a point of what looks like all out war, practically, on the ground, it isn't like that- its more like Northern Ireland - sporadic stuff and you watch it on the telly and say "my god the two countries are entirely in flames." But talking, communicating is the key thing- That's why I did it the French gig, because hopefully it shows that the French and the English can communicate, can be human together- they're the same- they're just humans. Then I want to do German gigs, then I'm going to do Spanish gigs and then Italian gigs and I was born in Yemen, so I'm going end up doing Arabic gigs, just because there are so little differences between us as humans. We think, "Oh my God, different languages, different religions, different this, different that, but I think if monsters came from outer space and started attacking us, we'd find so many similarities in the twinkling of an eye, so I'm looking for that.
In your stand-up you tend to avoid the lowest common denominator and tend to bring in religion and history into your act, do you ever worry that you may be leaving some people behind as a result?
Well, hopefully, if I'm leaving dickheads behind in the dust then it's probably a good thing. You know? I assume the intelligence of the audience, and that is the inverse of dumming down. I think it's a healthy thing to do and people play catch-up asking their friend - "What's does that mean? What's that a reference to?" And sometimes, you know it's a bizarre reference to something on telly or some film I've seen or whatever, which no one's really gonna really get, but it means I'm not going to get the big mainstream market but then who needs to have 255 million people coming to every show? That's a bit too cramped. You don't need that. So I'd rather play to the American people who have a sense of irony. Understand that in Britain there's a saying that Americans have no sense of irony, and I'm fighting to prove, and I think that I have proven that Americans do have a sense of irony, because it's "Middle America" that has no sense of irony. This is what you know I think I've proved, being able to show Dress to Kill in Britain and America, and the next show, "Circle." Middle America has no sense of irony…and that's not even a geographical location, that's just a sensibility, and middle Britain has no sense of irony, and middle Scandinavia has no sense of irony and middle Prague has no sense of irony. It's the big mainstream grouping that may be the majority, probably it's the majority, unfortunately it's the majority, but people who don't really think around the edge or and think outside the box and they say "well this is it, and this is how it is then." And then there are a lot of us who go "Well, no. People make up rules and rules sometimes get out of date or they don't work or they aren't the right thing." That's how I try to put it forward.
You've played small theaters in not only multiple cities, but multiple countries, and you've played to huge audiences like in Wembley Stadium, how did each experience compare?
Well, Wembley was a blast. A comedy reviewer in Britain reviewed the two shows I did with two days in between, one in a hundred and fifty seater in North London and one at Wembley Arena, 11,000 in West London. The reviewer said that I made no difference in the way I played the gig and I think that was right. I don't really approach them differently- I just go out and live it big and if you have a smaller room, just play it the same. I liked them both and I liked moving between the two. If you set it right- you know, you're gonna do a big room with 11,000 and then the next night you're going to do an 80 seater and then the next night you're going to do a 500 seater and then the next night you're going to do an 11,000 -That would be kind of fun, it'll keep you on your toes because you could screw up at any point, but you keep you're feet on the ground- it could throw you. I mean, I'm doing gigs in French, or a second language- I'm going to do them in German after that- that's the most scariest thing that I did, and that's why I wanted to put it on "Dress to Kill" and "Circle" just to show that I did do it, because you can say it, and it sounds nuts, and then to put it on the DVD, people look at it and realize that I'm not fluent in French, I'm not that good in French, it's not that great, its just okay, but at least I'm doing it.
As you build up more and more fans and sort of a cult following, do you feel pressure to revisit some of Dress to Kill material?
There's a rule I made very early on. Never resort to old material. People used to shout "Do the this bit, do the that bit!" and I never will. I just never ever will. I mean I will do it- but if people request it I won't do it. I did an Amnesty International benefit over here at Wembley and I did do some older material there, but only because I choose to. The thing is, to be strong, you've got to come up with material with ideas and themes and scenes that you like, and then kill them, and that is- that's being strong enough. You've got to make it and then kill it because if you continue to do it, it'll become a tired, tired thing. People will say "Do that thing!" Very early on, bit by bit, people would shout things out and I won't do it, and people got used to it, they don't shout things out anymore.
Have you ever thought about writing a screenplay?
Yes I have. I didn't want to write a surreal comedic screenplay, so I took the Robert McKee course on story, and I wanted to learn structure because my stuff is very anti-structure, very free-flow, but I don't know if I'll actually write one, I think I could either well do the treatment or the first part of a screen play. I have a good sense of dialogue, but dialogue does not make a film. McKee feels that only 5-10 percent of a film is dialogue and it's the structure which is so key and I think he's probably right. Maybe Pulp Fiction you've got 20-30 percent of the film and the interesting methods of dialogue and people say "Oh I love good dialogue," but not if it's in a story that just sucks. The story is the key, and that's what Baz Luhrnmann does.
Are there any directors you've been hoping to work with?
Baz Luhrmann, absolutement. Peter Jackson as well. I'd have loved to have been in Lord of the Rings, but Baz Lurhmann is the one person, I 'd say absolutely, any thing at any time.
Do you have plans for your upcoming tour?
Yes, if anyone wants to know the plans for the upcoming tour for next year, I'm touring from July through December around the world. If they go on EddieIzzard.com they can get on the mailing list and we will mail them exactly when stuff is nailed down. North America and Canada- we'll probably be there for September, October and November; Britain will be in December and Australia will be July going into August.
Has there been any discussion of bringing the Lenny Bruce play on tour to the United States?
There has, but at the moment, it's not likely to happen as the next thing. "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg" is the next thing I'm going to do and the first thing I'm going to do on Broadway, and that's starting March the 14th and again, if anyone wants to know the details they can go on EddieIzzard.com. "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg' will be at the American Airlines theater on 42nd Street.