The Telegraph – November 2013
As Live at the Apollo returns tonight for a new series, read Ginny Dougary’s interview with host Eddie Izzard in which he talks about his ambitions to enter politics, learn more languages, run more marathons and start a family.
The lights cascade down in neon green and flashing blue, the electronic music pounds to a climax as Eddie Izzard walks smartly on stage in high-heeled boots, jeans and tails, looks out at the packed Parisian audience, puts up his hand to silence the applause and breaks into… German.
This is quite a good opening joke, since his devotees – and true Izzardians are every bit as committed in their fandom as Star Trek or Dr Who fans – all know that his next goal (having conquered French) is to learn German (for performing purposes, as well as world peace), then Spanish, Russian and Arabic (ditto). Not only is he striving to be an endurance athlete – as witnessed by his recent marathons, with more to come – but he is clearly set on becoming an endurance linguist, too.
The show is Stripped – which he toured in the UK in 2009 – but with a difference: this is all in French, which is quite an achievement, particularly considering it’s a 90-minute show. He spent three months living in Paris last year, polishing his French, performing in French (the young, hip French stand-ups are all fous for Izzard) and living as a Frenchman. ‘I worked my arse off, but I was living in Montmartre, rehearsing in the Jardins des Tuileries, living the Parisian life. I had my passe Navigo [Paris’s version of our Oyster card] and I can make jokes about Le Marais,’ he tells me.
It has taken him 15 years to get to the point where he can perform at l’Olympia, where Edith Piaf once sang – ‘un rêve’ which he has had since ‘******* longtemps’ – in front of an audience of 1,800 people. It’s a (literally) vintage Izzard show, covering the ascent of man, why he doesn’t believe in God, the different mentality of the PC and the Apple Mac, the impossibility of Noah’s Ark (if it were real, for one thing, all the animals would be dead except for the lions and the tigers), a giraffe signalling lion-danger through charades and a cough, and a jazz-crowing cockerel. There are nods to the French (s’il vous plaît, no more holes in the ground for WCs, they make it hard to balance your iPad, for one thing – and how come there’s no broccoli, just endless haricots verts?), jokes in the subjunctive (for which he takes a bow), building up to a finale of a meditation on the frustrations of communicating in Latin (‘quod the ****’) with reference to Hannibal’s defeat, all woven together in a typically ingenious, surreal arc.
We had met back in London, a couple of weeks earlier, where our conversation was not unlike one of his shows; indeed, on the odd occasion, the interview was the show, albeit with an audience of one, in that he was trying out new material on me. He is far more friendly and seems happier than when I last spent time with him, 14 years ago. (This was for his first show in French, in a flea pit in the Pigalle area.) He looks quite different, too – more bearded-blokey and rugged, his skin is clear and lightly freckled; his gaze direct and very blue. Back then, Izzard was wearing a lot of make-up and slightly bondage-y leather skirts and stockings.
It has been ages since he was in girl-mode, for reasons we discuss later. Today, he is wearing a sporty fleece, jeans, boots with a three-inch heel and, the only flamboyant touch, what he calls his ‘political nails’ – plum-coloured apart from one that is the Union flag and another that is the flag of Europe. ‘That’s three statements there,’ he says, extending his fingers. ‘I’m proud of my country, I’m proud of my continent and I’m proud of being a transvestite.’
Izzard is nothing if not ambitious. He is about to embark on what, he claims, ‘I feel pretty sure is the most extensive comedy tour in the history of the world, ever.’ When I exclaim that he is so competitive, with himself as much as anyone else, he replies, ‘Well, you can do the gossip columns and turn up at the opening of hats, you know, or you can go and play the Hollywood Bowl [he was the first comedian to do a solo show there, last year] or Kathmandu or do your gigs in French. So when people say, “Are you dead now?”, I go, “No, I’m not… I just never did a TV comedy show thing. I studiously avoided that.”’
Then he looks at his phone and rattles off some of the places he’s performing in: St Petersburg, Moscow, Belgrade, Berlin (‘which is almost sold out already’), Helsinki, Oslo, Gothenburg, Istanbul, Vienna, Kathmandu, Delhi, Mumbai, Zurich, Geneva, Ljubljana, Tallinn and also the aforementioned Hollywood Bowl; 25 countries so far, throughout Europe, the USA, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India, Nepal and the Far East. The posters for the new Force Majeure show him looking rather Steed-like, sveltely-suited, brandishing an umbrella, and staring straight at you. They were designed by Sarah Townsend (who sings as Sarah McGuinness), an ex-girlfriend, who also directed the 2009 film Believe – The Eddie Izzard Story, and is directing and filming the new tour. Some years ago, the two formed a production company, Ella Communications, named after Eddie’s mother, Dorothy Ella, a midwife and nurse, who died of cancer in 1968 when Eddie was six and his older brother, Mark, was eight.
It’s 25 years since Eddie Izzard did his first stand-up. ‘It’s worth mentioning that the Stones have been going for 50 years and we’re catching up,’ he says. Although he is less detached now, with his new, ebullient confidence comes a certain tendency towards self-aggrandisement as though – since working in the States (which he has been doing a lot) – he is impatient with the British tendency for self-deprecation. He has achieved a great deal in a quarter of a century, he has worked hard to get here, it took him long enough and hell if he is going to pretend otherwise. At one point he draws a parallel with Nelson Mandela – ‘my most favourite politician’ – saying that by learning so many languages, he likes to think he is following the same path. ‘He is a politician – he’s not a saint and he doesn’t want to be a saint. The reality is that he did politics and he did it well, and he learnt Afrikaans and I would like to feel I’m following in his footsteps by learning French and German and Russian and Arabic…’ – which is quite a large claim to make for oneself.
After dropping out of Sheffield University, where he read accountancy (his father, Harold, to whom he is close, was an accountant with BP), Izzard took a show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, then moved to Streatham Common in south London with some fellow performers, did street theatre in Covent Garden, and waited to be discovered. ‘I got to 20 and said, “OK, let’s go. I’m ready, I’m cookin’. I’ve been waiting for this. I can make people laugh… someone’s bound to discover me.” But it just kept on not happening,’ he told me when we last met.
The first show he did on his own was at the Banana Cabaret in Balham, followed shortly by a tiny venue in central London, which was at capacity with 25 people, where he did his fly-fishing joke (‘I caught three flies’). Then came the Comedy Store and, soon after, his own sell-out show in the West End. Izzard had arrived, choosing that moment to come out as a transvestite.
He says he is very like his father. ‘We’re about 80 per cent similar. When he got into BP, he thought, “This is bullshit: I’m going to change everything [the system of filing, for instance].” When he was told he couldn’t, he said, “Well, I’ve already done it.”’
During the screenwriters’ strike in 2007-08 in America, after the second season of the TV series The Riches (in which Izzard starred as an identity-stealing Irish traveller con-artist) had aired, Izzard and his father travelled to Aden together, where Harold used to work for BP and where Eddie was born. There he was given some old photos of his mother, which he shows me on his phone: she has a sweet, sideways smile, is wearing a 1950s skirt that fans out, and is cradling her son on her lap. Another one is of his parents on their honeymoon. It’s charming and telling, I think, that Izzard keeps these black-and-white images in his pocket, close to his heart. He suddenly speaks in Arabic to me, saying, ‘My name is Eddie and I was born in the Yemen.’
Izzard has just turned 51 – how does he feel about ageing? He’s in a far better place in every way now, probably than at any time before in his life. ‘Like they say, “Youth is wasted on the young” and so can I do my 20s again please, and not have Thatcher in power?’ he says. ‘It was just hellish for me, that decade – I did get my stuff done, and I came out as a transvestite and had all my midlife crises early. At 20, nothing had happened; at 30, nothing had happened, but was starting to happen; I was OK at 40, and I’m so OK about being 50 I decided to say I was 50 a year before I was.’
In July 2009 he completed seven weeks of back-to-back marathons – 43 in 51 days – around the UK to raise money for Sport Relief. Last May he attempted a bonkers 27 marathons in 27 days in South Africa to honour Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years. Due to health complications, Izzard had to pull out after only four. But, naturally, he is not deterred. As we sit across from one another, in an eyrie above a photographic studio in central London, he occasionally rubs his eyes with fatigue. That morning, he had been running with his new trainer. He had also been to see his doctor to get checked out for another attempt in South Africa.
Part of the health problem last year was that he was on a prescription drug to cut down his cholesterol. He also seems to have realised – after that setback – that it’s foolish to undertake such challenges without being properly prepared. As a glutton for punishment, he had upped the ante by attempting the barefoot running style favoured by many Africans, in specially customised barefoot-style shoes. ‘It’s OK on concrete, but it’s really tough on broken rocks dropped into road surfaces, which is what I was running on in the Eastern Cape,’ he says. ‘The little African kids were just zipping along on it, but it would probably take me six months or a year to acclimatise and I didn’t have that time.’
He gets up to demonstrate the barefoot running style – where everything is pushed back, rather than straining forward, a bit like a Homer Simpson boogie. ‘Think about how a horse runs. When they film a horse that’s running, the legs are all moving backwards.’ He says that he was naturally doing that technique after his 43 marathons because he was so exhausted. ‘I was so tired that my body just clicked into the same sort of rhythm that the tribes and the barefoot runners are doing.’
His next attempt is scheduled for March 2014 and he has started preparing already. As well as the new trainer, he has taken on a sports nutritionist. His team will be expected to transform the comedian and actor into an endurance athlete. For the next 40 years of his life, he is planning to be a low-carb, sugar-free temple of health. Is it very Californian? ‘No, it’s Greek,’ he says, a touch defensively. ‘It’s the Olympian idea of “sound of body, sound of mind”. It’s not Hollywood – it’s feral. I’m trying to get feral because it’s natural – it’s how we used to live.
‘There’s not one wild animal that’s not perfectly fit – like 100 per cent fit,’ he adds. ‘I mean, they’re all getting up to chase the gazelles – it’s just us and domestic animals that are chucking the wrong things down our throats.’
His way of dealing with ageing is to get younger (what’s new?) by becoming slimmer and fitter than he has ever been. He was inspired – this being Izzard – by a lion he was introduced to ‘backstage’ at Boston Zoo. ‘He was about 80 – in lion years – and he came up to us and roared [Izzard roars] and made a sort of feral statement which was, “I could eat any of you if it wasn’t for these bars. I have that in me.” He was like some ancient warrior but was as fit as we would all be in our 20s. So that’s what we should all be trying to do, and I do feel that I’m going to get healthier and healthier.’
He was also inspired by the athletes he met when he was an ambassador and cheerleader for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. During his marathons, he met other marathon runners who were manning the feeding stations (as he calls them), and what impressed him was that they were people in their 50s, 60s and even 70s. One couple had done 730 marathons. ‘They were both in their 60s and were lean and fit. They don’t train but they do a marathon a week, and that’s what I am aiming to do. I want to be a member of the 100 Club – people who have done more than 100 marathons.’
Izzard is also intending, of course, to live till he is 100 – which is why he isn’t panicking, yet, about having children. He has been saying for quite some time that he is determined to be a father in his 50s. In Meet the Izzards, a two-part series which had Eddie travelling from Bexhill-on-Sea, where his father lives, to Namibia, Yemen, Turkey and Denmark, using his own DNA to trace his ancestors, he said several times that he was planning to have a baby – ‘I’ll buy one in a shop,’ he quipped to two elderly sisters to whom he was very distantly related.
Izzard himself has a slightly childlike way about him which becomes even more pronounced when he talks about the practicalities of becoming a father. Will you adopt? ‘Might do.’ Do you think you need another person with whom to do this? (He never talks about his relationships, adopting the Daniel Day-Lewis approach. ‘If Danny doesn’t have to talk about it…’) ‘I don’t know. I can’t figure out the partner thing.’ Would you be happy to be a single parent? ‘Ah… yeah. Er, are you allowed to do that? Your own genetic baby, yeah, but you can’t adopt can you?’
Since he also plans to run for Mayor of London in 2020 and be an MP (he is a well-known Labour supporter) or an MEP, plus all those weekly marathons, as well as his film career, and his stand-up, I can’t quite see the logistics of fitting in fatherhood. ‘Me too,’ he says. And yet he is determined and what he sets out to get he usually achieves. ‘That is the plan. I may end up being a father at 61.’ But, I ask Izzard, you do realise how much a child eclipses everything else, especially at the beginning? ‘Eclipses and dictates things, yes,’ he says. ‘Hopefully all the really tough stuff will have been done, as I now have a certain amount of momentum. A number of people go into showbiz, have their kids and their kids go, “I didn’t see my parents,” and so…
‘I just imagine myself being kind of parenty. I mean, obviously you’ve got to take it seriously. It’s going to take up a hell of a lot of time and things will revolve around this child or children. But I don’t have the answer about the logistics because I’m also thinking I’ve got to do a lot of stuff before I pack this career up. You’re saying you can’t see how I can work it out, and I’m saying the same thing.’
For a long time, he carried a deep emotional wound from his mother dying when he was so young. His father coped by sending the two small boys away to boarding school, aged six and eight.Izzard has talked about how he cried all the time, and was bullied, and how he stopped crying altogether at the age of 11 and how he was emotionally cauterised from that point on. Was he always looking for a mother figure in his relationships with women? ‘Initially, I was in that frame of mind, but
I don’t think I’m still like that. I don’t think you ever get over your mother dying but I’m not a grown man crying into my beer. I’m doing a lot of practical things out of it. I thought she was great, I’d like her to be back, she won’t seem to come back…’
He refers me to the moment in Believe when he is questioned by Sarah Townsend about why he keeps pushing himself so hard, and he answers, ‘I keep thinking if I do all these things, and keep going and going, then… she’ll come back,’ before bursting into tears. Now, he says, ‘It was a moment where I came up with something that I’d never thought about before – which is odd, as it was quite existential.’
Not for him the comfort of knowing that he will meet his mother again in the after-life, as he is a non-believer. ‘I think things just stop, but if I did believe, I’d go to dyslexic heaven, which is Devon.’
When we first met, we talked almost exhaustively about the psychology of transvestism or, at any rate, this transvestite. It was a rather dreamlike encounter, after a show, after midnight – he in my hotel room, wearing a fluffy dressing gown, his face in full slap, talking and smoking into the early hours. It has been five or six years since we saw him in a skirt, and I wonder if he misses his female self – or whether his desire to be famous in Hollywood is more important to him. He says, ‘I can’t get dramatic roles if I turn up at an audition wearing a lot of make-up and going around all girlie,’ which suggests it’s the latter, but in that case, doesn’t he feel repressed? ‘Perhaps it’s the opposite of repressed? Pressed? I’ve got all the boy stuff, except for drinking and vomiting. I love the action movies, wanted to be in the army, I’m football loving and football playing, I’m driven – and I have the girlie stuff, which I feel is about 15 per cent of me.’
I was wondering if it was something a bit more complicated than his desire for film roles. He had talked about the necessity of making himself into the sort of woman he found attractive when he was in girl mode. The ‘look’ he favoured was a sort of saucy punk-rock chick (bustiers, leather, PVC, dominatrix heels), which maybe isn’t such a great image as you go into your 50s. And, also, ageing – himself – could mean he is less drawn to transforming himself into an older woman? But he is having none of it. ‘I’m attracted to women of all ages, you know [the feeling is certainly mutual – my female friends, from young to old, were swooningly jealous; only interviewing George Clooney elicited a similar response], but it’s not something I check.’
But he does admit that knowing how to dress now is difficult. ‘Trying to get it right as a bloke is doubly tricky.’
Izzard really seems to believe that the world can be changed through stand-up. At the end of the show at l’Olympia, he said that the ‘******* melting pot is the way of the future. Maybe we can change some things,’ and he looked quite emotional – or perhaps that was just the standing ovation. Yacine Belhouse, a French-Algerian comedian, whom Izzard chose as the opening act, will be doing a show in English at the Edinburgh Fringe next year. I was sitting next to a young French-African stand-up, Shirley Souagnon, who is coming to the Comedy Store in London next month to do her show in English, too. It’s a bit of a Chauncey Gardiner idea but Izzard seems to have started something. His version of franglais – call it Frizzard – is to make a marriage of splitting a French word and inserting a good, old Anglo-Saxon f-word, one he uses a lot, in between. This is his version of ‘détente’. As he says, ‘Vive la différence but also vive la similarité.’ Formi*******dable.