Izzard warning

Ed­die Izzard burst onto the com­edy scene in make-up and heels, later prov­ing his chops as a dra­matic ac­tor. On the eve of the re­lease of The Flip Side, set in South Aus­tralia, he talks to Sharon Bradley about tak­ing risks, be­ing gen­der queer and his newe

The Saturday Paper - - Diary -

“I want peo­ple, mod­er­ate peo­ple like me, to get politi­cised, be­cause it’s go­ing to get rough.”

Ed­die Izzard

The busi­ness of pro­mot­ing a film af­fords a work­ing ac­tor a strange in­ter­val of five-star lux­ury. It’s only mid morn­ing here in this sun-bathed, gra­ciously ap­pointed Syd­ney ho­tel suite and the in­ter­view churn is well un­der way, but Ed­die Izzard – co­me­dian, ac­tor, marathon­run­ner and, lat­terly, politi­cian – be­trays not the slight­est sign of en­nui. He looks as eager as a choir­boy as he takes a swig of wa­ter and re­sumes his seat just op­po­site mine.

Izzard, an avatar of cross-dress­ing cool, is to­day in full “boy mode”, as he de­scribes it, in a crisp, white shirt, grey sports jacket, black trousers and a pair of very shiny shoes. The 56-year-old’s dirty-blond hair, longer these days, is side-parted and swept back, mane-like.

The last time we got a good look at him, on the an­tiBrexit cam­paign trail back in mid 2016, he was wear­ing a pink beret, match­ing lip­stick, high heels and “re­main” man­i­cure (eight blood-red talons, with the EU flag painted on one ring fin­ger­nail and Union Jack on the other); in com­par­i­son, the sar­to­rial mood to­day is, well, subdued. “I’m chan­nelling my in­ner Cary Grant,” he says in that un­mis­tak­able, faintly dis­so­lute-sound­ing, aris­to­cratic drawl.

His new film, The Flip Side, is about as Aus­tralian as a Barossa Val­ley shi­raz. Writ­ten and di­rected by South Aus­tralian pro­ducer turned writer-di­rec­tor Mar­ion Pilowsky and set in Ade­laide and its sur­round­ing wine coun­try, it’s an off­beat comic riff on the theme of The Ex That Got Away.

Veron­ica – or “Ron­nie” (played by Emily Ta­heny) – is the movie’s like­able hero­ine, a strug­gling Ade­laide restau­ra­teur who, five years ago, had an in­tense af­fair with big-shot English ac­tor Henry (Izzard) when he was shoot­ing a film in Aus­tralia. He’d promised her, his breath hot in her ear, he’d call as soon as he got back to Lon­don. He never did. Now she learns he’s com­ing back to Ade­laide to pro­mote his lat­est film and wants to see her – de­spite the fact both he and Ron­nie have new part­ners. When the em­bers of Henry and Ron­nie’s folie de l’amour ap­pear to be rekin­dling, the stage is set for a complicated love quad­ran­gle.

As soon as he read the script, Izzard wanted the part of Henry. “He’s de­scribed as ‘sex on legs’ and I don’t nor­mally get those of­fers,” he says. “What I usu­ally get is ‘This char­ac­ter is de­crepit and smelly’ and I go, ‘Oh … okay.’ And he’s got this ar­sea­holic qual­ity – there’s the charm­ing­ness, but also the dark, twisted side of him, too – and I thought, ‘Yes, I can land that now.’”

The pathol­ogy is quintessen­tially Bri­tish: good looks, sharp clothes, a sharp-el­bowed sense of en­ti­tle­ment and a deadly suave­ness that slowly goes to work un­but­ton­ing the corset of Ron­nie’s re­serve. Less Cary Grant, per­haps, and more Daniel Cleaver, Hugh Grant’s ser­pen­tine se­ducer of Brid­get Jones.

“He’s a child,” says Izzard. In­deed, sub­tly em­bed­ded in Pilowsky’s script are dark in­ti­ma­tions of an un­happy child­hood, fol­lowed by a string of ill-fated mar­riages with much younger women. Henry’s dark, not-en­tirely-whole­some in­te­rior is rich pick­ings for Izzard. He may have built his rep­u­ta­tion on stand-up, but act­ing, and specif­i­cally dra­matic act­ing, has al­ways been his true pas­sion.

“If you come from com­edy to drama,” he says,

“you have a set of com­edy in­stincts, but you don’t have dra­matic in­stincts. So when you get to a scene – a love scene or a scene of anger or threat­ened vi­o­lence – you don’t quite know how to make it pop. You can get a bit pan­icky in a scene and lean on the com­edy mus­cles, but you have to learn to turn those mus­cles off and just … be.”

You get the feel­ing that “just … be­ing” would be chal­leng­ing for Izzard, who’s prac­ti­cally vi­brat­ing with en­ergy. Warm­ing to his theme, he talks quickly and vol­ubly. “I liken com­edy to a dessert and drama to a main course,” he says. “Com­edy is cus­tards and sweets and it all falls away like co­caine – hey!” – his voice trail­ing off softly – “but you get lots of dif­fer­ent tastes in a main course and those flavours stay with you.”

I won­der if it’s dif­fi­cult for an ac­tor, who as a co­me­dian is used to feed­ing off his au­di­ence’s en­ergy, to get used to the de­cid­edly less spon­ta­neous – and, in parts, mind-bend­ingly rep­e­ti­tious process – of film­ing a movie. “There’s a sim­i­lar­ity,” he says. “When I’m spark­ing with Emily or Judi or with any­one, they’re my au­di­ence. They’re the per­son in front of me.”

“Judi” is, of course, none other than Dame Judi Dench, with whom he starred in last year’s Victoria & Ab­dul. Izzard, in an en­tirely laugh-free role, is “Ber­tie”, heir to Dench’s age­ing monarch. Izzard gained 10 kilo­grams for the part and grew wiry grey mut­ton­chop whiskers. He in­hab­its the fu­ture Ed­ward VII’s im­pa­tience at his mother’s longevity and em­bar­rass­ment at what he sees as a se­nile in­fat­u­a­tion with a ser­vant so wholly that it’s pos­si­ble not to no­tice Izzard – he of high-gloss Oceans Twelve and Thir­teen ca­pers – at work be­neath the con­sti­pated ex­te­rior.

The Flip Side cre­ator Mar­ion Pilowsky wanted an ac­tor with broad ap­peal for the role of Henry, but also some­one … un­ex­pected. “I was think­ing about how the Amer­i­cans take peo­ple out of Satur­day Night Live and put them in movies – kind of off the trod­den path,” she tells me. “And then I thought, if I had a list with Ed­die Izzard’s name on it – be­cause I’ve al­ways thought him fan­tas­ti­cally clever and smart – then who else’s would be on it?”

She never got any fur­ther than that. Within two weeks of talk­ing to his agent, Pilowsky found her­self on the phone with Izzard who’d called her to dis­cuss Henry’s char­ac­ter. Sud­denly, it was all sys­tems go: the film was shot in 30 lo­ca­tions in South Aus­tralia over five weeks in Novem­ber last year.

“You write what’s on the page and you live with what’s on the page and you be­lieve in those words and hope other peo­ple will re­spond to them,” says Pilowsky, “but when you’re in re­hearsal, a magic hap­pens: the ac­tor takes your words and makes them au­then­tic to his char­ac­ter. Ed­die in­tro­duced lit­tle mo­ments of bril­liance, fan­tas­ti­cally sur­pris­ing mo­ments, in his in­ter­pre­ta­tion of some of the scenes, which added such warmth and depth to the film.” And pathos, too. This is, af­ter all, a film about the road not trav­elled.

Izzard has no truck with “what ifs”; rather, he be­lieves in mov­ing through life with what he calls “an ac­tive use of con­fi­dence”. Like Henry, he is am­bi­tious. In Be­lieve Me: A Mem­oir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chick­ens, the au­to­bi­og­ra­phy he pub­lished last year, he writes, “My key ca­reer idea was not only not to have a nor­mal ca­reer back-up plan, but to ac­tu­ally have an ac­tive no-backingout back-up plan. My motto was: Don’t burn your bridges – flame-throw them. Ab­so­lutely com­pletely de­stroy them. Be­cause then the only way for­ward is to go for your dreams.”

Af­ter watch­ing Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone in a Bex­hill-on-Sea cinema in 1976, he knew he wanted to be­come an ac­tor: in 1994, he made his West End drama de­but as the lead in David Mamet’s The Cryp­togram.

He spent the in­ter­ven­ing years ac­quir­ing Olympian stamina. In 1984, he dropped out of a sen­si­ble de­gree course at Sh­effield Univer­sity that would have given him a com­fort­able salary and a com­pany car to per­form as a uni­cy­cle-rid­ing es­capol­o­gist on the streets of Lon­don’s Covent Gar­den. By the mid ’90s, he’d made a name for him­self as a stand-up comic with an un­usu­ally whim­si­cal stream-of-con­scious­ness style. His first role in a Hol­ly­wood film, in Mys­tery Men, along­side Ben Stiller and Ge­of­frey Rush, came in 1999.

Izzard has just spent two weeks in Ber­lin do­ing stand-up … in Ger­man. The trick, he says, is to not get too hung up on do­ing it per­fectly: the au­di­ence will work with you: “I just de­cided, ‘Stuff all that mas­cu­line, fem­i­nine, neuter non­sense’, I’m go­ing to wing it like a kid. I’m go­ing to as­sume the au­di­ence is in­tel­li­gent and that they’re go­ing to work it out. I learn the ma­te­rial, line by line, like a script – or rather, I learn key lines, the ones I have to get in, and use my Ger­man to im­pro­vise from one key line to the next. I think they ap­pre­ci­ate that I’m hav­ing a go. And if they review it and say, ‘This is smelly’, I’m like, ‘Okay, you have a try!’”

Al­ready a flu­ent French speaker, he’s also learn­ing Span­ish, Man­darin and Ara­bic. He wants to do a gig in Ye­men, he says; he and his older brother, Mark, were born in Aden.

Learn­ing a script in a for­eign lan­guage would be chal­leng­ing enough; do­ing so when you’re se­verely dyslexic (“Iron­i­cally, a word that’s very hard for dyslexic peo­ple to spell”), as Izzard is, sounds like a lin­guis­tic kamikaze mission. “It’s slow work,” he con­cedes. “I can only learn about three min­utes of ma­te­rial a day.”

Izzard, you start to work out, scorns his com­fort zone. Grow­ing up in English board­ing schools in the 1970s with the knowl­edge that wear­ing women’s clothes gives you a thrill forges a cer­tain re­silience, per­haps. In 1991, just as his stand-up ca­reer was start­ing to gain trac­tion, he made a roll-of-the-dice de­ci­sion to per­form his first gig wear­ing heels, make-up and a skirt in a Lon­don pub. He addressed this di­rectly be­fore mov­ing on to the rest of his ma­te­rial and, to his very great re­lief, the au­di­ence just car­ried on laugh­ing. He’s been per­form­ing in “boy mode” and “girl mode” ever since. “I feel I have to use my bor­ing­ness, my or­di­nar­i­ness, to knit trans­gen­derism into so­ci­ety,” he says. “‘Ah [he as­sumes a fake line of neu­tral in­quiry], so you’re trans­gen­der and an MP?’ in­stead of ‘Erm, well, that’s wrong ’.”

In the 2009 Emmy-nom­i­nated doc­u­men­tary, Be­lieve: The Ed­die Izzard Story, helmed by his long-time col­lab­o­ra­tor and former girl­friend Sarah Townsend, Izzard re­flects on the con­stant still point in his turn­ing world: the hole left in his life by the death of his mother, Dorothy, on March 4, 1968, when he was just six years old. She died of bowel cancer shortly af­ter the fam­ily’s re­turn to Bri­tain from Aden where Izzard’s fa­ther, Harold, was an ac­coun­tant with Bri­tish Petroleum.

At the end of the doc­u­men­tary, Izzard, strug­gling to main­tain com­po­sure, says in what ap­pears to be a moment of gen­uine rev­e­la­tion, “Ev­ery­thing I do in life is trying to get her back. I think if I do enough things … that maybe she’ll come back.”

I no­tice the an­tique gold watch wink­ing out from be­neath his left cuff. He looks down and strokes its pearles­cent face. “An Omega Constellation,” he says softly. “Mum bought it for me for Christ­mas 1967 in Swansea. It’s the only thing that I’ve got that she touched.” Izzard’s fa­ther, Harold, to whom he was close, died ear­lier this year.

Next up for Izzard is a film he has co-writ­ten called Six Min­utes to Mid­night – a drama based on a true story set in his child­hood home of Bex­hill-on-Sea in Eng­land’s south-east – and a new ca­reer in pol­i­tics. In March, he joined the pol­icy-shap­ing Na­tional Ex­ec­u­tive Com­mit­tee of Bri­tain’s Labour Party and would like to run for par­lia­ment at the next gen­eral elec­tion in three or four years time – “if I’m al­lowed a seat”. He is, he says, a proud Bri­tish Euro­pean who wants to see a friendlier Labour Party at work in Bri­tain, one that’s more wel­com­ing of di­ver­sity.

Does he, I won­der, find the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cli­mate dispir­it­ing? “This is the first cen­tury for the rest of time when it all works for seven billion peo­ple or we’re go­ing to wipe our­selves off the planet,” he says. “It’s a strong reading, but Trump has said all Mex­i­cans are rapists and women should be grabbed by the pussy. I want mod­er­ate peo­ple to un­der­stand that these are the stakes. I want peo­ple, mod­er­ate peo­ple like me, to get politi­cised, be­cause it’s go­ing to get rough and we’d bet­ter work out how we’re go­ing to make it work. It’s up to us. I don’t be­lieve in God. If a floaty guy didn’t come down for World War II, then he’s not go­ing to come down for this. We’re on our own.”

Dual ca­reers in White­hall and Hol­ly­wood sound tricky – even for a re­lent­less polymath such as Izzard. Need­less to say, he’s given it some thought. He aims, he says, “to ‘Glenda Jack­son’ him­self in [to pol­i­tics] and ‘Glenda Jack­son’ him­self out again”. Jack­son is, of course, the dou­ble Os­car-win­ning English ac­tress who be­came a Labour MP in 1992 and who, in 2016, at the age of 80, af­ter a 23-year hia­tus, re­turned to the stage to play the ti­tle role in King Lear – to rave re­views. She’s set to wow crit­ics again next year, this time on Broad­way.

“You need crit­i­cal mo­men­tum,” he ex­plains breezily. “What­ever cre­ative work you’re do­ing, you need a good level of crit­i­cal pos­i­tiv­ity that de­flates slowly like a bal­loon and then, af­ter 25 years, you do the West End and Broad­way. Glenda’s proved this. Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger had a tougher time com­ing back with ac­tion-hero mo­men­tum. I’m trying to get my act­ing crit­i­cal mo­men­tum up to my com­edy crit­i­cal mo­men­tum so that I can go away for a few years – and then come back.

“That’s my plan.”

SHARON BRADLEY is a Syd­ney­based fea­ture writer.

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