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Interview

The Amazing 'Race'

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The Amazing 'Race'
Eddie Izzard is best known as a transvestite standup comic. He is also a film, television, and Tony-nominated dramatic actor. He's a political activist for Britain's Labour Party; within 10 years he expects to run for mayor of London. Also an endurance athlete, he recently completed 43 marathons in 51 days to benefit Sport Relief, a charity that benefits the poorest and most vulnerable populations in the U.K. and across the globe.

Currently he is performing on Broadway, replacing James Spader in David's Mamet's "Race," and as Izzard sees it, all the pieces of his life inform one another, incongruous as they may seem. "In politics you have to pay attention to detail and be precise, and that's especially useful for Mamet's language," Izzard says in his dressing room before a performance. "My own diction had gotten sloppy, which works for me in my standup act. But in politics you have to articulate, even overarticulate, and that's also helpful for Mamet. The challenge in doing Mamet's language is to get its rhythm and then the sense of what's being said across to an audience." The actor speaks a perfect American English in the role.

Izzard's years as a standup comic have served him well too. "It teaches you to be in the moment, and that's the key to all acting," he says, adding that it gives you looseness and flexibility. Still, the comic may go for the easy laugh, and that's a danger in a straight play. "Comedy has to serve the story and come out of the character, and if that's not happening—even if it's interesting—we can't do it," he says. As the conniving, amoral attorney in "Race," he plays "a man who has lost his soul," Izzard reflects. "He was an idealist who ended up poor and he didn't like it. He's run out of everything that gives a fuck. Yet he still wants to win and he's always a showman." "Race" explores the emotionally charged dynamics of three lawyers (two black, one white) defending a white man accused of raping an African-American woman.

One of the many elements that drew Izzard to "Race" was the chance to perform for a racially mixed crowd, which is rare on both sides of the Atlantic and, he says, virtually nonexistent at his standup performances. He was last on Broadway in the 2003 Roundabout production of "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg," and the audience was overwhelmingly white and subscription-based, or what he dubs "conscription"-based.

Audience demographics aside, for Izzard the story and director take precedence over all considerations, including financial. "Money is secondary," he says. "If cash comes first, you make stupid decisions." Nevertheless, he has a fondness for film work in general and television work in particular. He loved doing the FX series "The Riches," playing a con artist, because of the intensity of the process—specifically, shooting each 45-minute drama in seven days.

He is every bit the risk taker and consistently tries to overcome challenges and fears—the more daunting the better. He was terrified of flying and therefore learned to fly. He doesn't like to read fiction, he is dyslexic, and he finds memorizing lines a stumbling block. Thus his goal is to perform in Shakespeare and do more Marlowe (he has already tackled Marlowe's "Edward II"). His ideal roles are Iago and Richard III. "I think of myself as an actor-comedian," Izzard says. "But I'm more experienced as a comedian."

An Androgynous Transvestite

Born in Yemen—where his father was an accountant and his mother a nurse—Izzard grew up in Northern Ireland, Wales, and the south of England. His mother died when he was 6, and he and his elder brother were sent to boarding school, where he mastered the art of the stiff upper lip. He also fell in love with the world of Monty Python, its anarchy and wit. Izzard toyed with the idea of performing. Still, at Sheffield University he studied accounting and financial management. He excelled in these courses but dropped out of school after one year, determined to launch a career in comedy. Making ends meet wasn't easy, though he refused to take a regular job. "I was a waiter for three weeks," he says. "When one waiter asked me what my plans were and I said to act, he said, 'Oh, no one gets to be an actor.' I didn't want to be around people like that. I felt I was going to do it or die. I burned my bridges."

Izzard honed his comedy skills at the competitive Edinburgh Festival, where he appeared 12 times. "I did three years of sketch comedy, four years of street performing, and five years of standup," he recalls. Performing solo on the streets was where he learned how to improvise, ad-lib, and make decisions on the hoof. Izzard's free-associative standup comedy is not scripted. "I have an innate suspicion of the written word," he says. "I write it all down in my head and then I workshop it endlessly."

He did not incorporate his transvestitism into the performances until he started doing standup. He knew it was a risky move, but as a comic—unlike an actor playing a part—he was determined to be himself "turned full on," he asserts. Still, his transvestitism has an almost androgynous flavor. His nails are painted and he sports makeup and jewelry, yet his voice, gait, and persona are masculine. He has defined himself as a "male lesbian, "male tomboy," and "action transvestite." It's a "confusing sexuality," he acknowledges, adding that his transvestitism might have gotten in the way of his landing certain dramatic roles. "But when I ran 43 marathons in 51 days, that's more in the 'boy' area, and that's got to figure somewhat in the producer's mind. I'm obviously not just spending my time being camp. I'm not camp at all. I've pushed through barriers."

He is hoping to do that in the political arena too, though he would not be the first elected official who has an "alternative sexuality," he says. But his larger ambition is to help forge a truly cooperative universe where nationalistic boundaries have become blurred: "I want the world to be a giant melting pot like Manhattan." It's no accident that he has mastered French, German, and Russian and has, indeed, performed his shtick in all of those languages. Nonetheless, he is not prepared to say what the hallmark of his administration would be if elected. "If I knew that, I'd be running now," he asserts.

Should his political career take off, he concedes, his acting would have to be put on a back burner. Many would disagree, suggesting politics takes performance art to a whole new level.


"Race" runs through Aug. 21 at  the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., NYC. Tickets: (212) 239-6200 or www.raceonbroadway.com.

 

OUT TAKES

-Made his West End debut as the lead in David Mamet's "Cryptogram," and played Lenny Bruce in Peter Hall's West End production of "Lenny"

-Appeared in "Secret Agent," "The Avengers," "Ocean's Twelve," "Ocean's Thirteen," and "Valkyrie"
 
-Has performed to sold-out crowds at Madison Square Garden in New York and the Wembley Stadium in London

-Is the subject of the Emmy-nominated documentary "Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story"

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