Eddie Izzard: From Rags to Riches to Parliament?

Comedy Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin
Eddie Izzard: From Rags to <em>Riches</em> to Parliament?

The last few years have been particularly good for Eddie Izzard. The 53-year-old has been doing some of his best acting work, particularly for television, where he dazzled in his starring role in the short-lived FX series The Riches, his one-season turn in Hannibal, and, more recently, as the soul-and-superpower stealing “Big Bad” Wolfe on the PlayStation Network series Powers.

At the same time, his comedy career been flourishing like never before. His current tour, Force Majeure, has been running, off and on, since late 2013 and has sent him all over the world. And this weekend, he’ll perform for a second time at the Hollywood Bowl, a rarity for any comedian, let alone one that could likely walk down the streets of a major American city without getting recognized.

But if there’s anyone who seems like they have earned this level of fame, it would be Izzard. The university drop out turned Emmy Award-winning performer worked for years as a street performer, and strengthening his absurdist, stream-of-consciousness voice. After catching fire in clubs and theaters around the U.K., Izzard slowly but steadily started to win over international audiences, especially here in the States where his shows are some of the hottest comedy tickets around. Through it all he has found his way into acting for both stage and screen, primarily in dramatic roles like his amazing turn as Charlie Chaplin in 2001’s The Cat’s Meow.

Izzard also knows how to use his fame in England for good. He regularly stumps for human rights and environmental causes, and was particularly busy in the recent general election, campaigning on behalf of the Labour Party alongside colleagues like Steve Coogan. His passion for politics is such that, as he casually mentioned during our phone chat recently, he’s going to run for office in 2020.

I was able to discuss his future political career, his work on Powers, and adapting his comedy for international audiences when I caught up with Izzard at his tour stop in Phoenix, Arizona.

Paste: You’ve been doing this tour in 27 different countries. Does your comedy translate easily to all of those places?

Eddie Izzard: It is totally easy and I can give you an example straight off the bat. I have this line, “Caesar, did he ever think he’d end up as a salad?” Quite a simple one. Kind of an obvious one if you think about it, but it’s a nice place to go into to talking about the death of Caesar and comparing it with how he became a salad. I went into Germany thinking, “I know that in the past tense of German, your verb goes at the end of the sentence.” Which is totally alien to us in English except in poetry. In poetry, you can say, “On the deck of the ship I did stand.” So you put my line into German and it works, like, “Caesar, did you ever think that he one time as a salad end up would have” and they laugh at the exactly the same place. You get it a microsecond behind the English people but it still releases exactly the same way.

Paste: How have the shows gone in smaller countries where your work might not be as well known?

Izzard: I have played Istanbul, Moscow, St. Petersburg, or Belgrade where they had the whole civil war coming out of Serbia. You’d think, “They’re not going to dig this,” but the kids there bought 600 tickets in two hours. Because I’m not going to Serbia and going, “Can you get all the nationalists together? All those people that hate everyone. They’ll be my audience.” That’s not my audience. My audience is the progressive, smart students. They’re all around the world. And because of the Internet, my show is known around the world even without me releasing albums there. I can choose a large city or a capital city from around the world and go there and it will work in one language or the other.

Paste: Do you find yourself getting recognized on the street in some of these places like Belgrade?

Izzard: In Belgrade I can’t say that I was, but if I’ve gone to a younger pub or disco or something, I probably would have. I’m still on cult levels. I was also playing like a 5-600 seat theater. I did two shows so that means 1,200 people that recognize me. That’s not the entire population. It’s not that. If you are ambitious, you kind of want to get known. There’s levels and levels. The Beatles got it to a place where they said the only place they could get privacy was in the loo where they could lock the door. The truth is people who get a bit of fame, they want to have a switch, where they could switch it on, like, “Hey I feel good, everybody look,” and then switch it off again. The way I’ve got it is fine. The cool people seem to know what’s going on. The less cool people…not so much.

Paste: Now this week, you’re going to be playing the Hollywood Bowl which is just gigantic.

Izzard: This is my second time doing it. The reason I can play it so casually or say, “Hey let’s go do that,” is because I was a street performer. Because I started on the streets with an outdoor heavens gig every day I was doing it, it doesn’t worry me. We stand-ups grow up in a night time closed box affair, so I’m sure others are thinking, “Oh it’s too open, it’s too big.” But it’s a Greek amphitheater, and it really works. The Greeks got it right. They knew what they were doing. That’s a beautiful gig.

Paste: You spent a lot of time campaigning in the U.K. on behalf of the Labour Party. Were the results of this election a hard pill to swallow?

Izzard: The result was…not what I wanted. That’s democracy. Sometimes it swings that way. If the polls had been saying, “It’s not looking good for you guys,” then that would have been so much easier. But the polls said neck and neck. We went down by 24 seats. It was enough where we were going backwards rather than forward. If Scotland hadn’t done what Scotland did then it wouldn’t have been that bad either because we made a net gain of two in England and Wales, which is not nearly enough. But losing 50 seats up there was big. But it’s politics. It happens. These are battles. The war, the long term thing of politics, is to get a fairer, more positive world. It’s not a Thatcherite, extreme right wing government that won. It was a central right government. So that’s better than the other thing at least. I haven’t been in charge of my own election at any point. In five years time I will be. I campaigned in 62 different constituencies. I felt we did a good job going in. It was great to do it. It’s not fun to be on the wrong side of winning, but I’m a fighter, so I keep fighting.

Paste: Wait…did you say you’re going to run for public office in five years?

Izzard: Oh you’ve got to Google this. I’ve been saying for five years now that I intend to run in 2020 for Mayor of London or Member of Parliament. What Senator Al Franken has done, I will attempt to do. He went from 312 majority when he was first voted it, the slimmest majority to get in, and he just got voted back in with a 200,000 majority. So there’s hard work for you.

Paste: To switch gears again, I wanted to talk about Powers. How is it being a part of that show?

Izzard: That was wonderful. Most of the film drama things that I’ve done in my life…because I have tried to choose wisely as opposed to, “Yeah, I’ll do that. What’s the money? Big money? Okay, I’ll do it.” You end up doing rubbish that way. Charlie Houston, the showrunner, he persuaded me with a letter he wrote me about the character. And he was open to decisions I wanted to make about the character. I wanted to put a sort of lionesque quality to him because he is this inhaler of humanity in a very visceral and horrible way. A charismatic, but twisted sociopath of unbelievable proportions.

Paste: It’s interesting to see that almost all of your acting work has been doing dramatic roles. Was that a deliberate choice on your part to move away from comedy in your offstage world?

Izzard: It was very deliberate. I always knew I wanted to act, but I could never get the great roles. It had taken so long to get going in stand-up or in comedy or general, I made this— really, I doubled down. I did a poker move. Slightly insane but it was a calculated risk. I got a separate acting agent and I said, “I only want dramatic roles.” I’ve only done drama in films apart from Mystery Men and My Super Ex-Girlfriend. I pushed for that. I have been pushing. The comedy was on a little rocket and I actually started slowing the rocket down. If you ever watch any of my early dramas, you’ll see they’re not good. It’s because I knew I had to not lean on my comedy muscles. So as I switched off my comedy instincts, I actually didn’t have any dramatic instincts at that point. I’m sort of flailing around reading out lines, just looking at people and pointing in different directions. Then I went through a whole metamorphosis when John Langer gave me The Riches. That was my film school rolled into my acting school. Everyone worked so hard, so fast. I actually got things wrong in the first season and I changed it in the second season. I gradually worked out this thing that Anjelica Huston said, “You’ve got to prepare, prepare, prepare and then let go.” I heard what she was saying but I couldn’t figure out what she was meaning. Then it just hit me. It kicked in second season of Riches going into Tara into Treasure Island and Last Christmas and Castles In The Sky...Dr. Abel Gideon in Hannibal was definitely letting go. I know what I’m doing now. I know where I’m going and the next five years I’m going to try do as much drama as I can. I’m ready. It just takes me a long time to get ready sometimes.

Paste: How does that feel, then, knowing that you have this deadline for when you’re going to stop working on your acting and comedy career so you can focus on your political career?

Izzard: The deadline is good. I don’t like shutting the door. I feel at the time when I go into politics, that last year from May 2019 into May 2020, I’m just going to be packing in as much as I can. In May 2020 if and when the good people of Britain wish to elect me, I will be so sad to put the career into hibernation. I just think I’m going to be at such an amazing point. I hope to be doing stand-up in French, German, Spanish, Russian, and Arabic. My drama will be at a tiptop level. And then I’m gonna have to stop for maybe a decade or so. That’s gonna be annoying. But I signed up for this and I don’t feel like I should go back on it.

You can find tourdates here.

Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.