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Where He'll Stop, Nobody Knows

British comic Eddie Izzard comes back 'round to the U.S. with his freewheeling style and, um, fashion sense.

June 11, 2000|PAUL BROWNFIELD | Paul Brownfield is a Times staff writer

SEATTLE — Eddie Izzard was talking about his comedy and his cultish fame and his upstart movie career. This was around midnight in a downtown Seattle restaurant. Izzard was drinking wine and cutting into a wood-smoked piece of chicken, but he would not touch the bread. Izzard puts on weight if he's not careful, and on his current comedy tour, which is called "Circle," he is working out daily with a woman named Helen Murphy. She's a judo expert who doubles as his makeup artist, because in addition to being a comic Izzard is a transvestite, and he's important enough now that he doesn't have to apply his own eyeliner or lipstick--day or night.

Earlier in the evening, Izzard had finished a different sort of workout, what he calls going onstage and "talking crap." In plain terms, the 38-year-old British comedian had opened "Circle" at A Contemporary Theater to about 400 patrons. For the last several years, the wearing of women's clothes and the talking of "crap" have prompted people in cosmopolitan American cities to do something they rarely do--pay good money to go out and see a comedian perform. In a theater.

Izzard's shows are the verbal equivalent of plate-spinning: He talks very fast and in tangents; he acts out absurdist playlets starring figures from history, religion and pop culture. Izzard, who burst onto the scene here with the 1998 show "Dress to Kill," is also a talented dramatic actor with smallish movie roles on his resume. There is more on the horizon, with various meetings set up this week in L.A.

But I wanted to ask about his mother.

The subject slowed Izzard; his voice got softer, his answers more clipped. When he told me she had died of cancer, he was eating his chicken with greater focus, and it was apparent the topic, unless forced, wouldn't go much further. Onstage, Izzard is bold and witty and fun, a very engaging and out-there presence. Offstage, he is more removed, more business, sometimes betraying a hard-won arrogance. If Izzard is both willing and able to show off his intellect in front of large groups, he is more emotionally guarded one-on-one. He's better at talking about work. Work and Hitler. Hitler, in fact, is a kind of all-purpose touchstone for Izzard. Of his mother, who died at age 41, he says: "Hitler was older than that. Why should Hitler live longer than my mother? It's chaos theory, [expletive] happens."

Izzard is handsome and stocky; all he has to do is not shave, and he can become what he calls "blokey." His eyes can go all haunting and evil; last year, Gear magazine posed him in a bowler hat and suspenders, staring up at the camera with a menacing eyeball a la Malcolm McDowell in "A Clockwork Orange." The resemblance was striking, and such nuanced villainy is right up Izzard's alley. "I wanna play Alan Rickman in 'Die Hard,' " he says.

Tonight--because how many comics know how to dress anymore?--Izzard had performed in a tight-fitting unisex shirt from French Connection, women's pants from a London shop called Joseph, and women's boots. He had put on bright red lipstick, eyeliner and eye shadow, and his hands gave off a gleam from his silver nail polish. After the show, Izzard changed into a black T-shirt, but he left on the boots and the makeup, and now as he sat there, not really wanting to talk about his mother, the face paint seemed a further layer to scratch away at.

Izzard's mother was a nurse, and she died in 1968. She gave birth to Izzard in Yemen, in the Middle East, where Izzard's father had claimed a posting as an accountant for British Petroleum. After Yemen, the Izzards moved to Bangor, Northern Ireland.

In a brief, Dickensian autobiography that appeared in the program for "Live at the Ambassadors," Izzard's first one-man show, Izzard describes the events in his life before and after his mother's death this way:

"Before she died she and dad decided that the best way for the family to continue was for me and big brother to go off to boarding schools. Hey great fun! I asked if I could get posted to a refinery instead. So at the age of six I went off to St. John's boarding school in Porthcawl, Wales. It was run by a very pleasant man called Mr. Crump who we nicknamed 'the man from hell who we all hate.' Seeing as my Mum had just died I decided to cry relentlessly for about a year. Mr. Crump would help me along with beatings when he could fit them in. In 'Oliver Twist,' Oliver asks for 'some more.' At this school I spent a lot of time with a full bowl asking if I could have a lot less. The school had a very cleverly worked out system where good food was turned into sick. Their most classic dish was macaroni in warm milk which looked the same going into the stomach as it did coming back out."

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