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 about taking risks, being gender queer and his newest passion – running for British parliament. “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.”

By Sharon Bradley.

The many sides of Eddie Izzard

Actor Eddie Izzard in The Flip Side.
Actor Eddie Izzard in The Flip Side.
Credit: 20th Century Fox Film Distributors

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, marathon-runner 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 anti-Brexit 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 mutton-chop 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-backing-out 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.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 25, 2018 as "Izzard warning".

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Sharon Bradley is a Sydney-based feature writer.

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