English stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard, who will be performing at the State Theatre in Portland, Saturday, July 30, isn't your typical comedian.
In the early 1990s, he openly embraced his interest in cross-dressing and began performing in women's clothing. These days he tends to wear suits, although he adds a touch of femininity with brightly colored painted nails. Earlier this year, he ran 27 marathons in 27 days through South Africa for Sport Relief.
Izzard, whose humor is largely improvised and is often surreal, has also acted in such films as “Ocean's Twelve,” “Ocean's Thirteen,” “Cat's Meow,” in which he played Charlie Chaplin, “Across the Universe” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” as well as the TV series “The Riches.”
Alec Kerr recently spoke with Izzard and discussed his thoughts on the Brexit (Britain's vote to leave the European Union), the LGBT community, bigotry, his creative process and sexy British bad guys.
You have been a major pro-European Union campaigner, what are your thoughts on the Brexit actually being approved?
Well, I don’t feel it is very correct. I feel people had misinformation put out. There was an amount of money that was immediately going to be put into the NHS (National Health Service) and people voted on this basis. Soon as the vote went through, “No, no, that’s not going to happen.” And we said we’re most likely going to have recession and the markets are going to have a tough time and it is really going to hit our country hard and then you’re going to have less (people) likely to get jobs. If you think that’s a good way to get jobs, it is not a good way.
People were misled. It is not great. It is something that has put things into turmoil. It is going to be very hard. People on the lowest income are going to have a very tough time, some of those had voted for Brexit. It is shooting yourself in the foot. But you carry on. World War II was a really tough time.
It is a problem. I just don’t think it is good and I think that people were thinking that the EU is responsible for the economic crisis that happened in 2008. It is called the subprime market put toxic debt into the whole world economy and that all blew up and people knew it would and didn't care about that, so people have had a really tough time of it but they blamed the wrong people. It is unfortunate.
The world has changed quite a bit since you first started being open about your interest in cross-dressing. With Caitlyn Jenner and shows like “I Am Jazz” there is a lot more awareness of transgender ...
Did you say crop dusting?
I don't know maybe you do have an interesting in crop dusting. I don't know.
Well, “North by Northwest” does have crop dusting and I have seen “North by Northwest.”
But there seems to be a lot more awareness thanks to Caitlyn Jenner and “I Am Jazz” to transgender, do you think the world is becoming more accepting of the LGBT community?
I hope so. But what I do worry with this whole Brexit situation and your Trump situation, is that there are people who will be very hateful to the LGBT, hateful to the opposite skin color or a different skin color or whatever and maybe that's not changed.
Articulation in the LGBT community of why we exist — the fact that I strongly believe it is genetic — and the fact that we have articulated a better explanation that we are human beings that want to live in the world and work in the world and that's it and we are self identifying and don't get so hung up about it that has gotten a lot better.
I hope people are a nicer set of people in the world but I worry that sometimes that we are not. That we are the same people that we have been all the way back to the Romans, that maybe we've never changed just that leadership has changed, ability to access the information has changed, maybe that we agree on things. But in America, you still have a thing about whether evolution is right. We've moved beyond that in Europe. I would hope that we are in a better place but I can't not be certain.
Do you think there is anything that can be said to change someone with a bigoted mind?
That is what I am curious about. I am really curious about that. I don't know. I wonder whether some people have a certain aptitude and that's built into them, that is hardwired into them, and that whatever you say, you can argue until you're blue in the face, and they will not listen to you. I haven't gotten to the bottom of that.
I would like someone to do studies on that because I have an instinctive feeling that some people are empathetic and some people are not empathetic. And if you're not empathetic, if you are naturally built in not empathetic, it is hardwired in, you can talk until you're blue in the face and they will also say “Well, I don't like you. And I don't like all these people. Don't like people in the next village.” We you used to be tribal and tribal has this whole thing “We like us, we don't like you.” Maybe that people that think alike will like each other, I suppose. You know how that goes on.
I try and work out the ideas that could work for an entire world because no one in politics is allowed to do that because you've got to think of your country or your local council or your area or your indignation people. But while I am not an elected person, I'm sitting here looking at things and saying we've got to be heading towards a world where everyone has a fair chance because I think despair is the fuel of terrorism and hope is the fuel of civilization. We have to keep putting hope into the world. I've articulated those two little lines and they are kind of neat as a little package, a little sound bite but I think it could be true. I don't know how you persuade people to be kind to other people.
Do you think humor is a way of doing that?
Not really. In a way, yes, but no. I think politics is a way of doing that. I think getting elected, I think democracy is a way of doing that. I think economy is a way of doing that. When the economy is good, people are a lot more accepting of other things. When people are having a tough old time, they turn around and say “What's going on here? Why am I having a tough time? Who is charge of all this. I'm going to hate someone for this. I'm going to pissed off at someone for this.”
So comedy, we can make some interesting points, some funny points, but sometimes maybe when we say funny things, if it is politically funny, maybe something that people already of that mindset would say, “Yes, that's a very nice, neat way of doing it” but does it really change the mind of someone who is already locked down. I am not sure.
So, I don't think comedy changes the political world. I think comedy … when comedy is used in a good way, it is an attack weapon. I can attack many of the things. I know we have racist comedians in our country still and they attack ethnic minorities and we despair the fact that we still got some people touring around doing hateful comedy. I will say it is less and less these days, but it still does exist.
What inspired you to start running marathons and what were those experiences like?
The inspiration was I wanted to do an adventure; to raise money while doing it; it was good for my health — it hit a number of things. What I love doing in life, what I really love doing — and if anyone who has ever done it I think they would probably also feel this way — if you can do one thing and do five things by doing the one thing, then that's just great. It is just a really nice thing. If you can run, give yourself a bit of health or quite a lot of health, you have an adventure, you raise money, it can help people having a tough time in your country and around the world, it becomes a story — it is just fun. The doing of it is really tough, but it is like doing “Lord of the Rings” your own version of “Lord of the Rings.” You don't like the thing, you just live the bloody thing. I've done it twice now and it is quite fantastic. The doing of it is not much fun. Well, it is a lot of fun in retrospect but at the time it can be as tough as all beat.
You have discussed the link between dyslexia and creativity, would you go as far as to say you if you weren’t dyslexic you wouldn’t be doing comedy?
Oh, that's interesting. No, I wouldn't say that. I think have comedic genetics from my father. Me, my brother and father have the same sense of humor. Give or take a few dryness levels it is essentially the same. If I wasn't dyslexic, I wouldn't be surreal in my comedy I think.
Was there a particular moment when you realized that you wanted to do comedy?
Yes. I got my first public laugh when I was 12. When I got my first laugh at school, Monty Python were just finishing their television career, but their tapes career, and discs and album career and then film career started from there and that's really when I plugged into Python. I think the very early years of Python when it was happening, I wasn't aware of them, I wasn't clued into them. Once I discovered that I liked (comedy) and I could do it, that I could actually make it happen, I dumped drama because I wanted to do drama when I was 7. I dumped drama and said, “I'm going to do comedy. Comedy is what I'm going to do. I am going to be a comedy performer.” I must have decided that at about 14, 15.
You have said that with your performances, “none of it is written and none of it is rehearsed,” so what is your creative process like?
My creative process is that I go to a place of forfeiture. I went to Los Angeles, I went to San Francisco, and I went to New York and I played six nights a week, two shows a night. I would just do my show and I would improvise, I would ad lib, I would add things, I would subtract things, I would just put things in, I call it verbal sculpting and I would build things up from a kernel of an idea to “Oh, that kind of works, oh yeah, let's add that. No, that doesn't work.” I would build it up until at the end of that, which is about three months, I have a show and then the show kept living and adjusting and editing down and distilling. I distill a show down. I constantly try to weed out the weaker bits and keep the stronger bits.
In “Dressed to Kill” you had a great bit about all the bad guys in the “Star Wars” trilogy being British; were you happy to see that tradition continued in the “Force Awakens?”
I think it is built into your zeitgeist in America because of the colonial war, the Revolutionary War, we have to be your bad guys. Interestingly, a lot of our bad guys have become sexy now. The sexy British bad guy. They used to be bad bad guys and in “Star Wars” they were just the bad guys again but quite a lot of our bad guys are actually becoming sexy; that is quite interesting. It has actually reached a tipping point into something else, not just a two-dimensional bad guy, we have three dimensions and sex, which is fun and interesting.
Like Benedict Cumberbatch in “Star Trek” in an example.
Yes, I'm thinking Tom Hiddleston …
Yes. There was that advert for Jaguar cars, which I am not sure it was shown in America, I think it was, it has three British actors who say, “We are so bad” and they all driving fast cars. I thought that was rather funny.
You have some terrific bad impressions including Christopher Walken. Have you been working on new bad impressions?
No, I haven't got one in my back pocket at the moment, but I was trying to do them in different languages which is slightly tricky because doing shows in different languages and then putting accents on them, that's quite odd. Doing a Northern Irish accent and speaking French, that is tricky. But no, there's new impression right there. If I really worked on it, I think I could get at them and sometimes I am. They do sound quite good sometimes.
I am a big fan of “Across the Universe,” what was it like working on the film?
That was fun, quite intensive, I must say because I had to lip sync what I had sung. I did three takes of the song (“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”) and I was trying to work out, do I sing this or should I just speak-talk it, Rex Harrison it. So, we decided to Rex Harrison it. Then once it was done and it sounded quite good, I didn't know until the day before I shot it that I was actually going to lip sync the thing to a track.
If you're singing a song and lip syncing, that's one thing to learn. To lip sync to a song, there is a beat and you can do that and a lot of people have done that but there's a little section where it goes into the waltz and “Harry the horse” and that is so … there's no beat to it. To lip sync to that is incredibly difficult and I think I just about pulled it off and they edited around it, but I went slightly mad trying to learn it because I had to just feel the essence of the beat when there was no beat. It is just unbelievably difficult. But it was great and it was big and was huge and it was crazy, so yeah, fun to do.
And it must have been particularly tricky because you had this long improvised tangent that you had to it.
Exactly so. I like that me and John Lennon have done that song. I like that John's done it. And I have sung in John's porch because English Heritage now own the house that he grew up in. Last time I played Liverpool arena, I went to Paul McCartney's house and to John Lennon's house and they said, “If you go down to the porch, that's where John and Paul played guitar, they were practicing. They liked it because the acoustics were great. We encourage you to go down there and sing something.” So I went down and sang “Amazing Grace.” I got my trainer to sing “Amazing Grace,” the normal version and I sang notes in harmony to it. That was fun, weird thing to do.
Eddie Izzard | Saturday, July 30 at 8:00pm | The State Theatre, 609 Congress St., Portland | www.statetheatreportland.com