Seriously its the real Eddie Izzard
Ahead of his Belfast gig tomorrow, the comedian tells Andrew Johnston about his early years in Northern Ireland
Eddie Izzard is forever reinventing himself. First, the transvestite stand-up comedian tried his hand at straight acting, with roles alongside the likes of Uma Thurman in The Avengers and George Clooney in the Ocean’s movies, as well as an acclaimed turn as Irish Traveller con artist Wayne Malloy in two seasons of FX’s The Riches.
Most recently, he could be seen as one of Tom Cruise’s fellow Nazi plotters in Valkyrie.
Now, in a move as unlikely as they come, the somewhat plump 47-year-old has turned sporting hero.
“It was a great, weird thing to do,” Eddie says of the gruelling seven-week marathon run he completed earlier this year in aid of Sport Relief.
“Toenails came off and there was blistering on the feet, and I was pulling muscles in different legs — well, you know, one side, then the other side — but it wasn’t too bad.”
The run took Eddie from London to Cardiff to Belfast to Edinburgh and back, with the comedian carrying a flag for each country in which he ran, including a specially created banner for Northern Ireland.
“The exhaustion was the main thing,” he says.
“The first three weeks were really tough, because it was raining and my feet were falling apart, sodden with rain.
“There was a lot of pain involved, but I had decided I was going to do it, so I never thought about stopping. That’s what you have to do.”
It is a mentality Eddie applies to his live performances, too. The hard-working star, who brings his box office-record-breaking Stripped tour to Belfast’s Odyssey Arena this Saturday, says he will carry on with a gig “no matter what”, adding: “It’s a bit like driving from one city to another city, and it’s really rough but you just have to keep going, because you have to get there. I think the run was a slightly separate thing. I could have given up. I could have said, ‘This is too hard,’ because it was off the scale. With the shows, no way.”
Eddie says he has now “fully recovered” from the marathon and intends to keep on running — though at first he wasn’t so sure.
“I did a five-mile run a couple of days after I finished, and then I don’t think I ran for about eight days,” he laughs. “I was a bit stiff.”
Izzard has come a long way since his early years in Northern Ireland.
The comic was raised until the age of five in Bangor, Co Down, after being born in Aden, Yemen, where his father worked as an accountant with BP.
“I left in ’67, so it was before the Troubles,” he says. “I wasn’t politically aware — I was too young — so it was a wonderful time for me.
“My mother was alive, and I used to muck about with all the kids on the housing estate. That was great fun, but it’s difficult for me to compare back. I went with my dad to Belfast, but you don’t really get a sense of what the city looks like, or how Bangor was then, except through the eyes of a four-year-old.”
Still, Izzard has always retained an affection for Northern Ireland. Soon after he and his family had moved from Bangor to Skewen in South Wales, Eddie’s mother became ill with cancer and died.
Consequently, many of the performer’s happiest childhood memories are tied to here, and he makes an effort to include Ulster in each of his tours.
“The Northern Ireland audiences have always been great,” he says.
“There’s a real vibrancy in Belfast now. I do think it’s an amazing distance that Northern Ireland has come, and it should be celebrated. South Africa and Northern Ireland are the big success stories, even though both still have their problems.”
Even at the height of the Troubles, Izzard made a point of performing in his former homeland.
He recalls a visit in the days following the October 1993 Greysteel massacre, when UFF gunmen killed eight civilians in a pub in Co Londonderry.
“My tour manager refused to come up to Northern Ireland,” reveals Eddie, “so I drove the car up myself from Dublin and played three gigs at the Arts Theatre in Belfast, and then went on to Derry, or Londonderry, and played there at the Rialto.
“I was very pleased with that, because I did have such a positive time growing up in Northern Ireland.”
Warming to the theme, he continues: “When I ran through Northern Ireland, the big thing was that people were saying, ‘We’re building with glass’.
“No one was building with glass during all the bombing, and now all these glass buildings are coming up, and that’s great. One English person I met told me: ‘I came to work over here because there’s such a great atmosphere’.”
Tomorrow’s Odyssey date comes near the end of a lengthy UK and Irish tour, Eddie’s first in six years.
Yet he is adamant that Ulster fans will see the same high-energy show as anywhere else in the world.
“This tour has been developed from last year,” he says. “I did 34 gigs with this tour in America, and I played London for five weeks, and I think if you saw it at the beginning, or if you saw it on the last gig, at Madison Square Garden (in New York City), it won’t make any difference.
“The material will be somewhat different — I like changing it, and moving it, and ad-libbing — but if you see it in Belfast, Dublin or Nottingham it won’t make any difference.
“If I’m playing it in Paris, or Moscow, or New Zealand, or Iceland, in a 10,000-seater, in a 15,000-seater, or in a 100-seater, it’ll be exactly the same show.”
Certainly, Izzard, who claims to be entirely comfortable with the arena format (“I’m playing Madison Square Garden, so I must be, mustn’t I?”), is one of the few British comics with truly international appeal. He attributes this in part to the universal nature of his material. “I design my stuff so that it will work anywhere,” he says.
“I will talk about Romans, cavemen, the whole history of the world, religion, sexuality, Moses, Darwin I tend not to talk about what’s on Britain’s Got Talent, or the 159 bus to Streatham.”
Despite his success as a comedian — he was voted number three in Channel 4’s list of the 100 Greatest Stand-ups — Eddie says his “first true love” was acting.
“Stand-up is actually the scariest thing you can think of,” he explains. “Bands can rehearse. Actors can rehearse. If you’re a stand-up there is no rehearsal.
“You can do it in front of your mirror — that’s no good. You can do it in front of an invited audience of friends — that’s not really any good either, because they’ll probably laugh anyway, even when it’s not funny.
“The only real rehearsal is in front of a paying audience and that’s what makes it so bloody hard at the beginning. It’s tough as hell.”
Izzard’s success in the USA, along with that of Monty Python’s Flying Circus decades earlier, pours cold water on the idea that the Yanks don’t ‘get’ surreal or offbeat humour. “They do get it,” says Eddie. “They love surreal; they are great with surreal. There’s a lot of very surreal stuff in The Simpsons. If you look at The Simpsons Movie, they’ve got a big, bloody Perspex dome over Springfield, and Homer’s going up and down it on a motorbike.
“Surrealism wasn’t a British movement; surrealism came out of Europe, with Dada. Human beings around the world could get that, and Python’s already proved this.
“The key thing about America is you have to go there and push away. I went over and pushed my way in — specifically in New York.
“Sacha Baron Cohen went over there and worked it as well. U2 — the same principle.
“You go there and you play and you play and you play, and eventually they give in — hopefully.
“The American dream is actually a world dream — go for it, go shoot for your dream. I wasn’t supposed to go and break America, but I did that.
“I wasn’t supposed to go and run 34 marathons, but I did that.
“I just like going for things that seem off the charts, and hopefully it’ll inspire some kid somewhere, and we’ll all be going for our dreams: ‘We’ll shoot for the stars, and could get to the moon.’ That’s what I always thought.”
Eddie Izzard plays the Odyssey Arena , Belfast, tomorrow Tickets, £33, are available from all Ticketmaster outlets