76 Minutes With Eddie Izzard

Photo: Patrick McMullan

While he tries to embody Jack Lawson—a macho, rather soulless lawyer endeavoring to defend a rich white man who almost certainly raped a black woman, in David Mamet’s Race on Broadway—Eddie Izzard needs to maintain, as he calls it, “boy mode.” Which means the dresses and heels are on hiatus. Boy mode was not necessary during his stand-up tour in Canada, which he concluded the day before the start of Race rehearsals. “I spent the first half of the tour in boy mode, and then I swapped to girl mode.” Izzard’s “girl off, girl on” existence, he clarifies, is “the inverse of drag.” (Izzard, who’s straight, is big on semantics.) “Drag is about costumers. I’m just trying to wear a dress. I’m a straight action-executive transvestite. Action is, ‘I’ll beat the crap out of you if you give me a hard time.’ Executive is, ‘I travel first class.’ That’s just the genetic gift I was given. When you’re born they go, ‘Okay, that one’s gay, that one’s straight, straight transvestite, bi, good at swimming, crap at swimming, good with hedgehogs, likes pictures, eats fish fingers.’ ” He doubts that the dress-wearing mixes with playing Lawson. “You try to hug that character to you.”

At Angus McIndoe, Izzard munches on a chicken salad, which, he says, he shouldn’t be eating anyway. “I don’t need food. I think I’m not designed for it. I really have come to that conclusion. I’ve heard of people in the mountains who live on berries and stuff, and I think that’s what I’m supposed to do.” He is very girl off in a Savile Row suit. Izzard comes to Race as a replacement for James Spader, who does nothing if not play skeezy lawyers well. “People don’t necessarily see me that way,” Izzard concedes, “but my brain does work in a very logical, military way. I could have been that lawyer; I would have been happy to study that at university. I did accounting and financial management, in fact.” Reviews for Race came out July 1, and the critics weren’t as convinced. There are mentions of tentativeness and botched lines, almost certainly owed to Izzard’s having just three weeks of rehearsals and one week of previews. “What do they expect? I came in very fast. Do they think that no one ever gets a line wrong on Broadway, ever? They should come and try and do it for a weekend.”

But he’s sure he’ll get it. “I’m a determined bugger,” he says. “I’m a transvestite with a career, and I ran 43 marathons in 51 days.” He’s referring to a challenge he gave himself last September to run around the U.K. with only five weeks of training (still a bit more than he had for Race). “There’s no learning how to run, I don’t think,” he says. “There’s just deciding that you want to run. This”—he points to his head—“controls it all.” He ran to raise money for the charity Sport Relief. But the run was also a journey to places from childhood, including the home in Wales where his mother died of cancer when he was 6. That early loss is what Izzard thinks drove him to seek the love of an audience. Also on the itinerary was a facility where his father worked for British Petroleum.

“We grew up with BP,” Izzard says, rather wistfully. “They are an oil company and they are what they are, but I’ve had this relationship with them that’s a sort of rich uncle, because that’s sort of what they were to our family situation. BP transferred us from refinery to refinery.” Izzard finds it hard to suppress his affection for the company, even now. “It’s a calamitous thing,” he says, “but there’s a part of me that just wants BP to do good. I need to follow more closely, but my understanding is it’s a deep well. The top casing, which was subcontracted out, has blown up, and this is all due to relaxing in the laws that came from a Bush-Cheney administration, right? And they’ve never had a breach like this before … I want the problem to go away, and I want BP to get to a better place. And in the end, if blame has to be apportioned, it should go to the right people. All you hear is BP, BP, BP. In the end, the subcontractor, they’re going to go away scot-free and BP will be blamed for everything.” I mention that BP’s had 760 OSHA violations to Exxon’s 1. “Wow,” says Izzard, reconsidering. “Then they deserve the blame.”

If he sounds like a politician—sure with the narrative if not always the facts—it’s because he plans on being one. Earlier this year, Izzard campaigned for the Labour Party in 25 cities and towns. The timing is incidental, but he sees campaigning as good practice for playing a Mamet lawyer, and vice-versa. “I think people in law get into politics because of the precision of language and precision of thought,” he says. “If people are shoving cameras in your face and saying, ‘Why do you feel Gordon Brown said this?’ or ‘What does this mean for the economy?’ you try to get some ideas out that can grab some of their imaginations or make them think at least.” He’s thinking maybe mayor of London or representative to the European Union. “I’ve already told everyone I’m a transvestite, so that should immediately stop me from going into politics, but I don’t think so.”

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76 Minutes With Eddie Izzard