Eddie Izzard is one of the most successful comedians in the world. His rambling yet literate and socially conscious stand-up style has made him a household name for lovers of intelligent comedy. Defying expectations, he has pursued a parallel career as a dramatic film and television actor, starring in FX's The Riches and films such as Valkyrie, Velvet Goldmine, Across the Universe, The Chronicles of Narnia, Cars 2, Shadow of the Vampire, Ocean's Twelve, and Ocean's Thirteen.
In IFC's Bullet in the Face, he plays the crime lord Tannhäuser, a murderous man with a fascination for snow globes. The series is written by Alan Spence, a protegee of Mel Brooks, known for writing the cult series Sledge Hammer!, and directed by Erik Canuel, who has directed episodes of Flashpoint and Being Human. Izzard took time from his busy tour schedule to sit down with Buzzine's Jesse Livingston and discuss comedy, drama, mountaineering, politics, optimism, and Nazis...
Jesse Livingston: While preparing for this interview, I watched the “Wrap yourself in jewels and kill her,” scene on IFC.com. At the time, I hadn't yet read the press release for Bullet in the Face, so I didn't realize it was a comedy! It sort of blindsided me how funny that scene is. It sounds like you improvised a lot of that dialogue, and I'm wondering how much, if any, of that was scripted?
Eddie Izzard: Quite a lot was scripted, but some parts were improvised. I did want to drive the character around to some unusual places – that he was a maniac, a megalomaniac, if nothing else – and I just sort of cruised around. And – this is in hindsight rather than what I'd planned – but, you know, Dr. Strangelove, the Peter Sellers character, was someone who was brilliant but twisted and somewhat broken, and my character [Tannhäuser] is that as well, trying to control the world through snow globes – putting everyone inside of globes.
JL: Did you do a lot of preparation for the role in terms of a Daniel-Day-Lewis-style, intensive, cohabiting-with-crime-lords type of thing?
EI: Well, what I wanted to do... I don't work the same way as Daniel Day Lewis, in the sense that he'll go from large film to large film with a huge amount of buildup. I think he builds the preparation into that, whereas I'm still somewhat just hacking my way up the ladder, and suddenly projects will come up in a much shorter time.
I mean, I like to play characters who've got determination, because I think I've got that. It's some part of my psychological makeup that I like playing roles like that, and it links them together. And I want to play them dramatically, even though there may be a comedic edge to the thing – or even though it may be a comedy... but I wanted [Tannhäuser] to be rooted in being someone who actually was the weird kid in school, whom nobody really trusted and nobody talked to. He was kind of brilliant, but also lost the plot a bit, like any dictator you could name.
JL: The series was written by Alan Spencer and directed by Erik Canuel. Since you come from a background of improv and standup, did they give you much direction in terms of how to play the character, or did they sort of let you loose and say, “Do what you think is funny,” or “Do what you think is compelling”?
EI: I think I said, “This is how I'm playing it, guys, and tell me – you know – if you've got a big problem with that, 'cause I'm just gonna go for it in the way that I've planned.” Erik let me go, and Alan said, “Well, okay, some of that is a bit outside where I was – but actually, we can adjust things to make that flow into it.” So, he let me go for it.
JL: When you prepare for a role, do you ever think, This character could be someone from one of my standup skits? Do you take sort of an improv approach to it?
EI: No, I don't. I approach it more like... what's called “comic philosophers,” which has been sort of encouraged in the UK – not by anyone saying it, but because we don't really have a film industry. [In standup], when I'm linking ideas together, I thumbnail characters; these characters don't have the back story, I just kind of illuminate them, and then they disappear. Whereas, in a film drama, I'll want to have back story – something personal, with roots all the way down to the ground. So, that's how I approach it even if it might be called a comedy.
JL: I think one of the reasons I was – in the back of my mind – expecting Bullet in the Face to be a serious crime drama is that I think you've often gravitated toward more serious roles in your film work. I'm wondering if this has been a conscious choice on your part to balance out your image as a comedian?
EI: Certainly. I sort of put an embargo on doing comedy roles. With [Bullet in the Face] and My Super Ex-Girlfriend and Mockingbird Lane, I think I'm allowing myself the potential to do things with a comedic edge to them, though not necessarily big, broad comedy – “Hey-y-y!”
JL: [laughs] So, essentially, you started out going for the more serious roles, and now you're allowing yourself more comedic freedom.
EI: Yeah, if you move from comedy into drama – and I wanted to be a dramatic actor when I was a kid... so, if you're moving across, you have to, ah... I'd say you have to kill or swallow or block off your comedic instincts. That was the trick in re-training. It's a bit like moving from driving a car to driving a bus, maybe. Because, you know, buses go around corners in a very different way to the way cars do... Something like that... Anyway, I felt I was much happier with how I approached dramatic roles, so I could rely on myself to do things which were slightly more comedic.
JL: Makes sense! Now, there's a bit in one of your standup shows – I think it's Dress to Kill – where you tell a story about your childhood dreams of being in movies. It's the one where you creep onto a movie lot in hopes that someone in a suit will say, “Hey! A creeping kid! For my film The Creeping Kid!”
EI: [laughs] Yeah.
JL: Now that you've made those dreams into a reality, do you feel that it has lived up to your expectations?
EI: It has lived up to my expectations... It, um... I suppose it's slightly different, in some ways, to my expectations. But the essence of... Well, Ocean's [Twelve and Thirteen] were big, crazy films in the way that maybe Valkyrie was a big, crazy film – and I have done those – but not the big, crazy role in the big, crazy film. So, I have kicked up against... Like I've said, going to Everest, I've been to base camp.
Yeah, but, you know, I'm still an ambitious, driven bastard [laughs], so I'll still keep going back up. And the smaller roles in the smaller-budget things – now they're getting really quite interesting. So, I love that. It is different to how I thought it would be... I think if you look from the outside, it's all just fun – and I knew there was work in it, but now I know exactly how much hard work is involved. Also, when you get a role, you're not quite prepared for going, “Wow, there's my trailer! And I could ask for a coffee, and a coffee would appear!”
It's that sort of crazy thing that's like being Sultan of Brunei or something. But when you get there, of course, that's not where you actually want to be. You want to actually do the role well. But I do love being on location. Doing Treasure Island in Puerto Rico – that was great. Doing Valkyrie in Berlin – that was great... And I love touring as well, seeing all these places. That's how fun gets into my life. I think a lot of people probably have lives which aren't fun, but I have managed to hammer fun in there.
As far as the roles I'm doing now, I'm happy with what I'm doing, and they're landing in the place where I want them to land. It is an odd thing having a career that jumps backwards and forwards, straddling surreal comedy and drama. A number of critics and broadcasters and producers... I wasn't necessarily their first port of call: “Yeah, let's get that guy who does two things!” Who insists on doing two. Who's very schizophrenic in his life... I'm always gonna be going up mountains – when I'm ninety, I'm gonna be saying, “No! I've got to go and do this!”
JL: So, do you feel that, in a sense... is there a feeling of never being completely satisfied that drives you to keep pushing yourself?
EI: Um... Yes... Yes, I think you need to have that. In terms of standup, which I've been doing longer, I feel I've gone to Everest. I'm at base camp in drama, or base-plus-one... I can't remember what they're called – first-level camp, second-level camp... But, I think in drama terms, I'm at stage-one camp or whatever that's called. In comedy terms, I'm happy enough to feel that I've got to Everest. When you're doing gigs in French and playing Hollywood Bowl, then you... [laughs] ...you've gotta hit some kind of level. I mean, some people could've said, “Well, I did this great game show and got lots of people watching,” or, “I had this sitcom,” but that wasn't my Everest. My Everest was Hollywood Bowl...
JL: ...and Wembley.
EI: Yeah, Wembley – but particularly Hollywood Bowl and Madison Square Garden. You know, those two were crazy. And next I'm going to play Kathmandu – which is quite close to the base camp of Everest, actually! [laughs] And Delhi, and Moscow, and I'll be back in Paris, and I'll be doing gigs in English in Geneva and then French in Geneva. So, yeah. It is interesting. And, drama-wise, I'll keep pushing and exploring and see what I get.
JL: You mentioned earlier about hammering fun into your life. You seem to me – and I'm sure to other fans – like someone who has sort of an unassailable good attitude and positive approach to life. I'm wondering, do you ever feel overwhelmed and depressed, and if so, how do you cheer yourself up?
EI: Ahm... I get a bit pissed-off at things... There's clinical depression, which I don't seem to have, so I'm lucky about that... I'm a “glass is three-quarters full” person. But, then, I did struggle a long time to get going, and when I'd got going, I had worked out how to... So, today I had a bit of a tough day. I had a big argument over a thing – trying to sort something out. Now, in two hours' time, I'm gonna be doing a gig in French in the middle of London. It's a small room, so I'm not really earning much cash out of it... but, still, you're earning, and playing a crowd, so I've got to feel pretty good about life – about things – if people are gonna be there... They love that I'm doing it in French, 'cause no one's done that ever. It's part of my politics. A lot of people moan about the European Union, but I'm gonna keep fighting for it – just because, if we don't, I don't think the world's gonna make it. If the European Union can't work, then we'll never make it as a world, is my logic. Because we have to have the whole world as a melting pot. We've gotta have a level playing field for everyone. And that's the basis of what the European Union is about: trying to make it economically good for everyone in all the countries of Europe, to come up with new ideas, to make things, to have pensions, to have national health. And America, I think, almost has got national health! There was that amazing decision you had in the Supreme Court which blew my mind! I thought it was gonna go the other way...
JL: Yeah, that's certainly a vision I think we're all hoping for.
EI: Except for the Nazis.
JL: [laughs] They've always got their own thing going on.
EI: Yeah, I'm trying to encourage people to hate Nazis. Not do hate crimes against them – just hate them. They wake up hating everyone else, so I think we do preemptive hate towards them...
'Bullet in the Face' stars Max Williams, Neil Napier, Jessica Steen, Kate Kelton (Haven), Eddie Izzard, and Eric Roberts (The Dark Knight, The Expendables). It premieres in two parts: Thursday, August 16, and Friday, August 17, at 10pm ET/PT on IFC.