For a stand-up comedian, famous for wearing lipstick and dresses, Eddie Izzard is proving remarkably versatile in his new career of film star. With a work rate that would be the envy of any time and motion study, he has a series of films lined up for release in which he plays a cross-dressing soldier, the legendary Charlie Chaplin and the villain in a big-budget western.
First however is an opportunity to camp it up as the power-mad son of a corrupt duke in Revengers Tragedy, the 17th Century equivalent of Reservoir Dogs, adapted for the big screen by Alex Cox, the eccentric English director who previously brought us Repo Man, Sid and Nancy and Moviedrome, the BBC’s series of cult films.
Izzard is something of a conundrum. He likes dressing up in make-up and women’s clothes, but is not gay. He likes the idea of being gay, but is not attracted to men, and now describes himself as a "male lesbian". "I don’t only fancy women, I want to be a woman," he said recently, though he has also said he has been going through a butch phase and that frocks do not really go very well with beards.
So what will it be today? Trousers or dress? Neither. He arrives in black tee-shirt, blue denim jacket and a dark green and blue kilt which he tells me is Baird tartan. There is no family connection. "It looks good on me," he says. And undoubtedly it goes better with the sculpted beard and sideburns than anything he might pick up at Laura Ashley.
There is no Clan Izzard tartan. His father’s family were French, as is his surname, his mother’s came from Germany, and Izzard himself was born in Aden, in 1962, just as the colonial conflict was coming to a head.
Seeking a more peaceful existence, the Izzards relocated to the UK, though may have been a little misguided in their choice of Northern Ireland, before finally washing up on the south coast of England at Bexhill. Izzard says John Logie Baird also once lived there, so there is a tenuous Izzard-Baird link.
Izzard’s mother had died when he was six, which had a traumatic and lasting effect on him. He traces his desire to perform back to her death, and a cry for approval and attention. His self-deprecating stand-up routines would draw on his own life as if using comedy as therapy.
"I went off to St John’s boarding school in Porthcawl, Wales," he says on the Live at the Ambassadors video. "It was run by a very pleasant man called Mr Crump who we nicknamed The Man from Hell who We All Hate. Seeing as my Mum had just died I decided to cry relentlessly for about a year. Mr Crump would help me along with beatings when he could fit them in."
The recent concentration on acting, not just in films, but on the stage as well, was a deliberate career decision. It turns out Izzard never wanted to be a comedian at all and only did it because no one would give him a chance to act.
"I tried to do school plays over the years, and I couldn’t get into any," he says, "so I’ve been trying to write my own stuff since I was about 15 or 16 and took it to Sheffield University, and then I went up the Edinburgh Festival in 1981 for the first time."
He built a cult following, working relentlessly, busking at Covent Garden - "a good place to get your confidence... the biggest pitch maybe in the world", playing larger and larger halls, till he could sell out big West End theatres. In the late Nineties he conquered America and won an Emmy when his show was televised, but by that time he had already made the move to films.
It was hardly an auspicious start with supporting roles in a little-seen adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, with Bob Hoskins, and the ill-fated big-screen version of The Avengers, with Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman as the heroes, Sean Connery as a mad, kilted villain trying to control the weather and Izzard as his henchman. It flopped.
"I didn’t really do anything memorable, but it was great to be on the set and locations and I loved the size of it," says Izzard.
Fans will know he does a mean Connery impression. But did he share it with the great man? Not at the time apparently, but later he and Julia Ormond, Connery’s co-star in First Knight, ended up doing rival impressions in front of Connery. And? "He didn’t react," says Izzard.
"We didn’t actually say we were going to do them. We were just, I think, attempting to do them." So Connery did not exactly roll about laughing? Izzard looks slightly nonplussed. "He just didn’t say anything, as if we hadn’t done them."
Sight and Sound film magazine dismissed Izzard’s Avengers performance in two words - "chubbily unthreatening". His other films have been a mixed bag, in terms of quality and genre, including the underrated glam-rock drama Velvet Goldmine, the Hollywood superhero send-up Mystery Men and the acclaimed Shadow of the Vampire, in which Izzard was excellent as a German actor who thinks he is a genius, but is really dreadful.
The eclectic mixture is easily explained according to Izzard. "One of the main questions people say is, ‘So what attracted you to the role?’ But really up until now, it’s been, ‘Well, somebody offered it to me.’ I had no choice."
He admits he knew nothing about Jacobean drama before being approached to appear in Revengers Tragedy. He did not care for Shakespeare at school, let alone Middleton. "It intimidated me and I didn’t understand it. Someone would go, ‘Well, it’s about this, that and the other.’ And the teacher would go, ‘Very good, Simmons.’ And I would go, ‘Oh God, I don’t even know what he’s talking about.’ It just didn’t strike me naturally and I couldn’t work it out."
He knew Alex Cox would not take an over-reverential approach to the material - relocating it in a post-apocalypse Liverpool for a start. Derek Jacobi plays the corrupt duke, Izzard is his son Lussurioso and Christopher Eccleston is the mysterious stranger who rides into town looking for revenge. "There’s bodies everywhere," says Izzard enthusiastically.
Cox wanted a comic actor as Lussurioso, though it is not an obviously comic role, and also considered Steve Coogan. "It needed humour," says Izzard, who maintains his ignorance of the play was a plus, because he came to it with a completely open mind.
He is finding he has a greater choice of film roles now, helped no doubt by his heightened international profile. He plays Charlie Chaplin in The Cat’s Meow, the story of an episode in Chaplin’s life when he was a guest on the yacht of newspaper tycoon Willam Randolph Hearst, the model for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane.
Chaplin supposedly made overtures to Hearst’s girlfriend actress Marion Davies (played by Spider-Man star Kirsten Dunst) and another guest ended up dead, prompting speculation that Hearst shot the wrong man.
Izzard will be measured not only against a screen legend, but also against Robert Downey Jr in Richard Attenborough’s biopic. "Everyone has preconceptions," says Izzard. "That tramp character is how people picture him, but that had nothing to do with Chaplin on a boat over a weekend trying to get off with Marion Davies.
"I just dumped all that and went for this guy trying to get laid and played that part of him, because I don’t really look like Chaplin, but I was trying to give his essence, and not an impression of him."
He co-stars with Matt LeBlanc and James Cosmo in All the Queen’s Men, parachuting into Nazi Germany disguised as a woman. He describes it as "Some Like It Hot meets The Guns of Navarone". And continuing the butch phase is The Adventures of Mike S Blueberry, a big-budget adaptation of a French comicbook, shot in Mexico and southern Spain, home of the spaghetti westerns. Vincent Cassel plays the eponymous hero and Izzard is a German villain.
"The director plumped for me because he said, ‘You’ve got to be able to do a German accent.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m learning German, I’m going to do my stand-up in German, and I’ve played a German before in Shadow of the Vampire.’ So he said OK."
And that was all it needed? Not quite. "Suddenly I had to learn to ride like a crazy bastard... It was a lot of fun riding around with clever people, actors, who weren’t great horsemen. So it was quite dangerous just being on one of these big Mexican horses and then these feisty Spanish horses, which were smaller, but wired."
Mapping the future
Already Izzard, an avowed internationalist, is moving on. A Channel 4 three-part drama called 40 is in the can, ready for transmission in the spring and promising "tons of sex scenes". By that time Izzard will be in New York with the play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg to New York before setting off on a world tour.
"I have an attitude that if I work hard, keep pushing, keep learning, I can keep getting better."
He seems to have his life planned out years in advance and aims to return to films after the tour, hoping the ones that are currently awaiting release will have raised his profile with directors and producers by then. He reveals he has had some very provisional discussions about a big-screen version of The Prisoner and says he would love to play the role immortalised on TV by Patrick McGoohan.
"I do comedy to entertain myself and I do drama to explore myself," says Izzard, profoundly, as if it were a philosophy he has evolved over the course of a lifetime. Then he adds: "I just came up with that at lunchtime."