Prolific entertainer Eddie Izzard hits Las Vegas as part of 50-city tour
Eddie Izzard transcended his identity as a transvestite comedian early on and has become one of the world’s most successful, prolific and beloved entertainers. He plans to hit all 50 states on his current Force Majeure tour, which stops at the Palms from June 12-13, and perform in six languages before laying the groundwork for his 2020 campaign for mayor of London. Prior to entering the political realm, he’ll star in Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan’s upcoming series about the Salem witch trials, and can be currently seen as “Big Bad” Wolfe in PlayStation’s streaming series Powers. He recently spoke with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen.
I read about your efforts to do stand-up in French and German, but how far along are you in being able to perform in Russian and Arabic?
Russian and Arabic I just started on. Spanish, I did seven days in Madrid to road test it. I did the show in English on the first night and did three minutes in Spanish, and then on the second night I did six minutes in Spanish and built it up to 15 minutes. I’ve worked up this radical process I’ve developed with my brother Mark, who is a language expert. He translates the shows. I could learn the shows like a play, which I didn’t initially want to do, but then I thought, “This is the best way to get it on its feet—learn it like a play, say it line by line by line.” The comedy is created by me, the words are the same words in English, but I’m flipping them into another language. I’ve taken out all the national references so everyone will get everything—I already know that because I’ve done it in two languages. Once I’ve learned the whole thing and I can deliver it, then I start learning the language and I will build that up. That’s how I’m going to do it: in Spanish, and then Russian and then Arabic. That’s the plan.
Free-association is an important part of your comedy. Are you able to do that in other languages?
You mean ad-libbing?
No, you can’t do that. In French I’m 70 percent fluent, so I can do that. In German I’m 40 percent fluent, so I can do it a little bit. In Spanish I’ve only had seven lessons, so I absolutely cannot do that. I can only do them line by line, but the idea is I get the show on its feet. Then I’m touring in Spanish-speaking countries and cities, and then I’m learning and speaking Spanish every day. I will gradually be able to do sentences and then get conversations going. I will push it, and once I’ve gotten to a certain level with it … you fall back a bit, but I’ll keep that level up. I’m just going to push it as hard as I can.
I am two-thirds of the way through [2012 U.K. mini-series] Treasure Island. I know it’s been a few years for you, but it was brand new to me. I enjoyed your performance as Long John Silver.
Thank you. Yeah, I loved doing it. To play a pirate … it was interesting. All the actors who were playing the officers and not the pirates in it, were constantly saying, “I wish I was a pirate.” It was beautiful, and I had to be on one leg all the time, which was tricky. But it was great, especially the second half going in towards the end. It really took me into another place in acting. For me, the only way I can get good at a thing is by doing a thing. In 10 weeks of filming on location, you just get better at it.
It did seem like a progression for you and you seemed like you really relished the role.
He’s a conflicted role. I played him like Churchill. Churchill changed parties twice. … No one actually does it. He did it twice, which is crazy, and Churchill was so into ego and making himself a grand man, and feeling he’s always right. He could be, not jealous, but totally self-obsessive—a lot of self-obsession, and totally wrong on a number of ideas, very right in 1940 against Hitler. Probably needed Hitler to start the war to make himself into the great prime minister because if Hitler hadn’t gone to war, if Hitler had stopped after Czechoslovakia, probably he could have just sat there and then we wouldn’t have gone to war.
Anyway, interesting character, John Silver. I like the fact that it was cast with so many ethnic backgrounds, different skin colors, bits from all over the place, just like pirates would have been. And that very barren, wild eastern coast of Puerto Rico that we were on, that was very dangerous. If you got caught in that water, if you fell into sea, it would dash your head on those rocks. You’d never get out. You’d be so lucky if you managed because the rocks were just treacherous, and we were playing in and around there, trying to not get that close to them.
It was a beautiful location. I actually didn’t realize until you broached the subject what a politician your Long John Silver was.
Yeah, he was, I’d say, a cutthroat politician. He would blow whichever way the wind was going. He’s an opportunist, and someone who would lie through his teeth. In he the end he was benign. A benign rascal is how I’d see John Silver. We called him “John” all the time, which I liked, as opposed to “Captain,” and I decided not to use a West Country accent and go for a London accent, which I thought was interesting.
Do you think that worked the Machiavellian aspects out of your system before your possible future mayoral run?
That’s not how I would see it. The acting roles I could plumb whatever depth for whatever emotions I could get to. I mean in Hannibal I played a serial killer, Dr. Abel Gideon. That is one day job, and then I’m going to go into politics and that will be a different job, which is all about going for your dreams, aspirational, encouraging wealth creation, having a safety net, giving everyone a fair chance in life. I will push very hard for that even though we [Britain’s Labor Party] just lost an election—that wasn’t fun—I still stand for what I stand for and I still fight for what I believe in.
Was this last election your most active as far as participating in the process?
Yeah, in the 2010 election I was an activist in 26 constituencies, and this one I was in 62 constituencies. I definitely got way more experience. I got into a completely different place by doing it, and this will help me, I hope, when I run for office in five years time. It’s never great to lose something, and it’s quite palpable. In the creative area, you just don’t get given gigs. It’s a slightly different beast. Politics can just be treacherous, people attacking you. Whatever you do some people will attack you. You have to get used to giving it back.
I saw some of the footage [of Izzard being confronted by Scottish separatists] in Scotland.
Yeah, people can’t stop me by screaming at me. That’s not gonna work.
You’re so busy already. How much sleep do you need?
I get quite a lot of sleep. I like sleep, actually. I just think you get one life, so let’s live it to the full(est).
How do you manage the workload?
I’ve got this thing: If you’re doing something that you enjoy doing, then it’s not difficult. If I was doing a filing—which needs to be done, you need to get things filed—if I was doing that every day five days a week, I would be longing to get out of my filing job and go do something, have the break in the week, have the holiday, the paid holiday. That’d be great. That would be the biggest thing. What I’m doing as a performer, I spent years trying to get it going. I’m into acting. With Gus Van Sant directing the new Jenji Kohan show for HBO, the pilot for that, just before that I was touring Australia I auditioned for that in Brisbane in a hotel room. I’m now touring America, playing Hollywood Bowl on Saturday June 6th, then I’m going to be touring France in French, so it’s all very positive things as opposed to packing things into a filing cabinet. It’s so much more exciting. It actually feels like a continuous working holiday. That’s what it feels like.
That’s what it seems like, now that you mention it.
I’m putting a lot in, but there’s a lot going back. I do these Q&As after the show and talk to people and get people’s points of view. It keeps me going. I like doing it. I want to do it. I spent years trying to get it going and I want to keep it going.
Do you think you’ve helped the French become more amenable to stand-up? I think I read that you’re going to be back there in the fall.
They started it in 2006. A very well-known comedian in France called Jamel Debbouze, he started the [French television show] Jamel Comedy Club, and he encouraged them to actively pick up the microphone and start using that—a lot of the North African second-generation kids out of Morocco and Algeria. He was looking into black rap, I believe. Rap from the black part of America, like a street political thing, because they had a resistance to Anglo-Saxon stuff, so it started with Anglo-Saxon and there was a push back on that because it was, “Oh, the Americans. The Brits,” as if we combined to do something. And so they resist that. In 2006 they started doing stand-up, looking into something else, and now it’s getting more and more known. So now an English guy … I got a great quote from a magazine in France. I’m blowing my own trumpet, but it says, “The best French stand-up is an English guy born in Yemen,” which is where I was born. I distinctly like the look of that thing. I don’t think I’m that big over there, but I think … hopefully I’m up there, especially this show Force Majeure, where I’m touring in 15 French speaking cities. The level of that French will be up there with really good French, really at a good level, whereas my standard spoken French is a little below that—a little broken and I get endings wrong and stuff. The show that I will learn will be very smooth. It’s going to be very fun, and no one’s ever done it. No English speaker’s ever toured France in French.
Why is this tour called Force Majeure?
If you look at it normally, it means “major force.” Force majeure—major force. I think we all have to be our own force majeures, our own forces of nature, to get through life. That’s how I see it, so that’s why I chose it. Life is like a river, and it can be very calm and smooth going, then it can turn into rapids and be rough going. … Hellish things can happen in life, beautiful things can happen, but you need to probably know how to navigate the river.
Are you still planning to perform in every state in the U.S. this year?
It won’t necessarily be this year, but I plan to perform Force Majeure here in every state. At the end of this leg we’ll be up to 36 states, then we’ve got 14 more to go.
I used the term “free-association” earlier in reference to your ad-libbing. I’ve talked with comedians a lot about this, and Robin Williams often comes up. I know you were close with him, and I see similar characteristics sometimes in the way you seem to be searching for the next ad-lib or the next direction to go in. You pause and hum to yourself for a second, or make a note in an imaginary notebook when a joke doesn’t quite go over. Being afraid to not fail has always been an important part of your career, but do you ever get genuinely scared sometimes, like a tightrope walker who all of a sudden realizes how high he is above the ground?
You can still have a situation where you would be scared. … My confidence is soaring. You can actually be entrepreneurial with your confidence. This is the interesting thing with it, but if I tried to go out and ad-lib a totally new show, even 20 minutes, fear would be right there. I was watching some of Robin last night on the Carson show, back in 1991, and he’s firing and firing. I would guess a lot of it was new, just shoving things together. I do that if I’m doing chat shows, but on stage I tend to craft it more into a perfect shape because I know in the end we record it and that recording becomes the absolute benchmark of what you’ve done. If you’re ad-libbing it can be really hit and miss the night they record the show. I think Robin was more freewheeling than I was. I could be more freewheeling but I decided to be more trying to get things into perfect shape, because once you’ve done it, it will be there for an eternity and you really won’t come back to it. You can go back and retour it, but that is the show. Whatever we shot in San Francisco became Dressed to Kill, and it just sits there forever. Those takes won’t disappear. Early takes, some of them disappear, but these ones won’t now.
For you, working with Monty Python and being a lifelong comedian, is that sort of like being a lifelong Led Zeppelin fan and being asked to play drums on the next reunion tour?
It’s being asked to sit in with the band, definitely. It’s an amazing thing. They are gods on the comedy Mount Olympus. Just to know them and have been onstage with them a couple of times, yeah, it’s phenomenal. I don’t know what to say to it more, because I can’t quite believe it’s happened. When they did the 10 gigs at the O2 [arena in London, last year] I went to seven of them. … For the last five—they did a chunk of five and then another five—for the last five I was just like “Oh, I’ll just go see Monty Python tonight.” That was just so weird to have grown up with it and never seen it live, any gig live, and then night after night I was going down the Thames on a riverboat, taking friends down. I bought tickets for friends and we just went down and saw the show. It was beautiful, and everyone was enjoying the shows. It was a wonderful time, and it’s great knowing them. The Led Zep analogy is correct. It’s like that.
The Pearl at Palms, 8 p.m. June 12-13, starting at $53 plus tax and fee. 702.944.3200