Comedian-actor Eddie Izzard lives up to both parts of his hyphenate, though thanks to the awards he's won for his stand-up specials, the "comedian" part usually gets top billing. As a stand-up, Izzard is known for his dizzying stream-of-consciousness monologues, as well as for his occasional onstage cross-dressing. As an actor, however, he tends to play smaller, darker character roles—villains (My Super Ex-Girlfriend), historical figures (Charlie Chaplin, Lenny Bruce), and in one case, a wise-ass hacker (Ocean's 13). But Izzard's latest role, in FX's The Riches as Wayne Malloy, paterfamilias of a clan of con men, has let him add a few more labels to his hyphenate: "TV star" and "writer." Recently, The A.V. Club spoke to Izzard about writing for TV, never writing for stand-up, and the difference between dramatic and comedic actors.
The A.V. Club: You've been performing a bit in L.A. recently, right?
Eddie Izzard: Have I been performing? Yes, yes, I have been performing in L.A. I try to keep performing as much as possible—I just like to. I used to take huge gaps off between gigs, now I just like to do stand-up gigs as much as I can.
AVC: How was it for you when you had long breaks from performing?
EI: Well, it's fine. If I'm doing stand-up regularly, I like it. If you have breaks for too long and you come back into it, the first time back in is all a little bit weird. It's riding a bicycle, you can get back on it, but it's just a little bit—I don't know quite what's going on, and then I get back in it. It's better to be constantly doing it, and that way I can just seamlessly leap onstage. I like ad-libbing as much as I can, so that needs a certain amount of practice, a certain amount of speed and being happy with what you're talking about, or interested in what you're talking about, that's one of the main things.
AVC: You tend to work kind of stream-of-consciousness. How do you approach that?
EI: It sounds kind of crazy, but the trick is, it's like a conversation. It's a one-sided conversation, so it's the equivalent of some sort of thing where you're passionate about a subject, and you go "Let me tell you what I've learned about fly-fishing. Here's what I know about the Israeli-Palestinian situation." So you can just unload a whole bunch of information. That's what I think about it: Have a one-sided conversation, and then make it phenomenally interesting. And that's how you can bring in stuff that you haven't talked about before.
AVC: Have you always worked that way?
EI: Mmm, yes and no. It's kind of advanced. You can't start off doing stand-up this way, I don't think, because initially, you're just trying to get the laughs. No one trusts you, no one wants to book you, so you've got to be very sharp on the laughs, got to get your gag-rate up—no matter what you're talking about, it doesn't really matter, as long as it's funny. If you get experienced, you can hopefully stay funny when you're talking about something that might be interesting to you and hopefully interesting to an audience. That way, you can go stream-of-consciousness, you're talking about one subject, then you're going to another subject, and then you go off on a tangent, and all you got to do is keep the gate in your mind open, you've got to. If you ever get fear in your brain, then you think, "Oh, I'm not going to be able to do this, it isn't going to work any more," and it suddenly stops. You think you can't do it, and you suddenly can't. And then it stops and you get fear and then you're just stammering. It's a little dodgy, it's like walking a tightrope and having a conversation at the same time.
AVC: You've been called a comedian's comedian. What do you think about that?
EI: That's a good label for a comedian. If you go down as a comedian's comedian, that's basically meaning other comedians are hopefully feeling that you're doing okay. But it could also mean that the public doesn't really know about you. Like, Andy Kaufman would have gone down as a comedian's comedian. Sometimes I think the audience was left a bit bewildered about what Andy Kaufman was trying to do. And I think I'm more "cult," I actively try to be less well-known in comedy. Bit of a weird one, because I wanted to do drama. I wanted to be less well-known in comedy. So that's sort of actively push-pull. If you get too well-known, you can never be a comedian's comedian, it just won't sit well. But I'm fine with that. I'm fine with that label.
AVC: So you'd really rather be known as a dramatic actor instead of a comedian?
EI: I'd like to be known as both. [Laughs.] I mean, you're not really allowed to do that, but I'm attempting to. It's just a little shaky. Because comedy is like a very cokey, druggy sugar. You get hits of comedy, and it's very, "More, give me more of that stuff," because serotonin is being released in the brain. So it's basically, everyone becomes serotonin junkies, and we are serotonin dealers. And that's what being a comedian is about. But if you're a dramatic actor, I think you're more someone who gives vitamins and minerals and proteins and carbohydrates. Like a meal, a much slower-burn thing. It's something that will get to you over a period of time, like a meal should. Where sugar, you just take one bite of some cake and go "Wow, this is great." Boom, instant gratification. And if you get too well-known in comedy, I do believe it blocks people from taking you in drama.
AVC: Is that why you've gravitated toward darker characters in movies and on TV? You usually play crafty guys and villains. Is that a conscious choice?
EI: Yeah, initially, I was pushing for villains and darker, twisty characters because I felt there was a link between… I felt audiences are happier to take comedy people who play darker people because there's a link between the psychosis of comedy and the psychosis of being a twisted character. They both have twists, but one just takes it to a darker, more menacing place. And the other takes it to a crazy, bonkers place. So that's why I did that. But then I think my natural energy is a kind of bright energy. And so I feel that Wayne Malloy in The Riches is much closer to me—even though he's sort of on the illegal side of the fence, he's still trying to do something decent with his family. And I think that works better with my personality.
AVC: You've written some Riches episodes, right?
EI: Well, I was in the writers' room, so I pitched stories in, but I didn't actually write any episodes on this season.
AVC: Was that the first time you were in a writers' room in that way?
EI: Yes, it was. I particularly wanted to be in the writers' room because my stand-up is very stream-of-consciousness, and a good film or television drama needs structure. And it's structure that I was hungry to know about, to see it used, from germinating to actual delivery. And so it was great to be an exec producer and then be in the writers' room, because I could see that process happening in front of my eyes. And in the long term, the idea is that I definitely want to create films, where I'm actually going to write them, or write the treatment for them and get someone else to write them. Quite how I'm going to do that, I'm not sure. Because it is quite intensive, and I developed a mode of working in stand-up that's quite free-floating and undisciplined. The undisciplined thing is how stand-up works, and to be a writer, you have to be very disciplined. It slightly works against it. But I did really want to be in that writers' room and just see it happening.
AVC: It's also probably different because when you're writing stand-up, you're writing for yourself, and if you're in a writers' room, you're collaborating and writing for other characters.
EI: That's true, but I don't actually write for stand-up, is the thing. I just sort of ad-lib it. So every gig has some bits of material that are old, just a few months old, some just last week, and some bits I'm making up on the spot.
AVC: You never actually write any of it down?
EI: I don't write it down, no. There's a number of people that work this way, I think Richard Pryor used to work that way. That's why it feels very flowing and conversational, because it is actually a conversation. Some people say it feels all ad-libbed and some of it's not, but it's not supposed to be ad-libbed, it's just supposed to be conversational. It looks loose, so some people jump to the conclusion that I made all of it up on the spot, and I haven't. One could do that, and I think some other stand-ups do do that, but that's not my method. My method's to be as loose or as tight as I want it.
AVC: Is it true that you started doing comedy in order to get into acting?
EI: Yeah, when I was a kid in school, when I was 7, I wanted to act. So I just was trying to get into acting when I was in school, and then I got into Monty Python and realized they wrote their own stuff. And they were in it, so I thought, "Well, that's what I'll do, I'll write my own stuff." And I liked comedy, and I think I got laughs in some sort of sketch thing I'd done in front of the school. And I thought, "Maybe I can do comedy, because it seems fun, getting laughs." So that's how I got into it. Initially, when I got into stand-up, it was so I could be performing in front of audiences. That's what I wanted to do. And I sort of dumped drama. And when it took so long for my comedy to take off—by the time it did take off, when I was 30 or so, I decided to say "No, fuck it, I'm going to go for drama as well. I want two parallel things at the same time." Which is what I've attempted to do. I had a separate drama agent since 1993.
AVC: Do you enjoy working in television, as opposed to film?
EI: Well, it's a tough schedule. You do an episode of 45 minutes of television in seven days. And if we did 90 minutes, it would take 14 days, and that's an entire film length, which normally takes three months to do. So, an incredible pace. I do like it. I'm very happy to do it, if they made it eight days, or maybe nine days an episode, I would be really happy. But it's seven, and that's what it is, so I deal with it.
AVC: Do you watch television?
EI: I do. Not endlessly, a lot of Discovery Channel and History Channel stuff. I don't really sit down and say "I'm only going to watch this." But I will do stuff, my stand-up is livid with history and science, so if they do a program on sharks, I'll know about sharks. And if they do it on the Byzantine, ByZANtine as we call it, period, then I was just wondering what the hell the Byzantine period was, I think it was around the time of Constantinople. But anyway, there are all these periods in history where you can just get research done for you and put it into a show.
AVC: That's an easy way to do research.
EI: Yeah, that and Wikipedia. That makes everything easier. Gives me something to talk about.