Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Although the U.K.’s population knows Eddie Izzard first and foremost as a stand-up comedian, in the the U.S. he’s predominantly known as an actor. In addition to roles in such high-profile films as Mystery Men, Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen, and Across The Universe, Izzard also spent two seasons co-starring with Minnie Driver in the FX series The Riches and has had recurring roles on Showtime’s United States Of Tara and NBC’s Hannibal. Currently, Izzard can be seen portraying the devious Wolfe in the PlayStation adaptation of Brian Michael Bendis’ new comic book series, Powers.
A.V. Club: How do you feel about doing a show that’s going to be broadcast through PlayStation? Are you excited about the medium?
Eddie Izzard: I like to do really good, creative dramatic work… You wouldn’t immediately think “quality drama” with PlayStation, because PlayStation is gaming, and gaming would be action-driven. And I’m a big action movie fan, but I hope that, like in Game Of Thrones, which has action, it also has a lot of layered performing, and the story is driven in an interesting and intriguing way. That is what I hope we are doing with Powers. Seeing as we are, I think, the first show on PlayStation, we can set a benchmark that is good as opposed to schlocky. I just didn’t want to be “Ziff! Bam! Whack!” [Laughs.] It’s got to have these layers, because that’s what’s intriguing. And I was a big fan of Game Of Thrones, so somewhere in my head, I hope we’re going in that direction. I feel we’re going in that direction.
AVC: How familiar you were with the original Powers comics beforehand?
EI: I haven’t gone in there, because they’re going a different place. It’s Brian Bendis who wrote the comic books, and he likes the idea of the story kind of running concurrently with the books, but they’re not necessarily going to be the same. They have their own separate life. So I’ve built Wolfe to be driving in a somewhat different direction, and I didn’t want to get taken down the road he actually has gone down. I wanted to built him in a way I chose, taking the essence from the story that Charlie [Huston] is writing and elements that I’ve been putting into him. So I chose to make him English, I chose to make him—well, he was immortal in the comic books, I believe, but he’s only 100 years old in our story. But he’s older than everyone else. So I’ve chosen to drive him in that direction, to see where that takes us.
AVC: Wolfe is one of the so-called Powers. How does he view humans?
EI: I think sees humans as lesser, in the Nietzschean way. His whole thing is to accept who you are and live the life you want to live. Powers have just been chosen for a higher calling, and the powers that Wolfe has been given, he was trying to restrict. It’s a bit like how, in humanity, we have abilities in war time—maybe say something like World War II—where people did things which were much outside our usual human behavioral traits. But if you go back to caveman times or even up to the Vikings or whatever, we’d always have the fight-or-flight, the killing and living or else dying. And because his powers are so much larger, he was trying to control them, and that went tragically wrong. He fell off the wagon, basically, back in the day, before our story picks up with us, so that’s why he’s in the prison called The Shaft. But he’s come ’round to different conclusions, having been essentially 20 years in there.
AVC: Can you talk about the powers that he possesses, including the somewhat disconcerting way in which he’s able to acquire new powers?
EI: I’m supposed to not give spoilers, so I’m trying to work out what are spoilers and what aren’t. I don’t think this is a problem, though: He has super speed, super strength, and power absorption. He can absorb powers by eating people, which he used to control. And having just come out of Hannibal, it’s nothing like that. [Laughs.]
That’s a very psychopathic thing, on Hannibal, whereas it’s very animalistic for Wolfe. He does take and consume, which actually harkens back to cannibalism in the old days, from what we know of it. But people would conquer enemies and then cannibalistic behavior would happen, and that was to absorb their powers and strength and whatever. But it also apparently used to be done within family, to keep everything within the family… and this is historic of how humans did things, which is curious.
But Wolfe just inhales these powers, in a very visceral way. So, yeah, strength, speed, absorption… essentially that he can take from other people, so if he does eat and take in other Powers, he gets their powers as well. So it can be just a myriad of powers. That’s why it’s a confusing truckload. It’s just dangerous.
Open Fire (1994)—“Rich”
AVC: We usually try to ask everyone about their first on-camera role, and if we skip past the stand-up for the time being, then it looks like it would be been in a TV movie titled Open Fire.
EI: Yes. Very good! Did you see who the director was? Paul Greengrass. Isn’t that good? [Laughs.] I’m not quite sure why Paul chose me, because my acting chops were not quite up to speed at that point. I’d like to say that he could see into the future, because I now feel that I’m fighting with a full deck, whereas initially I was slightly floundering around because I wanted to do good and I knew I didn’t want things to be comedic. But the character was a nightclub owner, and the guy who was playing the lead character came in and stuck a gun in his mouth, and… I decided to eat an apple. I learned a lot of technique on that day, including, “Don’t eat apples when people are gonna stick guns in your mouth, because your mouth tastes of gun and apple after take 15.”
It was a short scene, and it was one day of shooting, but I was pleased to get it. But, yeah, that was the beginning of my getting into drama, because I got a separate dramatic agent. This is the thing: I’d been pushing to separate the comedy from the drama and do dramatic roles, so that was the first role that came in. And I think it probably flew to me by accident. [Laughs.]
AVC: I read somewhere that you first got interested in pursuing comedy at the age of 7.
EI: Well, actually, that was drama, really. Or performing. I saw a kid on a stage doing something that I think was either Mother Courage or… something. Anyway, he was getting applause for it. [Laughs.] Recognition for it. Maybe even laughter. But, yes, that was when I was 7, and that was just drama. I thought, “I want to do plays. I want to be in plays. That’s it.” And then I discovered [Monty] Python later. And I wasn’t getting any good roles—they weren’t giving me any good roles—so somewhere around 12, 13, 14, I said, “Right, forget drama, I’ll just do comedy.” That was my thought, and I pushed forward with comedy from then.
But before that I was just trying to get into any acting roles I could, but they wouldn’t give me any, either because I was terrible or because they thought I was terrible. And… I might’ve been terrible. [Laughs.] Because I think I really wanted to be good, and I found, actually, when I got into professional acting, that you can’t perform either stand-up or drama in that way. You’ve just got to be in the moment. And then it will be good—or better—than wanting to be a really bad guy, a really interesting guy, a really fucked-up guy, a really whatever the character is. You can’t want that. You have to just prepare it and let it go.
And I knew this, so I kept working on technique, I kept thinking about how it should be. I just knew that you shouldn’t act like a big theatrical actor. I knew that shouldn’t be it. But, yeah, at 7 I decided I was going to do it, and I was pretty consistent on that, even though you have to go through the motions. At 16, I made a double pact with myself: “Right, I’m definitely doing this. I’ve reaffirmed my decision. I’m going into acting or performing, however I want to term it.” Even though the careers people at school were saying, “Do you want to this or do you want to do that?” And I was saying, “Maybe civil engineer. Maybe this, maybe that.” I had to say that, but I knew that I wasn’t going to do it.
Across The Universe (2007)—“Mr. Kite”
EI: I remember turning up, and I said to [director] Julie Taymor, “Well, how do we do this? Do I try and sing it? Because I’ve got a voice in me, but I haven’t really sung in things. Or should I speak-sing it, like Rex Harrison?” And she said, “Well, just try it and see what happens.” So we recorded it three times, and I ad-libbed all over the place, and she kept the bits that she liked, and that was it, locked down. And then I had to memorize that and go and act it out, lip-synching to the track, which was really tricky, because it had this whole center bit that had no timing. The middle section was completely off the beat. It was, like, “Look, here’s… Henry the horse and…” I had to be able to deliver it the way I said it in the recording, with no beats in there, which was incredibly complicated. But it was great fun to do. People seemed to like it.
The Riches (2007-08)—“Wayne Malloy / Doug Rich”
EI: Great to be given that role, great to do it. We would’ve liked for it to have gone on. We were having fun. It was my drama school, really. I went to a film drama school called The Riches, working with great people and great stories and stuff, and just working out how to prepare, get yourself in the moment, line up, and shoot it. Because everything was so fast. In seven days, we would shoot 45 minutes of drama. And it still goes on. People still come up to me: “I loved The Riches!” Even though we stopped doing it in 2008.
AVC: At the time The Riches ended, you had talked about how a movie was in the works.
EI: There was the idea of doing a script, but we realized there was an incredible amount of hurdles, and the economy went down the tubes, too. That was in 2008 and 2009, when everything was packing up, so finances became incredibly hard. So we have left it for the moment.
AVC: Minnie Driver said, “Never say never.” Would you still be up for doing the movie if it somehow became viable?
EI: Oh, yeah. You never say never. [Laughs.]
Mystery Men (1999)—“Tony P”
My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006)—“Professor Bedlam / Barry”
AVC: You had been in superhero comedies like Mystery Men and My Super Ex-Girlfriend. Is it fun on Powers to be able to play “superhero” material in a dramatic setting?
EI: Yes, indeed. This seems to follow on from what I’ve done from Treasure Island, Lost Christmas, which is great, Castles In The Sky, which just came out in Britain, and Hannibal. And then to go into Powers, it’s a continuation from where I was going before. I’m really enjoying work now. I’ve got my feet under the table. I just want to do dramas. I only did the two comedies because… Well, I sort of relaxed on Super Ex-Girlfriend. With Mystery Men, they just said, “You’ve just got to Hollywood. You’ve got to do something now! And there’s this role…” And I was trying to pursuantly avoid doing comedies. But it was fun. I played both those roles… I tried to play them straight, as opposed to goofing them up. But, yeah, I’m very happy now with the roles that I’m getting offered, and I’ve got another five-and-a-half years to enjoy doing things before politics. [Laughs.]
The Cat’s Meow (2001)—“Charlie Chaplin”
AVC: Was it intimidating playing someone as iconic as Chaplin?
EI: No, I didn’t find it intimidating, actually. I felt quite a lot of kinship with him. And it wasn’t like I was playing him in 1935 or ’25 or even ’45. Time had passed to the extent where he’d become historical, and I think the story that we did was actually a real story. I think that could’ve actually been what happened, the whole Thomas Ince thing: how did he die, why was he cremated instantaneously, and Hearst. Curious. A curious story, that. But great to play him. I tried to make him a little verbally flip, because he was more physically… I think he was always playing as if it were to the camera, if you’ve seen the live shots of him when he’s going to an opening night or something like that. And the skills that he had were beyond my ability to throw together. You just couldn’t really compete with him. He was too athletic at that.
But I think that relationship with Marion Davies was real. They did do a fake marriage, and they were caught on that boat. They were on that boat a lot. Even the weekend before, I think they were on that boat. And it’s in the documentary on Hearst and Davies that came out just after we did the film [Captured On Film: The True Story Of Marion Davies]. In it, they talk about them being married and about Chaplin being caught in somebody’s cabin, making love. Which I assume means heavy snogging, or heavy kissing, as opposed to gettin’ it on. [Laughs.]
The Good Wife (2011)—“James Thrush”
EI: That just flew in. And it seemed like another good project to do, so I was very happy to do that.
AVC: So they approached you specifically and said, “Would you please play this?
EI: Yeah! It was an offer, so I grabbed at it. They’re good people to work with, they were were very easy to work with, and I really enjoyed it. And it was filming in New York as well, so it was all good. It was very quick, though. It was, like, two or three days filming. So it was in and out, and it would’ve been nice to do longer, but I used to have difficulty doing the one-off gigs like that. I found them trickier to do. But now I’m quite happy to come in and do small cameos and then disappear.
Velvet Goldmine (1998)—“Jerry Devine”
AVC: What was your glam rock history going into Velvet Goldmine? Had you been a fan?
EI: No, as an actual transvestite, I’m always doing all that stuff. [Laughs.] I was too young, really, for that period, and when it came to the New Romantics, I sort of even avoided that, because I thought it was too close to where I was. And rock ’n’ roll is more of a surface thing, and then you can say, “Okay, that was then, and now I’m moving into this period, and then I’m moving into this period.” And I just knew that the whole makeup/dresses kind of area of that was more real for me than it was in that period, because it felt like something that was just a character that would be pulled on. But great to get in and film it, and to live it, and to do an orgy filmed at 10 in the morning. [Laughs.] And to shoot up and down in Rolls-Royces, standing up and shouting at each other, smoking cigars… Yeah, I really enjoyed doing that. I was supposed to play a different manager the early manager, but I came in and said, “I’d like to play the early manager. I’d like to audition for that, please.” And Todd [Haynes] let me audition for that, and he gave me the role. So, yeah, that was great. It was a lot of fun.
Live 8 (2005)—Midge Ure’s pianist on “Vienna”
AVC: Speaking of the New Romantics: How did you come to play piano on Ultravox’s “Vienna” when Midge Ure performed at Live 8?
EI: I thought this was a good thing to campaign for, so I went up to Edinburgh to help campaign ’round the Live 8 time and was sort of active doing stuff up there, so I felt I’d help out. And then they said the whole gig was going to come up to Murrayfield [Stadium] in Edinburgh, and I was asked to do that gig, I think. To do a bit of stand-up. So I said, “Fine, well, I’ll stick around to do anything I can to help in the meantime.” So I was hanging out with Midge Ure, because most people were down in London at this point, and Midge Ure said, “We need someone to play the piano.” And I said, “Well, I can play the piano.” And they said, “Well, see if you can do it.” And it was interesting, because we were on the thrust stage, and it was raining, so it was actually raining on the piano. That’s the only gig I’ve ever played on the piano, and I always wanted to play the piano when I was a kid. I taught myself, so I was quite confident… about the piano. Midge was saying, “You’re probably worried about this,” and I said, “No, I’m more worried about the stand-up!” [Laughs.] Because stand-up when everyone’s ready for a music gig is quite tricky, because they’re going, “No! We can’t hear! We just want a singer on!” But, yeah, I just looked at it recently, about a month ago, and… I’m having a good time. That was my first gig: 60,000 people is my first gig on the piano.
AVC: It’s all downhill from there.
EI: No, I’ve just got to keep it at 60,000 people. I’ll only play stadiums or arenas!
[Writer’s note: I interviewed Midge Ure not long after this conversation took place, and I got his side of the story: “We ended up hanging out for two or three days prior to the concert, while I was trying to organize all of the elements and put it together,” confirmed Ure. “I happened to find [Izzard] sitting onstage one day in this big, empty rugby stadium, tinkling on the piano, playing really well. And I said, ‘Well, you kept that quiet!’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s just something I do.’ I said, ‘Great! Learn the piano part for ‘Vienna,’ and you come on and do it with me!’ But for a man who can walk out in front of thousands of people and make them laugh, which is a really difficult task, he was petrified to walk on and play the piano. He did a good job, but he was like a rabbit in headlights!”]
All The Queen’s Men (2001)—“Tony”
Valkyrie (2008)—“General Erich Fellgiebel”
EI: [All The Queen’s Men] was great fun, doing that with Matt LeBlanc. And it was in Vienna, with Stefan Ruzowitzky, who’s now won an Oscar. He was Oscar-nominated before that, but he’s got his Oscar since then. Unfortunately, that film got sat on very heavily, but I think it’s better than that. But it was incredibly hot. I didn’t realize it gets that hot down in Budapest. We were down there, down by Lake Balaton. I also did Valkyrie, and I must say, having done two films set around wartime, it’s crazy—and a little bit scary—how you get used to having Nazi flags flying around after awhile. [Laughs.] But, yeah, so I enjoyed doing it, and… was it supposed to be comedy? I’m not sure!
EI: Yeah, I suppose it was. But, again, I approached it more dramatically than that. The character was a gay transgender person, but I made them bisexual transgender. That kind of worked better for me. That was five weeks? Six weeks in Vienna. And my dad went on honeymoon to Vienna, so when I said, “I’m in Vienna,” he said, “Oh, yeah? Where?” I said, “What do you want? What street?” He said, “Yeah! Tell me the street!” So he still knew Vienna from his time when he’d been there on his honeymoon with my mom!
Mockingbird Lane (2012)—“Grandpa”
Hannibal (2013-14)—“Dr. Abel Gideon”
AVC: Did Hannibal come about because Bryan Fuller felt bad that Mockingbird Lane didn’t take off?
EI: Not bad, I don’t think, but with that having happened, he moved on to Hannibal, and he threw that role out to me. Mockingbird Lane had gone well, but it came in with a lot of baggage. The set had already been made in Vancouver, they were going to shoot it in Vancouver, and then they moved it down. So it had this baggage with it, but people seemed to like what I did. I got some great reviews for it. I suggested the Muddy Waters track, “Mannish Boy,” for the end, which I really liked.
AVC: At least NBC aired Mockingbird Lane. They could’ve just shelved it.
EI: Yes! That’s rare, isn’t it? But unfortunately it didn’t take off, so I went into Hannibal. I like working with Bryan, I think he liked worked with me, so… this role was there, and I said, “Yes, I’d like to do it.” And then he said, “Well, okay, then I’ll beef up the scenes more.” And I liked the idea that he was a pretender to the throne of Hannibal Lecter, that he was a competitor or trying to be a competitor. But Hannibal… I’ve only done five episodes between the first two seasons, but that’s gotten a huge reaction, and I’ve just gone and done an episode for season three. So, yeah, it’s been great working with Bryan Fuller all around. I’m very happy with that.
The Avengers (1998)—“Bailey”
AVC: Presumably you were well familiar with the original British series.
EI: Oh, yeah, I was a big fan of that. Have you seen the film? I think they must’ve shown it in tests, and it wasn’t quite getting the reaction they wanted it to, so they thought, “Well, we’ll put it all out, and the reviewers won’t get advance copies.” So I think people who were going to review it, they were kind of passionate on that, and they kind of got the hump. ”We’re not allowed to review it before it comes out?” So they’d already sharpened their blades before it came out. So it was really attacked, but… I think it’s fine! But it’s got this big, black mark over it.
AVC: People obviously compare it to the original series, but it never seemed as bad as all that.
EI: No. It was fun to do. And I was back at Pinewood [Studios], which I’d broken into when I was 15, and… yeah, it was a big, fun production to be involved in. And doing scenes with Sean Connery? [Grins.] That was crazy. Unfortunately, I think people aren’t going to really find it. They aren’t going to look for it because of its reputation.
AVC: Sorry, if we could just jump back for a second: How did you break into Pinewood Studios?
EI: [Laughs.] To get into films! I was trying to break into films, so I thought I’d just go to the film studios and see if I could work out how I could get into a film. I was very logical about things: I’d been watching films, I wanted to be an actor, and I thought, “These films on the telly, real people make them. They don’t just turn out from a factory where they just push out these things. People make them separately, then they put them on the screens in the cinema, so they must make them somewhere.” And at the bottom it said, “Filmed at Pinewood Studios, Iver Heath, Bucks.” So I thought, “Well, then, I must go to Iver Heath, Bucks, to Pinewood Studios!”
So I got a map of Britain—this is before Google and the Internet—that had every town in the whole of the U.K. listed, and I found it alphabetically. I took a train to London, I took a tube to Uxbridge, and I took a bus to Iver Heath, and then I said, “Is Pinewood Studios here?” They said, “Half a mile down the road!” So I walked down the road, I walked up to the front gate, this gabled entrance, and I said, “Can I come in? I’m going to work in films.” And they said, “No! Fuck off!” [Laughs.]
So I thought, “Well, that’s no good, because I’ve come miles!” So I found there was a second entrance, so that’s when I decided not to ask at this entrance and just watch people. And some people were just walking in, some people were showing documents and giving them things to check, but the people who seemed to know what they were doing were just marching in. So I thought, “Well, I’m just going to march in.” I don’t know if I had something out, but if I did I probably held it like this. [Looks straight ahead and mimes flashing an ID.] That always looks good. So I marched in—and suddenly I was in. It’s like Where Eagles Dare, where Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood get into the Schloss Adler. [Laughs.]
So I got in, and then I just crept around in Pinewood Studios, trying to get a job. I failed after, like, 30 minutes. There was nothing there that said, “We need people! We need this kid!” I just thought it might be like Hollywood, where they just discover you. “You! You’re in!” But no. It took longer.