Eddie Izzard

The Cat's Meow

Interviewed by Jen Foley

“If I'm wearing a beard I'm serious. If I've got makeup on, I'm going to talk crap ”

The Cat's Meow sees Eddie Izzard turn his acting talents to the role of Charlie Chaplin. The film presents its version of what may have occured during a weekend party aboard William Randolph Hearst's yacht. Izzard spends his time trying to seduce Kirsten Dunst, playing the magnate's mistress Marion Davies. Tough gig...

How did it feel to be offered the part of Charlie Chaplin?

It felt fine, it was my eighth film or something, so I was looking for stuff like that... [Director] Peter Bogdanovich was told to come and see me [perform]. I didn't actually know what he had in mind, and when I met him I was wearing a skirt and makeup. And he said, "You can play Chaplin". And I said, "Well in my head I think I could, but I've got no idea how you could work that out from watching me talking a lot of surreal crap wearing makeup"... I had studied Chaplin in 1989, the centenary of his birth, when I was a street performer. I was interested in why Chaplin was so funny in the 20s and 30s but I didn't find him so funny now. And I saw it in the cinema and realised it was funny but you have to see it in the cinema. I studied his life and found it interesting, because he was obviously ambitious to go to America and do stuff [there], and I was ambitious to do the same thing. And that's probably the main reason why Peter chose me - Englishman doing pretty good in comedy in America plays Englishman who did really well in comedy in America. So that was part of his thinking.

How did you approach the part? In the film you don't rely on the Chaplin traits most of us would know...

I dumped everything, because that's all him playing the Tramp. The Tramp is not him. We don't know what he is like. I mean, I knew a fair bit of what he is like, just from reading and I've seen a lot of the home movies that he did. But I wanted to get the essence, just like Anthony Hopkins when he played Nixon. I decided to dump all the film stuff and just play him, on a boat, trying to get laid. That was it.

As a comedian, did you find Chaplin easier to play than some of the other acting roles you've done?

No, I don't think the comedian thing really had anything to do with it. I tried to take me and him and find where we met together. When I played Lenny [Bruce, on stage] I was doing some of his stand-up, so that made it easier. But actually playing somebody's life - a comedian's life is the same as a bullfighter's life, a politician's life - we all go to the loo, have relationships, run out of jam - those three things.

Where in particular did you identify with him?

In the ambition of what he wanted to do in his career... I [also] identified with him in the low sexual self esteem, which I believe that he had - which is different to any other particular analysis that I've found of his love life. But I recognise traits in him that I felt I had in me. Some people say, "But he was a Lothario", and even in the film it's got that kind of writing underscoring it. But I actually felt that he couldn't talk to women, and that with Marion Davies he finally got off the ground. A bit like suddenly being shown the controls of a car and saying, "Oh I see how it works, I've got to play with this woman and get her into bed." That's what I was trying to put into it, because I went through that. When I first came out as a transvestite I was celibate for three years. I thought women would hate this makeup thing. And then I discovered that a lot of women are quite positive towards it. So for three years, because I was so bad at flirting and chatting with women I found it real agony. So actually being celibate was a relief because I had an excuse. And then after three years I thought, actually I am missing out on a lot of fun here, so I'd better start jumping into bed with people.

So flirting with Kirsten Dunst as Marion Davies was not too difficult for you?

No, we just had a fine old time - you just have to get connections going, so that's what I did.

How was working with Peter Bogdanovich?

He was slightly different with me to the way he was with some other people. I tend to be a rather mouthy git. I don't really have the right to, because I'm coming into things a little late - Kirsten was the youngest person there, and maybe had the most clout. [Bogdanovich] liked to do long shots and you can see that in the film. It's a style thing. I think if you're a director with a vision and you don't want the studio saying, "Let's recut it to hell," you do seven-minute shots and no one can screw with your stuff. I had fun doing it. He's really got a history, he'd do great Jimmy Stewart and Hitchcock impressions. And he's interviewed all of them with his journalistic hat on. So I had a great time.

You seem to be trying to create a clear division between your stand-up persona and your acting...

Yes, well it is somewhat schizophrenic if you think about it. In the end I said, "If I'm wearing a beard, I'm serious. If I've got makeup on, I'm going to talk crap." I'm planning to meet them together again. But I have to prove myself in the dramatic area, keep pushing in that direction. It's still going to take some time. [I'd like to do] an edgy romantic comedy in the next few years. I'm ready for When Harry Met Sally or a 39 Steps kind of thing - something with edge. Not some broad comedy, but a drama with comedic stuff. Which I really haven't done yet.

You're playing a bomb expert in Ocean's 12. Do you feel intimidated when you're going to work with such major Hollywood stars?

No. If they shout action and I'm a gibbering wreck it's never going to work... It's just acting. George [Clooney] really pushed [for fame] for ages and it didn't work and then it did work, so he's been through all that. It's just ordinary human beings who suddenly get a lot of focus, so, you know, I've hacked my way up the mountain and nothing really phases me.

How did you get cast in the film?

The producer [Jerry Weintraub] was the producer of The Avengers, so he just threw me in there. He said [imitates Weintraub], "Hey Eddie, you wanna be in Ocean's 12? Alright you're in." He is a Republican guy, good friends with George Bush Sr, and we'd have big arguments - I love arguments about being pro-European - we met in the middle of being big opinionated ******s. And then nine years later: "Eddie, do you wanna be in Ocean's 12?" "OK."

You've got a diverse range of films coming up...

Five Children and It is a [Jim] Henson thing [Izzard voices the It character] . It's a cross between a colonel in the English army and Yoda. [Blueberry is a French western] that's filmed in English. It's quite mystic with a lot of shamanism in it. [Director Jan Kounen] calls it a mystic western, I call it a baguettey western. It stars Vincent Casel, Michael Madsen, Juliette Lewis and me. I'm a German cowboy. In Romance And Cigarettes, John Turturro's film, I'm a choirmaster, with James Galdolfini, Kate Winslet, Susan Sarandon, Steve Buscemi... I sing A Little Piece Of My Heart with Susan Sarandon and I play the organ.

How do you choose your roles?

Well, you don't have the choice of everything, of course. You're not saying, "Hmm I'll next be in the one Brad's up for, I'll have that." Obviously certain things swing your way. It's really what you say no to. You say, "Oh I've got that role, what can I do with it?" Then the other thing is someone says, "Come and do a comedy where you play a guy called Minky and run around naked, for years". And I say, "No I won't do that". Actually that sounds quite good... But you know I'm just relentless so I'll get there just by hacking my way up.

From the actors and directors you've worked with, which have you particularly admired?

Stefan Ruzowitzky, director of All The Queen's Men, is a very good director, I like his style. I love what Ed Herrman did [in The Cat's Meow]. William Randolph Hearst was such a bully, but he puts such humanity into him. Willem Defoe and John Malkovich (Shadow Of The Vampire). John Malkovich is extraordinarily 'John Malkovichy'. When the cameras roll and then they stop rolling, I can't see the join. John just starts and stops, he's great. Willem was much more intense - we did some great scenes - I'd like to work with him again.