Cover Story: A United Force

6 February 2015 Clementine Bastow

Cover Story: A United Force

Clementine Bastow, Ed#476, February 2015

Comedian, actor...politician? Eddie Izzard's ascent is (not only) a laughing matter.

Talking to Eddie Izzard is a little like attending one of his stand-up shows: it’s rambling, eclectic, blisteringly intelligent and, above all else, really passionate. As it turns out, those are the qualities that the 52-year-old performer intends to bring to politics, but right now he’s focused on his Force Majeure tour, a comedy juggernaut that has been crisscrossing the world since late 2013.

“It’s being its own force of nature!” Izzard says, calling from the US, where he is shooting a movie. “It’s now, officially – I’m up to 25 countries now – the most extensive comedy tour ever. I’m claiming this, of course, since I can’t think of anyone else who’s performed in 25 countries [on the same tour], and I’m hoping to go for even more.”

The tour is trademark Izzard, in that the determined polyglot set himself the challenge of performing a number of shows in locally appropriate languages. “It’s great for me,” he says of his expanding multilingual repertoire, giggling, “apparently Alzheimer’s comes when you don’t use your brain so much, so if I ever get Alzheimer’s, I’m going to complain to someone.”

He’s certainly busy enough to keep his brain active, even without the multilingualism: in addition to the tour he’s working as an actor, playing Dr Abel Gideon in the US TV series Hannibal, and was very proud of Castles in the Sky (“Rocky for nerds!” he enthuses), a BBC telemovie in which he played radar pioneer Robert Watson-Watt.

For now, though, Force Majeure is living up to its name. The desire to tour en français and auf Deutsch was not a recent thought, however. “I loved languages at school,” he recalls. “My brother, Mark, did, too. And he’s my language consultant, so I’m working with him on these things. Some people have done shows in different languages, but not like this.” His linguistic dance card includes French, German and Spanish, and he hopes to add at least two more.

Despite this United Nations-esque approach to touring, he doesn’t see it as evidence of the diplomatic power of comedy. “I don’t know if comedy actually does build bridges; I think it can be aggressive, in fact, when you think about certain American comedians! But I do think doing it in a second language, there’s got to be some kind of bridge in there. And hopefully, from my point of view, the Germans and the French performers who see it think, ‘Shoot, I could do a show in English!’”

In that sense, Force Majeure is indicative of Izzard’s pro-European Union stance (he has long campaigned to support the further integration of the UK into the EU). Izzard even goes so far as to suggest that his tour provides an attractive business model for Europeans, which might sound like hubris. But when you consider the in-fighting that emerges in EU politics, it’s not so far-fetched after all.

“There’s a lot of negativity in Europe; racism abounds, and people say things like, ‘Oh there’s too much bureaucracy, so let’s hate the Romanians, let’s hate the Bulgarians or let’s hate the Russians’. I’m saying no. Europe can be an adventure, if you’ve got the guts to go for it. If you’ve got the strength of character, you can get out there and develop your business. I’m doing that! I mean, I’ve got this comedy business I’ve developed and I’ve learned the French language so that the French will say, ‘Yes, we will pay you money, and laugh at your stuff’; they get it. And so do the Germans, and the Spanish do, and it’s brilliant. I’m putting my money where my mouth is.”

Given this, you might expect Force Majeure to be stuffed full of political humour – Izzard is, after all, as active as a campaigner these days as he is as a comedian and actor, and he has solid plans to run for Mayor of London in 2020. But he is adamant that he sees comedy and politics as completely separate.

“Comedy is a good weapon to attack politics, but I’m not trying to attack it, I’m trying to say ‘Let’s do something positive with it,’” he explains. “So I will probably use comedy in politics, but [only] when I get into politics; when I’m elected. Then I’ll be using it on the team against me who are attacking me. I wanted to keep politics out of the shows, because it dates. It’s like an avocado. You know, the second you cut them open they go bleurgh. So you don’t want a lot of avocado in your shows, because if you tape it and people watch your show a year later, they go, ‘What’s he talking about there? Oh yes, that happened, didn’t it.’”

He might well end up using his comedy against the opposing candidates, but what they use against him is a different story altogether. Those with even a passing knowledge of the British gutter press’ infamous love of dirt-digging might begin panicking on Izzard’s behalf. After all, surely the tabloids would have a field day with his political views, not to mention his transvestism (he memorably described his sexual identity as “a straight transvestite or a male lesbian”).

He laughs uproariously at the thought. “I think I’m prepared for it. As soon as you tell everyone you’re a transvestite at 23, you better be prepared for it!” He giggles impishly before continuing. “I think being transgender is a genetic thing, and that’s my genetic gift. You know, I’ve been prepared for the press to go for me forever. And at one point, they did! They sent out the person who does [exposés]… I gave her a load of photographs. I think the original angle was ‘you think this guy’s just a normal comedian but he’s actually a weirdo’, and in the end they spun it round, and the exposé was, ‘you think this guy’s a bit of a weirdo but he’s actually kinda normal’.”

Indeed, Izzard sees his past – the sort of career and personal life a conservative newspaper might describe as ‘colourful’ – as key to what will make him a strong political candidate. “I’ve run a few marathons, and I’ve done gigs in different languages, and I’ve played the Hollywood Bowl, so I’m coming into politics with a lot of life experience,” he says. “I’ve done things in a different way. I’m sure that on day one I’ll piss off the right-wing newspapers and they’ll come on the hunt for me, but they’re just going to find a transvestite guy who’s trying to do politics!”

In a sense, this points to the fact that Izzard’s long-held dream – that diverse gender and sexual identities will eventually be seen as too boring to be commented on – might be coming true. At the very least, it seems to have in Britain.

“You know, I was campaigning in the European elections with red lipstick, and I had my nails painted with the European flag and the British flag for the Scottish referendum, and no one said anything! Britain has got to this rarefied place; I never thought they’d be this groovy! But I think they’re groovy about it because I’ve been so boring. I have an innate boringness. I like watching films on telly, you know, I could never be bothered to be rock’n’roll. I’m just going to take on the right wing and fight for Europe and do gigs in German and French and Spanish and Russian and Arabic, and that’s going to be how I do it. And if they go for me they go for me, and I’ll fight them all the way.”

“They”, in Izzard’s parlance, are the European right wing, though he doesn’t seem especially worried that they are in any danger of taking over the EU.

“Immigration’s been a problem for an eternity, and every time there’s an economic crisis, it comes up again… You know, Australia has this problem, everyone has this problem, and it goes on and on and on and on,” he says, exhaustedly.

Certainly, Izzard is an outlier in modern British politics because he is focused less on doom and gloom and more on the idea of a bright future. I ask him if he thinks that – vision for the future – is thin on the ground in politics today.

“You know, I think it is,” he says, uncharacteristically quiet, before rallying. “George Bush Sr said ‘I have a problem with the vision thing.’ I don’t have a problem with it – I have vision coming out of my ears! We’ve got to learn to work together in the world. That’s it, and I’m trying to build bridges and show that if you have a sense of adventure, if you’ve got the balls, we can do it. If you haven’t, you can sit back, go backwards and be racist. But I’m going to fight like crazy to drag us forwards.”

» Clementine Bastow is a regular contributor to The Big Issue.

This story appeared in Ed#476 of The Big Issue magazine.