British comedian and actor Eddie Izzard has never been one to shy away from a challenge. There’s his openness with talking about his transvestism and his blithe attitude about cross-dressing onstage. (Commonly, the first observation people have on Izzard focuses on his choice of couture, his shade of fingernail polish or how high his heels are.) There was his successful running of 43 marathons in 52 days for charity. There’s his talk about entering the world of politics and leaving show business behind, thus bypassing the normal sitcom-to-retirement route taken by many British comics.
What Izzard is planning to do now, however, qualifies as ambitious even by the 52-year-old’s stand-up’s standards. On June 6th, in the middle of a U.S. tour and while the world is observing the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Izzard plans to stage three separate performances of his latest show, Force Majeure, in Normandy — doing back to back sets in English, French and German. (He’ll be doing a test run of the trilingual shows at Yale’s Whitney Humanities Center Auditorium on March 28th.)
From the set of his new movie Boychoir in Connecticut, Rolling Stone chatted with the proud Englishman about this unique run of shows, his pursuit of language, his 2020 mayoral run and why Rosetta Stone can’t take him all the way.
What inspired you to put together these shows?
I’ll admit, it’s kind of crazy, but this idea to do a triple-header in Normandy popped in my head, where I would do my set in English, French and German. This is coming up on the 70th year of what happened on those beaches and I think it could make a fantastic statement to be able to bring them all together on this one very special night. I was inspired by this moment that happened last year when President Francois Hollande of France and President Joachim Gauck of Germany met at one of the WWII massacre sites and held hands as a sign of coming together. It was a very beautiful moment. It’s in that spirit that I want to do this gig, if I can.
How have you been learning the languages?
My brother Mark speaks Spanish, German and French to a high level. In French I’m better than the others, but he’s in charge of translating my act, which he does himself, and by checking with people from those countries. While I’ve been working I’ve been practicing all the languages on Skype with him. Spanish is the next one and then Russian, which he will begin studying before me so he can get a running start. Lastly we were both born in Yemen, so we’ve always wanted to learn Arabic, so that will be the last one that we take on.
Why don’t you just use Rosetta Stone?
[Laughs] I do have the Rosetta Stone and I’m using it! Sadly though, most of the teachings are fairly practical, so in the context of my act, which includes human sacrifice and medieval kings of lore, I’m occasionally coming up a bit short.
So you’re using the shows at Yale as a bit of a rehearsal?
The first time I perform the show it will be at Yale, as a world premiere. It’s something that no one has tried yet.
Has there been difficulty booking the shows in France and Germany?
Yes. I’m somewhat known in Paris and within the comedy community in France, but in terms of the general population, I’m not as well known. My issue is that there are not many venues in Normandy. I found one that would be perfect — a cinema — and the vibe is excellent, but they’re dragging their heels in allowing me to put on my show there. I’m trying to go up the political ladders to make it happen; I have a friend, a TV host out there named Antoine de Caunes, who is being very helpful.
How do you expect the Germans to react to the show?
I don’t expect any conflict whatsoever. Before 1933, Germans were just like any other European country, with a normal European sense of humor. Every single German that I’ve talked to has been thrilled with the idea.
Do you have any phrases in your act that you learned just did not work in one language or the other?
I have one part of my show that talks about how we age. It goes something like, “When we were kids, we were all like wild animals. Then we get older and the body deteriorates, and is like two weasels, covered in gravy, nailed to the back of a tractor.” Learning just that phrase in German took about three weeks — and even when I could say it correctly, the German audience just stared at me. In English, I find it to be poetic and tripping off the tongue, but not so much in German. I had to change it to, “Our bodies are like washing machines, full of frogs, that an elephant just sat on.”
You tend to play very straightforward roles in your American film and TV work. Are your fellow actors ever surprised by your more risqué comedy?
My comedy…you either know it or you don’t. I have purposely avoided doing a sketch show or a sitcom, so unless they’ve seen the specials or the live shows, people are usually not familiar with that aspect of my career.
Have you ever felt the desire to do a sitcom? It seems a lot of your contemporaries have.
I don’t feel my comedy could lead into drama. It’s very surreal and it’s druggy, for lack of better word: The more you see, the more you want to see. I felt like I had to retrain audiences to know that I was going to become two people. On one hand I’d be doing drama, and on the other, I’d be doing really out-there comedy. They sort of meet now, but they never did when I was first starting out.
Is it in your nature to be a jokester on set, even when you’re working on these dramatic films?
I’m not really a funny person in normal life. I created that in school to impress girls and it worked very well. When you become a professional performer you begin to lock it down a bit again. Constantly cracking jokes can become incredibly boring, which is why I think a lot of comedians can come across as quite dry.
I see that you are doing Absolutely Anything with Terry Jones and the Monty Python crew. Is that a reunion of sorts?
To the best my knowledge, I do not believe that it is a full-blown Python film. It’s a Terry Jones production that the Python members will be playing multiple roles in, as well as myself, but we’re going to have a lot of fun. I can’t wait to work on that.
Will you be seeing the Monty Python reunion dates?
I will be missing the first two because of my tour, but you can be sure I will be at the other eight.
I hear that you’ve been considering a run for mayor in London? When do you think you’ll be making that career transition?
I think the people know my politics. I’ve been campaigning for the Labour Party for years now, some of my ideals cross over with the Liberal Democrats so I believe there should be an alliance there. I’m saying that I would be interested in being mayor to see how it would sit with everyone and it seems to be sitting quite nicely. They’ve been doing polls of the public and the results say they think I’d do fairly well if I ran in 2016, but I’m going to wait until 2020. We shall have to see.