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Eddie Izzard: ‘Politicians on the Right are trying to stoke hatred’

 (Amanda Searle )
(Amanda Searle )

I have interviewed Suzy Izzard several times over the decades when she was still called Eddie, one of the most successful stand-ups of her generation, an ‘out’ transvestite, and someone determined to break into film and TV drama. But this is the first time we’ve met since Izzard started running multiple marathons for charity, engaged fully in Labour Party politics and began to define herself as a trans woman. As a result, I find myself stumbling over names and pronouns. “I prefer Suzy and ‘she/her’,” says Izzard, 61, “but I don’t mind Eddie or ‘he/him’, which my brother still calls me. The only way you can misgender me is if you call me Cuthbert or Angela.”

It’s a smoothly practiced, disarming line. She chose ‘Suzy’ because she identified with the blonde actress Suzy Kendall after seeing the 1967 Sidney Poitier film To Sir, with Love at the age of 10. Aware of her gender fluidity from an early age, Izzard has been waiting for the terminology to catch up. She used to refer to herself as “a lesbian trapped in a man’s body”. Today she has frosted blonde hair, red nails and — there’s no way round this — an impressive bosom. She’d rather not say if she’s had surgery: “There is mental transitioning and physical transitioning but I’m going to keep that to myself.”

The subject of transgenderism inevitably looms large over our conversation, as does politics, because Izzard intends to withdraw from showbiz and win a seat as a Labour MP at the next general election, having not been chosen in 2022 to contest a safe seat in Sheffield.

We speak on the penultimate day of the National Conservatism conference, which re-stoked the culture war on gender, among other things. “Well, I’m not having a war,” she says. “Politicians on the Right are trying to stoke hatred to create a war. That’s going back to the 1930s, whereas some of us are trying to drag the world towards the 2030s and say: live and let live, freedom of speech, tolerance and understanding.”

Suzy (Eddie) Izzard in Great Expectations at the Garrick Theatre (Courtesy of the Garrick Theatre)
Suzy (Eddie) Izzard in Great Expectations at the Garrick Theatre (Courtesy of the Garrick Theatre)

I agree with Izzard that the moral panic over trans rights is analogous to the outrage over gay rights and equal marriage in the past — that in 10 years’ time we’ll wonder what all the fuss was about. But I also know some women who are vehemently opposed to the idea of self-identification in gender.

“I don’t have all the answers,” Izzard says. “I think we are all human beings on a spectrum: some people say the spectrum is not allowed to exist. I disagree with them. If they are homophobic or transphobic I just think they’ve got it wrong.” What did she think about the Scottish government’s policy, which enabled people to self-identify as a different gender after six months rather than two years? “Finding out the perfect time of how long one has to wait is a tricky business,” she says, carefully. “If you’re not allowed to transition you may be self-harming or killing yourself. If you do transition and then you wish to re-transition that is also a problem. Self-ID was sat on by the UK Government, so we didn’t get to see how it played out.”

There is mental transitioning and physical transitioning but I’m going to keep that to myself

We are meeting today because her one-woman adaptation of Dickens’s Great Expectations is about to open at the Garrick Theatre, after getting “the best reviews I’ve had in my life” on its original New York run. (Publicity material for the show still refers to Izzard as ‘Eddie’ but I’ll use Suzy and ‘she/her’ here.)

Eddie Izzard and Sir Lenny Henry attending the Mayor of London's Summer Culture Reception in London, 2017 in London, England (Dave Benett)
Eddie Izzard and Sir Lenny Henry attending the Mayor of London's Summer Culture Reception in London, 2017 in London, England (Dave Benett)

The project began five years ago. “I had never read a great work of literature because I am severely atypically dyslexic,” she says, “so I thought, ‘why don’t I do an audiobook which will force me to read one’?” A company called Wildfire said yes, and suggested Great Expectations as Izzard shares a birthday, 150 years apart, with Dickens. She played each character differently rather than just narrating — a technique she’d adopted for her stand-up shows from the great American comedian Richard Pryor — and realised the book might work as a live solo drama too.

Her brother Mark, who had previously helped translate her stand-up tours into French, German and Spanish, cut the book down to “just under two hours, about the same as the benchmark David Lean film”. She chose New York to premiere it because British audiences still think of her primarily as a comedian, “even though I’ve done 25 years of drama including Victoria and Abdul opposite Judi Dench and been Tony-nominated on Broadway [for A Day in The Death of Joe Egg]”. The six-week run of Great Expectations was extended to nine weeks, and did indeed garner rave reviews.

Eddie Izzard and Sir Ian McKellen  at the BFI Southbank in 2022 (Dave Bennett)
Eddie Izzard and Sir Ian McKellen at the BFI Southbank in 2022 (Dave Bennett)

While bringing the show “back to life” in London she is also preparing a one-woman Hamlet, performing “open rehearsals” around the country. But it’s a cliché, I say: the clown who wants to play the Dane. “Actually, I always rather fancied Richard III more than Hamlet but when I’m playing Hamlet the weird thing is I feel very at home,” she replies. “I said to Ian McKellen: I’m 61, is this a bit old to play him? And he said no, no, no, do it at any age you want. Of course, that was before he did his, aged 83 or whatever. I think [these are the] 21st-century rules: do what the hell you want, just go for it.”

Some of us are trying to drag the world towards the 2030s and say: tolerance and understanding

Doing Hamlet as a one-woman show is “perfect because I’ve done 35 years of stand-up and I was a street performer. I’ve done soliloquies at the Hollywood Bowl and Madison Square Garden. In Shakespeare’s day they were strolling players, doing it off the back of carts.”

You’d be a fool to doubt Izzard’s ability to accomplish something she set out to achieve, although she was no overnight success. A peripatetic childhood due to her father’s job with BP ended aged six when her mother died of cancer, and she was sent to boarding school. She’s said that she craved an audience’s acclaim to fill the gap left by her mother. Also that she knew she was transgender aged four, before the term existed. And wearing make-up and women’s clothes wasn’t easy in Seventies Bexhill, where the family ended up. She went to Sheffield University but dropped out at 19 to do street theatre, “and I took off at 30, so there were 11 years of really trying and not getting anywhere”. She concentrated on honing her craft and applied the same methodical approach to force her way into drama, unlearning her comedy reflexes “where the bottom line is to be funny, whereas in drama the bottom line is to be truthful”. She’d already worked out that being open about her gender uncertainty was essential to her mental health and came out in 1985.

Eddie Izzard: “I’m a Labour-ite, I try hard not to be dragged into dogma wars. But Keir Starmer seems to have brought us within inches of being elected, so I will push very hard.” (Getty Images)
Eddie Izzard: “I’m a Labour-ite, I try hard not to be dragged into dogma wars. But Keir Starmer seems to have brought us within inches of being elected, so I will push very hard.” (Getty Images)

“You feel more of an honest person. You have to do some fights in the street, deal with people hurling abuse. But I wouldn’t be this confident if I hadn’t come out when I was 23.” She’s been trying to “fine-tune my existence since then”. She remains private about her private life but concedes “I don’t have a partner at the moment, but that’s fine”. And one ambition she’d voiced to me in the past — to have children at 50 — “hasn’t happened and may not happen, but I would still like to have kids”.

Izzard has been a Labour supporter and donor for years and next year plans to put her creative career “in hibernation” to stand for election and defeat what she calls our “far-Right government”. She won’t say if there’s a particular issue — trans rights, immigration, tax — that preoccupies her in case it ties her down but hopes a future generation will take us back into Europe. She won’t say if she’s more Corbyn-ite or Starmer comedian. “I’m a Labour-ite, I try hard not to be dragged into dogma wars. But Keir Starmer seems to have brought us within inches of being elected, so I will push very hard.

“You need three things for politics and I decided years ago that I think I have them. A vision of the world that is positive — mine is that everyone in the world has the right to a fair chance in life. You need to be able to communicate, which has been a big part of my life. And you need to be able to analyse systems and I’ve been doing strategical analysis since I came out as trans.

“I think we have to make it a fair world for people this century, or we’re just not going to make it as a species. There have been five great mass extinctions and I think we will do the next one. I don’t think there’s someone up there who’s looking after us, but he didn’t come down for 60 million dead in World War Two or for Covid or Spanish flu. If no-one’s coming to help us in the hellish times I think it’s up to us.”

Great Expectations is at the Garrick from today