HitFix Interview: Eddie Izzard talks ‘United States of Tara’ and more

Talking to Eddie Izzard is a good way to feel lazy.
An Emmy-winning stand-up comic, stage veteran, TV/movie actor, political activist and occasional marathoner, Izzard can currently be seen on Showtime’s “United States of Tara” playing skeptical psychology professor Dr. Hattaras opposite Toni Collette. He’s already finished starring in a TV production of “Treasure Island” ticketed for Syfy. He’s developing a political-themed drama for FX. He’ll become the first solo stand-up act to play the Hollywood Bowl later this summer. 
And, as I caught up with Izzard two weeks ago, he was in the early stages of performing his show “Stripped” in Paris. In French. Because he wanted to.
That gave us a lot of room to cover. Full interview after the break…
HitFix: So you’re in Paris now? 
Eddie Izzard: I am! It’s midnight in Paris and that’s OK. I’m just looking out over the north of Paris. I’m living up Montmartre. I’m doing gigs in French. People say, “Why?” and I say, “Someone’s got to do it.” Because it’s there. That’s what they say when they climb mountains. “Why’d you climb Everest?” “Because it’s there.” But yeah, I like doing things differently. So yeah, doing my gigs in French.
HitFix: Entirely in French?
EI: Yeah, the whole thing in French. 
HitFix: So… um… how funny are you in French?
EI: Today? I gave myself an 8 out of 10. Today I think was the first show I did that was an entertainment, as opposed to an experiment or an experiment/entertainment thing. You can go along and say, “Oh, this is all very interesting,” but it’s a bit of a weird thing, it’s more odd in that way, “Oh, this guy’s trying to do it in French. Isn’t that all very nice?” But today, I think I was entertaining. I’m planning to do it for a number of weeks. In fact, I’m planning to do it for three months. At the moment we’re only putting a few days up for sale, but I’m planning to extend and extend. It’s a cunning technique. If you keep extending, you can’t fudge or get softer. It’s just practice. It’s the logic of it. We’ll see what happens. It’s my big push on Paris.
HitFix: How much is experimentation and “because it’s there” what drives you professionally? A lot of your career choices seem to be motivated along those lines…
EI: I like doing things, new things, not because they’re new, because there’s got to be something practical. It’s quite practical playing Paris. You know bands, you can have some pop singer and they can just just roll up in Moscow because somebody’s put their record on airplay and they say, “Hey!” and they sing in English and they just roll up and do it. And there’s an ego thing in it, because you want to play all of these different places around the world, so they’re going to go and do that. So I thought, “Well, if a band can go and do it, why can’t I go and do it?” So that’s all that I’ve done. I’ve just pushed to play different countries. But in France, you can’t just roll in and do it in English, so I’m doing it in French. It’s positive as well. I love to learn French, because then you can communicate better. Also, politically, I’m very positive on the European Union. I think that my idea for Europe is that it should be a huge melting pot, like a massive Manhattan, like the idea that Manhattan was the melting pot at the turn of the 1900s and then it became this big engine which was part of what is or was or what America became, this engine that drove all of it. That’s what I want for Europe. Why don’t we melt a little bit and become this great big melting pot? So I’m putting my money where my mouth is… So I’m not doing things just because they’re there. I’m doing things because they link to what I like to do and what my craft is and my art is.
HitFix: Let’s shift gears to your “United States of Tara” role. What led you to this?
EI: Well, they swung it past me and I’ve worked with Toni Collette before, so I thought that it would be great to get back in there. And it’s officially a comedy and there’s certainly comedy, but it’s dramatically comedic or comedically dramatic. So I thought, “Yes. I’d just like to go in and do that.” American series have created these great arcs and I don’t think we’ve done it quite like this before in the United Kingdom, the fact that you can come in and do an arc and it’s an interesting spin and it’s interesting for the people in the series if it works nicely, because the energy comes in from a different way. So they offered it to me and I said, “Yeah, let’s go for it.” And I really like working with the people, so it was great to do it. 
HitFix: I love that you’re an actor who usually gets called in to do these colorful roles, but here you’re almost — not quite, but almost — the straight-man. Was that part of the draw? 
EI: It being a dramatic-comedy or a comedic dramatic thing, I didn’t feel  necessarily that I was straighter than other characters or not. He was interestingly off-kilter to one side. It was psychology, which find very interesting. I do find the human being, the state of the human being and the mind and God and our relationship with it and because I don’t believe in God and everything, I just find all that very fascinating. To be able to play somebody like that, I thought “Great.” Whether I was straighter than the other characters, I didn’t feel that. I just felt that it was one of those great American dramatic-comedies that gives you the chance to be a rooted character, but you can still be off-kilter and be slightly bonkers within it.
HitFix: Had you watched “Tara” before?
EI: I’d seen one episode beforehand, I think. I’m constantly seeing things in a scattershot way and they offered it to me and I decided I wouldn’t watch more, because I shouldn’t really know what everything’s about and what Tara’s about, so I just thought I’d come in on a different gig. So I came in having seen this episode. I knew where she was going. I knew what she’d done very well and was playing these different characters, but I purposefully didn’t want to get to know everyone before the thing.
HitFix: The character’s sorta skeptical rhythms are very similar to your own. Is that just good writing being done for you specifically, or were you given wiggle room to improvise or re-write?
EI: I change bits, like I did on “The Riches.” I have respect for… if the writing seems to work, I do want to flow with it. Occasionally I’d come in and say, “I could do this” or “I could do that” or “I could spin with this,” but I think they wrote to me and they wanted to have me and they were positive about having me there, so I did a little bit of moving things around, but most of it was coming from there or I’d go to them and work it out with them.
HitFix: As a performer, you’ve been known to slip into and out of many, many different characters during a single performance. What’d it like to act opposite somebody else doing that?
EI: That was very interesting. Coming from improv, there was the thing of the transitions between characters, that’s what I found very fascinating. I remember doing improv and they’d do these games in improv where they’d say, “OK. Change emotions now.” And to do that well, so that it really resonates to an audience, you have to move in real time. If you just flip, it doesn’t work. And Toni has that down very well, her transitions. She obviously had to work on that, just to keep her characters in line so that she wasn’t blurring them, it’s obviously really tricky, so it was interesting to to see them when they transition in front of you. I like the way she did that.
HitFix: Do you think that because you do somewhat similar character work yourself maybe gives you a great appreciation for the high-wire act she’s pulling off here?
EI: Yeah, well I think it’d be very interesting to do that. That’s her role and it was interesting watching her do it. I’ve done transitions before through improv or maybe in more of a pure comedy sense, but I do find that interesting, but I don’t think I’ve ever gotten to do that in any kind of dramatic role that I’ve done. So that was fascinating to watch and it’s a distinct discipline that she needed and needs to do those, to hold together. That’s something that I’ve been studying coming through comedy into dramatic roles and always wanting to do dramatic roles even before I did comedy. I could be very loose with my comedy. My comedy was almost like a radio where the dials turn almost in the middle of a line. I could almost blur characters together. That actually doesn’t work dramatically. If you’re too blurry, people don’t know what they’re quite watching, so I was interested to watch the discipline that she had on that, because that’s something that I have been learning to do, to lock a character into one place, as opposed to having it blurry and moving about and having the audience thinking, “Are there two people here or is this one person who’s becoming another person?”
HitFix: It’s obviously not the same thing, but do you understand, again, not the exact DID condition, but the almost compulsion of having these voices and characters rattling around in your head and needing to be expressed in some way?
EI: It is an intriguing situation. It’s also intriguing the way it’s diagnosed and that fact that my character was a part of a field of psychology that says that this doesn’t actually exist, that if you say it exists, people will manifest it and make it come to life. I found that fascinating and… “scary” is too strong a word… Worrying, just for the people who feel that they are suffering from that condition, or who are suffering from that condition, the fact that you can diagnose things and then people might feel that they start manifesting it because it’s been diagnosed. It’s intriguing  and worrying. I sometimes think that people do have conditions and I’m lucky that I’m just a transvestite. At least I know where I am with that. It’s easy peasy being a transvestite, compared to having multiple personalities.
HitFix: Had you been looking for an opportunity to return to American TV?
EI: Yes. Well, it’s good roles, really. But yes. I had been developing a drama to go back to American television, but dramas be they film or television, be they done coming out of America, Britain, Canada, Australia, it doesn’t really matter where. I just want to do good stuff and I’m in the groove to do it. I don’t really want to do full-blown comedies, but dramatic comedies? Absolutely. I’m up for that and I feel like I’m in a very good place where I just sort of know what I’m doing. I’m happy with what I’m doing. So yes, it was a good opportunity and I was free to do it. I was about to do “Treasure Island,” which I’ve just done for British television and it’s coming on Syfy in 2012 and that’s very dramatic version of “Treasure Island.” “Treasure Island” is normally very family oriented and swashbuckling, but this is a very nasty version, a tough version of it.  And I had to move that in order to get “Tara” in. It was good I was able to do both. And then go to do gigs in French.
HitFix: And then you’re also developing a show for FX now, right?
EI: Yes. That’s a drama. It’s great and I’d be very happy if I could get that working with FX. Of course, we have to go through the hurdles of scripts and pilot and all that stuff, but they know me and I know them and I think we trust each other. Yeah, I would very pleased if that got to happen, because I’m ready to tear into that.
HitFix: I know that that pilot has a political backdrop. How much of the politics of that series would be your own politics?
EI: That’s an interesting question, because my politics, my Democratic politics, I’m for the Labour Party in Britain, so I’m a radical moderate, as I call myself. I think his politics will not be quite that. I think his politics are going to be more amoral, which may not be better for the planet, but it may be more interesting dramatically. So I think he’s going to start out apolitical, even though he comes from a political background, he’s someone who’s been been burnt and he’s going to have an apolitical and almost anti-political position. 
HitFix: And then, because clearly you aren’t busy enough, you’re also playing the Hollywood Bowl this summer?
EI: Yes. Indeed I am! Hollywood Bowl. And I believe I’m the first stand-up to play there on my own. My heros Monty Python played there for three nights. I’m only playing one night. So I’ve got a little catching up to do. But it’s such a gorgeous place and it’s an honor to go in there and do this. And I’m going to bloody love it. Yeah, I’m going to smash that one out of the park. It’s just such a gorgeous venue. And outdoor gigs! I did this thing called Laughs in the Park in Britain, which I called the Woodstock of comedy festivals, because comedy festivals don’t really happen outdoors, but with the Hollywood Bowl, you are doing an outdoor comedy gig and I think it’s a beautiful setting just to talk. It’s just the power of the voice and the brain. It’s going to be a wonderful gig, 20th of July.
HitFix: I have absolutely no idea where you have the time for all of this.
EI: Well, when I was practicing for my many marathons, I used to run past this Jeep that was parked and it had a bumper sticker on it and it said, “One life, live it.” And I don’t believe in a God, but I do believe in human beings. I think you can take your life, grab it and go for it all you can and try and put something back at the same time. It feels good.
“United States of Tara” airs Monday nights at 10:30 p.m. on Showtime.