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Since 1996 he has appeared in a handful of films, usually in roles so small one needs a magnifying glass to see them. He showed up in Christopher Hampton's 1996 adaptation of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, played Sean Connery's mute henchman in The Avengers, appeared as rock-star agent Jerry Divine in Velvet Goldmine, and swaggered as a disco baddie in Mystery Men--all of which amounted to mere minutes of screen time.
Slightly larger is his role as "bad, hammy actor" Gustav von Wangenheim in E. Elias Merhige's just-released Shadow of the Vampire. But it's a role nearly lost in the showdown between John Malkovich as director F.W. Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck, a vampire slumming it as a Method actor in Murnau's film Nosferatu. Though Izzard is larger-than-life onstage--like a jazz musician riffing about, tossing out a thousand setups till he stumbles across the perfect punch line--he fades into the background in Shadow, but such a fate is to be expected. With Malkovich chewing the scenery and Dafoe chomping on bats and beauties, even giants are bound to be devoured.
"People keep saying nice things to me about Shadow of the Vampire, but I don't feel I really did anything," Izzard says. "I wandered around."
But he's just finished shooting two films in which he has rather large roles: In All the Queen's Men, he appears as a cross-dressing lounge singer who teaches a group of British special forces officers (led by an American, Friends'Matt LeBlanc) how to dress and act like women in order to infiltrate a female-run Berlin factory. In Peter Bogdanovich's forthcoming The Cat's Meow, about the murder of Hollywood mogul Thomas Ince aboard William Randolph Hearst's yacht, Izzard portrays Charlie Chaplin--ostensibly the original target of the bullet, as Chaplin was rumored to be carrying on an affair with Hearst's mistress.
Had Izzard sought out comedic roles from the very beginning, perhaps he'd be more than a garden-shed name in this country already. But his is a muted sort of ambition. He craves success, especially in the States, but has long insisted upon taking a circuitous route to achieve fame. In England, he resisted doing too much television in fear of becoming overexposed; here and abroad, he's taken small parts in oddball films (some of which haven't even made it into theaters), wanting to pay his dues before cashing in. For fans of his stand-up, watching him creep around the edges of the movies in which he's appeared is frustrating. Where he explodes onstage, he seems to disappear on film.
"If I said, “I want to do comedy roles,' I think I might have gotten bigger roles quicker, but I said I didn't want to do comedy roles," he says. "I wanted to really pay my dues and get under the skin of a dramatic role so that another actor might say, “Well, that was good work.' The comedy thing hits really big, but people want to see you do only that. When Jim Carrey or Robin Williams or Steve Martin moves into a serious role, there's a reluctance from the producers and studios and marketing people.
"If you do that extreme comedy--comedy that is very druggy--people want to see more of it. The beats of a dramatic role are much slower, and the bottom line of comedy, especially in stand-up, is to be funny every 30 seconds or whatever it is, and you have no structure. You're totally relying on just hitting the funny, so you get excessivelyfunny. It's a bit like rock and roll: You have three-minute songs that grab, as opposed to a symphony that might have high points and low points and take you through moods. The reason I didn't want to do a sitcom and wanted to bag the stand-up as much as possible is because you end up with this place where people are reluctant to see you in a straight role. Hopefully, there are a lot of people who might have heard of me but really don't know what I do. They're like, “Didn't I see you on a chat show?' They don't know what I do, which is great. It leaves you a blank sheet."
Izzard first arrived on U.S. shores as the ultimate oddity: a straight man from Britain who liked to wear women's clothing and was in possession of more makeup than a crazy aunt. But the clothes never made the man: His sexuality was and remains a moot point to the audience; he's funny, but not to look at. His father recalls that even at a young age, Izzard was fascinated with his mother's stocking tops. The kid was 4, but he knew: He was a woman trapped in a bloke's boxy body, and he fancied women, so he must be a, well, male lesbian. (For a while, Izzard even thought of having Little Eddie chopped off, but he decided to skip the knife and head straight for the Versace.) He was stealing lipstick at the age of 15, and finally came out in 1985, at the age of 23; he would tell a British newspaper of his lifestyle six years later. Izzard told his dad he was a trannie during a soccer game, and the old man said it was fine by him.