Known for his unique, hyper-erudite, stream-of-consciousness stand-up comedy (best showcased in the 2000 concert film “Dress to Kill”), Eddie Izzard has also spent the better part of the last two decades building a very interesting career as a character actor on both stage and screen. With the exception of his leading role on the acclaimed (though short-lived) FX series “The Riches,” Izzard’s main strength as an actor has been in the kind of indelible supporting roles that he plays in IFC’s upcoming miniseries “Bullet In The Face.”
“Bullet in the Face,” which is being spread out over two nights on August 16th and 17th at 10pm, shares with creator Alan Spencer’s previous cult classic “Sledge Hammer!” a cracked, satirical bent. It’s also met with some minor controversy for its violent content — the show’s set in a comic-book-style alternate universe full of warring gangsters, tough cops, jet-black humor and Germans. Izzard plays crime kingpin Johann Tannhauser, who spends his days engrossed by snow globes and plotting the bloody deaths of his enemies, confined to his secret lair by acute agoraphobia. It was on that note that Indiewire caught up with him on the phone after some shared excitement over Great Britain’s success in the Olympics.
So you’re an agoraphobic German crime boss in this hyper-violent comic book universe. I imagine you didn’t just look at that and just go, “This same old thing again.” I’ve never seen anything quite like this show.
Well… it has violence going through it. And there’s a question of violence in America, or last year if you went to Norway, or going back to the Second World War, how we deal with that is a weird old thing. But [“Bullet in the Face”] is comedic, and bizarro, and in thinking how to play it — trying to control the world — I felt it was an intriguing place to go.
I try not to do comedies, and this I thought you could play dramatically or to the edge of melodrama maybe. The snow globes, I was fascinated by the snow globes, which initially were part of the set dressing. I don’t think it was built into the story. I thought this was the way to show the agoraphobia, through the fact that he’s trying to control the world through these globes, and I did become fascinated with those.
It’s a very Charles Foster Kane thing, too, where you’re trapped in the big old house, and you’re this very powerful man yet constrained by your phobia.
That’s a nice analogy, Charles Foster Kane, and also Dr. Strangelove: broken, quite brilliant, and has many schemes going on. So yeah, it was an intriguing place to drive that. I allowed myself to say “Where am I going to go with this?” And so, I unleashed it a bit. It was rather an unleashed role.
Based on your previous work, it’s not the most typical role to imagine you in. But after a couple episodes it’s hard to imagine anyone but you in the role.
That should be the way. As someone who was studying accountancy, became a street performer, became a standup, pushed to be a dramatic actor, I felt at some point, if I do land dramatic roles, well, there should be people going “I don’t know what the fuck that is,” because I’ve just come from such an odd place. So, hopefully, there is a grounding to this character, even though he does very weird things.
I do feel that they link together, a comedic sensibility and a dramatic sensibility. The bottom line in drama is to be truthful, and the bottom line in comedy is to be funny. And I wanted him to be truthful, but in this skewed way. You take any dictator in the world and if you actually met them, like Idi Amin or Khadafi or whatever, you would think, “There is insanity there,” but it all locks down to a real person who grew up, who had a childhood, who went to school. That’s what I wanted to do with my ability now, as opposed to when I was younger and at college and doing comedy and just played it for laughs. Now I’m playing “What’s the truth?”
Would you call that the difference between you personally being funny, and you playing a character who is someone who says funny things?
Probably. My stand-up is me going through my ideas, playing out roles. It can be surreal, it can be broad. I’m reaching for comedy. Hopefully the ideas in there can be strong. But you’re not supposed to think that the characters I’m playing have a life that goes all the way down to the ground. They’ll be thumbnail characters who come in and piss about and then fuck off and be will-o’-the-wisp things.
But in a drama — I’m not doing sitcoms, I won’t do sitcoms — in these strange comedy-dramas, I’ll try and play a character who locks down. And you could imagine them growing up as the weird kid at school, and they went home, and they had this other plan, and they were studying loads of things, going “These kids at school are shit. I will be great, I’ll be a king one day.” You can just imagine kids around the world doing that right now.
That intrigues me. That’s what I wanted to do from way back, even when I wasn’t able to. I wanted to be an actor when I was seven. It’s a nice place to be able to play. The roles I’m getting still aren’t necessarily, you know, hey Spielberg this week and then you gotta go to Scorsese. But I am getting some intriguing roles to play, like “Mockingbird Lane “with Bryan Fuller, Bryan Singer directing, then “Treasure Island” before that. I’m just enjoying them, because you can get your teeth into it.
Ae you at all worried that with some of the more outré material in “Bullet in the Face” that there might be a problem with American audiences? There’s a particular kind of squeamishness about the violence and strangeness…
I don’t think that the fact that it’s too much this way or that way is necessarily a problem to me… The character is weird, vulgar, and out there, but I wasn’t having sex with trees or anything.
A lot of that seemed, in a good way, like it was effortless, like you did it in one take and then went and had a cup of tea or something.
It wasn’t necessarily that quick, but it was unlocked. I wasn’t agonizing over technique while shifting through it. I was just being inside the role, to stay in there and be moving at full tilt all the time.