Shadow of the Vampire
Because People Don't Expect It
Interview with Eddie Izzard
interview by Cynthia Fuchs, 26 January 2001

Eddie Izzard is an unlikely movie star. Not that he's exactly a movie star, yet. But he could be, what with his charismatic performances on film and his equally charming performances for interviews on TV (on The Tonight Show or Late Night with Conan O'Brien). Still, the stardom thing might be a bit much: "There's a point," he says, "where you become a star, and you lose your brain, do lots of drugs, and your head falls off." Still, Izzard doesn't seem the type. The thirty-eight-year-old actor and stand-up comedian is pleased to be a "movie actor." U.S. audiences may know him best for his small roles in the 1999 comic book hero spoof, Mystery Men (alongside Ben Stiller and William H. Macy), Todd Haynes' ode to rock's glam '70s, The Velvet Goldmine (1998), or even his stand-up comedy concerts, all five of which are available on videotape. His latest show, Eddie Izzard: Dress to Kill, came to the U.S., then aired on HBO in 1998, when it won two Emmys.

In his new movie, Shadow of the Vampire, directed by H. Elias Merhige, Izzard plays Gustav von Wangenheim, a pompous bad actor working opposite Willem Dafoe's apparently real vampire, Max Schreck, and under the direction of the famous 1920s filmmaker, F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) while he's making his masterpiece, Nosferatu. It takes just a bit of imagining to see the exceedingly strange Schreck as an actual vampire, and so the film treads lightly along generic lines, not quite horror film or thriller, not quite comedy. But it does seem to be the ideal spot for Izzard at this moment, as he has been receiving wonderful reviews for his work in it. He calls me from his hotel in New York, just after he's recorded his Conan appearance.

Cynthia Fuchs: How was it to play a role where you're an actor playing a role, in a film within a film?

Eddie Izzard: I liked playing Gustav, going around in those suits and being so pompous. It was a little alarming playing a bad actor, because I used to be a bad transvestite, and I've spent years trying to get away from that, trying to be someone whom people might look at and say, "Hey, I wish I could have that look!" But here I had to dress up like a bad transvestite, with a terrible wig. And the makeup -- oh god -- it was good to get it off. I had to spend a lot of time getting made up. That would be okay of you got up looking pretty, but I looked f*cking awful.

CF: The comedy in this film is so antic and visual, in the silent film scenes and elsewhere. How is this different from other work you've done?

EI: That is curious, to do the actual silent acting. I just did what John Malkovich said, whatever came into his head. That's what they did years ago. It's quite liberating. But I never saw it as a comedy, but people do laugh at it. When I saw it in London, I wondered if people knew I was in the audience, and that's why they were laughing.

CF: That might be a function of the way people are used to watching horror movies, waiting for the comedy relief from the tension.

EI: That's also true. I found Willem doing things quite comedically, even though he was rooted in this blood-sucking vampire. He was always struggling with the practicalities -- eat or do the work? Do the work or eat? So it does have this strange comedy in it. I'm not a big horror devotee, I do watch it, but I'm more a nut on action and thrillers and dramas, and I suppose comedies. But comedy seems to link up with horror. And women seem to have a thing with vampires that escapes me.

CF: Did you watch other vampire movies to prepare for this?

EI: Just Nosferatu; the others I had seen before, the key ones anyway.

CF: In standup, you're obviously working alone. How does that compare with movies, working with so many people on the set?

EI: I like it, and have done it in comedy improv as well, though when I'm on stage alone, I don't feel alone, because I feel like the whole audience is there, I'm not trying to entertain myself. But there is a big difference in technique, which I've only just learned on the last two films, since Shadow of the Vampire [Peter Bogdanovich's The Cat's Meow, in which he plays Charlie Chaplin, and Stefan Ruzowitzky's All the Queen's Men, both due out this year]. Before that I was still unaware that there was a technique that you could improve, which worked in half your brain, and the other half is laying on top a naturalism, so it looks effortless.

CF: How intimidating was it to play Chaplin, in The Cat's Meow?

EI: I wasn't doing him performing, just him as a human being, one day in November of 1924, and that was fascinating. I studied him. He's so interesting to me, coming from England, rags to riches -- it's an unusual story. And when Robert Downey Jr. played him years ago, I had thought, "Oh I'd like to play him." So it all worked out.

CF: How is it to work with other people's writing, on stage and in film, as opposed to your own material?

EI: I'm very up for new experiences. I like it, I like seeing other people's writing, because you can always learn off it. I tend to be quite cavalier in the way I rewrite dialogue sometimes, which is a little bit irreverent, but I tend to just plow in there, and say, "I'll change that." I'm happy to fight with the writer, and get other people's input. I think I have quite a good sense of dialogue, though I could be quite wrong I suppose. I speak so many words and I ad lib them; I never write my shows down. I'm weaker on the structure, so I'm fascinated by how films work. I want to know how a film is coming together, so I feel I can say, "I think there's a problem with this scene," rather than saying, "Well, I don't know, what do you want?" You put all this work into a film and with some tweaking, it could be made really good, but you can miss it.

CF: Shadow of the Vampire is very careful in its recreation of this moment of history, with the distinction between the stars, who follow directions and are rather seduced by the director and his crew, in their goggles and lab coats.

EI: Yes, they look a bit like chemists, like people making the nuclear bomb in America in 1944.

CF: Speaking of costumes and chemistry -- can you talk about your support of "total clothing rights," which I heard you talk about on The Tonight Show.

EI: I'm coming up with language that will give my sexuality -- transgender -- the ability to work out where their sexuality is and [the ability] to express themselves. And your first port of call in a clothing arena is the surface. You can't really get at the underlying thing, because you can't talk about it or express it. It's sort of like, you can't really get to be a sexy person or a flirty person, if you're never allowed to have sex, when the other kids are off doing it but you can't. You'd go kind of nuts. Women wear whatever they want, it's a great freedom and that's the way it should be. And men should have equal rights, to wear what they want. Men's clothes are seen as power clothes, and some of the more sensual or erotic clothes that women can wear -- it's very confusing if men wear them. Women wear them because it makes them feel sexy, and I wear them because I feel sexy in them, but it gets even more confusing than that, because there are straight TVs [transvestites], bi TVs, and gay TVs, and they're all driving things in slightly different ways in transgender. And that's just male-to-females, the female-to-males are almost invisible. So you wouldn't say, "A woman transvestite bumped into me today." You wouldn't make a big point of that. So, transgender never gets together and says, "What's all this about?" I think there are answers out there, but they're quite complex.

CF: Do you have any models for the kind of language or rethinking that you're proposing?

EI: Well, gay and lesbian people have moved a lot further forward than transgender; we're still stuck in the '50s. Gay and lesbian have separated sexuality from life, so that you do your job, have kids, do painting, and then your sexuality is something else, and that's how it should be. It used to be, "Oh, you're a banker and you're gay, you're a gay banker. Do you count the money in a gay way?" That's been separated out, but transgender's still locked together, people presume you're covering everything with nail varnish.

CF: Why do you think there's a majority male-to-female, compared to female-to-male?

EI: It may be so, but again, I think female-to-male remains mostly invisible. Even when women wear men's clothes, or like drinking or football, and act like one of the lads, they're still a woman. There's no definition of that, and they don't come to terms with it, they don't want to go into the position of being ostracized, so they just get by. So I don't think, given the randomness of our sexuality, or the chaos theory of life, that there are more male-to-female transgender, but they're just more visible.

CF: Have you looked at histories of clothing? Were there particular points when men were wearing a wider range of clothing?

EI: I haven't really looked much into the history, because I don't find it terribly useful. I want to know how we can change it now, and what we did before, I wasn't there, knowing what all the social circumstances were. So the seventeenth-century dandy-ish male wearing makeup, then I think, "Well, where does that get us?" We went through that again in the '70s rock n roll, but we've stopped doing that. If you stop doing it, that's the useless part. And even in rock n roll, they did it on stage. I think the most rebellious thing is not to do it on stage, but to do it offstage, just someday when you go to the supermarket. That's when it's subversive, because people don't expect it.

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