Eddie Izzard's latest show, Force Majeure, examines divine intervention in a godless world. Such philosophising is only one string to the comedian, actor, athlete and soon-to-be politician's bow, as Ed Power finds out
As I'm waiting to meet Eddie Izzard everyone keeps telling me what a smashing chap he is: witty, erudite, warm. "He'll talk and talk – he's such a normal guy," says someone who has just spoken to him and is staggering about pie-eyed with Izzard love.
Hurrah, I think, because, quite frankly, interviewing comedians tends to be a tooth-drilling ordeal. They are, with a few rare exceptions, a uniformly dour lot – touchy, suspicious, visibly bored before you've even opened your mouth.
Eventually, I am led into a swanky conference suite where, framed by the window, Izzard (51) stands in gnomish profile, a puffy-chested Napoleon of gently surreal comedy. Only – cue the sound of a stylus scraping across a vinyl record – Charming Eddie seems to have exited the building, replaced by stoic, frowning Eddie. Granted, it's not uncommon for a celebrity to suddenly turn frosty – they are the ultimate in hot and cold personalities. But usually they are at least ready to hear you out first.
Perhaps he is exhausted. Who wouldn't be? He's been up since the crack of dawn, flying to Dublin to receive a university award, and has spent the evening nattering to sundry radio shows and websites. Now, finally, here is his one print interview (maybe he's switched off the charm because he knows our chinwag won't be going up on YouTube).
After that, it's back to London and a 15-minute spot at a comedy club where he is trying out material for his latest production (I find out later that, between Heathrow and Wembley Arena, he'll squeeze into another interview, this time with a UK Sunday). Grumpy? With an itinerary like that, most us would be itching to drown a kitten.
He'd like very much to talk about the new show, which bears the title Force Majeure and has to do with the concept of divine intervention in a godless world (or something). It is no doubt hilarious, in that clever Izzard way where he makes you chortle but, later, have profound insights about life (or, in this case, religion).
The obvious question, of course, is why is he still doing stand-up? He has a promising movie career (while he's had his share of stinkers, lately he says the parts are getting better), is a natural on television and has just this week announced he will seek the British Labour Party candidacy for London mayor.
With all that going on, does he need to run about telling jokes?
"Well, if I was doing dick jokes or two men go into a pub jokes, then yes," he says. "In fact, I think what I do as a stand-up is pretty damn interesting.
"There are lots of Monty Python influences and I feel I have placed the bar very high. The point of the show is that we should all be our own Force Majeure (legal terminology for 'act of God'). We should all be our own energy and do whatever we have to do with our lives."
You can't accuse him of not knowing what he's talking about. To a degree unusual even in entertainment, Izzard is an entirely self-created success. He doesn't regard himself as especially talented but believes he is a world-class striver. Give him enough time and, with his brains and his "stubborn bastard" gene, inevitably he will achieve what he sets out to.
As he explains this, the temptation to play amateur psychologist is irresistible. Izzard's mother died from cancer when he was six years old. He was promptly packed off to boarding school and didn't see his father for months on end.
A reserved Englishman to his boots, he isn't melodramatic regarding what he went through. Nonetheless, he is upfront about what a horrible experience it was.
"The acting and performing instinct had to do with mum," he nods. "She died and I swapped the affection she was giving for what I could receive from an audience."
Some of his fondest memories of his mother are from the three years the family lived in Bangor, Co Down, in the mid-1960s, just before the Troubles. The picture he paints of small-town bliss feels like something from a Terence Malick montage.
"She died soon afterwards, so I have very strong recollections of that," he says.
"It's all locked in together. I have memories of playing with the other kids, a little gang of us throwing mud balls at passing cars, going to Ballyholme primary school, cycling my little bike with training wheels.
"I learned to ride a bike at the top of Ashford Drive in Bangor. I was going uphill, my dad pushing me. He let go and on I went."
Then they moved to Wales and his mother fell ill. "We had three years of sunshine in Bangor. Mum died and it was rougher. Because she was gone, obviously. And also because of boarding school. I thought 'boarding school – what the hell is that about?'.
"I didn't know boarding schools existed. It was me and my brother. I didn't see a lot of my dad during the year. And I never saw mum ever again. It was not an easy time to get through."
He learned to toughen up. The lesson was that, if you showed emotion, it gave others an advantage. So he stopped showing emotion.
"[Losing a parent] makes you become withdrawn. The way you deal with it is that you close down. If stuff went wrong as a kid, then you cry.
"At age 11, I realised I shouldn't cry. Crying equals losing. So I said to myself 'don't ever cry again'. That is what I did until I was 19. I managed to block that system, it was weird."
Off-stage he remains rather buttoned down. One subject he won't discuss is his personal life (aside from his dad, who enjoys the attention).
This became a issue after he made a documentary several years ago called Believe. The director was his former girlfriend Sarah Townsend. She is briefly interviewed on camera, providing the first peek into the private life behind Izzard's public persona.
Believe was supposed to be an overview of his life. But it was Townsend that set everyone talking. Izzard can't have been surprised.
When you consider that, along with everything else, he is one of the world's most famous cross-dressers – today he wears understated nail polish and subtly heeled boots – it's no shock we should be so fascinated about what he gets up to with the shutters drawn.
He appreciates the interest. He just doesn't wish to indulge it.
"If Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't have to talk about his private life, why should I? That's my logic," he says. "I am a straight transvestite.
"People think I'm hiding that. Well, if I was going to be gay, I'd be gay. There is no point concealing it. I have had relationships. The individuals I have been involved with said they would rather not be judged by their relationship with me. They want to stay out of it and I am completely fine with that."
He is aware his privacy will be difficult to sustain if he follows through with his promise to run for London mayor. And that would only be the beginning. Celebrities entering politics are often stunned at how rough the going is.
"I was thinking about that the other day actually. You're right. The public tends to be pretty positive towards me. In politics, half could be positive, half negative. On the other hand, I go around as a transvestite wearing hair and make -up. I've had horrendous stuff shouted at me. I don't think it could be worse than that."
His cross-dressing has nothing to do with the death of his mother, he says. He remembers being drawn to women's clothes when she was still alive. While not wishing to be a poster-boy for transvestism, it's satisfying to know he has helped combat public ignorance.
"I wouldn't say I was an ambassador. However, there are not a lot of us out there.
"The fact that I came out and said, 'you can be a transvestite and well-known for something else' can only be good.
"My new tour is taking me all over. I'll be in Kathmandu and perhaps someone will be in the audience and think, 'hey, that guy's a transvestite. And I'm a lesbian. If it's okay for him, then it's okay for me.'"
Eddie, steady go Izzard's career in snapshot
While studying accountancy at the University of Sheffield, Izzard starts to experiment with comedy.
He moves to London and establishes himself as a street performer in Covent Garden. In 1987, he makes his debut as a stand-up at the city's Comedy Store.
In 1991, Izzard has his first major break, performing his 'Wolves' sketch on an AIDS benefit show. With comedy proclaimed the 'new rock 'n' roll' in the UK media, Izzard is soon a house-hold face.
In 1999, he achieves success in the United States, where his Dressed To Kill performance is screened on HBO. He wins two Emmy Awards.
The same year, there is uproar in the UK as it is reported that Izzard recycled jokes on his live DVDs. The problem is caused by the sale of DVDs of his American tour in the UK – before he had brought the same show to Britain.
In 2006, he lands one of his biggest acting roles, opposite Minnie Driver in The Riches (left), an improbable tale of a Traveller family 'swindling' its way across America. Despite positive reviews, it is cancelled after two seasons.
In 2013, Izzard announces his largest tour yet, which will see him perform across Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
Eddie Izzard performs Force Majeure at The O2, Dublin, on Sunday, May 26
Day & Night