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When I Was Cruel

Ken Tucker reviews When I Was Cruel the new release by Elvis Costello. It reunites him with two members of his first rock combo, The Attractions.

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Other segments from the episode on April 26, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 26, 2002: Interview with Billy Bob Thornton; Interview with Eddie Izzard; Review of the new Elvis Costello CD "When I Was Cruel."

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DATE April 26, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Billy Bob Thornton talks about his life and career
MARGOT ADLER, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Margot Adler, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Billy Bob Thornton first became widely known for the 1996 film "Sling Blade,"
which he wrote, directed and starred in. He also co-wrote and starred in "One
False Move," received an Academy Award nomination for his supporting role in
"A Simple Plan," directed "All the Pretty Horses" and co-wrote "The Gift."

His film "Monster's Ball" is currently in theaters, and his films "Bandits"
and "The Man Who Wasn't There" have been recently released on video and DVD.
Terry Gross spoke with him after the release of "Monster's Ball." Thornton
plays a corrections officer at a state prison in a small, rural town in
Georgia. He heads the team that handles the execution of prisoners on death
row. His son has recently started to work on the team. They are preparing to
execute an African-American prisoner. Thornton plays a racist, but he takes
his job very seriously, particularly the rituals surrounding the condemned
prisoner's final hours. In this scene, he's at a bar talking to his son, who
made a mistake during the preparations for the execution.

(Soundbite from "Monster's Ball")

Mr. BILLY BOB THORNTON: (As character) When it gets time for us to do it,
you know, you can't mess up. That goes for me, too, and the rest of them.
You ain't no different than us, you can't screw it up.

In the evening they go as far as to give the guy a party the night before.
They call it the monster's ball. He don't want no lawyer or no preacher or
anything that around, so it's just you and me. Like I said, you can't think
about what he did or anything else about him. It's a job. We have to do our
job right.

ADLER: When Terry spoke with Billy Bob Thornton earlier this year, she asked
him to describe the place where he grew up.

Mr. THORNTON: I grew up in two towns. Until I was eight years old, I lived
in a town called Alpine, Arkansas, which is out in the middle of nowhere; it's
in the woods. There's not really a town, it's just kind of this valley
between all these mountains. And we were sort of the only literate people
there. My grandmother had been a schoolteacher in the old days, you know,
like the one-room schoolhouse thing, and my father was going to college on the
GI Bill--he'd been in the Korean War--so we lived with my grandmother until I
was, like I said, about eight years old or nine years old. And my grandfather
was a retired forestry worker, and he killed what we ate pretty much, you
know.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Mm-hmm.

Mr. THORNTON: Squirrel, opossum, raccoon. You know, he would make turtle
soup, all kinds of stuff. We had no electricity, no running water. We had
coal oil lamps, all that kind of thing. And my friends in California usually
don't believe that. I mean, they think that that's only from, like, the 1800s
or something. You know, kids who were raised in Los Angeles, they just don't
get that whole deal. But...

GROSS: How old were you when you got electricity?

Mr. THORNTON: Well, when we moved into this other town of like nine or 10,000
people when I was in the third grade. So that's when things started to--well,
I mean, to us it was like we'd moved to New York or something, you know?

GROSS: Now your mother is a psychic, and that apparently was the inspiration
for your movie "The Gift." You wrote the screenplay. It starred Cate
Blanchett as a mother and psychic who investigates a murder in her town that
hits very close to home. What kind of abilities did your mother have, or does
she have?

Mr. THORNTON: When I was growing up, you know, we got a lot of flak. I think
it's in the movie, actually, you know, about the kids getting a bunch of guff
at school for it. People would call my mother a witch and things like that.
And then a lot of people would just dismiss it. But at the same time,
everybody in town would come to see my mother. But they didn't necessarily
want anybody to know that. So they would--I mean, especially men. They would
see her in secret, you know, wouldn't want anybody to know that they did
something as crazy or sissylike as to go to a psychic. I mean, it was a very
sort of redneck male-oriented kind of society that I grew up in.

But the thing about ESP, which is what my mother has, is it's not the way
people think. You don't go to her and say, `Hey, am I going to meet a tall,
handsome stranger?' and she says, `Yes, and it's going to be in October.' You
go and you talk to her. In other words, she feels things about people. She
has instincts about people. And she will tell you when she gets around to it,
but you can't just ask her a question and say, `Hey, is this thing going to
happen?' She may not have that information for you, but she may have
something else for you. Like she'll be talking to you and she'll say, `So
have you been thinking about buying a new car?' and you'll say, `No, I don't
think so. Not really.' And then you'll say, `So anyway what about this big
business deal? You think it's going to come through?' and she'll say, `Well,
you know, it could. It definitely could. You're sure you're not thinking
about buying a new car?' `Well, no, I haven't been.' And then two days later
somebody calls this person up and says, `Hey, listen, I've got this great GTO
for sale,' you know, and they buy this car. I mean, it happens that way, you
know?

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Now you called your movie about a psychic "The Gift." Did
you grow up thinking that your mother had a gift and that certain talents were
just gifts, there were things that you were just given, they came with you and
it was up to you to decide how to use it? But either you had that gift or you
didn't. And did you think of yourself as having a gift?

Mr. THORNTON: Yes. To answer the first part of it, I did think that people
are born with gifts, absolutely. And I had never really questioned all that.
I always thought that if you had to try very hard to do something, it wasn't
worth doing. And I still feel that to a certain degree. And people always
talk about hard work and perseverance, but I think that the people with the
creative side of the brain, I think those people are the ones--I mean, it was
pretty obvious, they're the ones who are always daydreaming. They usually
don't make good grades. They're always like, you know--don't have much of
weird things. Like, you know, well, I've got phobias and different things
like that. Usually just the more eccentric people, you know?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. THORNTON: And then there are other people who are very practical, very
hardworking and that kind of thing. That was the world that I never quite
understood. And although, I mean, both worlds obviously, you know, are valid
and everything. But I just never related to that world. I always thought
that you can either do things or you can't do them, you know? And I look at
it that way and--like, for instance, in marriage or relationships, you know,
people always say, `Well, you know, marriage is hard work.' My marriage is
really not hard work. I've been married before, and it wasn't that it was
hard work, it's just that it was wrong, you know?

GROSS: Right, right, right.

Mr. THORNTON: It just wasn't the right place to be, and there was no work to
it. It was like, `Well, this is not the right thing. I shouldn't be here,
and they shouldn't be here, either.' You know?

GROSS: You mentioned phobias.

Mr. THORNTON: Right.

GROSS: If you don't mind talking about it, what are some of your phobias and
do they affect your gifts? Considering your gifts include writing and acting,
do the phobias interfere with those gifts?

Mr. THORNTON: Well, the phobias don't necessarily interfere; particularly
when I did the movie "Bandits," it was helpful, because I played a guy with
phobias. But, you know, my phobias aren't really that much of a hindrance in
my professional life or anything. I have a fear of antique furniture, certain
kinds of antique furniture that I can't be around. I can be around any...

GROSS: Wait, wait, wait. Not a common fear. What's the problem with antique
furniture?

Mr. THORNTON: Well, I just get creeped out by it. I can't be around it. And
there's--a lot of people have this sort of simplistic idea about what that is.
They think, `Well, it's a past life thing and, you know, something weird
happened to you at a certain time and, you know, whatever,' which I don't
doubt that it's a past life thing. I mean, one friend of mine said maybe I
was beaten to death with an antique chair. But...

GROSS: Excuse me for laughing.

Mr. THORNTON: Oh, no, it's fine. But, you know, I don't know exactly what it
is. It involves food, though. I can't eat around antique furniture. That's
the main way it affects me. But anything Asian, I'm OK with. Like if
something is like centuries and centuries old, if it's Asian, I'm OK with it.
But if it's like French or English or Scottish or something like that, I get
so creeped out I can't describe it. Like my worst nightmare is like a castle
with velvet draperies and things like that, those little...

GROSS: It sounds like a Vincent Price movie to me.

Mr. THORNTON: Exactly. Right. Yeah. I can't be in a Vincent Price movie.
I have an unnatural fear of Benjamin Disraeli's hair.

GROSS: Strange, but--yeah.

Mr. THORNTON: Yes, strange but true.

ADLER: Billy Bob Thornton talking with Terry Gross. We'll continue after
this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

ADLER: Let's return to Terry's conversation with Billy Bob Thornton. His
films "Bandits" and "The Man Who Wasn't There" have just been released on home
video and DVD.

GROSS: The film you were really noticed for was "Sling Blade," in which you
played a--is mentally challenged the right word now? You played a mentally
challenged man released from an institution after serving 25 years for killing
his mother and her lover. As you made clear when you hosted "Saturday Night
Live," everyone imitates you doing that part. How did you develop the voice
and the character? You wrote the story, in fact, before the movie was made.

Mr. THORNTON: Right.

GROSS: You had a short film based on the same character, and I think you did
him in a one-man show also.

Mr. THORNTON: Right. Yeah, the first thing I did was the one-man show. I'd
written just the beginning, kind of what was in the short film that I did in
the one-man show. I did that long monologue in the beginning there. It's
based on--life experience, is really what it's based on, all of it. I mean,
you know, the character of Karl in "Sling Blade" is based on a couple of
different people. And I wasn't even conscious that it was based on them when
I was writing it so much. It's like later on it's like, `Oh, wow,' you know?
As a matter of fact, my mother pointed out to me that part of that was like
this guy that was in Alpine, you know? There was a guy who was kept out back
of his family's house and they, like, fed him sort of like a dog, you know.

But the voice came about when I was working on a movie for HBO. And I was in
the little sort of--you might call it a dressing room that they'd provided for
me. I had just a few lines in the movie. I think I had four lines. And they
had peeled my head because the movie took place in the '20s, and I had this
really stupid-looking haircut. And I just was in the trailer at lunch and I
was thinking, `Wow, you know what? I'm just a joke,' you know? I mean, I was
looking at myself and I thought, `I got four stupid lines in a cable movie
here. You know, I'm never going to get anywhere.' I was just kind of feeling
sorry for myself really and started making faces at myself in the mirror, you
know, just to sort of, like, make it even more exaggerated. It's like--you
know, it's almost like pinching a sore, you know?

GROSS: Right. Right.

Mr. THORNTON: And so I made that face, and I started talking in that voice to
myself. I mean, it sounds insane. Maybe it is. I don't know. But that's
where I came up with that part of the character, the look and the voice. And
then I said that monologue to myself in the mirror that day, that whole
monologue. I don't know where it came from.

GROSS: Why don't we hear that monologue.

Mr. THORNTON: OK.

(Soundbite of "Sling Blade")

Mr. THORNTON: (As Karl) My daddy worked down there at the sawmill, down at
the planner mill, for an old man named Dixon. Old man Dixon was a very
cruel feller. Didn't treat his employees very well, didn't pay 'em too much
of a wage, didn't pay my daddy too much of a wage, just barely enough to get
by on, I reckon. But I reckon he got by all right. Hmm.

They used to come out, one or the other of them, usually my mother, feed me
pretty regular. Mm-hmm. Oh, I know he made enough to where I could have
mustard and biscuits three or four times a week. Hmm. Hmm.

But old man Dixon, he had a boy. His name was Jesse Dixon. Guess he was
really more cruel than his daddy was. He used to make quite a bit of sport of
me. When I was down there at the schoolhouse, he used to take advantage of
little girls there in the neighborhood and all. Hmm. He used to say that my
mother was a very pretty woman. He said that quite a bit from time to time
when I'd be down there at the schoolhouse.

Well, I reckon you want me to get on a ways and tell you what happened. I
reckon I'll tell you. I was setting out there in the shed one evening, not
doing too much of nothing...

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is screenwriter, director, actor
and musician Billy Bob Thornton.

I want to squeeze in one other scene of yours, and this is from a movie called
"A Simple Plan." You starred in it. This is about three people who steal
money they find at the site of a plane crash and, you know, they're a little
conflicted about it, but they go through with it, and in their attempts to
cover their tracks, things go terribly bad. This is a scene where your
brother is dropping you off at your house and you're wondering how money's
going to change your life. Now you're playing somebody who's kind of mentally
slow in this and who isn't physically attractive and, you know, your glasses
are held together by masking tape around the nosepiece.

Mr. THORNTON: OK.

(Soundbite of "A Simple Plan")

Mr. THORNTON: (As Jake) Why, don't you think somebody will marry me if I'm
rich?

Mr. BILL PAXTON: (As Hank) You don't need money for that.

Mr. THORNTON: Hank.

Mr. PAXTON: Hey, come on. What about--What was her name?--Carrie
Richards(ph)? She liked you even though you were broke-dick.

Mr. THORNTON: Oh, her, yeah. That was a whole different deal. That was--her
friends, they pitched in a hundred bucks altogether and betted her that she
wouldn't go steady with me for a month.

Mr. PAXTON: Jesus, Jake, I thought you guys had a thing.

Mr. THORNTON: Yeah, well, it wasn't that bad. Actually, it was kind of
cool. We used to walk around together a lot, you know, taking walks, you
know? And we talked about all kind of cool stuff. I held hands with her one
time when we were walking around, and my hand sweated so much, she--I kind of
had to let her go. I was nervous, I guess, but it was cool. When the month
was over, she, you know, kind of--she'd say hi to me sometimes in the hallway
when I'd see her. She didn't have to do that. That was cool of her. God,
Hank, you know, I've never even kissed a girl before. For--you know, if being
rich will change that, I'm all for it. I don't care. I just want to feel it,
you know. I just want to know what people do, you know? I don't care if it's
because of the money.

(Soundbite of car door)

Mr. THORNTON: Hank, I'm going to be happy now, right?

Mr. PAXTON: Sure you are. We all are.

Mr. THORNTON: Yeah, that's right, we all are.

GROSS: This is a very moving scene in which the character reveals a lot about
himself. Could you talk a little bit about doing this scene and not turning
it into a big fireworks kind of speech, but playing it really low key?

Mr. THORNTON: You know, first of all, as an actor, you're trying to be
realistic, and if you're talking to your brother in a car about something like
that, it is going to be low key. And sometimes, you know, I mean--well, when
an actor tries to make a point of something, it's like being at home
pretending you're like a rock star in the mirror or something. You know, it's
like that's not the way you should do it. You know, you should just kind of
talk or do whatever it is, you know?

And that scene, though, it was very--it was an emotional scene for me. So
what I did really in that scene, because it was, in a sense, autobiographical,
I put a couple--there were a few lines that I put in there about holding the
girl's hand and it was so sweaty I was embarrassed by it, stuff like that. I
had a time when I was in, you know, elementary school and junior high school
when it was sort of that way for me, and so that scene was very close to me.
And as opposed to trying to put anything more into the scene, I was actually
trying to hold back because I felt a lot of emotion about it. So I was
actually trying to not get emotional, so maybe that's the way it worked, and
why it worked out that way.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. One last question. What's the most ridiculous thing that's
even been written about you that wasn't true?

Mr. THORNTON: Well, most of the stuff that's written about me and my wife is
not true. It's all either from being misquoted, from joking with people. You
know, in print if you joke with somebody, they don't see how your face looks
at the time or they don't--you know, whatever. There's this whole thing about
I'm the reincarnation of Ben Franklin, which I don't doubt, but I didn't say
it in seriousness really. I mean, I feel very close to Ben Franklin, I feel
very connected to him and stuff like that, but I'm not positive I was Ben
Franklin.

Anyway, I think probably the most ridiculous thing written about me is that I
live in a dungeon, particularly given the fact that that's like, as I was
saying earlier, my worst nightmare, you know, some castle.

GROSS: Your antique furniture.

Mr. THORNTON: And then, you know, my blood is in this little sort of locket
that my wife wears around her neck and I have hers on one also. And from
that, suddenly you're like this sort of weird, blood-sucking vampire. So
it's, you know--and I've told people this before. If you put that in a
movie--you know, if Mel Gibson gave some girl a little locket of his blood in
a movie, it would be really romantic. You do it in real life, you're a
weirdo.

ADLER: Billy Bob Thornton talking earlier this year with Terry Gross. His
film "Monster's Ball" is still in theaters. "Bandits" and "The Man Who Wasn't
There" have been just been released on home video and DVD. I'm Margot Adler,
and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music; funding credits)

ADLER: Coming up, British cross-dressing comic Eddie Izzard. He had roles in
the films "Shadow of a Vampire" and the "Velvet Goldmine." He's currently
starring in the new Peter Bogdanovich film "The Cat's Meow" as Charlie
Chaplin. And Ken Tucker reviews when "When I Was Cruel," the new CD by Elvis
Costello.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Comedian Eddie Izzard discusses his life and career
MARGOT ADLER, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Margot Adler.

Eddie Izzard has been called the queen of comedy, the coolest straight man
alive in high heels, frosted hair and drop-dead red lipstick. But as Ron
Wertheimer wrote in The New York Times, `The first thing you notice after you
notice that he's wearing high heels is how smart he is.' His interests range
from ancient history to society's latest offenses, and his mind leaps from one
thing to another in an extreme-of-consciousness monologue. Eddie Izzard has
appeared in the movies "Shadow of A Vampire," the "Velvet Goldmine" and
"Mystery Men." In the new Peter Bogdanovich film "The Cat's Meow," set in the
world of 1920s show-biz celebrities, gossip columnists and writers, Izzard
plays Charlie Chaplin.

(Soundbite of "The Cat's Meow")

Mr. EDDIE IZZARD ("Charlie Chaplin"): Don't tell me Elinor Glyn has arrived
on time? Good God, perhaps even early?

Unidentified Woman: Oh, all right, then. Hello, you little bastards.

Mr. IZZARD: The little abject...

Unidentified Woman: I see your young passion flame is not accompanying you.

Mr. IZZARD: Lita, is she not here? I seem to have forgotten her. Let's
keep it that way, shall we?

ADLER: Izzard is one of England's stars of stand-up comedy, but through films
and comedy, he's also become popular in the US. His one-man show, "Dress To
Kill," had a successful run in the States in 1998 and was later adapted into
an HBO special. Terry Gross spoke with Izzard two years ago. They started
with an excerpt of the special.

(Soundbite from "Dress to Kill")

Mr. IZZARD: The Founding Fathers in 16...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZZARD: ...they set off from Plymouth and landed in Plymouth. How lucky
is that, eh?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZZARD: This is Plymouth. This is Plymouth, we set off from Plymouth.
God. We've gone around in a circle, lads. Back on the boats.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZZARD: This is Plymouth, too. My God, there's two Plymouths, back on
the boats. Eventually they got to America and go, `Ah, this is the place that
God has brought us to. We can raise a family here. We can practice our
religion. There's nobody here--Excuse me--There's nobody here.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZZARD: `No human soul on this land. Who are these people over there
with the big...'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZZARD: `What's that feather stuff on their heads doing? Could it--we
weren't expecting you. Our God has brought us here, and no, we don't want any
of your food, thank you very much. Just put some clothes on, for God's sake.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZZARD: `Have you no shame?'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZZARD: Meanwhile, that winter, `Excuse me, do you have any food?'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZZARD: `I love all that stuff on your head. It's fantastic, really.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZZARD: `Very adaptable. Yes, yes. Lovely. Got your own religion.
Fantastic. We've got one, too. Thanks. Hello. Lovely. Yes, we're trying
to grow bananas, didn't really work, but thanks. Thanks for the food anyway.
Yes, there's more of us coming, but we all keep our promises.'

TERRY GROSS, host:

Now I think your early comedy performances were as a street performer in
England. And from what I read, it sounds like in your early act, you rode a
unicycle, you did sword fighting in the street, worked with trick handcuffs.
Were you planning on joining a circus?

Mr. IZZARD: No. It's--the problem with the street is you cannot do--you have
to do physical situation comedy. Being really analytical, which I gained from
coming out as being a transvestite and having to self-analyze myself, I gained
this gift of intensive analysis. So I analyzed the street, because I went
down and I thought, `Well, I'll get the street in two weeks and I'll be doing
shows and people can give me some money. I can earn a bit of money this way,'
but it took me a year. And people will not respond to spoken word. If you go
out and do stand up, unless you had a huge amplifier behind you, it--you can't
do sketches.

You can't do sketches or spoken word because there's not enough glue out
there; there's not enough--the audience won't stick around for that. They
need to see something physical situation in front of you. So that's why
juggling and magic and stuff works, visual things. Visual things really kill
out on the street. But the spoken word, it just gets lost in--and people
can't quite hear and then there's no sense of atmosphere and there's too much
other noise going on of wind and rain and cars and people and other people
laughing and so it--you couldn't do standup like that. You had to do stuff
that was sword fighting, all these really weird tricks and fake knife
throwing, I used to do, or getting on a big unicycle and getting out of a pair
of handcuffs. That ended up as my big stupid show. I wasn't really into the
show, but I could talk a lot of inane, strange comedy in between it, and I
could lace it between the show. And they would stay because I was on the
unicycle and I might die, basically. It was...

GROSS: Exactly. Right.

Mr. IZZARD: It was like a car crash thing. They would think, `This is a car
crash waiting to happen. Maybe he'll die.' You know, even on a tough day,
when it's raining and snowing and still sort of hang around in case I died. I
thought that was my essential glue. It's a sort of, `Will he die? Oh, he
hasn't--he hasn't died. All right. Let's give him five pence.' So that was
the show I ended up with. But I never--what I really liked on the
street--what I really learned was how to start a show. And in starting a
show, you have to build it up from nothing. And so there's about 20 minutes
where it takes to build up enough of an audience so that you can actually
start. Because if you start with too small of an audience, you never actually
build further from that. It's quite complicated. But...

GROSS: So how would you start the audience?

Mr. IZZARD: Well, it was--quite often, I'd be just getting--well, I'd put
down tea cozies. I had these tea cozies that looked like animals. They were
a duck tea cozy and--you call them tea cozies, that you put over...

GROSS: The little quilted thing you put over a teapot to keep it warm.

Mr. IZZARD: Yeah. Yeah, that's it.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. IZZARD: And it was a duck and a penguin and a hippopotamus, and I just
bought these. And I used to put them on the ground very slowly. And I
discovered this thing--well, I didn't discover. I noticed other people doing
it on the street, that if you put something very slowly down with a lot of
focus on the street, people will watch you doing it. It will draw their
attention in because they'll think, `What are you doing?' if you just have a
lot of focus and you put it just very gently down the street. So I was doing
this. And I would take about 20 minutes to put these out. And people would
just sort of form around thinking, `Well, he's going to do something with
these tea cozies.' And then I'd never do anything with them. So I'd just
manage to build up an audience that way.

Or I'd talk to people and I'd sort of--and then I was actually just standing
on the street and just spieling to people. I could just go on and on and on
and build up scenarios, and people would just walk across in front of me, sort
of ignoring the show while I was trying to build a show. And I'd say, `Ah,
this is Jeanine and this is Sarah there. They're dressed up at the moment.
They're playing characters. I've employed them to do this. As you can see
them walking through. They'll ignore me. They'll ignore me because they're
very good. They're always in their characters. They never sort of come out
of character.' So I'd impose this scenario. These are just two women walking
across and I would impose the idea that they were actors portraying two women
who happen to be walking across. And then I'd say, `They will change in five
minutes. They'll come back as different characters.' And then I'd pick two
other people and say, `That's them. That's them now.'

And everyone knew it was rubbish, but it was quite unique because it sort of
worked. And I could do this imposing scenarios thing and sort of get a
certain atmosphere going, as if I was controlling the thing, as if I--you have
to use what's going on and look as if you're the master of ceremonies in this
show but, in fact, it was just stuff happening around you.

ADLER: Eddie Izzard talking with Terry Gross about his work in comedy and
films. We'll have more of this conversation after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

ADLER: Let's return to Terry's interview with Eddie Izzard. He currently
plays Charlie Chaplin in the new Peter Bogdanovich movie, "The Cat's Meow."

GROSS: Your mother died when you were six, and after that you were sent to
boarding school.

Mr. IZZARD: Yeah.

GROSS: Whenever I see a movie that's set in a British boarding school,
there's always an element of sadism in it where the older boys pick on the
younger boys. And it seems like it was a pretty uncomfortable place to be for
a lot of people. How was it for you?

Mr. IZZARD: It's--the classic one--"Tom Brown's Schooldays" which has this
thing called fagging, which is I think--basically people work as servants for
the older boys and they can beat the hell out of you and that's--I think the
amount of bullying or whatever that went on was typical for any school. They
didn't--you know, there was some that went on but it wasn't overtly in that
sort of stuff you've seen in films. The first school I went to, I really
didn't like. I just didn't like--well, I was six, so I just--it wasn't a
great place to go and it was a bit like being on a desert island. But the
second and the third--the second school I went to had a more healthy place.
First one was in Wales--South Wales. The second one was in the south of
England. And it had a much more--the headmaster there was a decent guy and it
was a generally positive place. There was a certain amount of bullying that
went on, but, you know, that was just what happens in schools. And then by
the time I got to the third school, which is kind of probably harder to deal
with--I was already like, you know, a rock emotionally, like, you know, I
wouldn't cry, I wouldn't--no one was gonna sort of give me a hard time 'cause
I was gonna give them a hard time first, so I was already built to resist any
problems that would come up.

GROSS: When you were in boarding school, were you able to use humor in
self-defense?

Mr. IZZARD: Yeah, it was--absolutely. It was to get popular at school and
get popular with girls and just to get popular basically. To get more
popular. Well, 'cause I used to--see, when I was up to 13 I used to play
football, and I lived for football and that was my kind of my--what you call
soccer--but that was the thing I loved. And this is why I'm a male tomboy,
was this football and makeup my--and I was in the first team and, you know,
the school matches and that's what I lived for. I went to the next school and
they didn't play football, so--and I wasn't very good at the other sports, so
I just--I lost a center of where I was going and even though I liked acting
and stuff, I hadn't had any parts up to this point. So I started pushing
slightly more in this acting stuff.

And then I started developing--I could do this comedy in the classroom. I'd
be witty and do those throw lines--those lines that you throw at the teacher.
When they're in between a comment, you can just drop a line and it really
works, cracks the class up. And that was working well. And then there were
no girls at school until the sixth form, until I was about 17. And then a,
you know, few girls turned up and it was bizarre. So you have one girl for 20
boys. So it just didn't--I didn't talk to any girls basically till I
was--because I wasn't playing sports, I wasn't head of the school, I wasn't--I
was just some guy wandering around with greasy hair and acne basically. But
the comedy got me out of that, comedy. Because I found that I could use that
in the class and it just--it was a social tool.

GROSS: So when was the first time you actually acted on the impulse to wear
makeup or dresses?

Mr. IZZARD: Well, it's quite a bit weird, because my mum died and so I--and
there was no sisters in the family so I had no access to anything until--well,
there was bits--there was occasional stuff at school, but really I got to
college and then when I got to college there was--I was doing theater shows
and there was a whole wardrobe department there so I thought, `Hey, you know,
I'm running this show.' I can come into this wardrobe department and just
say, `Let's borrow this one.'

GROSS: Did anyone ever walk in on you before you were out and you had to,
like, make up an explanation about why you were wearing a dress?

Mr. IZZARD: No. No, that didn't happen. I once got some kids chasing after
me saying, `Why are you wearing a dress? Why are you wearing makeup?' But
they were trying to fo--I was trying to get home and they were trying to
follow me, so I thought, `I can't go home now, 'cause they'll know where I
live.' So I thought--well, I started wandering off in a different direction,
and they kept chasing after me until I thought, `Well, I'm gonna talk to
them.' So I stopped and said, `Look, you want to know? You want to talk to
me? Come and talk to me?' And then they just ran off. So that taught me
something. I thought they're actually--everyone's just scared of their own
shadow. But that's that kind of bullying thing, because they were pushing,
pushing, pushing, and so I turned around and said, `OK, what do you want to
talk about?' Then they ran.

And I find this with little small, young children, girls and boys, if I'm
wearing makeup, they'll come up to me and say, `You're a girl.' This thing
which, for a boy, when you're at school, is supposed to be the big thing you
can't be.

GROSS: Oh, that's the biggest insult.

Mr. IZZARD: Yes. And that's the one that's undefendable. You can't--and you
have to say, `No, I'm not.' And they go, `Yes, you are. You're a girl.' And
when I'm wearing makeup now and little kids will come up to me, `You're a
girl,' I go, `Yeah.' And then they stop and they think, `Oh, that's supposed
to work,' and they say, `No, no, you're a girl.' `Yeah, yeah, I am.' And
then they just--you can just see the confusion on their faces. It's almost
like they're getting into a group huddle and saying, `But surely we should say
he's a girl. He should say no. And then we've got him. But if he's saying
yes that's denying the whole--we've got no argument to go to.' And they could
just see that they can't deal with it. They have to wander off shaking their
heads.

GROSS: Did you ever have to tell a girlfriend who didn't know that you're a
transvestite that you were and then she had to react to the fact that you see
yourself as a male lesbian, which might've been confusing to her?

Mr. IZZARD: Yes, I think it is slightly more difficult in relationships, but
the main--because women think, `Well, how does that reflect on me? What do
you think of me? Or what will other people think of me if I'm going out with
someone who's a transvestite?' And it gets a little bit confusing for a woman
in that area. But generally it's--I mean, a lot--I thought most women would
just say, `Well, that's it. I don't want to talk to you.' But, in fact, a
lot of women are very positive and supportive and curious about being out
about, being TV. So, yeah, it's a lot different to what I thought it would be
like. A lot better, a lot more positive. Way more positive. If I had my
life over again, I said, I would be TV. Like it seemed like we were so much
simpler, seeing as I fancy women, just to be straight, straight, you know.
But it's actually taught me so much and it's so much of a quest thing. You've
learned so much. You've gained so much in confidence and understanding of how
human nature works by being TV and having to come out or being gay or being
lesbian, the whole coming out thing, that I just found it really positive.

GROSS: Let me ask you a shopping question.

Mr. IZZARD: Yeah.

GROSS: There's a lot of, like, hip boutiques or something and I'll walk into
and people just kind of look at me funny 'cause I maybe, like, don't look,
like, quite like hip enough to qualify to shop there, or maybe it's 'cause
I'm, like, short and they know nothing in their store is gonna fit me. But,
you know, I do get some strange looks, like I don't--like I'm not really a
member of the club, you know...

Mr. IZZARD: Right.

GROSS: ...that really hip clothes club and they know it. What kind of looks
do you get when you go shopping?

Mr. IZZARD: I have trained myself not to take in looks. I've trained myself
to think Elizabeth Taylor and remember hearing about--I thought that would
come in handy. This is Elizabeth Taylor, you know, back in the '50s or '60s.
I've read about her telling how Richard Burton was filming and she turned up
in--he was filming in Italy, so she turns up in Italy, gets the chief of
police to take her out to the set. So it was screaming motorbikes and sirens
and everything. She turns up and gets out in some sort of coat, out of a
Rolls-Royce and out of police cars and just thought, well, you know, that's
the way to do an entrance.

And I've found, like, trying on clothes in shops, if I go up and I say, `I'm a
bloke. I'm gonna try on this skirt.' If I say, `Can I? Can I try on this
skirt?' And I think most--I've found that most people in the shops, `Well, I
don't think that's possible at all. We'll have to kill you first, surely.
Surely that's illegal in several states and hangable. Can we hang him for
that?' But I've found that if I say, `I'm trying this on in there. I'm going
now,' then they go, `Ah, fine, right, OK.' 'Cause I'm just trying it on in
the cubicle. I just want to buy their clothes, they want to sell their
clothes, so it's a confidence thing. And I've found that if I asked, then I
would get rejected, but if I said, `I am doing it,' they go, `Fine. You do
it.' And that's an interesting attitude and I have to be just really up front
and very knowledgeable.

Like--and of course, you get these people, `Can I help you?' very quickly,
especially if men go up to makeup counters. And I have to say, `Yes, yes, I
want these, lipsticks are no good. I don't like those. Those are kind of
mushy, right.' I have to be very knowledgeable in the area of makeup just so
that they pull back a bit and don't get in my face and say, `Well, these are
very nice. Who's it for?' `It's for me and I want this, that, that, don't
want that, that's rubbish, that's way overpriced and you may as well burn that
(unintelligible) 'cause its useless.' And I kind of get kind of aggressive in
that way so they'll just back out of my face.

GROSS: Would this work for me, do you think?

Mr. IZZARD: Yeah, I think you have to assume your--you have to think
Elizabeth Taylor. You have to think--or a person that's gonna work for you.
You have to just go in and be very disdainful. If you feel you're getting
disdain towards you, double the disdain back, and if they say, `Can I help
you?' say, `I'm sure you can't.'

GROSS: You see, this is how being a theater person can really come in handy.

Mr. IZZARD: Yes, exactly.

GROSS: See, 'cause I don't--I'm not good at that kind of stuff. I mean, I'm
not good at like thinking Elizabeth Taylor. I can't really pull that off.

Mr. IZZARD: No. It's--well, you--no, you--I think you can if you practice.
Don't--Elizabeth Taylor might not work for you, but it worked for me. Just
some--you've got to think someone who you think--well, I'm gonna think of that
person, and just--or try disdain--just try to think, OK, people are gonna give
me hassles so I'm not gonna assume it. 'Cause you don't want to attack if
someone's actually trying to be helpful or whatever.

GROSS: Right, right.

Mr. IZZARD: But you just want to be up there and in that kind of high eyebrow
kind of, `Yes, I don't know if your shop is really worthy of me.' That's what
you really need to think of. Listen to--a Walkman is a very good way of doing
it. I've found going into very--those shops when I first started having a bit
of money and I started going in and there's one person in there and it's very
quiet and everything. You pull out socks and there's a, you know, hundred
quid...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. IZZARD: ...hundred pounds and you go, `Gee, I can't even breathe in these
socks.' And so I found I would just put on a Walkman and I'd be very kind of
like as if I'm designer, 'cause that's the look you come into. You come into
desig--you're a designer. So just say, `I do this thing. This is my job.'
So just be very quick and pull out stuff and throw it back and, `Oh, this is
rubbish,' and then just walk out. And then if you adopt that attitude,
they'll have to bow down to it, because all they're doing is adopting an
attitude of snottiness towards anyone who comes in. So just got to crank your
ego up, get on the raised eyebrow thing and just--a Walkman can really work
because you can just listen to music and they could be saying, `Can I help
you?' and you're just--and they can come right up to your face and you can
just ignore them. 'Cause when people say, `Can I help you?' I never look at
them then. They say, `Can I help you?' 'Cause then you go, `Yeah, well,
probably not.' You know, you just get into a lost thing, so when they say,
`Can I help you?' I just go, `No, I don't think you can.' And I just make
sure that it's one of the last things that's on my mind is talking to them,
because it just takes me into a low status thing, and they must know what
they're doing there.

GROSS: Well, I appreciate all the advice.

Mr. IZZARD: It does work. You just have to practice it. If at first it
doesn't work, just keep thinking, keep in there, keep in the zone.

GROSS: Well, Eddie Izzard, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. IZZARD: Thanks very much.

(Soundbite from "Dress to Kill")

Mr. IZZARD: You know, and then I had to chat girls up, and I've never had the
ability, you know. I'd only tagged them before and now I have to use verbal
skills. `Oh, Susie.' You don't have the ability at 13 to be able to say,
`Susan, I saw you in the classroom, the sun came from behind the clouds and a
shaft of sunlight caught your hair, golden framing your face, your eyes burned
blue fire into my soul. I immediately read the words of Dostoyevsky and Karl
Marx. And in the words of Albert Schweitzer, I fancy you.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZZARD: But no. No, at 13, you're just going, `Hello, Sue. I saw you in
the room. I've got legs, you know. Have you? Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. There
they are. Do you like bread? Look, I've got a French stick. Yeah. French
loaf. Poom. Fah! I love you.'

ADLER: That was a clip from Eddie Izzard's 1998 show "Dress to Kill." He is
currently playing Charlie Chaplin in the new Peter Bogdanovich movie "The
Cat's Meow."

Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new Elvis Costello CD "When I Was Cruel."
This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: New Elvis Costello CD "When I Was Cruel"
MARGOT ADLER, host:

Elvis Costello has spent the past few years collaborating with non-rock
musicians ranging from Burt Bacharach to classical music vocalist Anne Sofie
Von Otter. His new album, "When I Was Cruel," reunites Costello with two
members of his first rock group, The Attractions. Rock critic Ken Tucker says
the new album returns Costello to his roots.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ELVIS COSTELLO: One, two, three, four. (Singing) Aspire to the spirit of
curiosity, of the scandals ...(unintelligible) monstrosity. I got it, then I
pry it, I insinuate. If the failure is great, then it tends to fascinate. A
tornado drops...

KEN TUCKER reporting:

There's a sense in which Elvis Costello began his career in the '70s as an act
of punk-inspired irony. Declan McManus took the name Elvis Costello as a way
of invoking Elvis Presley while spitting out his own articulate bile with his
band The Attractions. Costello made one terrific rock album after another,
right up through "Blood & Chocolate" in 1986. After that, restless and
adventurous, he shed his band and began a series of collaborations that ranged
outside of rock 'n' roll. So for him now, pushing 50, to get, as he puts it
in his liner notes, rude and vivid again with, quote, "more distorted tremolo
guitar on this record than any other album of mine," unquote, well, Costello
is applying a fresh coating of irony to his original irony.

The result is at once passionately exhilarating and cooly calculated. Nowhere
is this more evident than on the back-to-back concept songs "Spooky
Girlfriend" and "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll's Revolution)." "Spooky
Girlfriend" is Costello's take on a horny rock 'n' roll Svengali controlling a
young female pop idol.

(Soundbite of "Spooky Girlfriend")

Mr. COSTELLO: (Singing) I want a girl to make amends. To do no wrong, she
must confess and then perhaps, hitch up her dress. 'Cause when the glass
bulbs explode, she's such a sensitive soul.

TUCKER: By contrast, "Tear Off Your Own Head" is about the rebellion of the
exploited girl singer. In the metaphor of the song, the woman, reduced to a
doll, tears off her head--that is to say, her face, her image--to reveal her
true nature.

(Soundbite of "Tear Off Your Own Head [It's a Doll's Revolution]")

Mr. COSTELLO: (Singing) Who dries your eyes as you cry real tears? Who
knows a kiss from imitation lips? Only you do. You can paint his nails, you
can wear high heels. Why waste time altering the hemline? Oh, do you? Tear
off your own head. Tear off your own head. It's a doll's revolution.

TUCKER: As a devotee of Costello when he's simultaneously most vehement in
his melody and adroit, as opposed to merely clever, in his lyrics, I think the
best song on this collection is its thrilling lead-off cut called "45."
Costello deploys the title number as everything from a man's age to the RPM
speed at which small vinyl records used to be played. Open your ears now.

(Soundbite of "45")

Mr. COSTELLO: (Singing) Bells'll chime at the vicary. Bells a page back in
history; 45. They came back to the world that they fought for. Didn't
turn out just like they thought; 45. Here is a song to sing to do the
(unintelligible). What do you lose? What do you get? What do you wear? Nine
years later...

TUCKER: Not all of "When I Was Cruel" is as good as that, and for a reason
suggested by the title. When Costello first appeared on the scene, he was a
new variation on a British archetype, the angry young man. He owned up to
acts of arrogance and abusiveness and often carried out his image off stage.
The middle-aged, mellowed Costello sees this behavior for what it was: a very
well-crafted pose. But in making that recognition, it renders the new
collection's so-called rude and vivid music slightly less rude and less vivid,
if still capable of delivering a precise musical jab and punch.

ADLER: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly.

(Soundbite of "45")

Mr. COSTELLO: (Singing) I heard something peculiar said. Perhaps he's got a
shot now he's dead; 45.

(Credits)

ADLER: Terry Gross returns on Monday. I'm Margot Adler.

(Soundbite of "45")

Mr. COSTELLO: (Singing) ...45; 45.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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