Eddie Izzard is prospering with `Riches'

March 12, 2007|By Diane Werts | Diane Werts,Newsday

The star looks smashing in slinky silk, spike heels and bright-red lipstick.

So wait. Who are we talking about?

Could be Eddie Izzard. The lead actor of FX's ambitious new family chronicle The Riches has most recently been seen purveying his one-man stand-up shows on BBC America, attired in the sort of miniskirt-and-fishnets styling befitting the world's most famed transvestite comic.

Or do we mean the character of his youngest child on The Riches? That would be the one who goes to town when big sister's outfits get handed down. Yes, of course - his grade-school son.

Amazingly, the producers of The Riches (premiering on FX at 10 tonight) swear this improbable intersection of life and art is utter coincidence. The boy was getting pretty in the original script for this adult drama/comedy before Izzard joined the project to play his regular-male-garbed father. "That's the weird thing about it," says series creator Dmitry Lipkin.

As for Izzard, the British cult comic and toast of off-Broadway (Dress to Kill) must have taken the boy's scripted fashion sense as a sign this was the project for his dramatic acting breakthrough with mainstream America. "He was a transvestite already," Izzard marvels, "and I said, `Well, you may as well give him exactly my sexuality, straight transvestite, because that's what I am. And you can just ask me questions.'"

But wearing somebody else's clothes isn't merely a Milton Berle joke for either the real-life Izzard - who reports feeling the need since age 4 - or his on-screen son. It's an essential part of who they are. Masquerade is also the thematic essence of The Riches. Izzard, who won acclaim playing Charlie Chaplin in the 2001 feature film The Cat's Meow, joins forces here with fellow indie idol Minnie Driver (Grosse Pointe Blank) to portray loving parents living with their three kids on the road in an RV, running scams on strangers they call "buffers" - settled citizens who serve as marks for the cons of itinerant "Irish travelers" like them.

"They're like Irish Gypsies," says creator Lipkin, estimating that 20,000 to 30,000 travelers live in America, many in the South where The Riches plays out.

Though Izzard's character, Wayne Malloy, is a masterfully charming grifter, he's become uneasy about the way his family is existing, day to day. They're beholden to what's essentially a nomadic tribe, suddenly led by a desperado who nurses a grudge against Wayne. Driver's character, Dahlia, is just out of prison, having taken the fall for a failed scam, and she's undergone some unsettling changes of her own.

"They run away from their people," Lipkin says, "and through a series of events, they end up taking on the lives of this yuppie couple" in a swank McMansion in a gated community. The pilot episode sets up either the biggest con of all or a providential chance at a fresh, less illicit life.

Or is it? Less illicit, that is. The Malloys - who soon go by the last name Rich, from the dead couple the adults are pretending to be - discover their upmarket neighbors have their own duplicities. Nothing is quite what it seems in this multifarious pursuit of prosperity.

The series' tone is pure FX - an invigorating blend of dark drama and lighthearted irony, of puckish amusement and intense jeopardy. It's also a revealing glimpse into an unfamiliar subculture, the way Rescue Me particularizes the lives of New York firefighters or, more comparably, HBO's Big Love explores renegade Mormon polygamy. As in the latter series, there's an insular tribe whose self-contained compound is forsaken by the show's central family who seek to live a more "normal" life.

The makers of The Riches want to portray that subculture accurately, yet found studying it difficult because travelers shun outsiders.

"We had to get to some people who knew of them, and research stuff from court cases and journalistic stories," says Izzard, who spent more than a year developing the series with Lipkin.

"But this isn't a story about travelers," Izzard emphasizes at the FX party. "It's about a family who are travelers, but what they're trying to do is, they're trying to steal this American Dream."

Izzard is after his own American dream these days. His smart stand-up shows - intricate rants on vagaries of world history and modern society - have won him acclaim as the most deserving descendant to extend the Monty Python mantle.

He's made his acting mark on the London stage and in smaller "straight" film roles (The Avengers, Ocean's Twelve), and now at age 45 seeks to complete the leap to Hollywood leading man. Izzard arrived at the FX press tour event evoking his best Cary Grant in a superbly tailored sports jacket. He proceeded not only to persuasively chat up TV critics until that soiree ended, but to tag along to another, late-night reception, along the way engaging in piano playing and Chaplin routines.

"I've only got here by talking endlessly," he'd confided earlier, before the first party really got rolling. "And I like the whole promotional thing. Because, you know, I'm a transvestite with a career. So I really like to put something forward in a positive way. If you're a transvestite, you've really got to get that right, or you're not going to be working."

Diane Werts writes for Newsday.

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