Alan Cumming

Scottish native Alan Cumming comes across as one of those rare celebrities who not only enjoys his fame, but doesn’t let it get in his way—or go to his head. He has an extensive background in Shakespeare (with the UK’s Royal Shakespeare Company, among other troupes) and cabaret (from a successful touring show he co-created as a Royal Scottish Academy student to his signature stage role as the Cabaret emcee), but his film career is all over the map, with a lot of memorably silly, flamboyant roles spacing out the more serious ones. Just as a sampler, he appeared as a playfully weird hotel clerk in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the blue teleporting mutant Nightcrawler in the second X-Men film, the batty TV-show host Fegan Floop in Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids movies, and The Great Gazoo in The Flintstones In Viva Rock Vegas. He’s directed and starred in two films, 2001’s The Anniversary Party (which he also wrote with co-writer/director/star Jennifer Jason Leigh) and 2007’s Ghost Writer. He’s written a playful, sexually explicit novel (2003’s Tommy’s Tale), backed a men’s fragrance (called Cumming, of course), and become a spokesman for LBGT rights. (The Observer famously described him as a “frolicky pan-sexual sex symbol.”) 

Most recently, Cumming is touring with a one-man cabaret show; he appears in a small role in Burlesque, echoing his famed Cabaret performances; he’s just gone from frequent guest to regular cast member of the CBS drama The Good Wife; and he co-stars in Julie Taymor’s big-screen version of The Tempest. (He and Chris Cooper play the scheming, treacherous aristocrats Sebastian and Antonio.) Cumming recently sat down with The A.V. Club in Chicago to talk about Taymor’s take on Shakespeare, his bravery (or lack thereof) in being himself, and why high culture and low culture can all just be good fun.

The A.V. Club: This is your second Shakespeare film with Julie Taymor, after your role in Titus. How does she approach the material in terms of working with the actors and the language?

Alan Cumming: You actually have a bit of rehearsal, which is unusual. It’s just sort of like how you’d be in a play, because you’d read, you’d talk about it, and she has visual aids. She wants the texts to be clear, and you to understand everything, but then she gives you these little demonstrations of what world you’re going to be in. Drawings, paintings, and things, or little videos of what the aesthetic of the film is going to be, so you understand. Because oftentimes, like in The Tempest, there’s chunks of it that—when we shot it, a lot of that stuff wasn’t there. She tries to make you cognizant of her aesthetic.

AVC: The visual aesthetic is so important in her work, in her stage plays as well as her films. But how important is it for you as an actor to know what a scene will ultimately look like once all the effects are added?

AC: It’s quite important, because you can help, I think. Actors aren’t stupid, mostly, and if there’s a sensibility and an aesthetic that a director’s going for, if you’re aware of that too, you can do things to help that. Because when we did Titus, it was just after [Taymor’s stage adaptation of] The Lion King and all that stuff, and someone said to me, “Oh, you just did this film with Julie Taymor. Were there any puppets in it?” And I said, “No puppets. Only actors.” [Laughs.] But it’s not like that. She’s sort of pleasant with you. I think actors feel like puppets when the director doesn’t really communicate with them. They’re down in their little tent somewhere saying, “Again, again,” and you don’t really know why you’re going again. But she’s very specific. Very specific. [Laughs.] Sometimes too specific. 

AVC: She’s very control-oriented with her visuals. Does she work that way with actors too? Is there a micro-managerial aspect, where she has a specific vision for the actors in advance?

AC: I haven’t found that. I don’t know, maybe I’m more in tune with what she wants. Or maybe the characters I’ve played are obvious. [Laughs.] In my experience, that has not been the case.

AVC: Another Tempest actor, Reeve Carney, said in the press materials that Shakespeare is a great leveler, a great equalizer for actors of different experience levels, because Shakespeare intimidates all actors in the same way. Do you think that’s true?

AC: No. [Laughs.] I don’t. I think American actors are much more intimidated by Shakespeare. I actually want to do this Shakespeare play in New York, but I think it’s interesting that there’s this gaping hole in the repertoire in the American theater, which is Shakespeare. It’s hardly ever done, compared to how often it’s done in other companies, not just Britain. Someone from the Roundabout Theater Company—I said, “You never do Shakespeare.” And he said, “Yes, we’re not very good at it.” And I thought, “What a terrible thing to say.” And I think that stems from this inferiority complex about Shakespeare that exists within the American theater, and how in a way, everyone has to try to do English-y voices, rather than be themselves. I don’t see why you can’t speak the lines with your own accent. I did Hamlet with my own Scottish accent, and that was a big deal, because people didn’t do that then. But it makes me sad when people feel they’re not good enough to do something, or their theater culture is not good enough to do something. So I think Reeve is referring to that. There are some really amazing actors who’ve maybe not done very much Shakespeare, or were maybe intimidated by the language, and I think that’s only going to stop if they do it more.

AVC: It’s hard to imagine you being intimidated by a role. You’re unusually outspoken about your personal life, and you tend to do big, broad, confident characters. Are there roles that intimidated you, or that you struggled with?

AC: Struggled in different ways. Some things are just really difficult to do. That’s what I find hard. I usually can find a way to do a character to make it real and work. But sometimes it’s a struggle sustaining that, because there’s such a level of personal involvement and personal, physical, and emotional distraughtness. 

AVC: Have there been film roles that have pushed you that far emotionally? Or has that mostly been theater?

AC: That would be more theater. I mean, I guess sometimes on film… The last film I directed, now it’s called Ghost Writer. Before, it was called Suffering Man’s Charity. By the end of that, I was just—it’s also because I was directing it too, but I was playing this person who’s kind of crazy and unhappy and mad, and that was a bit intense, but that was also because I was stressed out and tired by the other things that were going on. You do get really exhausted doing films. You work such long hours, and after a while, things can get out of perspective, just like if anyone’s tired, things get on top of them. The last one—I did Bent in London three years ago, that was really full-on, that was really intense. I had to really make sure that I had my comforts outside of the play to cushion me.

AVC: You often take flamboyant roles, but in The Tempest, you’re opposite Chris Cooper, who virtually always takes internal, buttoned-down parts, and has said he needs a lot of preparation before he feels capable of tackling a role. What was your method with him on this? What was it like working with him?

AC: It was great. I love Chris. That was the biggest thrill of this film for me, was to get to work with him. I think he’s tremendous. I mean, we’re very different, but we met each other and we really got on, and if I made him laugh, it would make my day. I don’t really have a method. I just come prepared. I’m open to what someone else throws at me, and I just pretend to be someone and mean it. I try not to overcomplicate it.

AVC: That itself is a method, though, and it’s very different from what he does. I’ve interviewed him before, and he seemed horrified about the idea of just showing up and being open. 

AC: I think he had prepared a lot. And I think he was quite intimidated by the notion of doing a Shakespeare film, blah blah blah. But you know, when it comes down to it, you just have to say the lines and mean it. In a way, films are easier that way, because you don’t have as long to obsess, like you do in the rehearsal period in a play. In a funny sort of way, though, in the film, there’s a lightness to the British actors. That sounds detrimental to the American ones, and I really don’t mean it to be. I just mean it in terms of a performance style. I think even though it is Shakespeare, it should be light. I always try to remember, if Shakespeare were around today, he would be writing The Good Wife, you know what I mean? He would be writing for television, he’d be writing for HBO or something. He was a populist writer, and I think people forget that.

AVC: You’ve gone back and forth in your career between respected high culture like this, and fun low culture. You’re going to be in The Smurfs, you’re playing Hitler in a puppet film, you were The Great Gazoo. Do you approach these roles any differently from each other?

AC: I sort of think of them all the same. If there’s something I need to do to make a character work, in terms of having to research a certain topic, or have a skill that they have that I don’t have, or become okay with a certain world, then I do that. But if it’s just for, like, The Smurfs, all I had to do was learn the Smurf song. That was the only thing I didn’t know about that character. Because we have a different song in Britain. I actually find in America, there’s a slight snobbery about actors who go back and forth between big heavy dramas and popcorn fare. That always intrigues me, because that doesn’t exist in the same way in Britain. And I imagine it would be worse, wouldn’t you? In terms of the sort of class, and the sort of snobby, slightly on the back-foot thing Britain has. But it’s much more prevalent in America. I’m really intrigued by it. I don’t know why that is. But I’m aiming to break down those barriers by being in a Shakespeare film and a Smurfs film within six months of each other. 

AVC: Do you not see any difference between playing a Shakespeare character and playing a Smurf?

AC: Obviously. Of course. But I don’t think that one demeans the other. For me, there are differences in that one is going to appeal to a certain kind of audience, the other is a broad, fun, popcorn thing I’m getting paid a lot more money for. I do a wide range of things because I can, and because I like them. But also, usually the mainstream things are because I get more money, so I’m able to do some little film that doesn’t pay.

AVC: It is a little odd that in America, you aren’t considered successful unless you have a lot of money, but it’s still considered in poor taste to do things just for a lot of money.

AC: Yes! Isn’t that funny?

AVC: America is also fairly hypocritical about sexuality. We sell everything with sexuality, but there’s an intolerance for people who step outside a fairly small sexual range. Or is that different in the heart of Hollywood?

AC: No, I think that’s actually quite a conservative place, the heart of Hollywood. I’ve actually found—especially doing my cabaret show—I’m connecting with people in a way I haven’t connected with them. I’ve found that when you’re open and honest, people respond to that, whatever you’re being open and honest about. You could then, when you lay that as the groundwork, say, “Here I am. This is what I think. I come in peace.” Then you’re able to push out, to be able to talk about more things. And that’s been a really heartening thing about my life, actually. But also, more recently, about the show. 

When you said, “You’re brave about your private life” earlier, I find that really weird. I got a Courage Award the other week from the Point Foundation, and I actually said, “I don’t feel courageous.” If I was living in Iran or Malawi, or even Wyoming, and saying and doing what I do, maybe then I’d be courageous. But I don’t feel courageous. There are other things I could do that would be courageous in my mind, in terms of all that. If I was to handcuff myself to the White House or something, that would be courageous for me, but I think that would limit my voice and what I have to offer. That would close me off to a certain population. I feel I use my power responsibly, and that’s what I said at that award. If we continue to think someone’s brave just because they’re being themselves, then that’s only going to be self-perpetuating. You’ll have to be brave to live your own life. You know what I mean? I guess in some way it would be nice to say, “Congratulations for being yourself” rather than, “Congratulations for being brave.” That’s all.

AVC: Well, there’s still an attitude that it’s brave to be honest, it’s brave to be a nonconformist of any kind. With all the media attention right now focused on gay teens committing suicide in America, we’re getting the message again that anyone who doesn’t conform is seen as threatening, and will be judged and abused for it. 

AC: I think also that’s about how gay people are respected in society. If the president of the country is not actually saying something, allowing equality to happen, how could you expect to counsel kids not to bully other kids? If they’re not seeing that their society and country sees these people as equals, how could you tell them what they’re doing is wrong? With all this stuff going on, with the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and things like that, we are second-class citizens, definitely. There are so many rights and things we don’t have. It just seems to me that it’s hypocritical for us as a culture to say, “Bullying is a terrible thing,” when really, they are just reflecting what the society is doing.

AVC: There’s still certainly a perspective that being out in Hollywood limits your career options. Do you think being out has changed your career in any way?

AC: No. I feel it’s more of a deal when we talk about it than it is in real life. I do think it’s a media thing, that it’s kind of like a gossipy, mystery story. But actually, I don’t think it matters. I don’t think people in general think, “Oh, they’re gay, therefore I’m not going to see them in that film.” I think the more fuss we make about it, though, the more likely that is to happen. 

AVC: You’ve directed two films, one in partnership with Jennifer Jason Leigh. What was that experience like, directing yourself? Was it satisfying?

AC: Yes. What’s good about it is you’ve got so much to think about, and there’s so much going on. I’m much more prepared as an actor than I ever would be normally, because I’m the director, I’ve put so much more thought and research into the whole thing, including my role. And when I come down to shoot, acting is the last thing I’m thinking about. I actually think it’s quite good for my performance. There’s no time to obsess, so it’s more freeing, I think. Since then, I’m doing little things. I’m much less self-conscious when I’m directing myself, or when I’m directing and I’m in it. 

AVC: You’re doing your own solo cabaret show, you wrote a novel, you’ve directed films. Does driving and controlling projects make it harder to come back to something like The Tempest, where you’re submitting to someone’s creative vision?

AC: No, it’s actually quite—I’ve got friends who do jobs that are freelance. Sometimes they’re in an office environment, and sometimes they work from home. It’s kind of like that. It’s actually quite nice to not think about certain things, and just to do one job and focus on that. And then other times, it’s nice to be more able to tell the whole story. Obviously I’m, depending how you look at it, a good multitasker, or ADD, or whatever. I like doing a lot of things concurrently. I certainly don’t think when I go work under a director, “Oh, I would have shot it differently.” Not at all. 

AVC: Given the whole ADD-multitasker thing, and the breadth of your career, how are you going to deal with being a regular on The Good Wife? Will the time commitment of a TV series give you time for your other projects?

AC: Well, I work about half the time of an episode, three to four days per episode. It’s actually been great, and I’ve had a modicum of downtime.  Because it shoots in New York, where I live. I’ve actually planned to write more. I thought, “Oh, this will be great. I’ll have time off, and I’ll write, and I’ll go to the country.” It hasn’t quite worked out that way, just because there’s other stuff—I have other things to do, other commitments for other work. And then there are the Emmys, and all that stuff. So I’ve not quite gotten into a groove yet. Of course, when people know you in New York, they’re like, “Oh, would you come do this thing?” But it’s certainly not a huge burden. When you work, you work long hours, but … It’s nice to have a bit of time to just do other things. I’ve actually quite recently been to the cinema, twice. Not premières, either. I’ve actually been to see movies on my own. Three times! I can’t tell you the last time I did that. Years ago. So that’s really nice.

AVC: Is there anything in particular in the character that would make you want to stick by it long-term if it was a huge commitment?

AC: Actually, when you asked earlier about characters I struggled with, I certainly had to struggle with him. It was an interesting thing for me. I felt he was so far away from me, and I didn’t know anyone like him. I thought, “Who is this guy?” And you only get one episode at a time. They tell you a wee bit, but I was like, “What? What’s going on?” You don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. I’m so used to films, which have the arc of a character—you know how the story ends. So I find that quite difficult, all those combinations of things. I actually quite like now finding out more about him as I go on. It’s quite interesting. You pick up an essence of someone, and go for it, just do it. The writers react to what you brought.

You know, I’ve played Hitler, I’ve played the Pope, I’ve played a superhero. I can fake it. It was interesting, because in a way, I felt he was the most far-away, weirdest. I feel like I’m in drag when I play him. I feel like I’m getting into Eli-drag. Even though he’s the most buttoned-up, normal person I’ve played. In my mind, he was this weird, crazy, sort of mystical person, and I actually just thought, “Well, treat him like that, then. He’s just another crazy person in your gallery of grotesques. Just think of him that way.” It’s quite an interesting thing for me to remember. But I’m intrigued about what might happen to him. I just really like him, and I actually really like this idea that they tell you a little bit of what’s going to happen, and then they’re going to make some stuff up. It’s quite fascinating. And also, I’m really intrigued about this whole Chicago thing. [Though it’s filmed in New York, The Good Wife centers on the world of Chicago politics. —ed.] I’m getting such an education on the show about here, learning about not just about what goes on here, and what has gone on here in this political-legal world, but also the way Chicagoans themselves refer to it and talk about it. It’s quite fascinating. People are very vocal about the corruption and the way that things work. In a way, that would never be in any other city. 

AVC: It is a pretty unique culture.

AC: In the show, the lawyers, the goodies, they do terrible things, terrible unethical illegal things all the time, every week. And for me, I’m like, “What?” [Laughs.] And everyone goes, “Oh, that’s Chicago.” I don’t know if that’s a Chicago thing, or just law firms all over.

AVC: Or if it’s just TV.

AC: Or if it’s just TV, but I’m sensing it’s not. Some of the advisors that come on the set and say things, I’m like, “Ah-ha, okay!” It’s a real eye-opener.

AVC: That process of finding something in the character that makes it fit into a “gallery of grotesques,” that makes it unique and weird and interesting to you, is that something you always do with your roles? 

AC: Sure. I mean, I wouldn’t do it if I really hated it. I’ve done things I hated, but I didn’t go into them thinking I would hate them. I want to have fun. I don’t want to go to work and not enjoy it. So if I’m swirling around on some wires, talking to Fred Flintstone, I make it the funnest I can. I also want to be good at it. I don’t want to be a crap cartoon character. [Laughs.] I want to be proud I’m a vitamin! During the film, they came in, they were like, “Alan, we’re so excited! You’re going to be The Great Gazoo. Now he’s part of the franchise.” They actually said that—“franchise.” “He’s going to be included on the bottles of the Flintstones vitamins!” I’m like, “No fucking way!” I’m a bit like a magpie. I do things that I think are interesting and fun. I also think it’s quite fun to be in iconic things. Like, I’m going to be a Smurf. Big fucking deal. But actually, for a generation of kids—and I love doing kids’ films, because I really love—I had this article I wrote about celebrity worship. The way kids react to you is so much better than adults. It’s fun to do things like that. But whatever I do, I just try to have a good time, and make it as good as I can. That’s all. I’m not on a mission. I don’t take myself that seriously. I take my work seriously, but it’s my job.

AVC: That celebrity-culture article itself was a lot of fun, but it makes being famous sound like an endless drag for you. Is being famous just something you have to put up with to do the things you find fun?

AC: There are fun things about it. It’s a combination of all those things. Like, everything I’m wearing right now was free, because I’m famous. That’s kind of good. But I have to worry about people taking pictures of me when I’m walking my dogs right outside my house. The article was supposed to be fun, but it’s also true, those things. I hoped it didn’t come off as, “It’s so sad being famous.” Like I said at the end of the article, it enables you to do—it’s a byproduct of a certain level of success. I think it’s quite good sometimes to say, “There’s no such thing as a free outfit.” [Laughs.]

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