Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Alan Cumming began his acting career in Scotland, working in the theater and taking on whatever TV or film roles might come his way. By 1991, he’d won his first Olivier Award and soon became a familiar face to U.K. audiences. Things took off for him in a big way in the mid-1990s, thanks both to high-profile motion pictures like Pierce Brosnan’s debut outing as James Bond (Goldeneye) and his arrival on Broadway as the Emcee in Cabaret. In 2010, Cumming kicked his American profile up another notch by securing a role on the CBS drama The Good Wife, where he remained through the end of the series’ run in 2016. These days, Cumming is still on CBS, but now he’s headlining his own series, Instinct, which airs Sundays at 8 p.m Eastern.


Instinct (2018)—“Dylan Reinhart”

The A.V. Club: How did you find your way into this series? Had you been actively looking for a starring vehicle after The Good Wife wrapped up?

Alan Cumming: Not really. I was sent a copy of the book it’s based on, I read that, and then I met Michael Rauch, who’s the showrunner, and we hit it off. So it’s just because of that, really. I really liked the book. It’s a page-turner, and I liked the fact that it’s got lots of twists in it. And then there’s the fact that the character’s gay, and that’s kind of an unexpected thing in that kind of genre as well as on network television. So, yeah, they just sort of came to me, actually, and I responded. And off we went!

AVC: Can you sum up Dylan Reinhart in a nutshell?

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AC: He’s a former CIA agent who gave it all up for love and became a professor. He’s written a best-selling book. He was sort of a child musical prodigy. And he gets lured back into the field by Bojana Novakovic who plays a detective with the NYPD, and then he becomes a consultant to the NYPD. So he’s sort of a brilliant, geeky badass. [Laughs.] It’s fun. It’s a good laugh.

AVC: There doesn’t appear to be any onscreen crossover in your careers, but did you and your costar Naveen Andrews ever cross paths in the British theater?

AC: No, I’d never worked with Naveen before. I’d never even met him before we actually started filming the show. But I was a big fan, and he’s lovely. Everyone on the show, actually, is very, very nice.

AVC: It’s hard to believe that this is the first primetime hour-long drama in broadcast television history to have a gay lead character.

AC: It’s incredible. But as I say, that was one of the reasons I was keen to do it. It’s a great thing to be a part of. But I’m more interested in the way his sexuality is handled in the show. It’s very much “and also he’s gay,” because there are, like, four other things that are further up the list of things that are interesting about him. I think that’s a step forward, because I for one am very bored with having my sexuality being the first thing that’s mentioned when I’m referred to. You don’t see “straight actor” blah-blah. But it appears to be fine to define queer people that way. So, anyway, I think that’s a very positive step, to have a show on a major network being seen in a very mainstream way where the sexuality of the person is gay and also not really that interesting.

AVC: Has the experience been everything you’d hoped for thus far?

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AC: I’m not quite sure what I was hoping for! [Laughs.] But, yeah, I’ve really liked it. You know, one of the things about being number one on the call sheet is that it means you can control the mood on the set, I think. So I had fun. I just had a great time. We’d play music and dance between takes. I think we forget sometimes that it’s easy to make people happy to come to work just by saying “hello” to them. In fact, I really think that’s the thing I was most concerned about. I made everyone wear badges saying “HELLO! My Name Is…” on the first day. And then I had everyone dancing.


Travelling Man (1984)—“Jamie”

AVC: We try to go as far back in an actor’s on-camera career as we possibly can, and in your case, it looks like it was playing a character named Jamie in Travelling Man.

AC: Oh, gosh, that was actually the very first thing I ever did, yeah.

AVC: Do you remember anything at all about it?

AC: I remember being terrified. [Laughs.] And not really having a clue. I remember wearing this really, really short Daisy Duke shorts, because they were kind of pervy. I just remember thinking, “I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know.” I’d been two years in drama school, no camera training, never spoken in my own voice, and was just used to kind of projecting to get to the back of the orchestra. So I was suddenly being in a sort of intimate drama on TV… I had no idea.

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The other funny thing was that my agent at the time, this crazy old Scottish lady, she said to me, “So you’ve got this part, you’ve got to go to Manchester, so you get the train and you change at Perth…” And I was, like, “Perth? That’s north of here!” She said, “Yeah, you change at Perth…” And it wasn’t Perth at all—it was Preston, which is a city in England! [Laughs.] So my whole career could’ve been stalled if I hadn’t questioned my agent’s geography skills!

But Leigh Lawson, who played the lead guy in it, he’s married to Twiggy, the model, and I still see them from time to time. They came to see me in Cabaret on Broadway a couple of years ago. So I still keep in touch with him.

AVC: How did you find your way into acting in the first place?

AC: Oh, I did some plays at school, it was the first thing I was any good at, and I just kept at it. I mean, it was truly was the first thing anyone ever told me I was good at. But I never really understood the concept of being an actor. I didn’t know any actors and I didn’t really go to the theater, except for maybe once a year at Christmas. And then a girl a couple of years above me at high school went to the [Royal Scottish] Academy [Of Music And Drama], where I also ultimately went, and I said, “Oh, what, you can do a course in this?” [Laughs.] So that was how it happened. But I was really, really green about the whole thing. I knew I liked the whole experience. I just didn’t know you could do it as a job. But you can, it turns out!


The High Life (1994-1995)—“Sebastian Flight”

AC: Oh, that was fun. And it’s so funny: The High Life is the thing that most people mention most often when I go back home. In Britainand Scotland especiallyof all the things I’ve done, that’s the thing I get most from people in the street, because it’s a huge thing, this iconic thing in Scotland and Britain. We only did six episodes. Me and my friend Forbes Masson wrote it, and during the making of it, the BBC were very dismissive of us and not very supportive, and they didn’t get us. They didn’t really get why we’d been commissioned. I mean, it was nuts. [Laughs.] It was very surreal, kind of crazy. But, of course, when it came out and it was a big success, they were all over us and wanted us to do another series.

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But the thing that got me was that there was one episode that was kind of us doing a spoof of an old-fashioned Batman episode, and they just didn’t understand it. Actually, a lot of the things that we say, a lot of the slang we used, it was very dirty, but we got away with using it because they didn’t realize what it meant in Scottish dialect. Like, we say “fud features,” which means something really quite rude! [Laughs.]

So we got away with murder, but then there was the one episode that they didn’t really understand, so they said, “This is a second-series episode!” And I went, “Well, you’re not getting a second series, so take it or leave it.” Anyway, we just resubmitted the episode as it was, without making any changes, and the next meeting, the head of development went [Nonchalantly.] “Yes, very good, you’ve obviously addressed all of the issues. Well done, yes, lots of really good changes.” And I was, like, “You are so… We didn’t change one comma!” It didn’t engender me to want to work with them again. So I didn’t!


God, The Devil And Bob (2000)—“The Devil”

AC: I got that part because Robert Downey Jr. went to prison, and he’d done half of it, so they cast me when he was, uh, no longer available. It’s one of these things where I did all the press for it, and then I went back to Britain for something, and then three weeks later I came back, and it was off the air. I guess there were so many demonstrations against the thing by the religious members of our society, so they pulled it. But I thought it was really good and really clever. My favorite thing was that, at the studio where we recorded it, James Garnerwho played Godhad a parking space that said, “JAMES GARNER: GOD.” [Laughs.] So I wanted one that said, “ALAN CUMMING: DEVIL.”

AVC: But you never got one?

AC: Nah. Maybe if it had gone to a second season! [Laughs.]

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AVC: Well, I’ll second your thoughts on the show. I actually have the complete-series set.

AC: Oh, you do? I must look at that again. I really liked it. Elizabeth Taylor was in it, playing God’s girlfriend!


Goldeneye (1995)— “Boris Grishenko”

AC: Well, that was a huge thing when I did that film, to be in a big James Bond blockbuster. The funny thing I remember about that was the first scene that I shot, which was when I come out of the underground bunker to have a cigarette. A helicopter lands, and all the snow blows everywhere. It was all shot in studio, and it was with a wind machine, and there’s all these little polystyrene balls that they use for the snow. I just had it everywhere—in my ears, in my hair, between my toes—everywhere! And then about five days later, I was lying in bed, and I looked down, and in my bellybutton was a piece of polystyrene snow. [Laughs.] And I was, like, “Where has that been?” Because I’d had lots of showers, I’d taken a bath… I was just, like, “That’s come from inside my bellybutton!” It was the strangest thing, to discover a piece of polystyrene snow after five days!


Josie And The Pussycats (2001)—“Wyatt Frame”

AC: Again, a lot of fun. Hilarious. Parker Posey and I had just been in a film called The Anniversary Party that I wrote and directed with Jennifer Jason Leigh, so we’d just shot that. What was funny was that when Parker finished on Josie And The Pussycats, I was the oldest person left on the film—and I was only 34 or something! [Laughs.] The three girls, they were all real darlings, but they were just babies! But it was really super. I thought that was such a clever film. But they didn’t know how to market it, I don’t think, because it’s actually a parody of itself. They kind of sold it as a teen film, but I think it didn’t get helped by its marketing campaign. I think it’s one of those films that people have discovered over the years more and more.

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AVC: So much so that they recently issued the soundtrack on vinyl for the first time ever.

AC: I heard that! It was Babyface that did the music.

AVC: Him and Adam Schlesinger from Fountains Of Wayne.

AC: Ah, yes, that’s right!


The Anniversary Party (2001)—“Joe Therrian,” director, writer, producer

AC: I like directing, and I liked directing that with Jennifer. I actually think it’s a good thing to do, to direct as a team, because it immediately opens up the dialogue to the rest of the room, because you’ve actually got to discuss things in public. I think one of the problems with the whole thing that’s happening is where the director is God in our culture. There’s not enough discussion. There’s just one person who decides and makes all the decisions and has all the answers. Like, Josie And The Pussycats was directed by two people, [Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan] and I’ve done a couple of plays directed by two people. I think that’s the way to go. I don’t think “the director is God” is something that we must adhere to.

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Any Day Now (2012)—“Rudy Donatello”

AC: That was an intense experience. Very intense. But I think that’s such a beautiful film. Also, I just liked the boy who has Down syndrome [Isaac Leyva]. It was an amazing experience just to spend a month with him. But it was one of these films where you think, “God, we haven’t gone that far.” Do you know what I mean? If you’re gay, it can still be difficult to adopt through the state system. It kind of reminded me and gave me a shot in the arm to keep up the activism, because, yes, if you’re wealthy enough, you can adopt, but you can’t do that if you don’t have money. It’s just one of the many, many things you can’t do if you don’t have money, or that you don’t have access to without money, like health, education, justice…

I met this guy the other night who was pretty amazing—Bryan Stevenson. He was getting the Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Prize award, and he said this really great thing: “The opposite of poverty is justice.” I just think that’s amazing. And so true.


Son Of The Mask (2005)—“Loki”

AC: I had a blast on that film. It kind of didn’t do very well. Everybody thought it was disastrous, but… I mean, I think it sort of suffered from the fact that everybody thought it was a sequel to The Mask, that Jim Carrey did. It sort of was, in terms of having a mask in it, but it was really a kids film. Again, it’s one where I don’t think they quite placed it properly. But I thought it was fun. I had such fun making it. We shot it in Australia, and I was there for a long, long time. My favorite bits are when I transformed into, like, the girl, the FedEx delivery guy, and all those things. I actually enjoyed it all, making that film. But it’s the only time I’ve ever been nominated for a Razzie!


Eyes Wide Shut (1999)—“Desk Clerk”

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AC: That movie was an amazing experience for me just because it was Stanley Kubrick on his last film. I have such fond memories of it. I did a week on it, doing a scene that would normally be shot in less than a morning. But he was completely the opposite of what I expected him to be, Stanley. Very, very funny and welcoming. But I think if you challenge him, if you stand up to him, I can see why people would be scared of him, or why they might be. But I wasn’t.

It was more than I’d hoped it would be, actually. I kind of just thought it was going to be a nightmare, that he was going to be a grumpy old man, that we’d do a gazillion takes, I’m not going to know why… But he was so kind and lovely and such a laugh, and I knew exactly why and what I was trying to achieve on every single take. I was in a bit of the doldrums at the time, acting-wise, because I’d been in all these films, and I was a bit, like, “Ugh, what’s it all about?” I took some time off, and then I did this film, and it really kind of re-galvanized my whole wanting to be an actor, because this was a tiny little role, but yet he could get such detail and such nuance out of it. It’s sort of that —“There’s no small parts, there’s just small actors.” But it really helped reinvigorate my interest in acting, that experience.


Shadow Of The Stone (1987)—“Tom Henderson”

AC: Holy shit!

AVC: That’s what I like to hear.

AC: [Laughs.] Well, that was a while ago! It was sort of a Sunday afternoon kids series for Scottish television. I was doing a lot of work for Scottish television at the time. Actually, Shirley Henderson, who’s a great actress and who just won the Olivier Award last week, it was her first thing! She played a girl who was, like, obsessed with the sea and then she got… possessed by a witch or something? I can’t remember.

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But I was her boyfriend. I remember one time I had to lie in a rock pool in a flashback part, flashing back to where I’d been washed ashore, and it was so fucking freezing. I got first stage hypothermia, I think. I remember shaking so much. They had to carry me back to my trailer and wrap me in blankies and things like that. They actually got me stoned! [Laughs.] They were trying to calm me down and get me to relax, because I was so cold!


Annie (1999)—“Rooster Hannigan”

AC: I did my first Cabaret on Broadway, and then I went straight out to L.A. and started rehearsing for Annie. It was a really fun group of people: Kathy Bates, Kristin Chenoweth, and Victor Garber. Everybody was just sweet and lovely. But I didn’t know the story of Annie. I only knew that Annie had red hair, she had a dog, and she was an orphan. [Laughs.] I had no sort of preconceptions. But I had a really great time!

I remember one time when we were shooting that really big number, “Easy Street,” on the back lot at Warner Brothers, and we’re dancing down the street. During one of the gaps in the thing, it was a boiling hot day, and they had fake snow everywhere, I remember saying in particular to Kathy Bates, “Wow, it’s like we’re shooting a big, old-fashioned Hollywood musical!” And she went [Deadpan.] “That’s because this is a big, old-fashioned Hollywood musical.” I’m, like, “Oh, yeah.”


Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical (2005)—“Lecturer / Goat Man / FDR”

AC: That was a hoot and a half! I did that in Vancouver. Again, it was a lovely bunch of people. There were a lot of great people on that. I thought that was so clever, that show. I really thought the writers [Dan Studney and Kevin Murphy] were very, very clever. I wish they’d done more together. But that was another great part, very transformatory. [Laughs.] And a really biting script. I just had such a gas doing it. I’ve heard they’re trying to get a Broadway version going.

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AVC: That’d be awesome.

AC: It’d be a hoot, wouldn’t it? Again, it’s one of those that was a slow burn and people didn’t necessarily discover it when it came out, but over the years people have come to love it. And obviously, of course, stoners around the world rejoice and sing. Myself included!

AVC: I don’t even partake, but by the time “Listen to Jesus, Jimmy” was over, I was completely on board.

AC: Isn’t that great? Yeah, he’s a great Jesus, [Robert Torti]. I remember the premiereit premiered at Sundanceand I was sitting next to him and his wife [DeLee Lively], and after that number, she turned to me and said [Excitedly.] “I get to sleep with Jesus!”


The Good Wife (2010-2016)— “Eli Gold”

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AC: Well, you know, that was a fairly incredible sort of thing, that show, to have six years playing someone. I always think I grew up a little bit on that show, because I’d never really played grownups before that. I’d always played weird or odd people. I’d never played a man in a suit. So them asking me to do that, I thought, “Who’s turned it down?” [Laughs.] I didn’t really want to do it at the start. I just sort of did it to shut my team up. But then I kept coming back and coming back, and then I joined as a full member of the cast. And then I got it. I understood it a bit more, and I really, really enjoyed it.

I actually enjoyed not knowing what was going to happen to my character, which was something that before I’d always shied away from. When I was on a soap opera years and years before in Scotland, they were, like, “And now you’re a murderer.” I hated that. So the not knowing, it’s actually kind of liberating. It kind of loosens you up a bit. I learned many lessons on that show, including that it’s great to play someone so completely different to yourself.


The Flintstones In Viva Rock Vegas (2000)—“Gazoo / Mick Jagged”

AC: Another hilarious experience. I actually did Annie, Viva Rock Vegas, and God, The Devil And Bob all at the same time. It was this crazy schedule. I was actually just supposed to do The Great Gazoo, but in the read-through, I read Mick Jagged as well, because nobody had been cast yet. So they asked me to do him as well. I actually did him first, because The Great Gazoo was at the end. I spent three weeks as The Great Gazoo, suspended on wires, along with two paper plates which said “Fred” and “Barney” on them to look at. [Laughs.] And when I had little gaps between takes… It looked like two metal poles sticking out of my waist, because of this harness thing, so they would just take me outside and kind of lift me up, so I’d just sort of sit there swinging, having a cigarette. I’d take my helmet off as well, just to let my head breathe.


Zero Effect (2002)—“Daryl Zero”

AVC: This is probably the most obscure thing on my list, but you played the Bill Pullman role in a pilot based on the film Zero Effect.

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AC: I did, yeah. Actually, it’s interesting, because it was one of those things where I’d never done a pilot before, and I thought, “Well, I really liked that film, and I won’t ever get bored, because each week I’ll be playing three different people because of the disguise.” I am so glad it didn’t get picked up. The idea of doing three lots of different makeup and three lots of fittings for radically different people each week… It would’ve been the nightmare from hell! [Laughs.]

No, I’m sure I would’ve had a great time had it gone, but I’m glad it didn’t, because I actually don’t think I was ready to be in a long-running TV thing then. And just the way things have happened in my life, I’m very happy that the show wasn’t to be.


X-Men 2 (2003)—“Kurt Wagner / Nightcrawler”

AVC: Speaking of makeup, I’ve heard that X-Men 2 was somewhat nightmarish for you because of that.

AC: Yes, it wasn’t pleasant. But most of the nightmares were not to do with the makeup. It wasn’t entirely to do with that, although it took forever and it was not fun. For weeks after, I was blowing my nose and there was still blue stuff coming out. My god… It wasn’t a pleasant thing to do. But there were a lot of other things, a lot of well-documented trouble on the set. It wasn’t a very happy set. We went over by months, and it was a mess. So it was more that. But, yeah, just imagine doing makeup for five hours and then coming to set and being told, “We’re not going to be able to shoot today because, for whatever reason, the director’s not going to shoot it today.”