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An interview with Alan Cumming

This article appeared in the magazine Metropolitan

It’s earlyish in the day, but Alan Cumming seems to be in one of his more sombre moods. The Scottish actor, now a joint American and British citizen, is refusing to entertain tittle tattle, certainly. Even his own. “That’s just trashy gossip stuff”, he groans when I bring up his purported desire to see Barack Obama naked.

Regarding the man whose election campaign he endorsed (he was vetted by Team Obama and would have been an “official” supporter but for his citizenship not being approved in time), Cumming said last year: “Great leaders, charismatic leaders […] usually have big penises.” But this morning he’s less declamatory about the US president. “I’m still really, really amazed that he’s president and also really glad,” he says, “but I wish he would act on some of his policies sooner.”

The source of his anguish is gay rights, and in particular the admission of openly gay men and women to the US military, a policy he believes the Obama administration has dragged its heels over: “They’ve made gay people feel like the train is coming, but they’ve not delivered.”

Bisexual himself, though now espoused to his partner of some five years, the graphic artist Grant Shaffer, Cumming is not entirely what you might expect if you had seen him in, say, the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of the Bacchae, as Dionsyus, or in Cabaret, as the Emcee, on Broadway, or indeed in his own cabaret show I Bought a Blue Car Today. Or if you consider that he plays a gender-bending doorman in the movie Burlesque, out this month, and a transvestite in swinging 1960s Soho in The Runaway, a six-part drama that will screen on Sky next year; or that he once launched a fragrance called Scent of Cumming. Sure, he’s camp and occasionally vampy, and he may even indulge in scabrous talk about the presidential appendage, but he’s also strikingly normal, in the down-to-earth sense, considered and pensive; even, at 45, a little shy and boyish at times.

There is, in short, something endearingly straightforward about Cumming and the way he ponders his own experiences and complexities. He is who he is: talented, an actor, a celebrity, Scottish (he retains a pronounced Highland intonation), driven to work, stage or screen, sometimes in “straight” roles, sometimes in roles which are rather less so.

He has, moreover, been doing that work for more than 20 years. After training at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, performing as a stand-up comedian and gaining exposure in the Scottish TV soap Take the High Road, he went on to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre. Before moving into film he was an award-winning Hamlet. On the big screen he has alternated between roles in blockbusters (Goldeneye, X-Men 2, the Spy Kids trilogy) and smaller, independent movies, including Titus (opposite Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange), Sweet Land (for which he won an Independent Spirit award as a producer), and last year’s Boogie Woogie and Dare. He has also found the time to co-host his own talk show, with his dogs, moonlight on Broadway, model Lee Jeans and write a Sunday Times best-selling novel, Tommy’s Tale, about the life of a bisexual Londoner having an early mid-life crisis.

And all of that merely scratches the surface of a vast output. Of late, he has been a regular cast member in the CBS legal drama The Good Wife, which has screened on Channel Four in the UK. It’s a fairly straight role – he plays Eli Gold, a smooth, well-tailored political advisor brought in to help a former State’s Attorney relaunch his political career following a corruption scandal – but there is a certain waggishness about the character that suggests there may be more to him than meets the eye. “You get to learn a bit more about him as the current season progresses – a bit about his personal life, his past life, chinks in his armour, that kind of thing,” says Cumming.

Intrigue of a more personal nature gripped him in the summer, however, when he agreed to look into his own family history for BBC One’s Who Do You Think You Are? series. His grandfather, who won a medal for bravery in the British Army’s retreat from France in 1940, and was wounded in battle in Burma later in the war, was an enigma even to his own daughter, Cumming’s mother Mary, who was a child when he died, in 1951, in colonial Malaya. As Cumming was to discover, the circumstances of Tommy Darling’s death were considered so shocking that they were even kept from his wife back home in Scotland: he had shot himself in the head during a game of Russian Roulette.

“Clearly he had been affected mentally by his experiences in the war and they stayed with him and he couldn’t just go back to normal life, which is half the reason he ended up in Malaya,” says Cumming. “The thing I found most galling was that the army just didn’t take combat stress at all seriously. And I think it’s shocking that, even today, in certain circumstances where there is a death that doesn’t involve combat, families aren’t paid compensation.

“It was a pretty devastating thing to discover and my mother found it quite hard to deal with. I think for anyone to find out such a shocking thing about a parent would be hard, but also finding that out and knowing that millions of other people are going to know too, because it’s on television, is a lot to deal with.”

That comes with the territory for her son, of course, but Cumming proclaims an ambivalence towards fame and celebrity that suggests he finds it all a little strange. “There’s a level of self-consciousness that you have to live with,” he says. “You don’t want to draw attention to yourself when you take the dog out for a walk, but it’s there. I’ve learnt that kindness is always the way to respond, but I don’t particularly want to have my photo taken on the street at two in the morning on someone’s camera phone.” He pauses. “At the same time I don’t want to live in a box away from the rest of humanity.”

The tabloids in Britain – Cumming lived in London for many years – tend to be much more invasive than their American equivalents, he says, although Americans obsess more, on the whole, about celebrity. “But it’s getting more like that in Britain as well – the whole thing of people who’ll do anything to be on television seems to be getting more prevalent.”

“I like it when people don’t know who I am,” he adds. “It’s an academic question: if I want to keep doing my job, what do I do? I could go away and hide in the woods, but…”

Doth he protest too much? Maybe, but then on the evidence of his work he is not overly-consumed, as an actor, by his own ratings. “I do feel that I just do what I like,” he says. “Even the things that pay the bills are quite idiosyncratic. I feel I’m on a nice plateau: I get to do interesting work, I get a certain level of access to things because of what I’ve done. I’m content to carry on this way, I’m not on an upward curve of domination.”

If you were being unkind, you might describe the cabaret show he brought to Edinburgh and London in the summer as an ego trip, but he insists it was in fact his most daunting project to date. “I wanted to run away the first time I did it,” he says. “It was terrifying. I’d never stood up before and said ‘this is me, I’m Alan and I’m going to sing a song’. Ask any actor and they would be horrified at the notion.”

The Runaway appealed to him, he says, because of its unconventionality: it’s gangland stuff, but his own character, the transvestite club owner Desree, “is the strongest, the most rational and the kindest person in it.” He has also voiced characters in a spate of animated films this year, including that of “a tranny Hitler” in Jackboots on Whitehall, and appears as Sebastian, alongside the “fantastic” Helen Mirren and a star-studded ensemble cast in a new film version, out this month, of the Tempest. “It’s nice to do Shakespeare for the screen, saying those lines for the camera instead of having to be all bombastic in a theatre.”

Earlier this year the RSC had young actors enact a bizarre six-week-long dramatisation of Romeo and Juliet via Twitter. It would not, alas, have been Cumming’s cup of tea. “I’m not a Tweeter,” he says. “I really don’t think it’s a good thing that people should be sitting commenting on the present at the expense of experiencing the present.” For his own edification he hopes to find the time to write longer dispatches. “I’d like to write a book about things that have happened to me and where I’m from and my life’s course. Not ‘I was born and brought up, blah blah blah’, more short stories about experiences I’ve had.” For this restless, boyish man, the experience, it seems, is all.