Interview: Alan Cumming

Simon Button

The Scottish-American actor chats to us about playing the first leading gay character on a US TV show, running his own night club and the perks of being a married man

Talking about playing the first ever openly gay character on a US network drama in Instinct, Alan Cumming declares: “If you can be progressive within the mainstream you can be much more potent.”

Cumming could also be talking about his career. He’s an envelope-pushing renegade who has always marched to the beat of his own drum—from his Tony-winning turn as the predatory emcee in Cabaret to his satirical fragrance line via anything-goes solo shows and a recurring role as a blunt-talking campaign strategist on The Good Wife right at the heart of mainstream TV. One minute he’s in a Spy Kids or X-Men movie, the next he’s in the blood-soaked screen version of Titus, then he’s essaying about dressing up as a woman for a day for Marie Claire. He’s a novelist, memoirist (writing candidly about growing up with an abusive father), supported the campaign for Scottish independence and continues to champion LGBT+ causes. He even has his own nightclub in New York cheekily called Club Cumming.

Alan cumming read carpet

With his husband, Grant Shaffer 

"I don't think I'm threatening to people which means I can say provocative things"

It’s a wonder he has time to chat to me at this year’s Monte-Carlo TV Festival but the 54-year-old multitasker is very relaxed as he slumps his legs over a chair and talks proudly about his Instinct character—a former CIA operative turned author and psychology professor named Dr Dylan Reinhart, who becomes a consultant for the NYPD when a crime appears to have been inspired by one of his books.

Reinhart is gay and that was “hugely important” for Alan, who is married to San Francisco-born illustrator Grant Shaffer and who has campaigned for same-sex marriage in his Scottish homeland and works with AIDS charities and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. “I didn’t intend to be in a cop show,” he says, “but the fact it was the first leading gay character in a network drama on US television is a huge reason I did it.

“I wanted to make sure we did it properly and that it was treated respectfully, without sensationalism and not in the usual way they treat gay characters on network shows—namely in a stereotypical way or where they’re the best friend or where their sexuality is a problem.”

Reinhart’s relationship with his husband Daniel is very loving and matter-of-fact. “And it’s amazing that in America this is the first time many people will have seen a gay couple in a relationship being at home and eating toast. That’s a huge thing because the fact it’s not sensationalised and it’s not seen as being a problem changes people’s attitudes.”

Alan cumming instinct Alan as the no-nonsense former CIA operative turned author and professor, Dylan Reinhart, in Instinct  

 

Prior to our meeting I’ve spotted Alan at the festival in a sleeveless white shirt and heavy black eyeliner and later he pops up in an eye-catching polka-dot suit. When we meet he’s more reserved in a grey suit and dark blue shirt as someone brings him a huge coffee and he remarks “Oh gosh, I’m going to be so caffeinated!”

With two seasons of Instinct filmed so far, he’s really enjoying playing the speak-as-he-finds Reinhart, saying: “I love how contrary he is. He’s like five different people in one character.”

That, I note aloud, sounds a lot like the actor himself. He laughs. “I suppose he is, yes. He can be really odd in certain situations and maybe that’s what I bring to it myself.”

They also share a flamboyance and a devil-may-care quality. “But I kind of do it with a wink and I’m kind with it,” Cumming insists. “I don’t think I’m threatening to people, which means I can say quite provocative things.”

Also, I imagine he couldn’t be a wallflower if he tried? He laughs again. “No, that doesn’t really work for me. Also, the older you get the less f***s you give about what you want to say and do and how you want to come over.”

He recently did an Off-Broadway play entitiled Daddy with a predominantly young cast. “And it was so interesting to see them really concerned about everything in the press and how they were perceived. But I do feel for young people now and how their value in the world is determined by how many ‘likes’ you have and how many followers you have. We didn’t have all that, although if there was an interview I felt was a hatchet job it might upset me but now I don’t care.”

"I wanted my club to be about all genders, ages and sexualities, fun and sexy but also safe, with a sense of community"

 

The thick skin comes from being in the business since 1986, when Perthshire-born Alan made his screen debut in a TV film called Passing Glory and worked steadily in theatre mostly before his star-making performance in Cabaret in 1998. To list everything he’s done since then would take a whole issue of this magazine, suffice to say he’s never stopped working.

His 2004 “Cumming” fragrance and 2011 sequel “2nd Cumming” were two of many sideline projects and the idea was to “lampoon and satirise celebrity endorsements yet at the same time it was a real thing”.

Then there’s Club Cumming in New York’s East Village, which celebrates its second anniversary in September. “I wanted it to be about all genders, all ages, all sexualities, fun and sexy but also safe, with a sense of community, and we’ve achieved all that. With the staff I’m like, ‘Kindness is everything here and if you’re mean forget it’.”

The same goes for the customers. Having played pushy film director Piers Cuthbertson-Smyth in Spice World, Cumming recently hosted a 20th anniversary screening of the film and a competition for the best Spice Girl wannabe. There were two Baby Spices on stage and one of the guys said something catty and mean about the other one so Alan said: “You’re going to have to leave the stage because we have a certain level of kindness that’s necessary at Club Cumming and you’ve failed to reach that level so you’re disqualified”.

"It's nuts—I'll be 56 and that's not normally the time to start a dance career"

Alan cumming film

He grins. “What’s hilarious is that when he stepped off the stage he fell and cut his knee. That’s karma.”

Famously good friends with Liza Minnelli, he’s yet to welcome the one-time Studio 54 regular to his club because she’s been living in Los Angeles, but she’s featured on the mural that Grant designed. “I was chatting to her about the spirit of the place before it opened,” Alan says affectionately, “and she said, ‘I’m the same spirit so tell Grant if he doesn’t put me on the mural I’ll kill him’.”

A great day off, when he gets one, is spent with Grant and their dogs Jerry and Lala, “just hanging out with the dogs and my man or having friends over for a little singsong around the piano”.

Cumming’s an accomplished singer and actor and novelist and club-owner and perfumer. If there’s one thing he doesn’t think he’s quite so good at it’s dancing. So what’s he doing? Prepping a performance at the Joyce Theater, New York’s home of contemporary dance, in a couple of years.

“It’s nuts. I’ll be 56 and that’s not normally the time to start a dance career.” Ever the contrarian, he laughs. “But I just thought, Why not?”

Instinct Season One is on Sky Box Sets. Season Two is coming soon to Sky Witness

 

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