New York City
He goes from television to
film to stage to song without batting an eye (and usually within a matter
of months). Heís just finished a novel (Tommyís Tale hitting stores
in August) and regularly contributes columns about fashion and fad to
top-name magazines. In his spare time he gets together with friends, co-writes
and co-directs an unforgettable film about life and love and gets rave
reviews for it. And yes, he really is just one manóa snappy dresser from
Scotland named Alan Cumming.
Cummingís attitude is most likely what has brought him to the forefront
of so many areas of entertainment. The guy has a mind open enough to take
in all possibilities, and the will to believe that he can try them all.
Last year alone, Cumming co-starred in a big-time production of ďAnnieĒ
for ABC; appeared in box office blockbusters ďSpy KidsĒ and ďJosie and
the PussycatsĒ; took to the stage for a revival of Noel Coward's acclaimed
play ďDesign for LivingĒ; and released his first attempt at writing and
directing a feature film (partnering with Jennifer Jason Leigh). ďThe
Anniversary PartyĒ had critics and viewers worldwide raving and garnered
multiple Independent Spirit Award nominations as well as a National Board
of Review award for excellence in filmmaking. The fact that Cumming and
Leigh also star in the film makes their achievement all the more impressive.
The rest of Cummingís CV reads like a dream for any performer and includes
truly memorable projects like the films ďCircle of FriendsĒ and ďEmmaĒ
as well as the musical revival of ďCabaretĒ that earned him a Tony.
In between Broadway and last yearís Cannes Film Festival, Cumming took
the time to discuss why he tackled filmmaking so head-on and shared his
musings on the other million things he does with that unique flare. Definitely
not one to pussyfoot around what he really thinks, Cummingís brand of
honesty is rare and much appreciated.
So right now youíre closing Design For Life in New York, then
leave almost immediately for the film festival in France. Do you prefer
stage work to film or do you have a preference at all?
I donít really have a preference Ė I like to go back and forth. Itís nice
to have a bit of a challenge. Iíve always Ė since I was very young Ė gone
back and forth between stage and screen. The bizarre thing is that the
more big films you do, the more people are surprised that you want to
go back to the theater.
It obviously provides an outlet for you that film doesnít.
Yeah! Itís a different sort of discipline.
Considering you do so much now as a writer and director and performer,
what did you grow up wanting to do?
WellÖI wanted to be a vet but I wasnít allowed to take biology. I had
a big personality clash with my biology teacher, so that was scuttled
early on. And then I wanted to be an actor or a writer, so now Iím sort
What were your early attempts at writing?
After I left school and before I went to drama school, I worked for about
a year and a half on a kind of a pop magazine in Scotland, being a sub-editor
and stuff like that. And then after that the writing I did was more performance
stuff. I did stand-up comedy with another guy early on and we wrote all
of our material.
And having worked for a pop magazine, as you put it, you still keep
your finger on the pulse of pop culture, contributing on the subject for
various publications. What kind of an outlet does that provide for you?
I think I really like writing my thoughts on the world. Itís just really
good to get that kind of stuff out of my head. [Giggling] Also, I feel
like a lot of weird things happen to me; I think I have quite a weird,
odd, bizarre life. Itís changed quite dramatically since I was a little
boy, and I view it from a slightly outsiderís point of view, so itís quite
nice to write about that and to share that with other people to keep it
And give it to them with humor, too.
Where do you think you got your sense of style? Because yet another
thing about you is that youíre just so damn stylish!
[Laughing] I donít know! I think as I got older I just got more comfortable
with myself. You know, it changes because you change, it changes with
how youíre feelingÖ. Like if Iím going out, I like dressing up Ė I quite
enjoy that sort of getting dressed-up thing. I love the fact that if you
can wear clothes that make a statement or say something, itís fun to do
that like as an extension of yourself as an artist.
And what about the roles you select Ė is it kind of along the same
lines, that you want to make a statement with those?
Yeah Ė sometimes I think Iíd like to do something very different and thatís
a kind of statement as well. I want to stay eclectic and I think being
eclectic is really healthy for you as a person and as an artist. Itís
good to be able to mix up what you do in terms of going from a big blockbuster
film to a little weird art house one that nobodyís going to see. I think
itís really important for your environment to change all the time so that
you have a perspective on the world thatís not just exclusive to one type
of thing, you know?
Yes Ė so you remain adaptable. But how difficult is it to go from such
different roles in front of as well as behind the camera? Like for The
Anniversary Party, how hard was it to put all those roles together
Ė actor, director, writer and producer?
It was quite hard. The acting part was really easy because we knew the
characters so well since weíd had them in our heads for so long. And it
was a really healthy thing to do as an actor because it makes you realize
how much better it is when youíre simple and not thinking about acting.
But it was a lot of pressure. The producing thing I didnít really do very
much Ė I mean, bits of paper came on my table and I wold kind of look
at them but it was more that we initiated the project; there were other
people who did more of the producerly stuff. And the writing kind of all
seguedÖ. In a way I donít think that any of those things are really different
from each other. I mean, the producing thing has a lot to do with organizing
but writing and directing and acting is all just telling a story Ė itís
all degrees of how much control you have over telling the story. So I
donít really feel that thereís that big a difference between all those
things but obviously there is quite a lot of pressure to do them all at
Was there anything you gave to your character as Joe that was something
you wanted challenge yourself to do, something that was different from
I didnít set out to do that, but I think I definitely did. Iím intrigued
by the idea that you use a lot of yourself. As Iíve gotten older Iíve
realized that as an actor itís not about covering yourself up, itís what
you bear of yourself and let come through into the character that is important
and is what makes a character more truthful and more attractive to an
audience. Not that I mean that you should be the same in everything Ė
itís like an essence of yourself that you allow to come through that youíre
prepared to be vulnerable in some way. And I think with Joe, I took that
as far as Iíve ever done because in the writing of it Jennifer and I both
used things about ourselves or let other characters talk about us in the
way that other people talk about us. We used a lot of things from our
own life Ė not necessarily autobiographical things, but things about our
personalities, mannerisms and things Ė and let them be discussed in a
film. And that vulnerability factor, pushing that envelope, was not something
that I realized I was doing; it kind of crept up on me. On both of us.
What about all of your friends co-starring in the film Ė did you take
those same things about their personalities and inject them into their
Totally! We used their characteristics; sometimes we used things theyíd
actually said in real life. We used speech patterns and nuances of theirs
for real. They, too, were kind of feeling themselves a bit more than they
Was anyone offended by your portrayal of themselves in their character?
No, because we kept them in the loop at the time of writing it and everyone
was really game to go with us on this kind of thing.
Thatís good sports of them.
Yeah, it really was! I think they thought that we werenít going to abuse
them in any way.
Of all of the people youíve worked with in the past, how did Jennifer
come to be the first one you collaborated with so closely on an idea like
this one? Had other opportunities come up previously with anyone else?
Not an idea like this, but I used to write with my friend Forbes Masson
in Britain Ė he and I went to drama school together and we wrote a lot
of stuff together over the years, although we havenít in a while. But
I think the thing about Jennifer and me was that we were both at the same
time in our lives when we were both kind of ready to take on a challenge
like this. We both were feeling that we had experienced enough things
in our lives that we had some stories to tell about relationships. It
was the combination of our lives Ė the state our lives were in, the state
our relationships were in Ė and that artistically we thought weíd done
enough. You know, itís kind of a funny thingÖyouíve been in so many films
and youíve seen how sometimes things are botched up, itís quite nice to
then think, ďOkay, I want to try this and I want to not make the mistakes
that Iíve seen have been made so many times in the past.Ē
Right Ė to take what you learned from being directed and put it into
Not just being directed, but about being on a set, making people feel
good about coming to work and giving it their best. The hours you work,
the presents you give, the way you involve everyone Ė you know, the whole
spirit of the thing is what we wanted to kind of make unusual in that
everyoneís involving everyone and not being hierarchical.
And how different is it to write and direct with a partner than it
is to do it solo?
Oh, I like it more, actually. For certain things itís much better. It
just means that one of you always nags the other to get going. You feel
a sense of duty to the other person so you work more diligently, I think.
When I write on my own, I will do everything possible Ė I will
call everyone I know, I will clean my house from top to bottom and I will
read every book I can possibly read Ė before Iíll get down to writing.
(Laughs) You have a duty to the other person when youíre writing with
someone, and you can get a good feeling in that; you can absorb the responsibility
Yet another side of you involves music. Cabaret is one thing
but I also understand that you have done some composing in your time,
is that correct?
(Laughs) Yes, I suppose so, yeah.
Why do you say suppose?
Oh, well, itís sort of funny, composingÖI mean, Iíve written a few songs
with Forbes Masson. We wrote the stand-up comedy thing we did and we sang
songs, so we made a couple of albums of our songs and they were released
in Britain a long time ago. And then we wrote the theme tune for
our TV series. So Iíve done bits and pieces but not for a while, actually.
But yeah, Iíve kind of dabbled.
Would you dabble any more in the future?
Yeah, I would, when Iíve got more time! I really want to be able to spend
more time just mucking about and doing little projects, playing the piano
and stuff, because there are things I definitely want to do and Iíve got
friends in the music business here who Iíd quite like to go into the studio
and muck about with. Thatís what I want now: to try and have more time
to do things like that. Iíve been too busy for too long and have lost
the ability to just muck about.
You seem like the kind of person who needs ten pairs of hands because
you want to do so many things.
But itís that I want to be doing things that I want to do, like
make a collage or a greeting card or read a book instead of doing this
film and doing six interviews for this other one and then having to fly
there to do something else on that oneÖdo you know what I mean? You get
on this kind of roller coaster or treadmill and itís quite hard to get
it to stop and do what you want.
Yes Ė itís that you canít just do your work, you also have to promote
it and follow up with it and the cycle just keeps going and going.
Yeah! And the thing is Iíve really felt it more so than ever with The
Anniversary Party because, since we wrote and directed it together,
people want to talk to you more and you feel much more duty about that,
a desire to promote it because itís your baby.
So has this made you just want to go out and do more projects that
are all your own or had the opposite effect?
(Laughs) Itís made me think about it in the future, being more of a filmmaker
and write and direct my own things. But at the same time itís made me
need to have a break. I want to not rush into the next thing. I really
am proud of the film and I donít want to Ė if it does well Ė suddenly
do something in the heat of the moment that Iím not completely happy with.
Speaking of success, were you surprised by the blockbuster that Spy
Yeah! I mean, I really loved it, but I was pretty shocked about
how much money it made. But then I was also quite shocked about how badly
Josie and the Pussycats did as well.
Come now, it didnít do that badly!
No, I mean everyone liked it and it was very well reviewed, but in terms
of the money it made, everyone thought it was going to be bigger. When
it came out, Spy Kids was number one at the box office and when
I went to the premiere, everyone kept saying, ďAlan, youíre gonna knock
yourself off the box office!Ē (Laughs) And of course it didnít get anywhere
near that. Itís quite interesting how things go that way; I love it how
they phone you up and tell you how itís tracking and how well itís doing.
And this didnít really do what they thought it was going to do.
This business is so unpredictable.
Itís a fickle mistress!
Is performing on stage in something like Cabaret Ė where singing
is a big part of what youíre doing Ė a different type of acting for you,
or do you apply the same attitude towards it?
I think itís sort of the same because I havenít really done stuff where
Iím like a singer Ė Iím just sort of an actor who sings. Everyoneís asked
me to be in all these other musicals, but itís those musicals that I need
to avoid, those that go laaaaaaaaa! [Launches into outrageous operatic
aria] And I canít do that Ė Iím just like an actor. I feel that
as an actor in a musical I just happen to be singing instead of talking.
I mean, I have an okay voice, but itís not really my bag to do those sort
of big musicals where you do a big voice and beautiful vibrato stuff.
Iím quite intrigued by the musical formóI think Iíll do one againóbut
theyíre not really my favorite. I think they can get really scary.
Scary like over-blown and over-dramatic?
Melodramatic, just plain stupid and very pretentious. I mean, the only
two musicals Iíve ever done are Cabaret and Annie and I
really loved doing Annie. That was great. I either like
them when theyíre sort of old-fashioned or really grittyÖ. Like my character
in Cabaret sang these songs because that was his job, to
be a singer of these songs, do you see what I mean? It wasnít like he
was suddenly bursting into song Ė that was what he did in the club! I
have a problem with that kind of thing when youíre speaking and then all
of a sudden YOUíRE SINGING! I canít quite deal with thatóalthough I did
do that in AnnieÖ.
(Laughs) Thatís true, but like you said it was more old-fashioned and
acceptable that way.
Yeah, I liked that because it was almost a sort of period style. I really
enjoyed that about it. There was one time when we were dancing down the
street doing a big number and I said, ďOh, my god, this is like being
in a big Hollywood musical!Ē and they went, ďIt is a big Hollywood
You bozo! You say you donít have a good voice, but I saw you at the
Hollywood Bowl last yearó
Oh, did you?
I did and you did a number that had us reduced to puddles. I think
it was a Cole Porter songÖ
No, it was Noel Coward, actually Ė itís called ď20th Century BluesĒ and
they play it in the curtain call of the play Iím doing now every night.
So that means I need to get to New York like tomorrow so I can watch
you do that.
(Singing) ďIím blueÖtwentieth century bluesÖĒ I did ďCabaretĒ first, and
then I sang that one just with the piano, and then my big number to finish
was called ďBeing AliveĒ by Stephen Sondheim.
Maybe that was itóit was like really emotional?
Aww, thatís the one, yes! Itís fromÖwhat the fuck do you call itÖCompany!
Another musical. I really think itís a beautiful song, but every time
Iíve heard it itís always that kind of singing that I was talking about
before, you know. (Laughs) Actually, doing that Hollywood Bowl thing was
really kind of a telling thing for me, because Rob, the director of Annie
and Cabaret, came to see me and I was freaking out about singing
with an 80-piece orchestra in front of 18,000 people. I was shitting my
pants, thinking what the fuck am I doing this for?! It was actually
a very good thing because I thought, well, itís actually not about how
good my voice is, itís about how I interpret this song, you know? Itís
about me as a person, what I have to give to this, how I am going
to choose to do this and tell this story. Rob said that to me in a much
nicer, more effusive way, and I thought, oh, I see, I shouldnít worry
anymore! Itís the fact that Iím sort of an anti-singer that counts,
the fact that itís refreshing that I sing like a person and not like a
Like a big production.
Yeah! And Iím much more cool about singing now because of that gala thing
last year, which I would never have dreamed of doing before with
all these big proper-voice singers. I just thought, well, fuck it! I can
interpret this song and it will still be okay.
You did itóI mean, I tell you, everybody around us was like sobbing
at the end of that.
Oh, yeah. We were clutching our chests calling out to God. So you see,
you should do it more often!
(Laughs) Yeah, maybe! Iíve actually been thinking that of all the things
Iíd like to do, Iíd quite like to do a cabaret, of songs and DJs and little
things, a sort of old-fashioned style show like that.
Like a vaudevillian sort of thing.
Yeah, just entertainment in a way that would tell some sort of story through
the songs, I donít know.
You are someone totally suited to doing a one-man-show kind of thing
Iím quite keen to get to that.
Well, with all the time that you have lying around, get to it!
(Giggles) Yeah, I know! Once that Iíve retired, Iíll have time.
Speaking of all the things you have on your plate, howís the novel
Slowly, thank you. (Giggles) Thatís really why Iíve stopped acting, because
Iíve got to get back to the novel because itís got to be finished by the
end of September.
Well, youíd better get cracking!
I know! Iíve really got to go on it. I look at it from time to time and
kind of, you know, instead of writing more, I just correct syntax of the
first chapter. (Laughs)
Is it pretty autobiographical?
Itís a fiction but similar to The Anniversary Party, there are
autobiographical elements. Like itís about man who wants to have a baby;
I would like to have a baby at some point, and itís about how you have
that when youíre not in a conventional relationship or a relationship
What kind of lessons have you learned from being in so many aspects
of the business that you would share with people who want to get into
Just to try at all things to remember who you are and to be yourself.
The older Iíve got the more Iíve sort of realized that, and itís hard
but the essence of you is the most important thing, the best thing you
have to give as an artist, and to try and hold on to that is what I always
recommend for people to do.