Aug Sept 2016
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The Advocate

Alan Cumming on His Career as a 'Naughty Pixie'

ALAN CUMMING

Ever since he burst onto our shores in 1998, Scottish actor-singer-writer Alan Cumming has been a pervasive force in entertainment, illuminating projects with his frisky adventurousness and wry wit. On Broadway, he redefined the sensationally sleazy role of the MC in Cabaret, and he went on to sprinkle his presence into quirky movies through the years, from X-Men 2 to Burlesque. In cabarets, he’s served a bracing mix of standards and original songs, always laced with his personal twinkle. (His new album is Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs.) And since 2010, Alan’s costarred in The Good Wife, now in its last season, playing Eli Gold, the blunt campaign strategist who doesn’t like to be crossed. But behind all the success is some sadness; Alan’s 2014 memoir Not My Father’s Son dramatically chronicled life with an abusive father, though his imminent follow-up is a lighter effort, filled with photos and memories. Cumming and his husband, illustrator Grant Shaffer, live in New York. I contacted him to ask about fame, bisexuality, and crotch bumping.

Hi, Alan. You’ve forged a wonderfully unique career spanning different media. Are you proud of yourself for that? 
I am proud that I can bounce around between so many genres. I think in a way it’s to do with the fact that the course I did at drama school wasn’t just purely acting. It had writing and directing, and so from the word go, I saw my job as more multifaceted than being a mere actor for hire. And then, of course, eclecticism breeds eclecticism, and people continue to ask me to do weird and fascinating things, and I’m like a magpie and love trying something new and sparkly. 

You have a priceless quality of coming off adorable yet mischievous. Is that how you perceive it? 
I guess. It’s hard to be objective, but I think of myself always as a provocateur — both in my work and my life. I think that’s a healthy state of mind for any artist, and I suppose that infuses my general demeanor. I suppose people sense a bit of a childlike quality in me, both in my enthusiasm and also my penchant for stirring things up. I get the “naughty pixie” thing a lot, and I have grown to love it!

When people meet you, do they expect you to wear fishnets, bump your crotch, and say suggestive things, as in Cabaret?
There is quite often a preconception that I’m going to be a sort of drag queen version of myself, yes. I am not nearly as outgoing or outrageous as many of the characters I have played. I’m no shrinking violet either, though! 

You once told me, “I look like a horse when I’m in drag.” Have you softened your views on that — or maybe softened your look?
I still think that stands! Neigh! The thing is, I look good a bit androgynous. As you well know, I am a big fan of a smoky eye, but going the whole hog is not a good look for me. I did a miniseries called The Runaway and played a transvestite, and it was a bit scary.

As a bisexual, do you feel the bi community gets short shrift sometimes? 
Yes. I still think it’s not truly accepted that people can have desire for all sexes, regardless of their current situation. I feel we are all too ready to wear a uniform and close ourselves off to the possibility of other experiences. I think sexuality is ever changing and is gray, not black-and-white — for me and many others, at least. I wish people could just accept that.

You told me you have a non-Grindr, old-fashioned marriage. But I don’t expect Alan Cumming to have an old-fashioned anything. 
Ha ha. I don’t think I ever meant our marriage was old-fashioned, but we don’t use social media as a way to enhance it! I think marriage is something that you make to fit you and to make you happiest. The great thing about marriage equality is that we have all the legal rights now, but also the opportunity to reimagine what a true union is and to show straight people that if you don’t buy into the sort of Hollywood-ending bullshit about relationships, you can have a much more honest and happy life. 

When you meet younger LGBTs, do you become upset that they might not get certain references, or are you impressed with their curiosity?
I am impressed with young people in terms of their lack of being closed off to the past and to things they may not know. It’s not a test. The great thing about the Internet is that you can find out something you don’t know in a couple of clicks. I think older LGBT people need to be aware that sometimes we can seem a bit smug, a little closed off to the young. We fought for rights and we came through hard times because we wanted a better future for the next generation. It pisses me off when I see older people making kids feel bad because they basically weren’t alive when all that was going down. We should be happy for them. I’m hoping to shoot a really beautiful film later this year called After Louie that deals with this very subject.

You have great stage chemistry with another Cabaret person, Liza Minnelli. Do you think she’s fearless?
Well, she has a lot of fears, actually, but she is prepared to face them in her work. She once came backstage and saw me before a preview of Macbeth, and I told her how nervous and truly scared I was, and she said, ‘Take no prisoners and fuck the wounded.” I love that!

Your new book consists of photos you’ve taken, along with stories about the experiences. Give me an example.
There is one about Liza. Once, at her birthday party, a little chocolate Liza on top of her cake fell and landed on the table, and its arm had broken off. I took a picture of it and the story is about how, as long as I have known her and with all the things that have happened to her health-wise and so on, she is still so sweet and unbreakable.

I’d love a little chocolate Liza! Moving on to a craftier person: What’s your favorite Eli plotline? His revenge agenda?
I just loved his fall from grace at the beginning of this season, and yes, the way he is on a mission to avenge his betrayal. I also loved, several seasons ago, when he was a crisis manager and sparred with Amy Sedaris over issues like the corn lobby!

Has being in The Good Wife changed your life?
Yes, in many ways. For six years, I had [job] stability that I realized I had been craving for a while. And I think it changed how I was perceived a bit, because until I started playing Eli, I hardly ever played regular people on screen. I was playing sort of heightened or fantastical people. And although Eli is nuts, he is also a middle-aged man in a suit. So I have a new string to my bow! I can play real people! 

Michael Musto is the author of Manhattan on the Rocks, Downtown, and Fork on the Left, Knife in the Back, and a weekly columnist for OUT.com.

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