Cumming and Going

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com September 28 2009 12:30 PM ET

ALAN CUMMING X560 (NED STRESEN/REUTER) | ADVOCATE.COM

What would be surprising about the peripatetic Alan Cumming catching a cab in New York City as our interview about his CD and show of the same name -- I Bought a Blue Car Today -- is about to start? “I have this crazy shirt on,” he says, as he provides the cabbie with the desired destination -- “the Century Club on 43rd” -- and asks Brian, his assistant, to (what else?) assist with the cuffs of the shirt. “I have one hand on the phone so it’s hard to do my sleeve. It looks like the shirt has cuff links, but it doesn’t.” He tells Brian, “No, the other way.”

Of Cumming’s newish show, The New York Times raved that the multidisciplined artist “exudes the fabulousness of a brash showbiz kid.” It is only the most recent credit on a résumé that traverses from major motion pictures to edgy indie with the rambunctiousness of a cab ride in midtown Manhattan.

Advocate.com: Tell us about I Brought a Blue Car Today.
Alan Cumming: It tells the story about me coming to America. I’ve chosen songs because I want to act them and they illustrate the points of what I’m talking about, connecting with the audience in a way that I haven’t before. It’s very personal; the songs are chosen so that you think they are me even though I only wrote one of them. The audience can easily imagine that the songs have something to do with my life.

Did the live show evolve out of the CD?
I use a voice that is mine; I don’t have a character to hide behind. I try to infuse the songs with myself. When playing a character, I’m doing what the character is doing. This is my own voice.

Do you anticipate a difference between East and West Coast sensibility?
I’ve done the show in New York, Sydney, London. Wherever you go in the world, people are different. The show is very old-fashioned. I sing some songs and tell some stories. People get my jokes. The show is an extension of me as a person; an extension of what the public knows of me. So if you don’t like me, you’re gonna hate me.

[Cumming’s voice is abruptly gone. We’ve lost our connection. Maybe it’s the fault of the shirt machinations. Or simply a New York traffic disconnect. After a few minutes, we reconnect.]

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It’s almost impossible to believe that Cabaret [for which Cumming won a Tony award as the Emcee, playing opposite Natasha Richardson’s Sally Bowles] was more than a decade ago.
It was an overwhelming experience. I talk about it in the show. It changed my life. I was actually ill-prepared for it -- just the aspect of the business of Broadway. I had been doing a film in Czechoslovakia; nobody told me what it would be like. I stumbled into Cabaret. I was so green and that probably helped me in a way. When you’re in a big success -- I wasn’t ready for what a grand experience that was. After the show opened, I said, “I’d like to stop doing all these interviews,” and they told me that “award season” was coming up. I had no idea what they were talking about. It was a big learning curve. Natasha had done it before and she held my hand.

The loss of Natasha must have been enormous.
I was in Scotland, working on a film. I’d heard that she’d been injured the night before. But then I started getting all these calls in the middle of nowhere. I thought to myself, What’s wrong? I was up all night and it was about to rain. Right after somebody told me -- this horrible news about a friend dying -- you switch back into doing your job. Strangely detached. After Natasha's death, I realized that the most positive thing to learn is to seize the day. Look what can happen to someone who was so full of life, then boom, it's over.

Your career is certainly varied. Theater, stage, recordings, and then there’s Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. It’s become a gay cult film.
I think that’s lovely. People are obsessed. The girls are pros. It was a bit weird for me. I remember thinking, This is great, a mainstream comedy. But I can’t understand why they cast me. I’d never played an American before. I’d never played a mutant before, for that matter, and it’s not that big of a leap from playing an American.

Mainstream juxtaposed with alternative seems to be how you navigate your career.
I suppose the record is emblematic of that because it’s quite mainstream but it has an indie perspective. It’s not really a plan that I have. Because I have an open attitude, strange things can happen. From a business perspective I understand it’s important to do certain things, but then there are things you really want to do, based on your sensibility and point of view. I go with what comes up. People think of me, well, he might do this or he might do that. I’m not stuck in a box.

The L Word, for example.
That was fun. Kind of crazy. Enjoyed that. X-Men 3 didn’t happen so I said, “Sure, I’ll do it: I want to have sex with a lesbian.” I like to shake things up and confront people’s expectations. I just did a condom commercial with Ricki Lake for Trojan. It’s on YouTube.

[The cab has arrived at the Century Club and Cumming indicates that he has no more time for the interview]

Gosh, there’s so much more to discuss: Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, that duet you did with Liza years ago, The Tempest with Helen Mirren, your marriage, plans to adopt, your future projects to direct…
I thought we were only doing fifteen minutes... I’ll give you to Brian. You can discuss that with him.