Alan Cumming: From Cabaret to a Queer Murder, She Wrote

Alan Cumming

Alan Cumming is no stranger to breaking ground. The Scottish-American bisexual actor and activist has never held back from expressing his opinions or tackling unconventional roles. Now Cumming is setting a new precedent, playing the first out gay lead character in a network TV drama.

In Instinct, a CBS series premiering Sunday and based on James Patterson’s 2017 book Murder Games, Cumming plays Dr. Dylan Reinhart, a gifted author, university professor, and former CIA operative who is lured back to his old life when New York detective Lizzie Needham (Bojana Novakovic) recruits him to track down a serial killer. The killer, it turns out, is using Reinhart’s book as a tutorial for murder.

Oddly enough, Cumming says he wasn’t a Patterson fan before being cast, and jokes that he “had no idea that one in 17 books sold in this country are written by him.”

“I met him and had a lovely chat with him, actually,” Cumming says. “I was sent a very early draft of [Murder Games] and found it a real page-turner. The combination of the many traits the character Dylan has — and also this kind of page-turner murder mystery, and the aspect that he was gay and how it wasn’t conforming to people’s expectation — I found it all enticing.”

For an artist as precise and authentic as Cumming, it’s not surprising the most interesting aspect of his researching the role was learning from real CIA operatives what life was like undercover.

“They all shared this idea that what a kind of strange and odd and lonely life it was … living this double life,” he says. “I found that really fascinating. One of the most fascinating things I found out is that somewhere around 30 percent of the CIA are Mormon. Isn’t that crazy? Go figure.”

In many ways, being a CIA operative is no different from acting: Both professions require you to observe human behavior and appear to be someone you are not.

“I always say, observation is the first rule of acting — and I really think it is,” Cumming says. “That’s what’s difficult about becoming more and more well-known, is that it’s less easy to observe people because most people are observing you. But I find it really fascinating to watch people and listen to them. You find out so much by just a hand gesture or a tapping of a foot or an intonation. I think that’s at the root of my study of acting or [Dylan’s] study in abnormal behavior: watching and listening.”

The actor has had a string of hits and projects, from a popular role on CBS’s The Good Wife to his Tony Award-winning turn in Cabaret. There are blockbusters (X2) and thinky films (Emma), a stint on PBS, a memoir, a novel, a kids’ book, and even a cologne called — tongue-in-cheekily — Cumming.

Despite Cumming’s immense success, the actor-activist says that starting his rise to stardom later in life has proven to be a huge blessing. The Scotsman first moved to America at 30 and says, “I had a whole life — really 30 years of my life — in a totally different environment and a totally different culture. I think that stands me in good stead for having a healthy attitude about life now. … If something went wrong and I couldn’t tug it, I’m confident, I know that I existed and was happy in the life I had before. And that’s a really heartening thing to know.”

Now 53, Cumming has been married to Grant Shaffer since 2012.

“The life I have now is so alien to anything I could have possibly imagined in high school,” he admits looking back. “People say to me, ‘Oh, you must be living your dream,’ and I’m like, ‘No, I’m not,’ because I didn’t dream about this. I think that’s why I have a really good attitude — being an outsider in your own life is actually healthy, and I think it gives you a good perspective.”

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