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Interview: Alan Cumming, Actor

WITH just 30 minutes to go until the curtain goes up on his new cabaret show, Alan Cumming is out walking his dogs, Honey and Leon.

Dressed casually in knee-length khaki shorts, T-shirt, geek specs and red Crocs, Cumming looks relaxed as he strolls through the Upper East Side on a sunny New York evening. The venue for tonight's show, I Bought A Blue Car Today, is Feinstein's, the upmarket supper club at the Regency Hotel. "It's not my usual sort of venue and I'm not their usual sort of act," he says, with a flash of the impish grin which has made him a favourite of eight and 80-year-olds alike.

In August, he's bringing the show to Edinburgh for three nights only. "I've wanted to do it at the Fringe for ages," says Cumming. "I think of it as a very Scottish form of entertainment - just standing up and telling stories and having a singsong and going back and forth between being serious and funny."

Honey and Leon start barking and Cumming breaks off for a minute to quieten them down. Despite his cool appearance, the Aberfeldy-born performer confesses he had a bad case of stage fright the first time he did the show. "I was really nervous. My manager, who persuaded me to do it, came to visit me in my dressing room and said, 'how are you?' I said 'I really want to punch your face' and I meant it. I'd always wanted to do something like this but it's a terrifying thing. When you're an actor there's a degree of separation. You always have your character to hide behind. "

By the time he appears on stage, Cumming has been transformed. Gone are the civvies and the ruffled curls. In their place are a smart grey suit and purple shirt and tie and, with his greying hair slicked back. He skips on stage to rapturous applause and, after introducing his pianist and cellist, he bursts into a roof-raising rendition of Mein Herr, from Cabaret, the Broadway show which made him an overnight sensation in the US.

I Bought A Blue Car Today was inspired by the process of applying for his American citizenship (he has dual British and American citizenship). The title was the answer to one of the questions. "You have to swot up on 100 different subjects and then during the test they ask you six questions. I got all six right so the man doing the test looked at me and said, 'Do you want to do some more?' Only in America could they make a citizenship test into a game show," laughs Cumming, who lives with his American husband Grant and their two dogs in the hip East Village.

Along with funny tales of being a Scotsman abroad, there are songs old and new, and stories of famous friends, from Liza Minnelli to Cynthia Nixon. Cumming also takes on more serious subjects, such as his campaigning work for gay rights. "Because we can't get married here in New York (where gay marriage isn't legal], Grant and I went to the UK where gay people have rights and respect and everything. It's crazy. We got married and nobody died and nothing bad happened," he continues, to the evident delight of his audience. What follows is a love song Cumming wrote in honour of Grant.

There's also a humorous ditty Cumming penned to a former lover who had too much plastic surgery, which features rhymes like "Please don't take a knife to your face/Wrinkles are a sign you're part of the human race" and "Don't go to the plastic surgeon any more/He won't tell you you look like Zsa Zsa Gabor". In a room filled with botox, collagen and tell-tale signs of the surgeon's knife, the song raises a knowing laugh.

Before bringing it to Scotland, Cumming has been fine-tuning the show, which he's performed in London and at the Sydney Opera House on top of appearances across America. "Doing this has taught me that people respond to you just being honest and being yourself," he says. "I did the show in Dallas at a billionaires' charity thing and wasn't sure what they'd make of it but it was fine - it's a good mantra, just to be yourself no matter what."

The last time Cumming appeared at the Fringe was in Victor And Barry 20 years ago, though he was back in 2007 to play Dionysus in the National Theatre of Scotland's production of The Bacchae at the Edinburgh International Festival. His plans while in Edinburgh this time revolve around doing his show and visiting his mum. Relaxing backstage, he says: "I don't have a huge amount of time. But in Edinburgh you don't need to make plans at Festival time - there's so much going on and you keep bumping into people."

His life today is a long way from his roots. Cumming left school at 16 and took a job on Tops, a new magazine from Dundee publisher DC Thomson. There he got his first taste of showbiz, interviewing bands, editing comic strips and even having his picture appear in photo-love stories in Jackie magazine which was produced in the same building. Though the managing editor tried to tempt him to stay with the offer of a senior position on the teenage girls' magazine Blue Jeans, Cumming left to take up a place at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

It was at RSAMD that he met Forbes Masson. The two formed the camp double-act Victor and Barry, which was a huge hit at the Fringe in the late 80s. Cumming's next break came in Conquest Of The South Pole at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, which transferred to the Royal Court in London. He went with it and was nominated for the Most Promising Newcomer Olivier Award. A decade ago he moved permanently to New York following the huge success of Cabaret on Broadway. Cumming's blazing performance as EmCee won him every award going not to mention fame and adoration in his adopted home country.

His career choices since have been hit and miss, taking in everything from The Spice Girls Movie, The Flintstones and Sex And The City to independent projects like The Anniversary Party, the low-budget film he made with his friend Jennifer Jason Leigh. For the most part he says he is guided by instinct though he admits the generous pay cheques which come from doing big budget films like X-Men help finance his own independent projects.

In August, he returns to New York to film the second series of The Good Wife, the US legal drama starring Chris Noth and Julianna Margulies. "I'm used to doing films where you know where the character is going to end up. With The Good Wife you don't know what's going to happen next. It's a different way of thinking about your character. I feel excited about going back into it."

As well as providing voices for animated films The Smurfs, Sir Billi The Vet opposite Sean Connery and Jackboots on Whitehall, he is starring in Burlesque with Cher and Christina Aguilera and in Julie Taymor's film adaptation of The Tempest with Helen Mirren, Alfred Molina and Russell Brand. "Burlesque was a riot. I play the door whore of the burlesque club which Cher runs. And I sing. It's a lot of fun.

"We filmed The Tempest in Hawaii on all this volcanic wasteland and we were all in these big black Velazquez costumes. It was an incredible experience."

In 2009, Cumming was awarded an OBE, an honour he confesses he felt moved by. "It was pretty left-field but it was a big deal. It's lovely to be able to take your mum to Buckingham Palace. It was a great thing for me to get it, not just for my acting work, but in the official citation it said it was also for campaigning for gay people and equality in America. That made me feel very proud."

The other project keeping him busy just now is Itsasickeness.com, a website he created with a friend where visitors post messages and film clips about their obsessions, taking in everything from peanut butter and chilli peppers to Lady Gaga. To this Cumming has added gay rights, the Scottish singer and child star Lena Zavaroni, Caledonian MacBrayne ferries and dogs. "The site came out of noticing that our culture is an obsessive, obsessive culture. The whole project has really blossomed. We're going to do a TV thing out of it." Anyone with a few idle moments should check out his dog Honey's impressions of Liza Minnelli, Sade and Eva Braun.

So what's next? "There's nothing I'm dying to do which I haven't already done. I'm not a yearner. I do things if I enjoy them and if I'm not then I stop." v

Alan Cumming - I Bought a Blue Car Today is at Assembly Hall, 13-15 August, at midnight

&#149 This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, August 1, 2010

 
 
 

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