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Interview: Alan Cumming, actor

Alan Cumming is performing a one-man version of Macbeth. Picture: Robert Perry

Alan Cumming is performing a one-man version of Macbeth. Picture: Robert Perry

Back from Hollywood with his one-man Macbeth, Alan Cumming talks goats, poodles and murder. By Anna Burnside

ALAN Cumming has stepped back in time. Back in Glasgow to perform a one-man Macbeth, he walks past the old RSAMD building on his way to work. In the rehearsal room, it’s vocal exercises and stretching, with not a Winnebago or idiot board in sight. The only starry touch is a promotional sweatshirt from The Good Wife. He bunches the sleeves up to hide the logo and shakes his head. “It’s season two. Vintage.”

Access to junket freebies aside, it’s as if the last 25 years did not happen. “Ros Simmons, who was my voice tutor at drama school, is in rehearsals. It’s coming in every morning, getting into your vest and your jogging trousers, going, ‘Maw maw moo,” jumping about and doing Shakespeare.”

This long-awaited Macbeth, his favourite Shakespeare play since RSAMD days, has been fermenting for a couple of decades. “In drama school I did a workshop version when we all swapped parts, and I did some Lady Macbeth. Then I did it at the Tron 7,000 years ago” – actually 1993, he played Malcolm – “so I always thought Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were both great parts. So much in the play is about women chiding their men about their manliness, and a lot of the traits we most think of as manly and masculine are being displayed by the women, especially Lady Macbeth. And Lady Macduff, she’s quite a spunky thing.”

His initial idea was to switch between Macbeth and his missus. “I could have a really brilliant actress be able to play a role she’d never normally get to play because I’d flip each night. Then I thought that Macduff and Lady Macduff could do the same, make the rest of the cast not so gender-specific.” He makes a grinning pixie face. “It doesn’t really interest me to do it in a normal way. Doesn’t interest me to do anything in a normal way.”

He tested the half-and-half idea a couple of years ago, at a reading in New York. Several producers loved it and wanted to put it on straight away. He wasn’t sure. It was Andy Goldberg, who was in the audience that night and had worked with the National Theatre of Scotland’s John Tiffany, who suggested making it a solo. “He had always wanted to do a one-man version based in a mental hospital. We had a chat about that and I committed.” Cumming giggles. “I was committed in all ways.”

In these jaded days, gender-bending conceptual Shakespeare-in-a-straitjacket does not make the news. A bona fide Hollywood star off the telly (the voice of Gutsy the Smurf; sleekit political operator Eli Gold from The Good Wife) appearing in Scaatland in an Arthur-and-Martha production set in an asylum is, however, something that sizzles.

A couple of days after the production was announced, Cumming was at an awards ceremony in LA. “I was going down the red carpet and Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood asked me about it. In the green room, Warren Beatty ran over to me. ‘Alan, you’re doing a one-man Macbeth.’” His eyebrows shoot up his forehead. “It has struck a real chord with people who will never see it. The bravado, the stupidity, the chutzpah, of it is something people relate to.”

People keep asking him if he has learned his lines. (He’s working on it, often while powering up and down the swimming pool.) After training every day for several months, he is lean and spare. His Twitter biography, “Scottish elf trapped in the body of a middle-aged man”, is disingenuous – at 47 he is a fit, grey-haired imp.

It’s this Puckish quality that keeps Columbia Pictures and other titans of animated cinema and action movies requesting meetings with the man, whose breakthrough role was the twisted compere Emcee in the Broadway production of Cabaret. As well as the kilt-wearing, sideburned Gutsy (who Smurf fans will be relieved to know is also in the recently filmed sequel), Cumming has been, over his extensive career, a horse (the narrator in Black Beauty) and a devil (in TV series God, the Devil and Bob, starring James Garner and now banned). He is a poodle in kids’ show Arthur and a rabbit in Dora the Explorer. Out of the cuddly zone, he channelled his alien side as Nightcrawler in X2. “I’m an actor,” he shrugs. “I put on funny voices sometimes.”

And while he loves the reaction of children who recognise him as, say, Persnikitty in the first series of Garfield –“it’s so much nicer than adults; it’s genuine and unencumbered by adult weirdness” – he bridles at the idea that he says yes to every Nickelodeon executive who waves a contract under his dainty nose. “I say no all the time. Daily. I have a more varied palette of work than most people I know, but normal people, you know, real people” – he struggles to find a non-offensive term – “work every day, sometimes six days a week and have a few weeks off.

“I work a lot, I have time off, I still have lots of fun and downtime and I take holidays. I have a really good organisation, people who help me – managers, an office, assistants. I don’t have to do all the boring stuff that would take up too much of my time. It’s great that I can afford that. It makes me more fecund as an artist.”

Goats, poodles, even Smurfs are, he says, a no-brainer. “Gutsy made me a lot of money. It took maybe five days of my life and will enable me to pay my way and do lots of other things that don’t pay so well. Why do people assume you should only do lofty things all the time? Some of those jobs are really great fun and they allow me to do the weirder, more challenging things. I welcome them.”

As well as keeping Cumming in stripy T-shirts and personal assistants, international movies that gross over $500 million, as well as a prestigious American TV franchise, give him a platform. “I have a voice for things I believe in. I get to live a life I like as well as to be an activist for things I believe in. I can have it mean something. It’s a delicate balance but I have access to very commercial, high-paid work and still get to do really weird things that nobody sees.”

The weird things include photography: his exhibition Alan Cumming Snaps! is currently showing at the Tribeca Grand in New York, and his pictures (of a folded New York Times, his dog Honey, P Diddy at a fashion party and a model Liza Minnelli from the top of her birthday cake) are available for anyone with $400 (for the entry level unframed version) to spend.

Minnelli’s bash involved a singsong round the piano that Cumming describes as “one of those nights when I felt that I was living in the movie of my life”. He has come late to the joys of one singer, one song. Growing up in rural Angus with an abusive father, there were not a lot of jolly musical parties. And while he sang in his early comedy persona, Barry of blazer-wearing duo Victor and Barry, and won a Tony for his performance as Emcee, he considers those roles acting with an orchestra. “The idea of getting up in a public place and singing a song was horrific. Horrific. Even in Victor and Barry, I would get up and sing as Barry, never as myself. For that curtain to go up and it’s just you, very actively singing a song, saying this is not a character, this is me, is quite different.

“Cabaret was such a big deal that it made me even less likely to do it. I thought I was more likely to disappoint, that people were not going to get what they thought they would with me doing a cabaret show.”

It took a change of manager, and a spot on the Lincoln Centre’s American Songbook programme to get him in front of the microphone. When that show, I Bought a Blue Car Today was a success, he was off. “A few weeks later I did Sydney opera house, then a week at the Vaudeville in London, then everywhere. I’m really glad I did it. I enjoy having another way to perform. It’s the best connection ever with an audience.”

He has also, somehow, found time to make Any Day Now, a low-budget hankie-soaker about a gay couple trying to adopt a neglected Down’s syndrome teenager in 1970s LA, which Cumming hopes will secure a decent distribution deal. If only it were set in rural Perthshire, it would cross-reference with just about all of Cumming’s activities. The extensive list of causes he supports – Planned Parenthood, RSAMD, the anti-circumcision campaign Intact America, lots of HIV/Aids charities, the Birks cinema in Aberfeldy, Scottish Youth Theatre, Empire State Pride Agenda – is, he says, one of the Scottish things about him. “They are all various parts of me. Birks cinema came to me and I thought, ‘What a good idea, to do something for where I was born.’ RSAMD is my alma mater. I’m having a meeting about that while I’m here – their American push has stalled with the recession.

“Other things are about me as an adult, what I think is important. It’s very Scottish to be annoyed about injustice, to want people to be looked after, or to have some link to helping people back home.”

Previously a Labour voter (and in his adopted home in the US, an Obama supporter), Cumming is now an enthusiastic nationalist. After a phone call from Alex Salmond, he endorsed the SNP at the last election. “I just thought they had done a good job in their first five years.” He and his husband, American illustrator Grant Shaffer, have even had dinner with the First Minister at Bute House. “I really like him. And Moira” – the seldom-seen Mrs Salmond – “is hilarious.”

An anecdote about that evening has made it into I Bought a Blue Car Today. “I was chatting to Moira and told her I loved the room and the big windows. She said she would love to do it up, but, because of the cuts and so on, was not allowed. She particularly hated the curtains, which are made of special bomb-resistant fabric. Apparently they snag shrapnel.” He switches into a Charlie Endell voice. “The special police people said we had to have them. I just said, ‘Who’d throw a bomb through a window in Scotland.’”

Cumming’s enthusiasm for Scottish independence is such that he is planning to sell his London home and buy here so he can vote in the referendum. Something in Edinburgh, handy for his mother in Dundee, useful for his brother Tom. He is, he admits, a heavy user of internet property porn. “I am always looking things up. The other day I was thinking that if spent all the money from the London flat I could buy a castle.”

For now, he must concentrate on Macbeth. The posters are up and Cumming’s kohl-rimmed eyes and grey, bleeding face are already creeping the bejesus out of passengers on the Glasgow’s underground. (“That picture scared me,” he says. “And I was there when they took it.”) For the man named by Time as one of the most fun people in showbusiness, heavy swotting does not come naturally. He has already discovered a bar that opens until 5am. “And one of the barmen knows my second cousin.” His voice tails off. “That will be once we open.”

• Macbeth is at Tramway, Glasgow, 13-30 June (www.nationaltheatrescotland.com)

 

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