Alan Cumming interview: seen the future, got the t-shirt

ALAN Cumming is sitting on the window seat of his New York office, leafing through a sheaf of papers regarding his naturalisation as an American citizen, and shoo-ing his dog Honey from his lap.

"Down you go!" he tells her in an affectionate stage whisper. "You are such a weirdo." It's a little before teatime in Manhattan and the 43-year-old actor is still full of energy, though by rights he should be wilting by now. He was up late the night before in his local bar, hosting an auction of celebrity memorabilia which raised thousands of dollars for Barack Obama's presidential campaign. The most prominent Scot in America is also an accomplished networker, and his famous pals were happy to donate items to go under his gavel.

"Susan Sarandon gave me the dress she wore to the Emmys," he says. "Linda Carter signed a Wonder Woman figurine. Jennifer Jason Leigh is going to teach someone's dog a trick. I auctioned my own ticket and parking pass for Liza Minnelli and David Gest's wedding. That raised the most money – around $500."

Clearly, Cumming is not afraid to put the camp into Camp David. Yet he is serious about American politics. He has blogged, given speeches, hosted glitzy fundraisers, argued with Republican pundits and attended both the hyperbolic Democratic convention in Denver and the hyperboring presidential debate in Long Island. In the normal run of things, he is not opposed to people who swing both ways, but when it comes to undecided voters he is working hard to urge them in the direction of the Democrats.

The one thing he can't do in this election is vote. Though he applied for joint UK-US citizenship to allow him to do so, the process has taken so long that he has missed the deadline for registration. "But I'll be able to vote for Obama's second term," he says jauntily.

Not being an American citizen has also prevented him from working as an official surrogate – an individual who speaks on behalf of a candidate at public rallies and to the media. This had been the plan when he was recruited and vetted by Team Obama this summer.

Maybe it's for the best. Cumming is outspoken – once describing Hillary Clinton as "a stupid liar" – and it would have been a shame had his straight talk been twisted into mediocre shapes by political reality. This way he gets to keep his teeth. Take, for instance, his answer to the question: why does America need Barack Obama?

"Well," he says, "because otherwise it's f***ed. Economically, America is a disaster area, but in practically every area of society there are great inequities and problems and strife.

"America is spiritually broken. It has lost its direction. The war has made people feel very lost. You feel you have to support your country, but what if your country is doing something you don't agree with? The lack of honesty and amount of corruption in the Bush administration makes people feel helpless. It feels like chaos in America right now, and people need a leader, and Obama has come along with his inspirational message. America needs a leader who can string a few sentences together, but also someone who understands what life is like and wants to make it better for everybody."

Cumming has lived in the US throughout the Bush presidency, and was outraged by many of that administration's policies, among them the decision to invade Iraq and also Bush's opposition to same-sex marriage. That latter issue is personal to Cumming, who last year in London entered into a civil partnership with his partner Grant Shaffer. He is pleased that Obama, if elected, will repeal the Defence of Marriage Act which bars federal recognition of same-sex marriage and allows individual states to do the same.

Obama has said that he understands intimately the strength of feeling on this issue among the LGBT community as his own parents, a black man and a white woman, would not have been permitted to wed in some southern states at the time of their marriage in the early 1960s.

The Democratic Convention in Boston in 2004 was the first time Cumming saw Obama speak. It was an electrifying keynote speech that established Obama, then running for the Senate, as the coming man of American politics. Four years later, he is poised to make history as its first black president.

For Cumming, Obama's colour has a significance beyond its historical import. "It says something amazingly heartening about how America has changed from being a country where black people were slaves to a country where one can be president. I think also that the world is fed up with rich, greedy white people telling us what to do. If he was elected, it would send a message that America is no longer part of that old boys' club."

Cumming is concerned, however, that his candidate's poll lead may appear artificially high because canvassed white voters are unwilling to admit they will vote along racial lines. "Fear of the black man is still a huge issue in America," he says.

But what about Obama's opposition? What does Cumming make of John McCain?

"I think he's vile. He represents more of the same, but also he's got anger issues. And it's very scary that the potential president of the United States, who is very old and has not released his full health records, would have the cynicism to bring in as his vice-president this game-show hostess. It says a lot about his judgment and how desperate he is. And I'm a big lefty so I don't like people who pretend they want to help the working class when actually they'll just give huge tax cuts to big corporations."

The "game-show hostess" is, of course, Sarah Palin. Cumming is not a fan. "She's appalling and jingoistic and awful. She's a disgrace and a terrible blight on America's history. It's insane that McCain chose her. I know America is supposed to be the place where anything is possible, but come on! This is like someone from Alness suddenly coming to London and being made mayor."

Cumming is optimistic about an Obama victory but also braced for disappointment. Al Gore won an election, he says, and look what happened there. He also remembers how crushed he felt in 1992 when Major defeated Kinnock. Then in 2004, when John Kerry lost to George Bush, Cumming ended the evening drunk and desperately unhappy in a hotel bar opposite Ground Zero, chatting to a transsexual.

This coming election night, win or lose, he's determined to mark the occasion in a less debauched manner. "It's going to be emotional whatever happens," he says. "I'm going to Mexico for a couple of days holiday and flying back on the day of the election. Then we're driving straight up to our place in the country; a few friends are coming and we're going to watch the election there in the calm and peace. If Obama wins, it will be lovely to wake up in that new dawn in the countryside with close friends.

"But if he loses, I want to be out of the city because it's going to be crazy. It's going to be like civil war. Democrats have been so mobilised and motivated by Obama, and have so much pent-up energy and frustration and anger that I'm really scared about what will happen if McCain wins."

He really thinks there will be violence in the streets? "I do. Everyone is just holding their breath. The world is holding its breath."

Cumming may quit America if the Republicans regain the White House. Following John Kerry's defeat he went so far as to look at property in Montreal. He thought better of it at the time, but a McCain presidency may be enough to send him fleeing to Canada.

"I love New York," he says. "My life is here. But I think I would feel so unwelcome in America if, after this massive push, Obama didn't win. If he loses it's going to be because people have cheated and/or because of racism. I can't think of any other reasons. So it's hard to imagine living in such a corrupt country with thugs still running the place."

He could always return to Scotland. Cumming keeps an eye on British politics too. Just the other day, the Culture Minister Linda Fabiani was filling him in on the intricacies of the Glenrothes by-election. He has a horror of the Tories returning to power, and says he would vote for Gordon Brown.

For the moment, it's tea time in Manhattan, and Cumming has to go. There are some people from New Zealand who want to talk to him about a mini-series and so, for the moment, all political discourse must cease. Does he, though, have any final messages for the folks back home? Just one. "Barack," he says, "is the new black."