When Scottish actor Alan Cumming first visited the United States for a film, his plane made an emergency landing in Iceland for an ill passenger. Cumming then spent his first night in America not in Hollywood, but Portland, Maine. Fortunately this was not a harbinger of things to come. NY1's Budd Mishkin sat down with Cumming for this One on 1 report.
The voice is still straight out of Scotland, but after ten years, Alan Cumming says he's a proper New Yorker.
"I just did one of those things, you know, like on the bus stops, called 'Ask the Locals,' I just did one of those advertisements, so I must be a New Yorker," said Cumming.
Cumming is a New Yorker with a healthy dose of Scottish cheek and dark humor, a combination that was on display when he finally met director Stanley Kubrick months of production delays on the set of the movie "Eyes Wide Shut."
"I went 'Hey, Stanley, I'm Alan,'" recalled the actor. "He was like, 'You're not American.' And I was like, 'I know, I'm Scottish.' And he goes 'You were American on the tape.' And I actually thought I was going to swear, but instead I went 'Yeah, that's because I'm an actor, Stanley.'"
Cumming has played a wide variety of characters on stage and screen.
For his role in "X Men 2", he had his entire body made up in blue, occasionally sweating blue, even sneezing blue.
"I went to have a facial and the lady was like, 'oh you have blue heads, [instead of black heads]," said Cumming.
Cumming says his acting stems from his childhood fondness for creating stories and simply pretending to be the character. Cumming said he is not a big fan of the American method of teaching acting.
"It should be easy. It shouldn't be complicated and a struggle," he said. "I mean the people, the people who you play, the characters are complicated, and you know you have to learn how to, you have to understand them. But the actual process of doing that shouldn't be complicated. I think that's, I really think that's stupid."
Cumming has also directed, sharing the honors with Jennifer Jason Leigh in "The Anniversary Party." After a bad read through of a drug scene, Cumming found himself in the curious position of teaching some of the actors how to play a character on ecstasy.
"There's no other way of saying it: this is what happens when you do that drug," said Cumming. "And you should try and do that to be real, kind of a weird thing. I called it an ecstasy workshop."
New Yorkers last saw him on stage this past spring in the Chekhov play "The Seagull," but the dominant image of Cumming in New York and beyond is still his Tony Award-winning role of the MC in "Cabaret."
"Normally people say, 'oh I saw you in this film and I really like you,' or 'I really like you in this blah, blah, blah,'" said Cumming. "But people with 'Cabaret,' they just sort of say, 'oh, Alan, I saw 'Cabaret,' like I went up in the Empire Sate building, or I went in the Statue of Liberty. They sort of say it like this thing, they're done."
But the positive experience had it dark side. Cumming was stalked during the run of the show and needed to move apartments and get police and security escorts.
Cumming remembers calling in for messages while on break in Rome.
"The messages are of someone you know saying dirty things of what they were going to do to me and things like, 'I can see you right now, I can see you in your apartment,'" he said. "And I'm like, 'no you can't because I'm thousands of miles away.'"
Then there are the more innocuous aspects of fame. Cumming says if provoked in an interview or profile, he will respond in a manner that is not, in his words, "demure."
But the limelight can be an uncomfortable place when what's written about you is simply not true.
"There's a thing usually that I jumped off a thing and landed on a glitter ball in a club and smashed to the floor, and sprayed everyone with champagne," he said. "I mean, that just, that didn't happen. I wouldn't waste the champagne."
"There's a saying we have in Scotland about something that's written about you. It's 'tomorrow's chip paper,' cause they wrap it up in the fish and chip shop the very next day," continued Cumming. "It's hard to think of since the internet doesn't quite work in that way."
Cumming can sound like an American, like in "Eyes Wide Shut," but when he first arrived here, he had to work on his knowledge of U.S. pop culture, as he found out one night when pulling an elderly gentleman on stage to dance during "Cabaret."
"Everyone started cheering and I thought, 'I love NY, they're being so supportive' of the elderly,'" said Cumming. "And I was thinking, isn't he sweet? He's old, but he's dancing, isn't it great? And then I said, 'What's your name?' and he said 'Cronkite.' And I said what? And he said 'Walter Cronkite.' And I was like 'oh my god!'"
But Cumming had no such problem with another legendary American figure — Henry Kissinger.
"I went up to Henry Kissinger and said, 'Can I have a picture with you?'" said Cumming. "So I have this picture and we both look like World War III had started. So I had it made into a Christmas card. You know how get those, and the photo said, 'Peace on Earth, Love Alan and Henry.'"
Growing up on the east coast of Scotland, Cumming had to deal with a father who was often abusive to him and his older brother. Years later, they confronted their father in the hopes of mending the relationship -- to no avail. There is still no contact between father and sons.
"I'm sure he feels that we pushed him away. But I feel we gave him every opportunity," said Cumming. "And it's pretty horrible, when you think your dad doesn't want to see you or have anything to do with you."
Cumming started acting in Scotland, and then London, where he once starred with his then-wife Hilary Lyon in "Hamlet." Cumming says the events on stage affected the relationship, hastening its demise.
"Look at her in a grave and jump into the grave saying how you loved her. That was really intense," he said. "'Hamlet' is intense. If you go along my theory of just have to pretend to be that person and mean it, you have to be in a very, very dark place, because he's in a dark place."
Cumming says there is often no way to protect his mother from the fact that her son has a very public persona.
"She kind of had a glass of champagne and she was a bit tipsy, and she said, 'someone dropped an article through the letterbox and it said that you're a bisexual drug user.' And I was like, which part of that is upsetting?" recalled the actor.
But when his novel, "Tommy's Tale" was published in 2002, Cumming forbade his mother from reading it.
"She said that she thought it was because it was about our family or something like that, and that's why I'd be upset, but when I told her it was more about sex and drugs, she was you know, not exactly pleased, but it wasn't as bad as she thought," he said.
Along with his work on stage and screen, Cumming is the new host of "Mystery Masterpiece" on PBS. He also has a show on the Sundance Channel, with his dogs, and his line of grooming products.
He often writes about fashion, because he's fascinated with the obsession of the industry.
"It's insane. People have lost the plot. You know, it's just clothes," he said. "They're just nuts."
But he is absolutely serious about his work with the organization Empire State Pride Agenda. Cumming and his boyfriend returned to England last year to get married.
"It's ridiculous, you know, that you have about 1,000 more rights and protections because, [I'm presuming] you're a straight man," said Cumming. "I think that's insane."
Nonetheless, Cumming is happy to call himself a New Yorker, and has happily settled into a life of relative anonymity in the East Village.
"Some people have a kind of persona, a public persona, and then they're kind of different in real life," said Cumming. "I don't play up to my public persona. I just think my public persona is kind of pretty similar to me."
- Budd Mishkin