Actor, singer, writer, producer, director and activist Alan Cumming, 52, brings the international tour of his one-man show, Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs, to Harvard’s Sanders Theatre on Oct. 6 as part of Celebrity Series of Boston. Born and raised in Scotland, he regularly travels to Boston to tape the intro to PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery! and the Tony and Olivier award-winner’s recent theater work includes Cabaret on Broadway. His many films include Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, GoldenEye, Eyes Wide Shut, Spy Kids and more recently, Any Day Now, After Louie and Battle of the Sexes. On television, he appeared on seven seasons of The Good Wife, and he is the star of the new CBS series Instinct. His memoir, Not My Father’s Son, was a New York Times bestseller, and he is also the author of The Adventures of Honey & Leon, a children’s picture book illustrated by his husband, Grant Shaffer.
Jonathan Soroff: Do you watch every episode of Masterpiece Mystery!?
Alan Cumming: No. I don’t have the time.
Mood you most find yourself in? I would say perky.
Thing you most look forward to in coming to Boston? Well, usually when I come, it’s to do the Masterpiece thing. I love catching up with the PBS ladies and gents. But I also have a very good friend who decided to give up acting and he’s studying law at Harvard, so I love getting to see him. I love going to the A.R.T. It’s mostly about the theater and the people at ’GBH, but there’s also really fun drag shows.
One skill you wish you had but don’t? Being better at answering dopey questions that journalists ask me.
One thing that most people would be surprised to know about you? I’m very good at making food for large amounts of people. I can easily whip up a meal for 20.
Role you were born to play? Myself. I don’t really understand it when people say, “Oh, you were born to play that role.” I just think that’s crazy. It seems to me like a way to explain what people think of you, and I always think it’s really different from the way I think of myself.
Painter you’d most like to have depict you? Well, I love David Hockney, and I recently did a thing where I sat in front of a David Hockney picture at the Tate museum in London and read some stuff by Christopher Isherwood. There’s just something about Hockney’s work. He gets people in a very interesting way.
Anyone you’d never work with again, and why? Oh, lots. There’s people who are badly behaved and they don’t respect others. I like doing my job, and I want to go to work and have a good time. That’s much more important to me than the end product, the film or the play or whatever. So if there’s someone who makes going to work unpleasant because of their bad behavior, I won’t work with them again. I think an awful lot of bad behavior is tolerated in my business, and I’d like to stamp it out. I always call people on it.
Most physically demanding role? It was definitely something in the theater. I suppose Macbeth. The sheer running around and banging into things.
Alan Cumming on September 13, 2017. Photo Credit: Nathan Congleton/ NBC
Role you’ve played that’s most like who you really are? None. I’ve never played a Scottish-American man in his 50s who lives in New York. No one’s ever asked me to.
Do you take high-paying roles in blockbusters to finance the smaller indie roles you really want to do? Yes. I sort of think of it as the Hollywood bank. You make a deposit by doing something lucrative and commercial, and then you’re able to withdraw in order to do things that won’t be as successful. I mean, I understand that this is a business. There’s a film that I made last year that I know me being in it helped that film get made. So you definitely have to go backward and forward.
To what do you attribute the human need for theater or drama? Well, I feel that drama makes sense of real life for us. We use art to kind of explain and expose and eliminate things in our own lives. And that’s why I really like doing my job. I think in society, I am a tool to help people understand themselves and be better people.
Award you’ve received that you most cherish? It wouldn’t be an acting award. It would definitely be an award I received for my activism or humanitarian efforts. It’s the recognition that I’ve gotten for standing up and speaking out about something. They’re much better, because they’re not about a skill you have. They’re an award for being the person you are and what you stand for. So I actually appreciate them much more.
Fantasy love scene partner? I think it would be a three-way with Tom Hardy and Meryl Streep.
Most dangerous moment you ever had acting? There’s lots of moments like that, but I nearly fell off a church steeple doing a film in England years ago.
Favorite film of all time? I think it would have to be Waiting for Guffman. It’s so hilarious. I just love it and I know every second of it, but also, it kind of taught me about America. I saw it quite soon after I arrived here, and I thought, “If this is being lampooned, it must be real.” It was like an educational film for me. It so beautifully mocks actors and their aspirations, which is always a good thing to do.
Do you like watching yourself? I don’t mind. I think you’re supposed to watch yourself, because then you’re able to see whether or not what you intended to do actually happened. I think actors who don’t watch themselves are stupid. But watching a sex scene with your mum, that doesn’t get any easier.
Favorite film of your own? That’s a hard question, because is it my favorite for how it turned out, or favorite for the experience? If pressed, I guess I’d say Any Day Now, because it’s such a beautiful film. So sad. I defy you not to be an absolute bucket of tears at the end of it.
Favorite hotel? I love the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles.
How do you cope with being away from home so much? I’m actually not away that much. The Good Wife was shot in New York. This new show is shot in New York. So I’ve actually engineered my life over the last decade to be much more at home. But if I’m away from home for an extended period, I have to bring my loved ones to see me or get back to see them. And I just try to make a family with the people I’m with, wherever I am.
Does New York or Scotland feel more like home to you? Well, I’m always going to be Scottish, and I feel very connected to the soil there. But New York is now definitely my home. I’ve made my life there. The thing about New York is that it’s full of people from different places, and you become a New Yorker to be with all these different people. When you’re Scottish, it’s a very idiosyncratic thing. So New York is home, but I’m always going to feel Scottish first.
Film, television or stage work? Whichever I’m doing at the time. But if I had a gun to my head, I would choose the theater, because of the connection with the audience.
What do you want written on your tombstone? There’s no “S.” ◆