The Aesthete

Cumming Up Roses

Alan Cumming returns to the Great White Way as Macbeth

by Christopher Tennant photography Douglas Friedman

With his impish grin and infectious laugh, it’s hard not to like Alan Cumming. Since rocketing to fame in the late ’90s in Cabaret, the Scottish actor has taken on a string of wildly different roles and side projects, never shying away from the sorts of risks that make agents wince. We joined him at Zen Palate for a rousing discussion about amateur paparazzi, Margaret Thatcher, onstage nudity, Monica Lewinsky and why he hates hanging out with actors.

Last night was the first preview of Macbeth. How’d it go?

Very, very well, I have to say. Very well. It’s an insanely difficult part, physically…Do you want me to just order everything?

Yes, please. Go right ahead.

[To the server] We’ll have the Thai chopped salad, the peanut basil moo-shu rolls, the sweet and sour sensation and the shepherd’s pie croquettes, please. Oh, and the kale salad. No more kale? OK, then, maybe the seaweed instead. We’ll also have the dumplings too, please. Fried.

What’s the most difficult part? 

There’s a bit at the end where you think I’ve drowned. Obviously I haven’t because I’m here today, but I’m under water for a very long time, so much so that I can feel the energy of the audience wanting to rush the stage and get me out. I’ve got blocked ears right now I’m under so long.

Are you holding your breath?

Well…no. [Laughs] It’s smoke and mirrors. It goes really quiet and a light comes on, and that’s my cue that I have to count five elephants. I do all this shaking and then this leg drops, and then that leg drops, and then I go completely still, and then I jump up out of the water. It’s amazing. Sometimes people scream! 

Are you naked?

I’ve got underpants on, but earlier as Lady Macbeth I am. 

Full frontal?

You might get a little glimpse of it as I go in and out of the bath. When I did it in Glasgow there were what became known as the “penis seats.” If you sat at the side you could catch a glimpse.

You’ve done quite a few productions of Macbeth. Other than the Scottish thing, why?

What I love about it is that there’s one pivotal moment. You know, like, when you decide you’re gonna steal a flower display at the end of a gala, or you’re gonna fuck someone? When you make a split-second decision with another person and, in that instant, you do it. It’s the same thing in the play. They make a choice in the moment and it changes their lives forever. And once they’ve made it, there’s no going back. Thankfully, when you just fuck someone it’s not so bad. 

You’ve hosted a talk show, you wrote a book, you made collages — you’ve done a bunch of different stuff. Was that the plan from the get-go?

I just do what I like. Today, I’m really excited because I’ve been asked to do a TV program about great American railway journeys. Seriously. That’s much, much more exciting to me than a lot of the other things on my horizon.

So you’re game for anything.

I’d say I’m game. I’ve been really intrigued by what happens when you go from just being famous for your job—for being an actor—to being famous for your personality and the person you are. It’s an interesting shift, and it’s partly why I think this production of Macbeth works. People are actually worried for me—they’re worried for my health when they’re watching it, and we sort of play on that a little bit. 

Are you happy where you are? 

I really am. I love having access to different worlds and interesting people, much more than just actors. I love actors, and I love being an actor, but I hate—no, hate’s too strong a word—I try to avoid collections of actors. Groups of actors are very boring to me. But anyone who just talks about their work all the time is dull. 

Do you prefer the company of civilians?

I do. The thing about acting is you just do it. That’s the thing I like least about American actors. It’s been so mythologized. I mean, even the idea that it’s called a “process.” Whenever someone asks me about my process, I always say, “I am not a cheese.” I always piss people off when I say acting is easy, but it’s true. It should be easy. You just have to pretend to be someone, and mean it.

You spend a lot of time outside the city, too, at your place upstate. How often do you go there?

My weekend now is Tuesday night through Thursday so I go a lot. It’s my sanctuary. It reminds me a lot of where I grew up in Scotland.

How big was your town?

It wasn’t a town. It was a country estate. My father was a forester. He was in charge of cutting down trees and the sawmill and the nursery. It was really almost feudal, actually. When people would come to the door they’d ask, "Is the master in?" That was my dad. There were gamekeepers, the whole thing. It was very sort of Downtown Abbey without the big house, because it had been blown up in the ’50s so the owner could avoid paying death duties. 

Why didn’t you move to L.A.?

The same reason I don’t like hanging out with groups of actors. L.A.’s just about work. I also find it really suspicious that the main reason you’d want to live someplace is the weather. If that was the case everywhere, nobody would ever live in Iceland or Russia or Scotland. I think it’s so strange. But for me it’s just about not wanting every waiter to tell me what my box office gross for the weekend was. I really just don’t care. I mean, I care, but I’m having my lunch, thanks!

How did you end up on The Good Wife?

Truthfully? I creatively visualized it. [Laughs] 

What?

In all seriousness, I was tired of traveling all around the world, and being away from [my husband] Grant and my dogs and my friends, and thought it would be nice to do something really good that was based here that was an ensemble thing so I didn’t have to work too much.

When did you and Grant get married?

Six years ago in London, and then again on our anniversary in New York last year. I just did a PSA for same-sex marriage in Scotland, in fact. They have civil unions, but they’re trying to push for the whole thing. 

You mentioned Margaret Thatcher when we first sat down. How are you feeling about her passing?

I grew up hating her. I mean, all the best, but she was completely divisive and she ruined so many peoples’ lives. Her whole idea that that there is no such thing as society, that idea that you don’t have to care about anyone else, you don’t have to think about anyone else, it’s just you, you, you—I find that so repellent and horrible. Just as a human being, forget about it as a political creed.

Were you obsessed with Hollywood as a kid? 

Not at all. I think we had, like, two channels. I grew up a thousand light years away from all this stuff. Sometimes even now people will reference things and I have no idea what they’re talking about.

Do lots of people approach you? It must be hard to be nice to strangers all the time.

I’m usually nice. People say, “Can I have a photo?” and I’ll go, “Ya know what? I don’t want to, but it’s really nice to meet you. I’m with my friends and if you take a flash everyone will see and they’ll think they can come over and my whole night will be doing that, and I’m just trying to relax with my friends.” I do it like that. Sometimes they’re not so pleased. Or I’ll just take the photo. It depends.

Has social media exacerbated the problem? 

[Laughs] Every day I just assume people are taking photos, maybe even today on my way here. It’s always, like, right as I’m picking up my dog’s poop. This is my favorite thing that people do [he holds phone in front of his face]: “Hmm, I think I’ll check my e-mail…”

So you know all the tricks…

Oh, absolutely. I’m pretty good friends with Monica Lewinsky and she certainly knows all the tricks. She has this amazing radar. She calls them “goons.” I went to lunch with her the other day and she said, “There’s goons at 11 o’clock!” and there was this guy way, way down with a telephoto lens. She knows all the places. It’s amazing. I think she had such an intense experience.

What about amateur paps?

I was on the subway one day and I had soup. Someone snapped a pic and posted it. It’s just the most humiliating thing. Not a good look.

What’s next for you?

I’m doing another show on Broadway after The Good Wife season ends. It starts rehearsals the day after my 49th birthday, so I’ll be entering my 50th year dancing my tits off and being a sexpot.

What’s the show?

I’m not allowed to say. It’s something I did before and we’re doing it again.

Does it start with a "C" and end with a "T"?

I couldn’t possibly comment.

 

Alan Cumming's one-man version of Macbeth opens April 21st at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.