Next magazine, LIZA AND ME by Alan Cumming

LIZA AND ME by Alan Cumming


The first thing Liza Minnelli ever said to me was “Alan, I want to be your friend forever”. I never thought it would actually come true.  She had just come backstage to see me after ‘Cabaret’, and I was so overwhelmed by her.  Meeting Liza is like watching a hot spring bubbling out of the earth, her huge eyes open impossibly wide to take in all the wonder she sees in the world around her.  She is all the things you might expect, yes - a star, a whirlwind, a legend, a flirt, a great storyteller - but the thing that I always think  about Liza is this: there isn’t a bad bone in her body.  She has no malice, even for those who have wronged her.  Of course this is also what makes you worry for her.  Sometimes I look at her and marvel at how she has managed to survive in the big bad old world of showbiz, especially with a heritage as rocky as hers.  But she has, and she does, and as recent events have proved once again, Liza Minnelli is the comeback queen.

On the day we recorded “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for the CD “Home for the Holidays”, I woke up to watch Liza singing “New York, New York” on Rosie O’Donnell’s show.   I met her at the recording studio an hour or so later.  She arrived still in full make-up, looking fabulous. I looked a little hungover and as though I’d just got out of my bed. (I had).  There was some press there to record this historic event, and as we shared a cigarette in the fire escape before our first interview Liza said to me “Darling, what is all this for?  And do we get paid?”  I told her no, there was no cash, but it was in aid of Broadway cares/Equity fights Aids and also the World Trade Center relief fund. Minutes later, Liza was holding forth in front of the cameras talking of the work the charities had done (including statistics) and her anger over the recent events of September 11th.  She even burst into “New York, New York” to finish.  I said not very much except “hmm, hmm” and when someone saw the piece on Entertainment Tonight they said I looked like a ventriloquist’s dummy sitting on her knee. 

But that is Liza, unsure of what is going on one minute, giving a press conference to several major TV shows with great élan the next; saying she never wants the pressure of performing again one month, the next stealing the show at Michael Jackson’s concert at Madison Square Garden. 

But the biggest contradiction of all is this: last spring I went to a subdued birthday party in Liza’s hospital room.  She was about to go into surgery for a second hip replacement, having recently recovered from her ‘death thing’ as she referred to a particularly nasty bout of encephalitis.  It was a strange night - Liza joking and laughing and saying it was the best birthday she’d ever had, and me saying how she must have planned to get ill just to have the view from the hospital room as the venue for her party.  When we were alone, we joked about how we could procure her hip bone after the operation, sell it on e bay and go shopping.  Then I asked her how she was really feeling. “Scared, Alan.  I’m really, really scared”. 

Cut to six months later. Liza is dancing every day, she has lost more weight than she probably once weighed.  She is singing at the Garden, on Rosie, on a record with me, and oh yes, now she is getting married in St Patrick’s cathedral, walking down the aisle while Whitney Houston, ah yes, Whitney Houston, sings ‘the Greatest Love of All’.

How this happened doesn’t seem surprising to me. I have come to accept and expect it of her.  After all, at the party after her first night  of  “Minnelli on Minnelli” at the Palace theatre in New York two years ago, Liza said she’d been thinking of me a lot during the show. 

“Really, Liza?”  I said, thinking she probably had enough to think about in the opening show of  yet another comeback without her mind wandering to me.

“Oh yes”, she went on. “Well, we knew each other in a previous life, my darling, didn’t we?”


I played the role of Mr. Williams in Pits, the 8-minute Canadian comedy short about a young man who discovers that he has two large pit stains on his dress shirt as he's running late for an interview at a prestigious law firm.

I shot it whilst in Canada shooting X2, and it was directed by Gary Hawes who worked as an A.D. on the mutant extravaganza.

X2: X-Men United

In my first role immortalized not only on film but also in an action figure, I played the new addition to the original X-Men family: Nightcrawler, a German former circus performer whose superpower is teleporting.


X2: X-Men United, directed by Bryan Singer, also starred Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Famke Janssen, Anna Paquin, Shawn Ashmore and Aaron Stanford.

I had never heard of the X-Men before I met Bryan to talk about doing this movie. I certainly had no idea who Nightcrawler was or how huge a thing being in this movie would be. The character is really interesting, the message of the film (tolerance of others who are different from us) was very timely and unusual for a Hollywood blockbuster,  but the real drag was having to spend over four hours a day having two men poke my face. Then there were the harnesses for the tail and for flying, the feet, the hands – which made going to the loo a group effort, the teeth, the lenses, oh God don’t get me started. When I got the press reel of all my X2 TV interviews I realized that I had gone 'round the world just moaning on every talk show.

Nicholas Nickleby

Along with my fellow cast mates I received a National Board of Review Award for Best Acting Ensemble for this version of the Charles Dickens novel, Nicholas Nickleby, adapted and directed by Douglas McGrath.

My character, Mr. Folair, is a member of the Crummles Theatre Company, always trying to do his speciality act - the highland fling – at every available opportunity. The cast also includes Charlie Hunnan, Jamie Bell, Anne Hathaway, Barry Humphries, Nathan Lane, Aileen Walsh, Christopher Plummer, Jim Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson, Timothy Spall and Tom Courtenay. I had previously been directed by Doug McGrath in the films Emma and Company Man.

I love Doug.  And I loved being Mr. Folair because I got to work with Barry Humphries and Nathan Lane and Aileen Walsh, all of whom are absolutely hilarious. I was only on the film a few weeks but I had a great time. Oh, except for the first day when Aileen accidentally bashed me on the nose and I thought I’d broken it.

Tommy's Tale

Tommy's Tale is my debut novel, and was published by Harper Collins in the US and Penguin in the UK. The US edition was first, in September 2002, with the UK edition following in April 2003.

Chapter Six of the novel, entitled The Disabled Loo, is included in the anthology Best American Erotica 2004, edited by Susie Bright. To learn more about the erotic anthology series, visit www.susiebright.com.

Tommy is twenty-nine, lives and loves in London, and has a morbid fear of the "c" word -- commitment, the "b" word -- boyfriend, and the "f" word -- forgetting to call his drug dealer before the weekend. But when he begins to feel the urge to become a father, he starts to wonder if his chosen lifestyle can ever make him happy. His flatmates, the eccentric, maternal Sadie and the stoic, supportive Bobby, encourage Tommy to tone down his lifestyle a wee bit and accept the fact that he's got to grow up sometime. His boyfriend, Charlie (whose son, Finn, is the epitome of childhood charm), wishes that Tommy could make a real commitment to their relationship. But can he? Faced with the choice of maintaining his hedonistic, drugged-out, and admittedly fabulous existence or chucking it all in favor of a far more sensitive, fulfilling, and -- let's face it -- slightly staid lifestyle, Tommy finds himself in a true quandary. Through a series of adventures and misadventures that lead him from London nightspots to New York bedrooms and back, our boy Tommy manages to answer some of life's most pressing questions -- and even some he never thought to ask.

Tommy's Tale took me ages to write.  But it is one of the things that I am most proud of, in terms of sense of achievement.  It is pretty daunting to go into another field and put yourself out there, especially when there is such a disdain of actors turning novelists, and vast intellectual snobbery in the literary world. But I came out of it ok, especially in the UK, where I was really heartened that the book did so well.
Tommy's Tale was begun as an attempt to right an imbalance I felt existed in the stories I read or saw. It is essentially a modern fairy tale: a fairy tale in that fairy tales are usually about someone going on a journey or learning a lesson through a series of adverse circumstances,and ultimately the hero grows up and there's a happy ending; and modern in that in real life people grow up and have sex and take drugs and try to keep it together.

I wanted to write about how I felt the family unit has changed. In my experience, being someone who has traveled far from his homeland, I began to envy people who still had their family nearby. But then I realized that I had made my own family, only now they were a collection of friends and lovers, each of whom gave me something that added up to what we expect and need from our families. So my friends have become my family.

I also wanted to talk about the desire that a man can have to have a child.  We often hear abut a woman's ticking clock and the overwhelming urges to procreate. But I felt really strong urges like that too, though it seemed as if that was a woman's domain and it felt wrong to voice them.  So in this book I do, and I also talk about dealing with those urges if you are neither in a relationship that can produce a child, or indeed if you don't even want to be in a relationship at all.  What do you do with those feelings?

Finally I wanted to combine two realms that I love and that I hope are not mutually exclusive: dirty druggy nights out and fairy tales.

Geeky fact 1: In The Anniversary Party, Joe, the character I play has written a novel called Tommy's Tale, and a copy of it is on the shelves in the house. Jennifer designed the book jacket.  So in a way I was sort of creatively visualizing the future (or more like trying to embarrass myself into finishing it!)
Geeky fact 2: I had the biggest battle with the US publisher about the cover, because originally there were a woman's legs sticking out of the bath too, and I felt that it was a misleading image considering the subject matter of the book.  She even went as far as to offer to add hairs to the woman's legs, but finally she backed down and they were airbrushed out!

About 9 years after the book first came out, I recorded the audiobook of my debut novel.


In early 2002, I formed The Art Party with my then partner, the British director Nick Philippou.  Elle was The Art Party's inaugural production. Sadly it was also its only production - the company folded in late 2003 (coincidentally so had our relationship!)

Elle was written by Jean Genet, and had never been performed in English before. I wrote a new adaptation of the play from a literal translation by Terri Gordon. Elle was directed by Nick, designed by Tim Hatley, projections were by Peter Negrini, and fashion legend Vivienne Westwood designed the costumes. The cast featured me as the Pope, Stephen Spinella, Anson Mount, Chad L. Coleman and Brian Duguay.

This was an amazing experience. Adapting the text was really intense, as the play is not only a debate about existence, but also has some very contemporary themes about our obsession with celebrity. It's also a sort of love story and a rites of passage...it's an unbelievable play. Performing it was amazing too as I had to be on roller skates and also had to hide from the audience that my costume had no back to it until a moment when it - and by it I mean my arse - was revealed, so that was a bit of a challenge. I played the Pope as a very weary and crabby Eastern European old man. The cast were great, the space at the Zipper was beautiful, the whole thing was really fulfilling, mostly because we had made it all happen ourselves.

Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams

Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams, the sequel to Spy Kids, I reprised his role as the mad genius Fegan Floop. Carmen and Juni Cortez team up with two other spy kids, Gary and Gerti Giggles, and together they must save the world from the hands of an evil scientist named Romero, played by Steve Buscemi.

I only shot one day on this film, but it was a packed day! I learned the song then recorded it first thing in the morning, then rehearsed and shot the scene where Juni and Carmen call me up for advice, and then I lip-synched the song against blue screen in the afternoon! It was great to be back in Austin again to see everyone and to be part of the next Spy Kids installment.

Eavesdropping - Gwyneth Paltrow

I was asked by Dori Berinstein if I'd like to do a talk show for the then new channel, Oxygen.  I'd always loved chatting and the idea appealed to me, though I was wary of staying away from more conventional formats which I didn't think would suit me.  So we came up with Eavesdropping with Alan Cumming.

The idea is that the audience would basically be voyeurs.  I would meet up with someone, usually someone I already knew, and we would wander around together, get in a car and drive to a restaurant, and then eat. Pretty simple and not exactly ground-breaking but it actually made for some really interesting material.

On most talk shows, you are performing. I always say that when I come out and sit on the sofa I feel as though I am playing a version of myself: Alan Cumming, the chatty celebrity. I genuinely do enjoy most TV talk shows (the lack of ability for them to editorialize as well as the opportunity to counter any nonsense on the spot has a lot to do with it), but there is a format which you must adhere to: regurgitate the anecdotes you have been briefed to do per the pre-interview you have had with the show's producer.  So there is a pressure to be funny and witty and brief - attributes that are usually incidental to why you are actually on the show on the first place! .  Some hosts, of course, are confident and skilled enough to be spontaneous and to have a genuine conversation, but mostly it is a series of pre-arranged funny stories.

So the great thing about the Eavesdropping format, despite the fact that we were aware of being tailed by three camera teams and we had to stop occasionally for technical reasons, was that there was no pressure to be funny or to tell anecdotes. It was quite rambly, and when it worked best, a genuine conversation between two friends.

For me the best bits are in the car.  There we used two tiny cameras at either side of the front windshield (they're called lipstick cams) and although there was a cameraman out of sight in the back seat behind us, it really was the most self-conscious you could possibly get whilst being interviewed on a TV show! I think this section in the first show with Gwyneth Paltrow proves my point. 

I also get Gwyneth to come off her macro-biotic diet and have french fries. Beat that, David Letterman.

Zero Effect

Zero Effect was a pilot made for NBC written and directed by Jake Kasdan, based on his feature film of the same name.  I played  Daryl Zero, the world's greatest private investigator and master of disguise.

It was never picked up, but here is a sneak peek.