In June I returned to Glasgow to re-rehearse The Bacchae for the National Theatre of Scotland. I realised I had never really gone back to a theatre show before in this way. (I had done Cabaret twice but there were four years separating the two productions and none of the other cast was the same). Sometimes when something has gone so well the first time - and of course it probably has otherwise why do it again? - it is a little weird for new people to come in, and to try to rehash something.
However, what was great about doing it again was that the new people came in and instead of recreating they brought a whole new energy and approach, and it was actually really exciting to find new things in scnes that had never crossed my mind before. Also the director, John Tiffany, made lots of changes and tightened the show up and it felt like we were doing a whole new thing.
Cal Macaninch, who played Pentheus, brought a totally different tone and that made me have to think afresh. I loved it! Also I loved that we went to Aberdeen and Inverness in Scotland before bringing the show to NYC as part of the Lincoln Center festival. I had spent a lot of time in Inverness as a little boy as my Granny and many relations lived there, and I also knew people in Aberdeen too, so it was another summer of coming home. And then I got to bring it to my new home to NYC where all my friends were able to see what the fuss was about!
I did a reading of a play directed by David Brind, when he told me he was in pre-production for a movie he had written, Dare. The reading went really well, David and I got on like a house on fire and kept in touch. Over the next while, he emailed me telling me how it was going with the film preparation, in particular with the casting. There is one character of an actress who comes back to her alma mater and bitch slaps the main character played by Emmy Rossum. He had been having trouble casting it, and in one of the meetings someone said, “why don’t we make it a man, and get Alan Cumming to play it.” Everyone laughed, but then they actually did it. And I was offered the role.
So I popped down to Philadelphia for a few days and had a really great time. The script is really clever and surprising. It’s about three friends at high school, finding themselves and each other, but it’s not at all your usual right-of-passage teenage flick. I think David is a really great writer, I enjoyed working with Adam Salky, the director. And poor Emmy, who had to stand a whole day of me being so mean to her.
I went to London to promote Tin Man and spoke to this funny website called Holy Moly...
Then later in the year I was on Morning Joe
PBS asked me to be the host of their Masterpiece Mystery series. I love PBS, and since the prevous hosts include Vincent Price and Diana Rigg, I was rather honoured to be asked. Basically I come out of the shadows and introduce some British TV mystery show. I love being a host. I feel I ought to come out of the shadows with a tray of sandwiches.
I love Chekhov, but this was the first time I had ever done any of his plays. However I thought of The Seagull often, and had even toyed with the idea of making a film of it set in a country estate in Scotland. I always thought that the Scottish temperament would be a good fit with the Russian one, and also we really understand what it feels like to be isolated in the sticks, longing to get away to the big city.
So I was thrilled to be asked to play Trigorin opposite Dianne Wiest's Arkadina for the Clasic Stage Company in New York City. Dianne is a brilliant actor and my first meeting with her showed me what an amazing person she is too. At our next meeting I met the director, Viacheslav Dolgachev, formerly of the Moscow Arts Theatre and I knew that this was going to be an extraordinary experience.
The thing I have always felt about Chekhov is that everyone is a drama queen. Really. Every singly character moans, complains, is self-absorbed and selfish. And I think that in the UK and the US we get Chekhov wrong, and make all the characters very tortured and internal, thereby losing any hope of making them the comedies they are supposed to be. So I was really interested to work with a real live Russian, as well as a Chekhov expert, to get a chance to experience how Russians actually go about doing it themsleves.
It was fascinating. First of all Slava asked us all to be bold in our interpretations but at the same time was incredibly detailed in his direction, down to the tiniest movement sometimes. Best of all was having several Russians in the room (interpreters mostly), and feeling the Russian temperament close at hand. There was no leap neccesary to see how these charaters operate when you watched and listened to the dramas and elaborate stories and the sheer volume going on in that room!
For me it finally made sense, and although the production had some problems, it certainly made people sit up and notice.
Here's a little interview I did for the NY Observer about the play..
Alan Cumming was excited to play a “real man” in the Classic Stage Company’s production of Chekov’s The Seagull. Mr. Cumming, the Tony Award-winning Scot with saucer-size blue eyes and a sly grin, recently played Dorothy’s scarecrow Glitch in the TV miniseries Tin Man and, um, a spacey scientist called Fegan Floop in those Spy Kids movies. (He also had a delightfully sleazy role as a gay nightlife impresario on The L Word.) But in The Seagull, he appears as Trigorin, a broody famous writer who woos Dianne Wiest’s character Arkadina and seduces a budding actress (played by Kelli Garner). “He just seems like a real man,” Mr. Cumming said over the phone, walking to Prana Power Yoga for his regular stretch after a recent play rehearsal. “He’s got everything, but he wants to destroy it. I’ve never played anyone like him.”
Mr. Cumming decided to take the part last year when the writers’ strike loomed and his agent was pushing him to sign movie projects. “All the films I was looking at, I was like, iiillck,” he said. Plus, Mr. Cumming, 43, had longed to appear in Chekov’s study of impossible love and creative torture—though he hoped to play the much younger, avant-garde playwright Konstantin (that role went, appropriately, to Ryan O’Nan). “The years have gone by and I missed my chance,” sighed Mr. Cumming.
B&w photo by Yelena Yemchuk for The New Yorker, others by Joan Marcus.
The lovely and hilarious Chelsea Handler, Shag for CTV, Regis and Kelly, the Morning Show with Mike and Juliet and the lovely Conan.
Even before its inception in 2005 I had been talking with the National Theatre of Scotland's artistic director, Vicky Featherstone, about going back to Scotland to work with the company.
It is very exciting when any theatre company is formed, especially these days, but for national government to found one is a really amazing thing. Also the NTS really benefits in not having a base building. It is a theatre without walls, and therefore it is not bound by the normal confines of where performances take place and where art can flourish.
It's opening piece Home was performed in ten different locations around Scotland including down the side of a high rise building in Glasgow. Obviously it performs in theatres of all sizes but also village halls, forests, on ferries and in airports.
Another thing that excited me was the breadth and scope of the actual work. Too often in the past Scottish theatre has been defined by its obsession with itself: a parochial approach that only rarely lights the spark that turns heads and ignites spirits. More often it merely reinforces national cliches and encourages self-absorption and jingoism.
So here is a company that is looking out to the world instead of into its own navel, challenging and inspiring, confident in itself and knowing it is only as good and will only suceed as much as it wants to. You could say it is a manifestation of Scotland itself, or the new Scotland that has emerged since it was granted devolution from the London parliament in 1997.
So, as you'll have guessed, I was very excited to work with the NTS. I had long admired both Vicky and her associate John Tiffany's work.
We toyed with a couple of ideas which didn't work either logistically or artistically and then they came to me with The Bacchae. I had never performed Greek tragedy apart from a few exercises at drama school but I have always been fascinated by it, both in how it has influenced drama through the ages, and also in how primal and basic and bawdy it is. I find that with Shakespeare too: it's easy to get florid and fancy with him but you're never far from a fart joke.
So the idea of playing the god Dionysus really appealled to me. John was directing; David Greig, an amazing Scottish playwright whose version of Casanova I had almost done in NYC with the Art Party was on board to do the adaptation. Also the production was to open the Edinburgh International Festival.
I had spent many Augusts in my youth performing at the festival, but at the much bigger and egalitarian fringe festival, never the official, posh, international festival! Victor and Barry cut their teeth there and came back to the Assembly Rooms many times. I also did a play at the Traverse in 1988, The Conquest of the South Pole which transferred to the Royal Court in London and was kind of my first big break. Also the first film I ever appeared in (Passing Glory), my first film as director (the short film Butter) and The Anniversary Party all had their UK premieres at the film festival (whihc used to take place at the same time as the other festivals) so I have great memories and connnections.
The Bacchae turned out to be a really amazing experience, both in terms of me going back home but also in terms of the process of wroking with John and the cast, and feeling really excited about making something which is ostensibly perceived as ancient and with little to say today into something dynamic and contemporary.
Here's an interview I did about the play and returning to Scotland for Scottish Television
Rick & Steve, the Happiest Gay Couple in All the World! is an animated series for the LOGO channel in which I voice the character of Chuck, an HIV+, paralyzed fiftysomething, with a lot of attitude and a ninetten year old boyfriend (played by Wilson Cruz).
I was really pleased that the show got picked up for a second series. I think it is very healthy that LOGO is willing to show such edgy, bitingly funny and politically incorrect stuff. And I love playing Chuck. I think of him as a sort of a gay Jerry Stiller.
The initial reason I was attracted to Boogie Woogie was Charlotte Rampling. I have admired her for a very long time. And so before I even read the script, the fact that the accompanying letter had her name attached as one of the actors made me quiver! When I read the script, I was hooked. It’s a really dark look at the London art world, a world that I’ve been fascinated by and have dipped my toe in from time to time as I know various people I know who are at the very heart of it.
It’s a true ensemble piece revolving around a painting by Mondrian called ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie,’ which is owned by the Rhinegolds, played by Christopher Lee and Joanna Lumley. Danny Huston’s character, art dealer Art Spindle, wants to buy it so he can sell it to a pair of avid collectors, the Maclestones, played by Stellen Skarsgard and Gillian Anderson. I play Dewey Dalamanotousis who is trying to set up a show at Art’s gallery of his friend Elaine’s (Jaime Winstone) work, and is being helped initially by Art’s associate Beth (Heather Graham). Other characters are played by Jack Huston, Amanda Seyfried, and Simon McBurney.
I play the nicest person in this film, in fact, the only nice person in the film. That’s really why I like the script so much – everyone is awful, there is no moral compass. I shot my last scene on the first day (which happens so often in film) and I’m really glad I did because it meant that I went through the shoot with a sense memory of where the character was going. I think that made him all the more poignant. I am sporting a geek-chic look too.
The film is based on a novel by Danny Moynihan who was around all the time on the set. It’s directed by Duncan Ward who I really liked and hope to work with again.
I was offered Tin Man whilst I was still performing Bent in London and the idea of running around the forest of British Columbia being chased by flying monkeys after spending months watching my lover die and being abused by nazis every night was very appealing!!
I'm always slightly worried about "reinventions" and "adaptations" of already successful films as the obvious response sometimes is why? When the original is so good, why do we have to reinvent it? BUt what I really liked about Tin Man was the way that it used elements from the original book and film but it was something completely of its own. I also think that the idea of people going on a journey to a destination where they think they will find something they think they lack, and on the way realizing that they have had it all along, is a story that we have told in various forms for generations. You could say as far back as The Iliad.
I spoke to Nick Willing, the director, on the phone and I was really smitten with him and his energy, and I came on board. The shoot in British Columbia was pretty arduous as we were making three feature length episodes in the time it can sometimes take to do one feature. So there was no mucking about! I really had a lot of fun. The Vancouver crew was amazing and my fellow travellers in the O.Z., Zooey Deschanel, Neal McDonough, and Raoul Trujillo, were a great group to work with. We are all very different but I think difference is very healthy when you have to spend a lot of time with people in a variety of forests!
I tried to infuse the character of Glitch with a little of the physicality of Ray Bolger's Scarecrow in the original film, the Wizard of Oz.