Alan Cumming OBE
NYC, New York, USA

It doesn’t do to label Alan Cumming. Call him Scottish, he can flash you his U.S. papers. Call him an actor, he’ll direct a movie, write a novel, record an album or launch a fragrance. Call him gay, and you might find out he was the best shag your sister ever had.  Catherine Gunderson sizes up a thoroughly modern queer icon.




“I love cock,” says Alan Cumming. “But I also admire a vagina, and I don’t see why I can’t say that, too. Why would it be any better for me to say, ‘I love cock, and I’ll never think about another thing?’” He pauses for a moment, mischievously savouring the silence that has fallen on the next table in Brick Lane, a curry house on Manhattan’s 6th Street, where staff and diners are diligently not eyeballing the international movie and stage star who minutes ago rocked up on his bicycle from his East Village home. 

“It bothers me, the pressure to say what you are. I think it closes you off to the potential of… something. It’s ghettoising. The gay population self-ghettoises all the time. I am gay, therefore I must wear this. I must be attracted to this, and not this. I must define what sexual position I like. It’s so weird.” I suggest that it’s very human to want to put things in context. “That’s just it,” he replies. “Whose context?”

Even a cursory glance at Cumming’s CV reveals that pigeonholes and this Perthshire-born performer don’t mix. A camp comedy hit at 1984’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival as half of cabaret duo Victor and Barry while still completing a classical training at Glasgow’s Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD), Cumming swiftly put his skills to work post-graduation both in high-minded local theatre productions and as an occasional fixture on the creaky Scottish soap Take The High Road (as bad-ass lumberjack Jim Hunter, showbiz trivia fans). Within five years he had trodden boards with the Royal Shakespeare Company and at the National Theatre – and played a bit part on Mr. Bean. One prodigiously successful decade later, he’d become one of the most magnetic stars in British theatre’s living memory, directed short films, co-written, scored and acted in the cult trolley-dolly sitcom The High Life and was carving parallel movie careers in credibility-dripping dramas like the 1996 Jane Austen adaptation Emma and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (albeit with Spice World wedged in between), and the pop-Hollywood überfranchises X-Men, Spy Kids and 007. More recently, he’s also written a novel, Tommy’s Tale, and directed two feature films – the first of which, The Anniversary Party, co-written and co-directed with Jennifer Jason Leigh, won a National Board of Review award and remains, to him, one of his most satisfying achievements. His usually high-wire stage choices continue to pack houses in the US and UK. He’s played the Devil, the Pope, Black Beauty and Hitler. And he’s launched a range of toiletries whose names indulge the endearingly puerile relish he, aged 45, still has for a bit of good old-fashioned smut. Cumming In A Bar bath soap, anyone? He’s also been an enthusiastic digiphile, updating his excellent, detailed website/blog alancumming.com almost compulsively, and co-launching a networking site about other people’s obsessions called itsasickness.com. Recently discovering the often hilarious Internet TV show Web Therapy by Lisa Kudrow, a pal since he appeared in her 1997 movie Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, Cumming promptly got back in touch, and another guest appearance, joining his turns on Frasier, Sex In The City, The L-Word and, currently, The Good Wife was born. 

Off-duty, Cumming’s life has been no less boundary-bending. Married between 1985 and 1993 to Hilary Lyon, an actress he met at RSAMD, he then dated the model-turned-actress Saffron Burrows, a co-star from the set of his breakthrough movie 1995’s Circle Of Friends, for two years. Then, it seemed, the queer edge he’d channeled into many of his most memorable took centre stage in his personal life, culminating in 1999 with an explosive exit from the closet when he appeared naked on the cover of US gay glossy Out. Except it wasn’t really like that. “My wife knew that I was bisexual and that I’d had a boyfriend at college, so I was always sort of out-ish,” he said at the time. “The thing is, you only need to come out in a public way when you’re famous and everyone wants to know more about you. When you’re 18 and you’re shagging a boy at college, you don’t think to tell the press.” Pesky contexts, again.

Even now, happily married for the second time, this time to American illustrator Grant Shaffer, Cumming is wary of projecting too cosy or conventional an image of coupledom. Among the between-songs anecdotes Cummings shared on his recent cabaret tour, one detailed a debate Shaffer had with colleagues on the rumours that Cumming had been spotted on his birthday “with two black cocks in his mouth”. Shaffer’s unruffled response, Cumming told his audience, was, “that’s OK, I was there, and there was only the one”.

“We all want to belong in some way,” mused Cumming in a think piece he wrote for Newsweek last April on the camp appeal of the classic 1975 documentary Grey Gardens. “But the need to create a gay culture has also led gay people to self-ghettoise. I would like to advocate replacing the word “gay” with “queer” when talking in broad terms about our collective experience. Queer isn’t just about same-sex wedding tackle. Queer is about sensibility. You don’t need to be gay to be queer. Indeed, some of the queerest people I know are straight. My mum is a bit queer. Obama is definitely queer. I think if more people embraced their queerness, we’d all be the better for it.”

Not that Cumming finds it hard to nail his colours to the rainbow mast, far from it. In London last August, he tells me, “I was walking with some friends down the street, in Soho. This guy behind us says (Cumming puts on a weaselly voice) ‘Faggots’. I turned around and said, ‘What did you say? I want you to say what you said to me again’. He said, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t say anything’. He was a big guy, but because I questioned him, challenged him – ‘fuck you’ – he backed down. I mean this is Soho, of all places”.

The sad fact that a few weeks after our meeting, just blocks away from Soho, Ian Baynham was kicked to death by three teenagers after he confronted a girl who was shouting homophobic abuse at him, is exactly why Cumming also harnesses his confrontational stance to his public profile every chance he gets. His energetic efforts for various civil rights and sex education causes have to date won him humanitarian awards including two Human Rights Campaign awards, and contributed to his award of an OBE last year, received, in typical Cumming style wearing a kilt with nothing beneath. His current portfolio of projects and patronships include fronting Live Out Loud’s Homecoming Project, an initiative seeking to connect unsupported LGBT young people in schools with inspirational, successful counterparts in the professional world. 

Cumming discovered a context that really suited him last year – about 90 years too late. In BBC4’s documentary The Real Cabaret he explored the polysexual but politicised, seductive but subversive Berlin of the 1920s and early ‘1930s, the last years of the Weimar Republic, before the Nazis spoiled everything. Drawing on journalistic chops he first honed after leaving school aged 16 as the “Young Alan” who answered readers’ letters on Dundee-based pop magazine Tops, he visited the apartment where Christopher Isherwood wrote Goodbye to Berlin, the book on which Kander and Ebb’s musical Cabaret, and ultimately Bob Fosse’s epochal film of the same name were based. Sifting through compelling archive footage of the louche club scene of the time, he uncovered the story of the real Sally Bowles, interviewed latter-day cabaret luminaries such as Ute Lemper and remembered the tragic fates of some of the performers who’d lampooned the rising Reich in their acts and lives, only to pay the price when the upstarts turned rulers. Ultimately, Cumming even found a gratifying frisson of residual laissez-faire in the air of today’s city. “Berlin doesn’t do shame,” he enthuses. “There are not the normal self-restricting rules in relation to gender, or simply being sexual. Why can’t you go downstairs and have sex with somebody and then come back up and have a drink with them? Why can’t you be sunbathing naked in the park? Berlin doesn’t fetishise – bizarrely – sex or desire.”