The Multi-Dimensional Alan Cumming: Eclectic, Ubiquitous, Attracted to Sparkly Things

10/04/2010 09:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

2010-10-05-AlanCummingRecording.jpg Alan Cumming is super-talented. He is actor, singer, dancer, author and -- the reason I had the pleasure of speaking with him -- animation voice-over professional. In fact, his is one press kit that tells the truth because even the hyperbole contained in his official bio is true -- he really is "beyond eclectic." One would be tempted -- and correct -- to add that Cumming is also ubiquitous. He simply seems to do it all and do it in every medium. Constantly.

Many Americans first saw him in his Tony Award®-winning turn as
the emcee in the 1998 Broadway revival of Cabaret. These days viewers may see him every week playing Eli Gold, Peter Florrick's attorney on The Good Wife, the antithesis of his Cabaret character.

He stars with Cher, Christina Aguilera, Kristen Bell and Stanley Tucci in the Thanksgiving release Burlesque and we'll be hearing him as voices in two animated films, The Smurfs, where he plays Gutsy, a heretofore unknown Smurf and -- the specific reason I got to speak to him -- Sir Billi, the first full-length animated feature made in Scotland. The fact that the film is a Scottish production is an important one to him as he is a Scot.

In 1981, at 16, Cumming left school with an outstanding academic record and top grades on the tests given in the UK that most resemble the American SATs. But, too young to attend university or drama school, he went to work at publisher D.C Thompson. "I worked in the fiction department which I loved because you got to answer the phone and say 'fiction.'" There, as "Young Alan," he answered readers' questions in the magazine Tops and, then, it was on to drama school for three years. While in school he acted on stage and film and launched an award-wining cabaret act called "Victor and Barry" with fellow graduate Forbes Masson. They parlayed that into successful tours and TV appearances. By 1988 he'd played the West End and earned his first Olivier Award nomination -- the British version of the American Tony® Awards -- as Most Promising Newcomer. The pace of Cumming's career has never been slow and, in fact, it can leave someone trying to write about it breathless trying to capture the scope and depth.

Cumming's career recap on IMDB lists 97 films, and, also, a list of credits as writer, producer, director, composer and, even, storyboard illustrator.

How does he explain this output? "I feel like a magpie because, if I see something sparkly, I go for it. My preference is dictated by my boredom."

Living in the U.S. for 12 years, Cumming notes, "I'm still learning basic things about America that I haven't quite grasped." In fact, he says, he had to have "an American explain boredom."

When he was approached to voice Gordon, the Goat who thinks he's a dog and who is the pet of the title character voiced by Sir Sean Connery, in Sir Billi, Cumming says that he was impressed with Sascha and Tessa Hartmann, the Gaswegian couple who originated the idea and wrote and directed the film.

He says, "I think it is amazing that they have persevered so long and hard to get this project made in Scotland, when there was absolutely no precedent for anything like this there. Their enthusiasm was so great and I'm very predisposed to doing Scottish things. Though neither [Sir Sean nor I] live in our home country we feel very connected to it.

"And," he adds, "I like animated films. They're fun to do. You just have to tumble out of bed and you don't have to look nice. I quite enjoy working with other actors and not meeting them. It's like being a musician. You go to the studio and you don't know what you're going to do."

For a brief sample of what he did on Sir Billi, check out this video:

Sascha Hartmann recorded Cumming's lines in New York (photo above). Then, Connery's were recorded in the Bahamas, where he lives. Connery "wanted me to do it first, in case I ad-libbed anything that wasn't in the script he could respond."

Sir Billi, now in post-production, garnered a lot of press when it was announced last month that Oscar®-nominated composer Patrick Doyle (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Gosford Park, Bridget Jones's Diary, Donnie Brasco, Sense and Sensibility among many others had completed his score for the film, his first venture into animation. Doyle, also a Scot, joined Connery and Cumming in citing the patriotic motive as one of his reasons for signing on to the film:

Of course, despite what may appear to be a life fully consumed with work, Alan Cumming's life is bursting with other endeavors. For example, there's Cumming: The Fragrance.

Cumming holds dual UK-U.S. citizenship and was cited on the Queen's Birthday Honours List in July 2009 and named an O.B.E. (Officer of the British Empire). His citation said: "Alan Cumming. Actor, Producer and Presenter. For services to film, theatre and the arts and to activism for equal rights for the gay and lesbian community, USA." Many other honors have come to him because of his political activism on behalf of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community. These include an award from the Trevor Project, an organization working toward the prevention of suicide among gay and questioning youth.

This activism is rooted in his homeland. "Growing up in Scotland," Cumming says, "politics are not a hobby or just something that you get interested in every four years. Being vocal about your beliefs is something everyone does. I've really always been politically active. It's just being alive and having an opportunity to make a difference. If not this, there's lots of things to be concerned with and, even if I don't succeed, I'd try anyway, I'd always be marching or collecting money on the street."

His political activism isn't confined to just one issue. He's campaigned for Barack Obama and, in 2002, when I saw him discuss acting with Helen Mirren and New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley, he wore a t-shirt with the words "Free Winona" emblazoned across his chest in large letters, a reference to the shoplifting incident involving actress Winona Ryder. And, he's apparently willing to learn about the opposition.

"The other night ," he continues, "I ran into Kelsey Grammer and he's quite big in the GOP. I don't meet many people who are different from me ideologically. Since I met him, I've been thinking about it. He's a nice man and he stands up for what he believes even though I think it's insane and offensive. But he's a nice man."

Cumming's award-winning one-man show I Bought A Blue Car Today has garnered awards and been released on CD. Asked what part he'd like to do that he hasn't yet, he thinks for a brief moment and says, "Iago in Othello -- I'm toying with that." Meanwhile, he'll be taking I Bought A Blue Car Today to Chicago, Boston and Pittsburgh.

He is the president of It's A, a site launched in April celebrating the obsessive in everyone. The site manifesto states that it's "an obsession network honoring sicknesses; the objects of our obsession. We believe that no one is ever more interesting than when they talk about what they love. To do your sickness justice is to own it. It is to prove how dedicated and enthralled you are with it. It is to geek out."

Obsessions on the site run the gamut from "Democrats with spine" to "Cadbury eggs," to "bargain hunting" to "correcting poor grammar/word choices" to those that may be strange -- or, even, icky -- to others who don't share them.

Each site registrant is allowed five obsessions but Cumming told Jimmy Fallon that he has six ("I'm a boss.") They are truffle oil, Lena Zavaroni, Caledonian macbrayne ferries, gay rights, Flip video, luxury travel.

Finally, asked about being interviewed, he says, "I feel often that you're asked the most inane things, your opinion on the most banal, inane topics. 'What's the first book you've ever read? What's the one essential article for travel?'

"I'd love it," he adds, "if they'd say, 'Tell us what you'd really think.'"

One gets the feeling that Alan Cumming would do exactly that. And, like everything he does, be it an interview or reciting scripted dialogue written for Eli Gold in The Good Wife or Gordon, the goat-who-thinks-he-a-dog in Sir Billi or any character, it would be most interesting to hear what he does in that situation. In fact, it will be most interesting to hear -- and see -- what he says and does in any situation.

Photo of Alan Cumming recording courtesy of Billi Productions, Ltd.