Cumming Up

Is he a writer, director, actor or...sex symbol? Um, yes -- and more.

Indeed, much of the press surrounding The Anniversary Party--in which Cumming and Leigh play an estranged-then-reunited couple celebrating their sixth anniversary with the likes of real-life pals Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates, Jennifer Beals, John C. Reilly, Parker Posey and Gwyneth Paltrow (see review)--has focused on how the film is Cumming's debut as a writer, which isn't at all the case. In 1990, he adapted Dario Fo's play Accidental Death of an Anarchistfor the British stage; the revival, about the British government's wrongful imprisonment of innocent men accused of committing IRA-sponsored violence, won an Olivier Award. In 1995, he wrote and directed the short film Butter, which starred his soon-to-be ex-wife Hilary Lyon as a woman with an eating disorder. He also wrote and starred in the short-lived BBC series The High Life, set on a Scottish airline populated by a "mad" group of employees; for a short time, there was some talk of it becoming an American TV series.

"It's kind of a funny thing," Cumming says. "People think the only work you've done is what they know of, and that, for me, is whatever I've done since I came to America--like Cabaret, for example--even though they might have seen me in films before. When things are not in front of people, they don't really remember them. And some journalists are so lazy that they come in and ask you questions that you just laugh at. The great thing about having a Web site is you can actually say to people, 'You know what? Just go to my Web site and find out all this more accurately. I can't believe I come to this more prepared than you are. I mean, I'm the one being asked the questions.'" He giggles.

For the past year, it has been damned near impossible to miss Cumming; his is a most recognizable face--beneath the occasional dollops of makeup, that look of mischievous innocence is striking and unmistakable--even if the name eludes you. Aside from Josie, Spy Kids and The Anniversary Party, he can be spotted in writer-director Doug McGrath's woeful Company Man(alongside Sigourney Weaver and Woody Allen) and in Alan Rudolph's forthcoming Investigating Sex, in which he appears with Nick Nolte and Neve Campbell. He could also be seen during the season premiere of Sex and the City as a bitchy fashion designer dressing Sarah Jessica Parker in little more than underwear and a robe. And come July 19, he will be in San Francisco once more hosting the Webby Awards--though he can't figure out why he keeps agreeing to host awards shows when, in truth, "I find myself in situations where I think, 'What the fuck am I doing this for? I could be at home watching telly, and I've chosen to come out here and sing a song or make a speech. You must be mad.'"

Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome to the thrill-ride world of Alan Cumming, seen here in the 1998 revival of Cabaret.
Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome to the thrill-ride world of Alan Cumming, seen here in the 1998 revival of Cabaret.

But he will take the summer off to finish a novel he's been writing for a long while; titled Tommy's Tale, it tells of a "handsome, hedonistic" 30-year-old who finds his desire to have a child a bit troubling considering he's got both a boyfriend and a girlfriend. On his Web site, Cumming offers a brief description of the book: "How is [Tommy] going to square the all-night parties and the louche lifestyle with changing diapers and being a responsible parent?" One can only assume where fiction ends and fact begins--assume, because asking would only suggest that he is incapable of writing about anything other than himself, though Cumming admits that each time he's written something, he's put more of himself into a project than even he realizes. "You're just saying what's going on in your head and mind and heart," he says, "and it comes out and becomes a palpable thing."

Perhaps not surprisingly, Cumming is often asked by journalists if he's at all ashamed of some of the movies that appear on his résumé. The suggestion is that he's a man concerned less with quality than quantities of cash--whore first, artist second. But one could just as easily argue that Cumming is very much the fearless man of whom he likes to speak--an actor who takes on challenges simply to overcome them, whether that entails wearing green makeup in a Flintstonesmovie or baring his bottom in Titusas he lay on top of a splayed Jessica Lange. He wastes nothing in the smallest role or the dumbest movie, which makes him a joy to watch even in otherwise awful films: Cumming is one of those rare actors who can elevate crap, if not transcend it completely.

"Sometimes people are very snobby," he says, this time without the giggle. "Sometimes people say, 'Oh, I expect you don't want to be reminded of this,' about some film or something I've done. And I'm like, 'Well, if I didn't want to be reminded of it, it would be a pretty stupid thing to make a huge film that millions of people are going to see.' You do things for very different reasons all the time, and there's nothing I've ever done that I really have not wanted to do or have regretted doing. Some things haven't turned out as well, but there are lots of reasons why you do things.

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