Cumming Up

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

Alan Cumming is, in no particular order, the following: an actor, a pop icon, a Renaissance man, a sex symbol, a bon viveur and the boy next door. "I am a combination of all those things," insists the 36-year-old Scot, who punctuates every other sentence with a sly giggle that suggests he knows something you don't and never will. Then, if you know anything at all about Cumming--a man who has portrayed Hamlet on the British stage and the Great Gazoo in The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas--you are aware that he has more fun in a day than more of us do in a lifetime. His life is a lark, a night on the town that turns into a week that feels like a year or forever. Cumming is a self-proclaimed hedonist, a man prone to dressing up as a woman for fashion pics, a good-time boy who makes no excuses or apologies for keeping his options open when it comes to damned near everything.

"I am fearless," says the man who won a Tony for portraying the bi-and-high Emcee in Sam Mendes' 1998 revival of Cabaret, then turned up as Sylvester Stallone's sidekick in the daft, sloppy 2000 remake of Get Carter. "Yes, I have no fear, and there's nothing to fear but fear itself. There's no place for fear. Fear equals shame. No, thank you. And I love being with people who have no fear. Sometimes, people are attracted to me because I'm fearless, and they sort of get this vicarious thrill out of it, and I like that. I like going out for a night with people and they know something exciting's going to happen."

The aforementioned description of Cumming (pop icon and so forth) comes from the man's own eponymous Web site, which overflows with pictures of Cumming in various states of dress and undress. Some, including the home-page pic of the actor-sex-symbol-etc. sporting a fez, are photos from an old Vanity Fair shoot; others, including a backstage snapshot of Cumming with Monica Lewinsky after one of his performances in the current Broadway revival of Noel Coward's Design for Living, are from his private collection. "Isn't that a riot?" Cumming says of the latter photo, in which he's holding a glass of white wine in his right hand and the world's most famous giver of blow jobs in his left.

"The next thing I'm doing is, I've taken pictures of goody bags I've gotten at various functions I've been to, and I take all the things out of the goody bags and take a photo of them and then grade the goody bags," says the actor who, in 1999, played both the flirtatious hotel desk clerk in Stanley Kubrick's sex-free porno Eyes Wide Shut and "Rooster" Hannigan in the Wonderful World of Disney version of Annie. He's referring to the totes handed out to celebrities whenever they attend award shows or benefits. One of the most astonishing things about Hollywood is that the people who least need free crap are the ones who always end up walking away with bags full of jewelry, perfume, clothing, even food.

"Sometimes, they're really mean," explains Cumming, who flashed his ass in Julie Taymor's decadent 1999 cinematic interpretation of Shakespeare's Titus before going off to play villains in Spy Kids and Josie and the Pussycats, which opened within weeks of each other earlier this spring. "You go to posh functions, and inside the bag is a copy of Vanity Fair and a pen, and then you go to other ones and it's full of fabulous things, like money. I find it hilarious that the more money I have, the less things I have to buy, because people give me things for free. Clothes, for example. Like, they send me things to wear for interviews or stuff. They give you things to borrow or keep, depending upon who they are. I was looking at the labels for this thing I'm wearing today, and it's $1,200 for this little ensemble I've got on, and it looks like something you could buy at the Gap for about $150, and I would never, in a million years, pay that money for it. But I don't have to. Isn't that the ironic thing?"

But scrapbook and screw-offs aside, the main reason Cumming maintains his burgeoning Web site is to inform the ignorant and oblivious of his rather lengthy list of acting credits--on British television, on stage (here and abroad) and in film. Turns out he's famous enough to warrant gratis designer wardrobes and extravagant photo shoots in slick fashion mags but not famous enough for most journalists to know he's been in more than just a couple of movies. Just the other day, while doing press for The Anniversary Party--a film written by, directed by and starring Cumming and his one-time Cabaret co-star, Jennifer Jason Leigh--a woman asked him how difficult it had been making the transition from stage to screen for Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids. He told her it was no trouble at all, seeing as how he made his TV debut in 1984, while he was attending the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. Cumming then directed the journalist to his Web site, as he often does, and suggested they talk about things more interesting than his career, since he obviously knew more about it than she.

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 Anarchist for 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.'"

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 Flintstones movie or baring his bottom in Titus as 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.

"It's about fun. I want to have fun; I want to challenge myself, but, above all, I want to enjoy things, and that can mean hanging on a wire dressed as a green alien, or it can mean playing Hamlet. Each thing is valid, and I just don't have any time for that kind of inverted snobbery, actually, about acting. People are threatened or confused when you do different things. But you just have to go on with your own thing and not let the bastards get you down." This time, he giggles.