He’s won awards on Broadway, starred in Hollywood movies as a superhero and been nominated for an Emmy as a devious image consultant, but now Aberfeldy lad Alan Cumming is ready to tell his own story in the place where it all began. Words Jackie McGlone
“My feet are still killing me,” moans Alan Cumming. “It beats me how women walk around in stiletto heels – and as for the false nails… Hell!”
Cumming has just returned from South America, where he played a transvestite in a US TV mini series. Relaxing in his New York home, it’s not hard to see why the actor, singer and performer has had such a wildly varied career.
In a flounce of gold lame pleats, he made his cheeky entrance as the debauched Dionysus in the National Theatre of Scotland’s sensational production of The Bacchae by descending from the heavens and revealing what every proud Scotsman doesn’t wear beneath his kilt. Baring his buttocks for Edinburgh International Festival audiences in 2008 was all in a day’s work for the puckish Perthshire-born actor, who a decade earlier shockingly turned the other cheek as the divinely decadent Emcee in Cabaret. At the end of the musical, which took the West End and Broadway by storm, Cumming flashed his swastika-painted rump. Later, as Nightcrawler in the movie X Men 2, he appeared on screen in nothing but blue body paint.
Now, though, Edinburgh Fringe-goers have a rare opportunity to see Cumming – the man who puts the camp into scamp – with his clothes on. The 45-year-old promises, however, that he’ll actually be revealing a great deal about himself, his romantic encounters with both men and women, and the surreal world of American celebrity that he inhabits, in his one-man show.
I Bought A Blue Car Today is a mischievous piece in which namedrops keep falling on your head, as he tells hilarious anecdotes about the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Lauren Bacall and legendary broadcaster Walter Cronkite. Revelatory and ribald, it has already played to packed houses in Los Angeles, London and Australia since opening at New York’s Lincoln Center in autumn 2008, when the LA Times critic raved: “He is first and foremost fabulous.”
The up-close-and-personal cabaret is named for a sample sentence Cumming had to write for his nationalisation test to become a US citizen (he now holds dual citizenship.) “I thought it was quite childlike and sweet, then I realised it says quite a lot about American consumerism and capitalism, and the US’s addiction to gas-guzzling automobiles.
“So, yeah, the show has a political edge, too, because that sentence so neatly encapsulates the culture’s financial and energy concerns,” he says thoughtfully.
Awarded an OBE by the New Labour Government, the self-confessed “frolicky pan-sexual sex symbol for the new millennium,” is a passionate and persistent advocate of gay rights, tirelessly blogging and relentlessly campaigning for same-sex marriage – he and his graphic artist partner, Grant Shaffer, married in London in 2007.
An eloquent member of the artists’ lobby group Creative Coalition with A-listers such as Anne Hathaway, he was in Washington for President Barack Obama’s inauguration. “It was amazing to be among so many people from so many different walks of life.” He’d raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Obama’s campaign, with an auction of celebrity memorabilia.
“I became an American citizen because I wanted to vote for Obama. Unfortunately, I was sworn in three days after the election so I just missed it,” he sighs. Had Obama not won the Presidency, Cumming says he would not have gone ahead with the citizenship process. “If John McCain had been successful I don’t know whether I’d have wanted to be a citizen of this country. But now I’ll be able to vote for Obama’s second term.”
Becoming a US citizen has given him a voice that he is not afraid to raise in righteous anger for causes dear to his heart, nor is he slow to criticise the new regime. “I feel I’m both qualified and entitled to speak out now about gay rights and the civil rights imbalance in this country, whether I’m blogging or speaking at rallies. Becoming a citizen gives your opinions about things much more credence and weight.”
Cumming wanted to bring his cabaret act to the Fringe to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Assembly Theatre. Unfortunately for Edinburgh audiences, he’s only able to do three nights, since he has to fly back to New York to film the second series of the gripping Channel 4 drama series The Good Wife, with Julia Margulies and Chris Noth.
Originally cast as a guest star, Cumming plays Eli Gold, a devious political campaign manager. So gorgeously venal was his performance that the character is now a regular, and Cumming was nominated for an Emmy. Meanwhile, he has two movies coming soon, Burlesque, with Cher and Christine Aguilera, and Julie Taymor’s version of The Tempest, with Helen Mirren and Russell Brand. In 2011 his dulcet tones can be heard in three animated films, The Smurfs, Sir Billi, with Sean Connery, and Jackboots on Whitehall, in which he plays Braveheart.
For now, though, Cumming can’t contain his excitement about returning to the Fringe. “I Bought A Blue Car Today isn’t just me taking off my emotional knickers, although I am talking about me. But I’m also singing some songs as me, so yes, it is all about me, I’m afraid. I have no characters to hide behind,” says the drolly-engaging performer.
A talented tenor, he sings 15 eclectic songs, some originals that he’s written himself, as well as a medley from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Dory Previn’s Dance and Dance and Smile and Smile and Sinatra’s That’s Life.
He opens with his friend Cyndi Lauper’s Shine, pausing to consider the ill-fated 2006 revival of The Threepenny Opera in which they both appeared in New York. His costume, designed by Isaac Mizrahi, included trousers so skintight that “my package got better reviews than I did,” sighs Cumming, adding that his Edinburgh show will change every evening.
Fans hoping for a glimpse of the feted trousers are out of luck, but those longing for a taster of his greatest Broadway triumph, Cabaret, won’t be disappointed. He was particularly celebrated for his fabulously venomous version of Mein Herr, which must have been nerve-racking since its most famous performer, his bosom buddy Liza Minnelli, was in the audience on the opening night, clapping and yelling her approval. Minnelli had encouraged Cumming over dinner in Glasgow to create his own show and to sing in it, too. “Liza’s been really supportive – and, yes, I’ll be singing Mein Herr,” says Cumming.
The show marks his first appearance on the Fringe since the glory days 20 years ago of those lisping thesps Victor and Barry. He created the camp-as-Christmas double act with his great friend and fellow actor Forbes Masson, and the pair went on to write cult TV sitcom The High Life. Cumming smiles at the memory of those early career steps. “I Bought A Blue Car Today has its roots in Victor and Barry, so I feel I’ve come full circle.”
I bought a blue car today, Assembly@Assembly Hall, 13-15 August, 11.59pm, From £18, Tel: 0131 6233030