Alan Cumming can probably guess what you know him from

  • Alan Cumming poses next to artifacts he selected for the "Newsroom: Rise Up" suite at the Hamilton Hotel in Washington, D.C.

    Alan Cumming poses next to artifacts he selected for the "Newsroom: Rise Up" suite at the Hamilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of Sam Waxman/Sam Waxman Studios

 
By Sonia Rao
Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- Alan Cumming ordered a glass of white wine before plopping down on a sofa Monday afternoon at the Hamilton Hotel. "It's my day off," he explained.

He doesn't get a lot of those. Originally from Scotland, the 54-year-old actor has enjoyed a prolific career in this country since he won a Tony for playing the emcee in the 1998 Broadway revival of "Cabaret." He currently stars in the off-Broadway show "Daddy" as a white art collector involved with a much younger black artist and in CBS' "Instinct" as a former CIA operative who happens to be the first openly gay lead character in an American broadcast drama.

If not from those projects, you might recognize Cumming from the movies "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion" and "X2: X-Men United" or from the television show "The Good Wife," which earned him three Emmy nominations. (Younger millennials, like this reporter, might remember him as Fegan Floop, the scheming children's television host whom the Cortez family must defeat in 2001's "Spy Kids.")

Cumming has done it all, and then some -- he's also a decorated humanitarian and swung by D.C. to unveil an artifact-filled hotel suite called "Newsroom: Rise Up" that he curated in partnership with the Newseum to honor an upcoming exhibit on the LGBTQ rights movement. Seated in front of framed newspaper clippings marking momentous occasions in LGBTQ history, he chatted with The Washington Post about his career, his fans and his reputation as a "frolicky pansexual sex symbol."

Q: In that case over there, there's a script from Ellen DeGeneres' show and an "Angels in America" playbill. How does art play into activism?

A: It's not a new phenomenon that art discusses the ideas that need to be discussed in our society. That's what art is for -- theater in the past, and now film and television. Ellen's coming out was such a massive thing. I wasn't even living in this country, and I knew all about it. What's interesting to me was the fallout from that. Now she's this great family-friendly icon, but a season after she came out, (the show) got axed. ... People did not want gay stories in America.

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The show that I'm in right now, "Instinct," has this thing of, "And also, he's gay." He's all these things -- and also, he's gay. It's so not a problem; it's not the focus. I think "and also" is the way to go ahead, because it should be "and also." I get really riled when they put the prefix of my sexuality before my name. You don't see "straight actor blah blah," and that's starting to really piss me off. You can be much more progressive and transgressive by going into the mainstream and putting these messages out: Here we are; this is what happens in life.

Q: "Instinct" airs on CBS, one of the most-watched broadcast networks in this country. What does it mean to you to be able to reach that many people?

A: I've made lots of films about LGBT issues that I'm very proud of -- one about adoption, one about schisms between generations of gay men because of AIDS, things that are really important -- but mostly were seen by LGBT people. And that's great, but also I think this thing about the mainstream is so important.

Even this play I'm doing right now called "Daddy," a lot of why I wanted to do it is that it discusses and provokes about race and queerness and things nobody wants to talk about in this country. So that's why I'm doing it, but (only) 200 people a night see it.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Q: Can you tell me more about "Daddy"?

A: It's this play by a guy called Jeremy O. Harris. It's super intense. ... There's an intergenerational and interracial queer relationship. I'm the "daddy," and I have a young African-American boyfriend. It's just, I've never seen that. There are quite explicit things there. ... I think it's great to be able to challenge people, provoke. Sometimes you have to be sensationalist to do that.

Q: All of the projects you mentioned are quite different. When people come up to you, what is it that they most often reference?

A: It's always different. I used to play a game where I'd see them coming up and I'd do a quick scan to try and guess: Oh, here's an "X-Men" person, or she's going to be a "Romy and Michele," or this is obviously a "Good Wife," this is a "Cabaret." It's always really surprising. There's not really one thing, which is great. Then it can be some really obscure thing, "Oh, you saw that? I thought two people and their dog saw that." That's nice as well.

I feel a great warmth from the public on the whole. But now, if you're young and in entertainment, that has to be quantified by the number of people who follow you. It must be a real pressure. It's not just a feeling you have, you've got get those people to click something to show that's how loved you are. Isn't it interesting?

Q: It's kind of scary.

A: It is. There was a girl at the opening (for "Daddy"), I knew her name, but I don't really -- for someone who's in this business, I don't keep up with it very much. I get sent all the time all the Hollywood Reporters and Variety because I'm in the academy, but I just recycle it immediately. Or I give it to my husband to take to his after-school art class for the collages.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

So there was this girl, and I said to Tommy (Dorfman), from my play, "Who is this girl? Is she a model, an actress?" It was Emily. Emily, some Polish name.

Q: Oh, the model (Emily Ratajkowski).

A: Yes, her. I went, "Oh, what is she known for?" And he said, "Oh, she has 4.5 million followers on Instagram." (Note: Ratajkowski has 22.1 million Instagram followers.)

Q: That's what she's known for, I guess.

A: She's known, but that's how you place someone. The world has changed in some way, for that age group, for millennials.

Q: Judging by MY age, I'm sure this is expected, but I would love to hear about --

A: -- "Spy Kids"?

Q: Yes! When your name comes up, for me, it's "Cabaret" and everything, and then it's "Spy Kids." What was that experience like?

A: The making of it was really fun. I had a great time, but it wasn't "Spy Kids" when we did it, it was just this cute little film. It was a departure for Robert Rodriguez. He'd been much more of an edgy filmmaker, and now he was doing this family film. Everything was kind of, "Oh, I'll see how this goes."

None of us knew it was going to become this thing, and also still is. That's the thing that's interesting about it. Kids now still watch it. It's sort of a classic in that way because it's magical in its language. It hasn't aged. There's no guns in it; it's an old-fashioned fairy tale.

Q: It has thumb people. (Note: They're called Thumb Thumbs.)

A: Yeah. I don't know how long ago, but in the last 10 years or so, the way young people of your age approach me completely changed because of "Spy Kids" and a few other kids films I did around that time. Instead of a young man being, like, "Oh hey, my girlfriend thinks you're famous" or, "My girlfriend really likes you," they came to me, like, "You were a part of my childhood, oh my gosh." They kind of become little children for a moment. It was such a lovely thing.

Q: A lot of people who grew up with "Spy Kids" now watch "Broad City," which you were recently in. Ilana Glazer describes you in the episode as a "magical, pansexual, New York City party boy and nymph." What's your reaction to that?

A: It's very nice. Over the years, you kind of get used to it. But it's also hilarious. The other day, I was like, "I'm so hating this beard. I don't want to be 'Daddy' Alan, I want to go back to being pixie Alan. I want to be, like, 'Oh, Alan looks much younger than he actually is' Alan. The New York Observer years ago said that I was a "frolicky pansexual sex symbol for the new millennium." (Laughs) That one stuck, for a while. I like the way it says, to me, that sexuality is playful and fun. It's very sex positive, that description. I quite like it. But the older I get, I'm feeling less nymphlike. You've got to work for the nymphness.

Q: You've mentioned a lot of your work being personal. Tell me about the inspiration for your one-man cabaret show, last year's "Legal Immigrant."

A: It was 10 years since I'd become an immigrant, and I thought that was a good anniversary. I could talk about my time in America and getting older. But also, there was two things: One was that the U.S. Immigration Services website had, about a year ago, removed the phrase "nation of immigrants" from the text on its website, which is shocking and historical revisionism. And also, it doesn't really matter what the prefix before the word "immigrant" is anymore. The actual notion of immigration itself has such a negative connotation.

I wanted to say to people, being anti-immigration is being anti-American. The show, I tried to make it a celebration of immigration.

Q: With this sort of platform, do you feel a responsibility to speak up on such issues?

A: I do. But saying it's a "responsibility" makes it sound onerous, and it's not. This is fun for me. ... I really like discussing things like this, and I think it's good to have a conversation with people and find out what's going on. I think if I weren't famous, I would still be trying to do the same things I'm doing, but obviously I wouldn't have the platform or access to such a large megaphone.

I feel it's because I'm Scottish. People in Scotland are much more politically involved and engaged. You just talk about things. ... It's every man for himself here. America is very complicated to grasp. ... Things like the arts, it's all done by patronage here, not by government funding. I think that I would never have been able to be an actor if I were not born in Scotland. My mum and my dad would not have been able to send me to drama school.

Q: You did the "Cabaret" revival a few years ago. Are there any other works of yours that you'd revisit?

A: I've actually done "Cabaret" three times -- in London the first time. I can't imagine I'll do "Cabaret" again. I've always joked that if I did, I'd want to play Fraulein Schneider.

"Macbeth," I did it in Scotland first and then the following year on Broadway. I have no desire to do that again. It was just too difficult. Every now and again, I think it's really important to completely challenge yourself to the point where you think, "I don't know if I can do this." I do that fairly often. But usually when I've done that, I don't want to do it again. I've made my point.

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