Thursday 8 December 2016

Life lessons with Alan Cumming: Most of the films I'm in, I wouldn't go to see

Meadhbh McGrath

Published 03/01/2016 | 02:30

Alan Cumming: It doesn't get much better than hanging out with the Spice Girls at the height of their fame. Photo: Getty Images
Alan Cumming: It doesn't get much better than hanging out with the Spice Girls at the height of their fame. Photo: Getty Images
Alan Cumming with Saffron Domini Burrows, Cynthia Rowley and Monica Lewinski at the New York launch of his book. Photo: Brad Barket/Getty Images.

Alan Cumming (50) is a man of many talents. A successful actor, TV presenter, novelist, cabaret performer, and LGBT rights campaigner, he also has his own fragrance line - and an OBE.

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He first made his name on stage playing Hamlet in 1993, and he has since received Tony and Olivier awards for his work on the West End and Broadway. His film credits range from arthouse (Eyes Wide Shut) to cult classics (Spice World) to blockbusters (Spy Kids, the X-Men franchise), and he has gained three Emmy nominations for his role as political strategist Eli Gold on the hit US drama series The Good Wife.

In 2014, the Scottish-born star published a memoir, Not My Father's Son, detailing his family history and his abusive relationship with his late father.

He was previously married to British actress Hilary Lyon for eight years, and is now married to graphic artist Grant Shaffer. They live together in New York.

Some people have said about the book, "He doesn't mention that he was first married to a woman and then married to a man." But that's not what this book is about. It's not about me being bisexual. I get a little tired of everything - if I was straight, you wouldn't think that I should make references to the fact that I was straight, so it just feels a little bit double standard-y. The whole bisexual thing keeps coming up, and I just think that, eventually, hopefully, we'll all live in a world where we don't talk about it as much and just get on with it.

When I was doing the book, my editor said, "I really think you need to show some balance, in terms of the stuff about your dad. Try and think of some happy times you had." I went, "Yeah, you're right. I don't want it to be this monochromatic idea of him." So I actually did go away and try to think of moments where we'd all had happy times together, and I couldn't think of any. I asked my brother, and he couldn't either.

The thing is, I know they existed, of course we had some happy times. I put some pictures in the book where I'm a little boy, on go-karts. My father probably took that picture, and I'm smiling and I'm happy. But what clouds that picture is something else that happened on that holiday that was really upsetting. That's the way it is, you know. The overriding impression of my father is of someone who terrorised me.

Most of the films I'm in, I wouldn't go and see, they're not my cup of tea. But still, I have fun doing them and I make a good living and meet lots of interesting people, so no, I don't regret them. Do I regret doing The Smurfs? Absolutely not. It's maybe a week out of my life and it's a good pay cheque, and I'm able to do other things. I will be laughing all the way to my artistic bank.

All of them (people I've worked with) are fascinating of course, but I think the Spice Girls would have to win if it came down to it. It doesn't get much better than hanging out with the Spice Girls at the height of their fame.

Initially, I didn't want to do The Good Wife. I just thought it was not for me. I turned it down actually. And it was my manager who said, "You should really do this." I had no idea it was going to last this long and be such a big deal for me.

Eli is quite a rich character after all these years. I like playing him because he's so completely different to me. He is kind of ruthless, but he's got a good heart. He could do with some meditation or yoga, but he's actually not a bad person.

I said to everybody [on The Good Wife] that I thought I was going to leave this season. I was getting a bit bored of just doing the same thing again and again. They really stepped up to the plate and gave me lots of interesting things to do, so I'm really glad I stayed.

I find it quite weird to play someone who has so little intimacy in his life. But that all changes this season. Eli is kind of a loner so ultimately I think it will be weird to see him hooked up with someone, but it's nice that he is softened a little bit this year.

At first, I thought that playing someone when you didn't know the ending of the story would be difficult for me. I'd always done films or plays where you know what's going to happen to the character. But I've actually come to really enjoy it.

Sometimes big plot changes happen all of a sudden, and you just have to be nimble and on your toes. You can't get too stuck in your performance because any second now something can completely change it. But I think that's a bigger thing I've learned - not to get stuck in the path you've been going on.

I've learned to look at the bigger picture, and to think about things in a long-term way. I'm much better at understanding how to stand back from a situation, watch it and then take action. I'm probably better at mediating now.

I think it's healthy to keep changing and keep moving. I've enjoyed being at home [in New York] and having a structure in my life nine months of the year, but I'm also quite looking forward to that changing and being a bit more peripatetic, traveling the world and doing different projects.

I plan to leave at the end of this season. I've really enjoyed it. I think my lasting memories would be how grateful I am to have been in a show that was so well written, that deals with important issues intelligently and doesn't tell the audience what to think. I think we really are in a Golden Age of television right now, and the standard of writing and production are really amazing.

When I first started doing this, everyone was like, "What? Why is Alan Cumming playing that part?" So in a funny way I've kind of grown up a bit. Now, people will take me seriously as a middle-aged man in a suit whereas before I don't think I could have played people like him.

'The Good Wife' returns to RTÉ One for a seventh season on January 7, at 11.15pm

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