Among his extensive film work, Alan Cumming wrote, directed, produced and acted (with Jennifer Jason Leigh) in The Anniversary Party, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and won a National Board of Review Award and two Independent Spirit Award nominations. He also recently shot the films Full Grown Men, Neverwas (with Aaron Eckhart) and the Margaret Cho-directed Bam Bam and Celeste. Both Neverwas and Bam Bam and Celeste debuted at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival; Full Grown Men debuted at The Tribeca Film Festival in April.
His film repertoire also includes X Men 2, the Spy Kids trilogy, Eyes Wide Shut, Emma, Urbania, Nicholas Nickleby, Titus, Goldeneye and Circle of Friends. Cumming's television work includes The L Word and Reefer Madness on Showtime. He is also the author of a book, Tommy's Tale.
He attends Frameline31 with his solo directorial debut Suffering Man's Charity. Alan graciously consented to a late afternoon interview before his evening premiere.
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Michael Guillén: It's kind of odd to be talking to you about a film I haven't had the chance to see yet; but, I did Google reviews for Suffering Man's Charity and the image I'm getting is of audiences with their eyes popped out like flashbulbs. Everyone seems a bit startled by this movie. Brace me: what can I expect at tonight's screening?
Alan Cumming: It's kind of provocative in that it's constantly surprising you but it's also kind of annoying in that it doesn't do what you think it's going to do as a film or as a story. I like that. It's nice to keep the folks [guessing]. There's some really gross things that happen and [the movie] asks you to laugh at things that you feel you shouldn't laugh at; that was a big reason we wanted to do it—to be provocative—and more and more I'm finding that the central character—me [as John Vandermark]—is a gay man who's an unpositive image of a gay man. We've become so used to having sanitized versions of gay people in the media.
Guillén: It's fun to stick a sour plum in the festival, eh?
Cumming: I think so. I realize now that's more and more why I liked it. It's challenging because, in a way, we're so used to—especially from a gay filmmaker—[picturing] gay people in a positive light and he's not at all; but, also you're asked to feel for him.
Guillén: I'm looking forward to your performance. Was it Tom Gallagher's script that first attracted you to the project? Did you adjust his script much?
Cumming: Yeah, I got it from Tom and then for about nine months to a year we went back and forward redoing it and working on it together. I really liked it and wanted to do it from the moment I read it, but it needed some work, especially because it's quite grand guignol and gothic in its style and language. Everyone tended to sound a little too similar so we pared it down and made everyone more distinct and there were certain parts of the story that we needed to clean up. But just small things; the essence of it was there. For me it was the closest I'll ever get to playing a Tennessee Williams heroine. Tragic, hugely operatic, and awful. You can't look away, like a car crash sort of thing.
Guillén: Full-blown emotions?
Cumming: Yeah! The first time I talk about David Boreanaz—who plays Sebastian St. Germain, the object of my affection, and he's so good in the film; he's such a lovely man—I say, "Sebastian is a writer of extraordinary promise, brimming with poetic cadence. I'm honored to witness the rapture of youth." It's got that florid style that's hilarious.
Guillén: As an actor, it's wonderful to say lines like that.
Cumming: It's a great part to have as an actor.
Guillén: You've assembled a killer cast—David Boreanaz, Henry Thomas, Carrie Fisher, Jane Lynch, Anne Heche and Karen Black. I adore Karen.
Cumming: Wait till you see her!
Guillén: What was she like to work with?
Cumming: She's just so great. I love her. Everyone else, the other [cast members], they're less impactful in the film than Karen because they're such smaller roles and not so histrionic. Carrie is really only in the scene at the end and it's more like, "Oh look, it's Carrie Fisher." Whereas when Karen arrives, for 10 minutes the audience is like this [Cumming mugs a slackjawed and hypnotized audience.] She plays a drunk, a woman who's hooked up with David's character on a night out on the town and has completely lost it and got wasted and is coming back to my house with him to get fucked. That's what she says, "I want you to fuck me. I want you to fuck me." She's a lady of a certain age….
Guillén: I'll relate, I'm sure.
Cumming: [Chuckles.] Yes. Me too! I think everyone can relate in a way. But then they get caught. I come down the stairs furious. It's just a brilliant performance [on Karen's part] because really the part was written for someone much younger, about David's age, but she had heard about the film and was interested in working with me—which was very flattering—and so I met her and she sort of talked about playing Anne Heche's part and I said, "I think you'll be better in this other part" and I explained to her why: it would make the film more odd and sick and it makes Sebastian more desperate. I said, "If you do play this part, you have to jump off the cliff. You can't be halfhearted about it." I said to her, "I've always admired your work because it has such abandon." And she said [Cumming delivers in a breathy whisper], "Yes, it does, doesn't it? I do have abandon."
Guillén: I remember when she was performing her country and western act here at the Castro stage for a screening of Come Back To The Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, she got so animated that she spilled water all over her jeans. She looked like she'd peed her pants. But she was so cavalier about it; it was hilarious.
Cumming: I know. She's like a little witch. She came to Austin when the film opened at the South by Southwest and we went nightclubbing and it was such a laugh. I adore her. I feel very connected to her in a funny way even though I don't really know her that well. I said, "Will you do this character? Will you be this role?"
Guillén: And she has such draw. She has quite a following.
Cumming: She's one of those actors who whatever she's doing, you're intrigued by it because you know it's going to be memorable. Her very presence is fascinating. She's what I think of as a true star, where whatever you do you bring something that makes people take notice.
Guillén: So the film premiered at Austin's SXSW festival in early March. It's screened at the Philadelphia and Birmingham SHOUT festivals (where you received the inaugural Beacon Award for your contributions to increasing visibility of GLBT characters and issues in popular media), and it's just been at the Provincetown Film Festival where you received that fest's Excellence in Acting Award. Your luggage must be getting heavy!
Cumming: [Grinning] I have them shipped. Actually I kept losing this award this weekend; it's so terrible. You get the award and you're having such fun and you go to different parties and I'm like, "I got it!" And then I put it under a table to put it in a safe place so no one will take it and then I forget which table. It was really bad this weekend. Thankfully, I have a very attentive husband.
Guillén: Have the audiences been different at your various screenings? Can you gauge the reception?
Cumming: I think in a way audiences are pretty unanimous in that they—when they come … well, if you know anything about the film, you know you're in for a bit of a bump; it's a bit of a queer freak fest. The more word of mouth about it, that's all the better. I like it when people come knowing a little bit about it on the festival circuit because there's no PR campaign like when the film will come out suggesting to you what the film's going to be about; it's just kind of cold. In a funny way, in this film the audience needs to know that it's all right to laugh, it's all right to gasp, and it's all right to be horrified at this stuff because my tongue is very much planted in my cheek. In a way I've enjoyed it as it's gone on more because—and certainly in places where the festivals haven't been so "markety" and have been a bit more "film-o-philey"—then I think I like it better because people are more genuine and they're not sort of thinking, "Hmmmm. How's this going to go in South Dakota?" Do you know what I mean?
Guillén: I'm sure your San Francisco audience is going to go right over the top with you. We're known for that.
Cumming: Exactly! I was just in Provincetown and—even though that wasn't a specifically Gay festival—Provincetown is very much a Gay town, a lot of artists and a very laid back attitude. People are much more willing to go along for the ride.
Guillén: And it sounds like it's going to be a wild ride! Chills, thrills and spills. Now, you're no stranger to San Francisco. You were our Celebrity Grand Marshall at Pride 2004 and the following year received a Humanitarian Award at the San Francisco Human Rights Campaign Awards. What is the heart of your activism?
Cumming: I just don't understand why people aren't treated equally. [My activism embraces] a desire for fairness. Anywhere I smell prejudice and injustice, it makes my blood boil and I have to speak up. I've always been like that and it's just that luckily now I have a chance for people to listen more.
Guillén: Which is excellent. I commend you for that work.
Cumming: Thank you. I'm going to play Dionysos next [in a stage production of The Bacchae]. It sort of relates to that because in a way his whole thing is about, "Do not deny me. You must not say you don't believe who I am and give me the credit for who I am." That's the thing I relate to most about that character. He wants to be avenged because someone refuses to believe him and take him seriously. I really understand that thing of, y'know, "Why won't you accept me? If you don't accept me and if you have any problems with me, let's talk about it right now."
Guillén: I was very excited when I read that you were playing the role of Dionysos in Euripides' The Bacchae because it remains one of my favorite plays.
Cumming: Is it really?
Guillén: Yes, it is. I have long felt that it could be one of the most horrifying films ever made.
Cumming: Yeah, totally.
Guillén: Thus, I'm hoping that the National Theatre of Scotland revival of The Bacchae will be hugely successful so that it might generate enough interest to shift the production onto film.
Cumming: That's a great idea. I'd never thought of that.
Guillén: It could be horrifying.
Cumming: And amazing because it's a really good adaptation by David Greig. It's spare, sexy, and the poster is nuts. They're using this photograph that was taken a few years ago where I'm wearing a red dress and my bum is sticking out.
Guillén: Speaking of photographs, as I was researching to prepare for today's interview, I was impressed with the plethora of images available online. You have more photos taken of you than almost anyone I have ever seen. You are so iconic and you are chameleonic.
Cumming: That's good.
Guillén: You've collaborated with so many different photographers in creating such various images that you should publish a book—My Life As A Photograph.
Cumming: Maybe I will.
Guillén: You definitely should. Few could carry it off like you. Are there any photographers you would like to work with?
Cumming: Yes, there are. I've never worked with Bruce Weber. I nearly have. I know him and everything and I have meant to shoot with him. He always shoots in the Adirondacks and I've got a place upstate and I really like that whole rustic thing he's got going. That would be really nice because people tend to not want to put me in that kind of situation when they shoot me. So I'd really like to do that with him. There's a photographer I'm going to work with soon named Rankin in Britain. He does Dazed and Confused. I haven't actually shot with him before so I'm going to shoot with him.
One of the good things about being famous when you make a photo with someone, it's like meeting another artist and you're going to make something together. That's actually exciting. It's like another piece of your work.
Guillén: Like your collaboration with Onan. That's a beautiful portrait.
Cumming: He's very clever, that boy. He does a painting on top of a photograph. I did one with Herb Ritts that I really like and that's also got special resonance because he died. I have a couple of friends who my relationship with them is about being photographed. I have one friend Eric Johnson. I go to his house. We chat, have a drink and a joint, and then he just shoots me. That's what we do. That's how we see each other. I'll see him at parties and such but our relationship is very much about him taking photographs of me. And I really like that.
Guillén: Have you always been that way? Have you always had that rapport with the lens?
Cumming: I've gotten more used to it. It's flattering when a photographer is interested. What's interesting when people want to take your photograph is that it's for various reasons; but, sometimes it's obviously—not because you're Pamela Anderson or something—but that there's something internal about you that intrigues them. If they're willing to ask you, I think it's really nice because you give them something and you meet in a funny place in the middle that's not just about you with lots of oil on you and wearing no clothes.
Guillén: What struck me in reviewing your photographic corpus this morning is that you are chameleonic, you are willing to have your hair styled, have make-up done, put on whatever costume is required; but, your eyes remain consistent. There's a mirthfulness in them that remains consistent and that's the beauty of it, no matter how different you're made to look, you're still yourself at all times, it shows in your eyes, Alan is there.
Cumming: [Smiling] Well the eyes are the window to the soul.
Guillén: There you go.
Cumming: The other day when I was flying to Provincetown, I got to sit in the co-pilot's seat because it's all about the weight. As I was checking in, they asked, "What's your body weight?" I was like, "How dare you?" But they needed to know because it was such a little plane and the pilot said they needed the co-pilot's seat to be filled so I sat there. I was looking out the window. This old lady was sitting behind me and when we got off, she said, "I've been looking at your eyelashes the whole flight." I said, "They're not real." She said, "Really?" I said, "Of course they are!" Everyone thinks I've got false eyelashes; often people think I'm wearing false eyelashes. Especially on a film if they've put mascara on them. I just thought it was so sweet that she was obsessed with my eyelashes in the middle of the air.
Guillén: Speaking of cosmetics, you have your own line? I find the advertisements clever and funny. I loved how you described your bath soap: "A big hard soap you'll want to drop in the shower."
Cumming: I love that it's called Cumming In A Bar.
Guillén: So how's the Cumming line doing?
Cumming: It's doing well. It's been really fun but also it's been like an art project as well. Obviously, I really like the product and everything; but, at the same time, I'm having fun with the whole idea of celebrity endorsement and images that have paid homage to old fragrance ads. Have you seen the commercial?
Guillén: No, I haven't.
Cumming: Go to the website. There's a commercial we've shot that's hilarious. But it's also one where people aren't quite sure if it's meant to be serious—and it is—but it's both. So the provocativeness of that I've really enjoyed. I like the stuff. I wear it. I'm wearing Cumming as we speak. I'm not a great businessman so, luckily, people have done that for me. It's also great because it's a good thing to use when people ask you for things for charity. This week we gave 500 bottles to the Trevor Project and 500 to charities who fight AIDS for liberty bags for people who give the money.
Guillén: A signature contribution.
Cumming: Yeah. And if you go to the website and buy it on the website, 20% of the proceeds go to the Empire State Pride Agenda, which is a great organization for equal rights.
Guillén: I'm being reminded of the telecast of Dick Cavett's interview with Katherine Hepburn when he asked her, "How do you do all this?" and she answered, "I was born with energy." You, likewise, have tremendous energy. You're constantly involved in some project or another. I admire your prolificacy. You act on the stage, on the screen, on television, you write, you direct, you're an activist, you have a cosmetics line, the list goes on and on. How do you administer all these various activities?
Cumming: I have to be quite organized. I have an office and I have someone working for me full time who manages everything. It's a lot of work but I've got it sorted out now so that I can just do my thing. But every day there's a time when I have to sit down and talk with someone on the phone about all these different projects. I have it organized quite well now, I think. I'm able to juggle lots of different things. Like after today, I have to go to London to do this play so I have to talk about that, and this week I shoot two days for The Sundance Channel where I host Midnight Snack. After Sundance I go back to Vancouver to shoot for four days. Next Friday I've got to go back to Chicago for my film. Saturday I fly to New York. Sunday I fly to London. And two weeks into the thing the dvd of the film I produced is coming out so I've got to go back. I've got the thing that I'm shooting in Vancouver and I've got to do a satellite link-up for the press thing….
Guillén: Is that Tin Man? The Sci-Fi Channel's reworking of The Wizard of Oz?
Guillén: And you're playing Glitch?
Cumming: Glitch, yeah, the Scarecrow. So it's a lot as well as just every day-to-day things like a guest list of who's coming to this and blah blah blah, just dealing with things that come into my office all the time.
Guillén: Even here at the Frameline Festival, aren't you involved in at least three projects? You're one of the voices in Rick & Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple In All the World….
Cumming: It's so funny, Rick & Steve….
Guillén: And then you're interviewed in Motherfucker: The Movie?
Cumming: Which I'm going to see tonight and I'm kind of scared because I was so smashed at that event.
Guillén: You can hide out at the back of the Victoria Theatre.
Cumming: I was at Motherfucker and the filmmakers said, "Oh, you're here. Let's interview you." So I said, "Okay." I'm intrigued that I even made it into the film.
Guillén: And then, of course, your directorial solo debut with Suffering Man's Charity tonight at the Castro. You'll be present to do Q&A?
Cumming: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I like doing the Q&As. Getting a chance to touch base with the audience and thank them.
Guillén: Well, thank you, Alan, for taking the time today. This has been a treat.
07/12/07 UPDATE: At the time that I conducted and posted this interview with Alan, the Cumming Fragrance website was under construction and I couldn't hyperlink to it. The new site is up with its mirthfully provocative commercial.
Also, Suffering Man's Charity is scheduled to screen July 21 at the 13th Annual Philadelphia International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival where Cumming received that festival's Artistic Achievement Award in 2004. In preparation for that screening—and I can only hope Alan will receive the selfsame raucous response he received at Frameline and the Castro Theatre—Sam Adams has profiled this "flaming creature" for Philadelphia's CityPaper.Net (via Dave Hudson at the Greencine Daily).