Alan Cumming Grew Up in a Forest

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Photo: Patrick McMullan

We learned a lot about Alan Cumming at his Arts & Leisure Weekend chat with the New York Times' Patrick Healy on Saturday. First of all, Cumming grew up in a forest, which is perhaps the reason he is so spritelike. Nobody else in his family was an artist or actor, and they weren’t big theatergoers. "There is no logical reason why I would become an actor," the Tony winner explained. In fact, thanks to his experiences dealing with animals in this rural upbringing — "Quite often I would have to help in birthing a sheep — I've had my arm up a sheep's … and I quite liked it" — he originally wanted to be a veterinarian, but a really horrible biology teacher put him off that. He started drama school at 17. "I was quite innocent," he said. "And I kind of was sullied." He was working on Hamlet when director Sam Mendes asked him to play the emcee in Cabaret in London, so he sniffed, "Oh, I don't do musicals." However, once he learned that nightlife in Weimar Berlin was all about getting shagged, he decided the role was perfect for him. And that's how we got him — when the production came to New York, he stayed here. Why? "I liked it."

Daily Intel spent a few minutes with the Scot backstage before his Times Talk:

You were honored with an O.B.E. this year. Should we call you sir now?
I'm an officer of the British Empire. No, you don't have to call me anything. I just get to add O.B.E. at the end of my name, should I wish to do that. And I don't.

Does your husband now have some special title conferred on him as being the husband of an O.B.E.?
No. I mean, I think that's really interesting; but if you're a mixed-sex couple, if one is knighted, the other becomes Lady something, and I don't think there is an equivalent for the man. So I was thinking if it was, say, Sir Brian and Lady Fiona, you become that. But if it's two men, what does the other one become? Or if it's two lesbians, Dame somebody — Dame Lesbian, and what’s her girlfriend called, or her partner, or her wife? I think it's an interesting thing about etiquette, if there's sort of a new, uh, thing in the British etiquette system.

Princess Anne bestowed the honor. What did she say? What did you say?
We just chitchatted. I had just come back from Australia, I was really jet-lagged, so we talked a bit about the fact that I was all over the place, mentally. And she asked me if I was getting enough work — I thought that was really sweet — and, in fact, why did I live in New York, and stuff like that. My biggest worry was what I was wearing; I had a kilt suit made by this friend of mine in Scotland, and it was in my tartan, you know, the Hunting-Cumming tartan, and I was just really panicky about the fact that she was going to ask me what tartan I was wearing, because I had mixed up the first two letters of Hunting and Cumming the day before when someone asked me. And I was just really panicked I was going to say the C-word to the princess. But she didn’t ask me.

Is there anything new with your cosmetics line, Cumming? Any new products?
No. It’s funny, though, people invent products. Like the man at yoga today said, "Oh, I love you have Cumming on a Man and Cumming on a Woman." I was like, "I don't." And then someone goes, "Oh, I love you have facial moisturizer called Cumming on Your Face." I don’t. There’s only like five things in the line, and I think it's quite interesting that I've unleashed some sort of devilment in people that they make up products with dirty names involving my name.

This is the New York Times interviewing you today. Do you read newspapers, or have you gravitated to online news?
I'm much more of an online boy. I get the New York Times downloaded to my Kindle.

You're a Kindle person?
I'm crazy about Kindle now! It's all just about what's going to be the cover of my Kindle right now. But I go to the Huffington Post a lot; I go to Google News as well because you can change over to the British papers. And I go to Towleroad for my homosexual news, and the Atlantic, you know, stuff like that. I'm really actually fascinated by the way that the news industry is changing. Like, I had a row with Salman Rushdie last year, about this thing about how he needs to feel the paper, and because all these websites source print publications to get their news, so there's going to be a time when the print things are going to go out of business, and then there's going to be a lull before all the websites work out how to finance their own reporters. And I think it's quite interesting to be in the middle of a change like that.