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Words Alison Kubler
Illustration Gladys Perint Palmer

Reformations—A dialogue on manners and politics with Alan Cumming

The Scottish actor talks Trump, lookalikes and good behaviour with curator Alison Kubler for Museum Issue 6, themed ‘Sorry… have we met?’

Alan Cumming is, well, a lot of things. He’s Scottish for one. He is also an actor, singer, performer, writer and activist. He lives in New York City with his husband, Grant Shaffer—an illustrator for the New Yorker, The New York Times and Interview—with their two dogs, Jerry and Lala.

He is a star of television (The Good Wife, Sex and the City, Frasier, The L Word), and has received multiple nominations for all the right award categories: Golden Globe, Emmy, Screen Actors Guild, Critics’ Circle and Satellite. His movie credits include Circle of Friends, GoldenEye, Emma and X2, part of the X-Men franchise. In 2016 he made Battle of the Sexes opposite Emma Stone and Steve Carrell, and starred in After Louie.

His stage career is no less staggering. In 1998, he starred in Cabaret on Broadway in New York as the Master of Ceremonies. He won The Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics’ Circle, NY Press, Theater World, FANY (Friends of New York Theatre), and the New York Public Advocate’s. He returned to Broadway, Studio 54 and the same Cabaret role in 2014, opposite Michelle Williams, Sienna Miller and Emma Stone. The Guardian praised him as “brutish, jack-booted, playing the part with a yobbish licentiousness.”

That’s when we were first introduced, after the show at one of his famous ‘Club Cumming’ nights—a makeshift lounge in the actor’s dressing room with branded cups and napkins and sponsored drinks. He’d DJ, and famous folk hung out cheek by jowl: celebrities from the audience, co- stars and hangers on. The night I met him, he was entertaining Armistead Maupin, Jennifer Lawrence and Sir Paul McCartney. The club would always close the same way, with Liza Minnelli’s ‘Ring them Bells’ as party guests jangled their house keys.

Cumming’s activism and passion for various civil rights and sex education causes has earned him a slew of humanitarian awards. His tour, Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs is ongoing and his most recent book of photos and stories, You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams: My Life in Stories and Pictures has just been published.

We spoke toward the end of 2016—November 13, to be exact—just after the election result in the US. It was a Sunday.

ALISON KUBLER So, how are you?

Alison Kubler is a curator, writer and the co-author of Thames and Hudson’s publication Art/Fashion in the 21st Century. She contributes to the Australian Financial Review’s AFR Magazine and Art Collector, and is a Board Director of the Museum of Brisbane. Her three children—Phoebe, Olympia and Leo—are 11, 9 and 5-years-old respectively, and are mentioned in this conversation with Cumming.

ALAN CUMMING Oh, you know … trying to move on from what has happened.

KUBLER One of my first questions for you was, what now? Everyone in Australia—where I live, as you know—literally sat up and watched the whole of election night, just watching the horror unfold.

CUMMING My mum and all her friends in Britain did the same thing. It’s easy to see why it’s happening—if you look at [Trump’s] rise it’s completely predictable, but it’s a horrible indictment of how people can be so easily manipulated, and how this country does not value education enough. [America] has allowed a whole subsection of the population … to be easy prey for hate and propaganda.

[Barking sounds]

KUBLER Is that Lala?

CUMMING No it’s a friend’s dog. Sorry.

KUBLER I wish I were a pet at this point—oblivious to all that is going on.

CUMMING When we dragged ourselves home after the election, we thought, “I wonder if they can tell?” I bet they understand something big has happened.

KUBLER And maybe when you say the word ‘Trump’ their ears go back and their heckles rise. I picked up the kids from school—Phoebe got in the car and said, “Who’s won? Who’s won?” and I said, “You know, it’s looking really bad.” We came home and turned the television on and watched all night. Children, you know, you’ve got to give them information, let them know that things are not great. You can’t fudge it. They were just so incredulous, and they’re only 11 and 9.

CUMMING I’ve been talking to a few parents and it must be so awful trying to describe to kids how this has happened. For the longest time they were seeing all these terrible things, all the things you’ve heard [Trump] being reprimanded for: bullying, being mean to people different or less fortunate, being disrespectful to women—and all of a sudden he’s the one who won. That must be such a difficult landscape for a child.

KUBLER Well they look at you and say, “You’re adults, why can’t you fix that?” It makes no sense whatsoever. I just can’t believe people in America don’t vote!

CUMMING Less than half, just under 45%. They’re … not engaged in the political system. And it’s just a two-party system, so it’s just a choice you have to make. This is really the last hurrah of—you know—old white guys.

KUBLER Well yes, it feels like a triumph for [intolerant] white men, which is very sad … I was thinking about this idea of manners and bad manners, and how we carry ourselves in society, and it strikes me that the election and Donald Trump are the perfect example of really bad manners. The man has no manners whatsoever. What would you describe as the height of bad manners?

CUMMING Ha! My line in the sand is when people are mean to waiters. It’s a simple thing, [but] the way someone treats a waiter in a restaurant speaks volumes to me. To take this one step further, on film sets, when you’re a movie star you can be mean to people. You’re not going to be told off. You’re allowed to be quite mean to quite a lot of people if you choose to be. That says a lot about your character … I mean, there are worse things you can do, but … it says the most about someone.

KUBLER We live in a time of heightened emotional sensitivities. People are reluctant to critique others for fear of social media retribution. On one hand, one has the ability to say anything one wants—in a social media context—but on the other hand, for example at American university campuses, there exists, increasingly, this crushing of freedom of speech. I’ve been reading about that a lot recently. Are you someone who takes offence? Do you get offended when critiqued?

CUMMING No, I don’t think you can. I think if you’re an artist of any kind, either don’t engage in it—close yourself off—or be ready to embrace it all. Sometimes I get death threats on Twitter. Over the years I’ve done things that have crossed a line in terms of people’s personal values. But what I [try to remember] is that I don’t like everything I see, so I can’t expect everyone to like me … If you’re going to be out in the world [publicly sharing your opinions] you have to expect to have some people disagree with that and shout some stuff back at you. And I’d much rather do that [than be quiet]. I mean, sometimes I block people if they’re just being completely dastardly. But when it comes to reviews I think if you’re going to read the good ones you have to read the bad ones as well.

KUBLER Can you think of a time when you were deeply offended? And maybe you look back now and wonder why you cared so much?

CUMMING There have been a few instances—work things—where people have lied to me. It sounds ridiculous now, but for the second Harry Potter film they said they were interested in me doing this part but that I’d have to do a screen test, and I was like, “A screen test!?” I did [it], but then I found out, after they told me they had no money to pay me for the screen test, that they paid the other person [going for the role] … They stupidly forgot I had the same agent as this other actor. They blatantly lied to me and said they couldn’t give me any money … I found a gif of me online from some television show where I say, “Tell them to fuck off, and use the words ‘fuck’ and ‘off.’”

I remember a long, long time ago there was The Face. Remember The Face magazine? I was number seven in The Face’s list of celebrities that needed to be beheaded.

KUBLER No!

CUMMING And I was really offended, actually. I thought, “I get if you don’t like me, but don’t say that!”

“The way someone treats a waiter in a restaurant speaks volumes to me.”

Alan Cumming

KUBLER What do you think of the fact you can take your phone to the theatre and live tweet?

CUMMING I hate it. I sort of get it’s not going to change, it’s not going to go away. There are now certain sections of the audience where tweeters go, they’re live-tweeting things about the performance … You see the little light [of the phone screen] from stage and it’s incredibly distracting. I think we should encourage people to be focused—our lack of focus and our inability to hold onto information and analyse it is precisely the problem today. And so this idea that we’re encouraging people to multitask while they’re supposed to be watching me! Ha! I hate it. When I do my concerts I often take people’s phones away from them if they’re filming. When I’m singing, if they’re close to me, I’ll just grab their phone. There was one time a girl got up to go to the loo and there was a big clatter, and all of her things fell out of her bag and one of the things was her phone so I said, “Give it to me!” We took a video—and did a video of the audience—while she was in the loo and gave it back to her friend, and she didn’t know.

KUBLER I went to the opening night of The [Australian] Brandenburg Orchestra. It made me cry—people went in jeans! It just kills me. How can you not respect the performer [especially when it’s] opening night?

CUMMING I went on a cruise across the Atlantic with my mum a few years ago and I really enjoyed the getting-dressed-for-dinner thing.

KUBLER It’s respectful.

CUMMING Yeah, I actually liked it. I don’t like that sometimes it smacks of velvet ropes and elitism. There’s a fine line—it can be nice to make an occasion of something, but not when you’re making people feel like they can’t come in.

KUBLER This leads me to the idea of the ‘schmooze,’ and how we present ourselves in public, because you live in a world that’s all about the schmooze, right? People are ingratiating, I would imagine, and you would have to negotiate what is genuine [and] authentic and what is not. How is your radar for that now?

CUMMING You mean that people want to be near you … because of fame? That’s been the case since I was in my 20s. So I have it down pretty well. People sometimes come over just to brag. I was in LA a couple of years ago, a person came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder and went, “Alan, you’re looking great, blah blah, just checking in,” and then left, and I thought, “I don’t even know who you are!” It’s sort of a weird proprietorial attitude people have towards you. [The best response is to] be kind and send them on their merry way. It’s not so difficult.

KUBLER I’m going to send you this beautiful essay by Joshua Decter, called ‘Schmoozing and Slumming.’ I think you will love it. It’s about the ethics of upward class mobility in America, how it’s still a thing of value … He writes about how Andy Warhol was the best proponent of that. He totally understood how the system worked, and did it with such aplomb that I don’t think anyone has come close to his analysis of American culture.

I was thinking about the idea of [social] role-playing, and of course being an actor. That’s something you’re proficient at, your ability to take on different roles. You are one of those actors who have a huge range—everything from comedy to Jane Austen to Spice World (which, incidentally, Phoebe and I watched the other day; she nearly fell of her chair when she realised you were in it). That ability to play such a wide variety of roles, is that something you were always able to do?

CUMMING Yeah. I mean, the wanting-to-be-an actor-ambition was in me since I was a little boy. I used to [hang out] alone in the woods where I grew up, just play-acting and making up stories—acting out things myself—so when I started to do plays at school I was quite good, because I understood that concept [of stepping into another identity]. My journey to being an actor was very much about that, about playing at being other people. It wasn’t about wanting to be famous or to achieve something … I enjoyed pretending to be someone else.

I’m not quite sure about the situation in Australia, but in America famous actors tend to do the same thing again and again. They don’t want Julia Roberts doing an Irish accent. They want Julia Roberts to be Julia Roberts, and they want George Clooney to be George Clooney; they don’t want him to be in a disguise with some funny voice. European acting is a very different ball game.

For me, especially being European, being Scottish, growing up in drama school they said, “You’re never going to use your [natural] voice,” so you have to learn to do all these different voices. That’s how I survived: my combined childhood joy [of] pretending to be other people and play acting … The great thing about going to drama school young is that you’re 17 and you’re playing a 65-year-old in a Chekhov play. You never really play yourself. That was actually a flaw [too]— when I left drama school one of my first TV gigs was a TV detective show, and I played a young boy on the run from the police. I had no idea how to do that. I couldn’t speak.

KUBLER Sometimes I see you in productions and I get halfway though before realising, “Oh my god, it’s you!” You’ve just suspended that aspect of yourself and taken on something else, which I think is quite hard to do … I know it sounds like a weird and philosophical question, but how important is authenticity?

CUMMING Oh, to me, or in general?

KUBLER To you.

CUMMING Hugely. It’s [a desire] at the very core of my being—I want to be authentic in my work and as a person. Actually, the older I’ve gotten, I’ve [wondered], why am I successful? Why do people want to watch me? Why do people want to look at me? It’s a difficult thing to actually vocalise or to verbalise and to engage with, but you have to be a grown-up and say, ‘For some reason people are looking at me’ and they seem to be fascinated. And you have to try to understand what that is. I think I can see it in my work. The more successful things, the works audiences really respond to, are those where I reveal something about myself … Even in The Good Wife, where I’m playing someone completely different to myself, there’s something about the fact it’s me playing the role that the audience enjoyed. That’s because they know who I am. I’m lucky in that the world’s perception of me is actually quite accurate. It’s very much like who I am. I don’t have to pretend to be someone else [publicly], and I think a lot of people do.

KUBLER I think that’s actually missing in contemporary culture—we get a very manufactured image of everyone, not just celebrities but people in general. You don’t do that.

CUMMING I don’t, no.

KUBLER Your Instagram feed is so honest. It can be a hard thing to do well. I lecture a lot in fashion and art [and] I’m always telling my students to respect intellectual property, because they just live in a social media context where every image is one they can take, any idea they see instantly becomes their own. They don’t feel obliged to acknowledge where it’s from. We don’t teach intellectual property anymore [at universities], or that [the origins of] ideas are paramount, and you need to respect them.

CUMMING I know!

KUBLER Maybe if we went back to some kind of very simple idea of how to function as human beings, how we relate to and respect one another. You’re a great proponent of gay marriage, of course. What do you think about Australia’s inability to make this happen?

CUMMING It’s disappointing, and I imagine it’s embarrassing. There are places like Ireland and Spain who’ve done it long before you and those [nations] have the added layer of religious weirdness and guilt that comes with Catholicism … I don’t quite get it. [Australia] is so fabulously progressive in many other ways, and the fact that it keeps coming up [in parliament] and not happening, is really… I don’t know. I think also your politicians are just very cautious in general. I mean, why do you think [it’s lagging]?

KUBLER We have fear in Australia—we’re not dissimilar to America in that regard … Also there’s the [general] rise of the right internationally, with Brexit and Donald Trump.

CUMMING It’s the world’s way of reacting to lots of people being displaced, [which is almost as if] someone’s smearing the whole world with a wet cloth, and moving everyone around. Everyone is very, very anxious about the perceived ‘other.’

KUBLER It sort of feels like a World War II scenario. I don’t mean that there’s a war coming, but that there’s an anxiety building. Fear culture is the new culture. Fear politics is worldwide. What did you think of Brexit? You must have been horrified.

CUMMING Horrified. I try to understand it as the language of fear and also a lack of education. The day after Brexit one of the most highly searched phrases on Google was “What is the EU?” People didn’t know, they were just motivated by terrorism and fear, and they didn’t actually know what they were voting for! In the same way, you know, I was talking last night about how people can vote for Trump when he’s a misogynist and a racist [but many who voted] decided to turn a blind eye to it …

I think [key media outlets] in both this election and Brexit have been so appalling in terms of calling people to task, holding them, challenging them when they lie. There needs to be a revolution in the media. There needs to be someone we know is non-partisan and is actually going to—when a politician says a blatant lie—say “That’s not true!”

KUBLER This is a really huge question: do you think that art can change the world?

CUMMING Oh, I absolutely do. I think it does. I think that in any dictatorship, any totalitarian regime, the first thing [to occur is the] cutting down of the artist, because they know they are the most powerful people— their messages are the most insidious. Art is how people demonstrate. It’s how people communicate when they’re not allowed to speak freely. It’s an essential part of existing in the world. And art itself can be an incredibly powerful weapon; it’s an [integral addition to] your arsenal of things you use to exist in this world. People know this, and will very quickly take it away from you.

KUBLER I remember seeing Picasso’s Guernica in Madrid, and being so profoundly moved by that painting. I didn’t actually expect it to be [so arresting]. You see reproductions; you know the story. And I saw it in the flesh and just thought, “This is so extraordinary.” It’s such an enduring thing and that’s why there’s a tapestry reproduction in the UN offices in New York and it’s …

CUMMING So powerful.

KUBLER It’s so powerful. I’m not sure it’s going to be art that does it, maybe it’ll be music, maybe it’ll be theatre, I don’t know what the medium will be, but it strikes me that we need artists to be political. You’re living in America in an incredible time.

CUMMING Everyone was very interested in this election because they know it’s going to effect them big time. It’s a fascinating wake-up call for everybody because it’s happened now … we’ve got to be vigilant and try and hope he steps down a little from his rhetoric. I’ve been looking at the people demonstrating, saying, “Not my President.” I feel that’s kind of counterproductive. He is our President and there’s nothing we can do about it. He was democratically elected, we’ve really got to respect the democratic system. We can demonstrate and we can be angry, but I would rather people harness that energy into making sure that all of our rights are protected. There’s a lot of anger coming out of both sides, in horrible ways, but we can’t—unless you want to have a revolution—you can’t say he’s not your president. When Bush was elected people were actually afraid. I was scared too. You see a pattern. When Thatcher got in again I was a young lad andwas horrified by it. When you’re a little older you remember [this has all happened before.] It’s still unpleasant, but at least there’s some security in thinking that you got through it.

“I think that in any dictatorship, any totalitarian regime, the first thing to occur is the cutting down of the artist, because they know they are the most powerful people—their messages are the most insidious.”

Alan Cumming

KUBLER Have you ever met Donald Trump?

CUMMING Yes, I have.

KUBLER I thought you might have. And was he polite?

CUMMING He was just, you know, distant. Imposing. And you know, it was at this big event and it was Grant [Shaffer, my husband] who sat next to him. It was me, Grant, Donald, and Melania.

KUBLER That’s too funny.

CUMMING It was very strange. And so crazy because across the aisle was Sarah Palin. I was like, “How did we get in this section?”

KUBLER Grant is so gorgeous I can’t even imagine what he said to Trump. Have you met Obama?

CUMMING Yes, I’ve met Obama. We went to the White House Christmas party and that was really amazing—incredible that Obama knew who I was. He knew songs from my album!

KUBLER What a pinch-me moment. Do you still have those episodes in life where you think, “Is this really happening?”

CUMMING Yes. The other night I sang at Carnegie Hall with [actress] Chita Rivera!

KUBLER As you do.

CUMMING And I sang with Chita Rivera and I did the Bob Fosse moves she had done, and I thought, “Holy shit! You’ve got to keep your shit together!”. And things like, when I was in Edinburgh doing my show, the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and the Scottish laureate Jackie Kay, known as the ‘makar,’ came to my show and came back afterwards and said, “We really liked your use of words,” and I was just like, “What!?” And then another thing that happened recently was when we sold our flat in New York, an article about us selling our flat was trending on Facebook. And I thought, “Fuck me, that’s crazy.”

KUBLER You have enjoyed career longevity. It’s a beautiful thing, and hasn’t changed the person you are, which I think is extraordinary. Kudos to you and Grant.

CUMMING Hopefully we have become better people … I saw you were at the David Hockney show the other day.

KUBLER I didn’t get to meet him but I did stand very close. I remember going to the Tate when I was 10 and seeing Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy and I loved it so much my mum bought me a print, which is still in my old bedroom. That painting is one of the reasons I studied art history. To be in the same room as Hockey was amazing. Have you ever met him?

CUMMING I have never met him, but I love that documentary he did about going back to Yorkshire and painting the Dales. I love that he and Alan Bennett are always mistaken for each other. He said he’s always signing things Alan Bennett.

KUBLER How funny! And little do they know they have a David Hockney. Do you ever get mistaken for anyone?

CUMMING Sometimes when I’ve got my hair slicked back people think I’m Pee-wee Herman. And he gets the same thing.

KUBLER That’s about the best doppelganger you could ever have.

CUMMING I quite like it.

KUBLER Thank you my darling.

CUMMING Alright love.

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