Playing God - Alan Cumming

It may have taken nearly twenty years but Alan Cumming is back with a vengeance. He talks to Miles Johnson about sex, lies and The Bacchae, the most anticipated show of the festival so far

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 6 minutes
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Published 08 Aug 2007
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It’s a sweltering day in London’s Soho and downstairs in the Groucho, the private members club where the city’s glitterati sip on pricey drinks and plot late into the night, the atmosphere is tense. Film producers are sweating over transatlantic calls, manically barking instructions down the line, and noble waitresses are frantically trying to meet the needs of London’s beautiful, demanding and deranged. Upstairs, sat casually in a black t-shirt nibbling on olives, is Alan Cumming, occasionally getting up to glance out of the window at the chaos outside, seemingly without a care in the world. And, just weeks away from what many expect to be his triumphant return to the Edinburgh Festival, who could blame him?

The last time Cumming was performing at Edinburgh it was as part of the comic double act Victor and Barry 17 years ago. Now playing Dionysus in The Bacchae, the Euripides play adapted by David Greig for this year’s International Festival, Cumming’s return is studded with some of the most glimmering talents of Scottish theatre. Directed by John Tiffany, the man responsible for the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch, many critics are taking a wise punt on The Bacchae emulating the director’s previous runaway success and, in what has been cemented as cliché in recent weeks, ‘doing a Black Watch’ itself. Still, after Cumming’s turns in Hollywood blockbusters like X Men 2 and critically acclaimed stage performances including his infamous MC in Sam Mendes’ Cabaret, such is the weight of expectation that few would begrudge him for being a tad nervous.

“It’s certainly daunting,” he says, calmly fingering his platter of olives as car horns rage in the streets below. “In a way because it has been so long it is like an emotional homecoming. I’m really excited about the project but, lets be honest, it would be hard not to be just a little nervous wouldn’t it?”

In The Bacchae, Cumming's character Dionysus, a son of Zeus, returns home demanding that his family recognise him as a god; the quest for acceptance being a theme that Cumming readily recognises in his own return to Scotland. “Dionysus has been all around the world and desperately wants to be accepted and in that way life is imitating art which is quite exciting. There are certainly parallels between me and the character. But,” he says launching into his soft, hiccupping laugh, “the difference is that I am not going to try to destroy anyone who doesn’t like me!”

Cumming is certainly somewhat of an anomaly in the cut and thrust of the international acting elite. Too eccentric to be a household name, too famous to be a cult actor, he is in some ways a contradictory figure, having a reputation as a fun loving wild child but possessing a formidable work ethic. Throughout his varied career he has bounced from one activity to the next, one minute playing the computer geek Bond villain Boris in Goldeneye, the next producing a full length novel, Tommy’s Tale, written in a London flat after suffering from a nervous breakdown following the collapse of his first marriage and the stress of playing Hamlet.

By playing Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and ancient symbol of debauched revelry, Cumming could feel, considering his own reputation for indulgence, that he is being typecast. But having famously described himself as a “frolicky pan-sexual sex symbol for the new millennium”, he is that rare thing for a Hollywood actor, an open bisexual who refuses to be defined by his sexual preference as much as he refuses to be pigeonholed as an actor. While homosexuality is no longer the taboo it once was, he feels there is still great suspicion directed towards bisexuals by people in the worlds of both theatre and film. “People are sometimes a little scared,” he says. “They think it doesn’t exist or that bisexuals are people on their way to being gay who haven’t quite accepted it yet. I think its hard enough being queer without that suspicion. People want it to be easy, they want to be clear about who you are, but sexuality is not black and white.”

Indeed, before several frank interviews in which Cumming felt obliged by the persistent nattering in the press about his sex life to set the record straight, he often found himself being asked questions by journalists who, according to him, “seemed more interested in my penis than my work.” “I remember journalists opening their questions by probing about my sexuality. I just used to say; ‘do you want me to say I like cock? Is that what you want because that’s really what you’re asking me’. I used to get really pissed off about it because I certainly don’t think that is the most interesting thing about me and certainly not about my work. I just thought it was crazy how these people had often come half way across the world to talk with me, and all they want to know is where I put my cock.”

But while the stage has a long and open history of gay actors, Hollywood, as he observes, is still a place reluctant to publicly embrace homosexuality, with many gay roles still taking the form of hyper-camp caricatures. For Cumming this tension was exemplified last year when a US gay magazine ran a cover feature ‘outing’ Jody Foster and CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. “I thought that was really interesting, not so much with Jodie as she is a very private person but more with Anderson Cooper. He talks about everything else, I mean he has written a book about his brother dying, but I’ve seen him giving someone a blowjob on the dance floor of the Roxy! I absolutely respect people’s privacy but I think when everything else about you is exposed apart from your sexuality, then if you still refuse to publicly acknowledge it, in a way, you’re homophobic too. I am a famous queer, and if I can help someone in Cowdenbeath or Milwaukee come to terms with themselves by talking about that, then I feel it is my responsibility to do so.”

At the International Festival however, Cumming’s much discussed private life will take a back seat as the anticipation continues to mount for The Bacchae, a play that only the dullest festival goer could fail to be excited about. As one of Scotland’s finest theatrical exports it seems fitting that he should return with the National Theatre of Scotland, a company currently experiencing a run that even the most optimistic could not have predicted three years into operation. Cumming, it appears, is perfectly cast as the enraged god of Euripides’ tragedy, his life having had wine and sorrow in equal measure and his return home surrounded by enough drama and expectation to almost be an event in itself.

“To be honest, it will be great just to be back”, he says glancing out of the window, the barking car horns having faded as the evening sets in. It has been a long journey, but having experienced breakdowns, gossip and the hypocrisy of Hollywood, it is in Edinburgh that, artistically at least, he might just have found his home.