Alan Cumming’s scariest role: playing himself
By Mary Houlihan Curtain Callfirstname.lastname@example.org May 25, 2011 4:06PM
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 18: Alan Cumming attends Kiehl's 160th anniversary celebration at Kiehl's Flagship Store on May 18, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images) R:\Merlin\Getty_Photos\GYI0064799383.jpg
‘I Bought a Blue Car
7:30 p.m. May 28
Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph
Updated: August 25, 2011 12:33AM
Scottish actor Alan Cumming has taken on an extraordinary variety of roles that range from a James Bond villain to a London transvestite to a Chicago political operative. But he admits the most terrifying role was playing himself in his one-man show “I Bought a Blue Car Today.”
“My friends kept telling me I should do this but there was nothing I wanted to do less than stand up there as myself,” Cumming said. “And so, of course, I was immediately attracted to it and scared to death at the same time.”
“I Bought a Blue Car Today” makes its Chicago debut in a one-night performance May 28 at the Harris Theater. The title comes from his application to become a U.S. citizen on which you’re required to provide a sentence proving you can write English.
The musical show is a collection of stories and experiences of his time over the past 10 plus years spent in the States. Cumming’s desire to become a citizen was spurred on by his love of New York City and a desire to vote in the last presidential election (he missed the vote by three days).
“I came to New York in 1997 to do ‘Cabaret’ and fell in love with the city,” Cumming recalled in a phone conversation from a New York cafe. “It was a magical entree; I just felt so comfortable here.”
The songs Cumming performs in “I Bought a Blue Car Today,” many of which are found on a CD of the same name, are an eclectic mix. They can range from his own original tunes to songs by Cyndi Lauper, Jimmy Webb and Dory Previn to “Mein Heir” from “Cabaret and selections from “Chess” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
“I’ve discovered singing is a really wonderful way of connecting with an audience,” Cumming said.
Casual fans know Cumming for his role on CBS’ “The Good Wife” on which he plays cagey political operative Eli Gold. It’s more of a button-downed role than his other current creation — the transvestite Desrae on “The Runaway,” an adaptation of Martina Cole’s novel running on British television.
“In England on Thursday night, I’m on ‘The Good Wife’ on one channel and in ‘The Runaway’ on another,” Cumming said, laughing. “That’s wide ranging, the opposite ends of the spectrum.”
The impish, likable actor, who studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, already had a prolific career on the London stage when Sam Mendes’ staging of “Cabaret” transferred to Broadway. He won nearly every award there is for his sensational portrayal of the musical’s debauched Emcee.
Cumming, who is gay, now lives in New York City with Grant Shaffer, an illustrator he married in 2007. His portrayal of Eli on “The Good Wife,” which is set in Chicago but filmed in New York, has become one of the series’ most popular. Recently, his contract was renewed for another three seasons.
“I’ve played some crazy character’s in my life, and I put Eli on that list,” Cumming, 46, said. “Some people seem shocked because he’s such a ‘normal’ character for me to play. But’s he’s not normal; he’s nuts. And ruthless about getting what he wants but still a force for good.”
Cumming admits the character was “very much inspired’ by Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s new mayor.
“I didn’t study him or anything but I understood his essence and tried to incorporate that into Eli,” Cumming said. “I think there are a lot of similarities between the two.”
Chicago politics also began to fascinate Cumming as he got more involved in the show.
“The most interesting thing to me is how Chicago wears the corruption and history of corruption as a sort of badge of honor,” Cumming said. “Most cities dodge it, and keep it quiet. But it seems there’s a different set of rules for Chicago. It’s not being glossed over but very out in the open. And I like that.”
Besides his work in “Cabaret,” Cumming has appeared on Broadway in “The Threepenny Opera” and “Design for Living.” He was set to portray the Green Goblin in Julie Taymor’s “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” a production that has since faced unprecedented problems and is still shy of an opening night. Cumming said he wishes the show well but is happy he walked away from it for “The Good Wife.”
“It’s really a nightmare what’s happened with the show,” Cumming said. “I really liked the character and was looking forward to getting back to Broadway. But sometimes you just can’t tell how these things will turn out.”
As for returning to the “real” Chicago, Cumming says he’s only been here twice — once last fall to receive an award from the Chicago International Film Festival and once to promote the 1997 movie “Buddy” — and is looking forward to another short visit. He laughingly recalls his first, somewhat embarrassing, impression of Chicago.
“I arrived in the dark on a really stormy night and was taken to the Four Seasons hotel. The next morning I woke up and opened the curtains and thought ‘Oh my gosh, there’s been a terrible flood.’ I didn’t know there was a great lake next to the city. That’s how green I was just off the plane from Scotland.”