Alan Cumming is so versatile he can dance with himself!
Alan Cumming, so versatile he can dance with himself, will perform Legal Immigrant one night only, Thursday May 3 at Benaroya Hall. Phillip Toledano

Alan Cumming’s dog is barking. The tone of the bark suggests it may be an act of protest against his master doing a telephone interview instead of paying attention to him.

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“Jerry,” Cumming snaps on the other end of the phone, “stop it!”

Jerry complies.

I mention—in an oft-rehearsed tone that dog owners usually recognize as a shibboleth, and which non-dog-owners take as the perfect illustration of why they would never own a dog—that Jerry sounds like a pretty bad dog.

“He’s a naughty boy right now, yes,” Cumming allows (using words that should obviously only ever be spoken in a Scots burr). “He’s been very moody lately.”

Cumming and his husband Grant Shaffer are famously into their pets. They even wrote and illustrated a children’s book, The Adventures of Honey and Leon, named for their now-deceased dogs. They have since adopted Jerry, a Chihuahua/rat terrier mix (who has recently become notorious for barking during phone calls), and Lala, a collie-spaniel mix. Because your obedient servant also lives with a pair of dogs, one big, one little, who dominate my consciousness, we compare notes on our attitudes toward dog discipline.

“I kind of don’t take any nonsense,” says Cumming. “But I think it’s all about tone. I’ve let them misbehave, but they know when I’m serious. You talk very low.” His voice—familiar, enchanting, perfect—drops nearly an octave: “‘How dare you?’ is my go-to ‘no.’ That’s when they know there’s no mucking about.”

Which seems as good a cue as any for me to come to the point of this interview, which is nothing to do with dogs, alas, but rather, to talk about Cumming’s upcoming appearance in Seattle. The show, which promises to be more cabaret than Cabaret (though there will be some of the latter), is called Legal Immigrant, and it lands at Benaroya Hall this coming Thursday, May 3.

The Seattle date marks the show's world premiere. Tickets, though not cheap, are still available.

It’s hard to imagine anyone having made it past the dog talk without knowing who Cumming is, but in the event… Alan Cumming is an astonishingly versatile performer—most notably a stage, screen, and TV actor (the kind who can appear in a single scene and steal the whole film), though also a singer and author.

He was born in Aberfeldy, Scotland in 1965, but become a US citizen in 2008 so that he could vote for Barack Obama. Fortunately for all, his accent came with him.

His film career includes memorable-to-dazzling appearances in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, Spice World, Eyes Wide Shut, The Anniversary Party (which he co-wrote and co-directed with Jennifer Jason Leigh), X-Men 2, and a million other movies on the spectrum between light camp and heavy drama—most recently After Louie.

His television work has been just as impressive, partly because, as opposed to his life in films, which has been divided fairly evenly between mainstream and indie fare, he has mostly been on network TV shows, beginning in the mid-‘80s with appearances on multiple UK series, and leading to six seasons as the show-stealing Eli Gold on The Good Wife. He’s starring in a new CBS series called Instinct, on which he plays TV's first openly gay detective. (You might want to hurry if you’re curious…)

His masterpiece, however, came on stage, where he starred as the Master of Ceremonies in Sam Mendes’s revival of the Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret. After 20 years of associating the role with the aloof, androgynous archness of Joel Grey (no disrespect, obviously) in the Bob Fosse film, Cumming eviscerated the part, investing the character with creepy, lusty, seductive, malevolent, amoral menace—a brutal combination of complicity and victimhood. He won every award a stage actor can win, and it still wasn’t enough praise. The production premiered in London in 1993, and was reprised on Broadway in 1998, and again in 2014.

Cumming has also been an outspoken queer equality activist, hosted the Tonys, written a novel and an excellent memoir, and released three records. The tracklist of the most recent of them, I Bought a Blue Car Today (2012), were a mix of pop, folk, soft rock, and musical theater songs (including one he co-wrote!) that Cumming sang in a popular touring show of the same name, which appears to have been a good working model that inspired his new show, as well.

I haven’t seen Cumming’s cabaret (though I did see his Cabaret), it’s more or less impossible to imagine the show being anything less than delightful, funny, lovely, and possibly even more. I interviewed him once before when he brought The Anniversary Party to be the opening night event at SIFF 2001. "My motto," he said, "which is born of insecurity more than anything else, is: 'You can be as big as you like as long as you mean it.'"

He truly sounds like he means it.

I dont need these notes!
"I don't need these notes!" Tre

THE STRANGER: You have so many pursuits, it must be difficult to make time to do live appearances.

ALAN CUMMING: I really like this way of performing. I really like singing with my little band and sort of talking as myself. In a way, it's something I've wanted to do for years and just over the last five or six, maybe longer now, I’ve been able to. It's a form I've really come to love. I'm able to do on my own schedule, and if I'm—as I am—filming a television series, it's nice to sort of think that I can slot in these concerts.

And, I love going to different parts of America, and the world, and just kind of, you know, arriving and just putting on this show.

I think the connection you get with an audience in the theater, but especially during a show like this, is really incredible. It's very personal, and very authentic. And it's something I have grown to, sort of, you know, crave. And I like the form. I like the form of being able to change genres of songs and just talk about anything I want. And, also to have a real smorgasbord of emotions and styles. It's really fascinating to me.

Can you talk a bit about the difference between singing as yourself and singing in character? Is it one thing if you’re singing as the MC in Cabaret and another if you’re singing as Alan Cumming, even if it’s the same song?

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Well, I feel… I sing like I act. You know, I don't have a voice that is separate to me. I don't really slot into the kind of Broadway type of singer. I don't have that tone and I don't think my voice is a beautiful thing. I feel like I can use my voice to interpret songs well and act them well. I feel that's why I'm probably very different from most of the people that I can think of who are actors who sing.

I sing in my own accent, as well, when I sing as myself. Again, it's a more personal thing for me. I always find it really weird that people, even amazing singers like Adele, she sounds like a little girl from East London and then she starts singing and she sounds like someone from Memphis.

I think it's interesting about why people choose to sing. I mean I get it. Pop music, rock music, is essentially an American form and so therefore people always associate it... It's like why people sing opera in a certain accent.

The whole thing about me doing a show like this is to be authentic, and personal, and intimate, and so, how could I have a different voice whilst performing it? That's my thing. I mean, when I sing in a character, I think I approach how to sing from the character first rather than from the outside, in kind of a vocal way.

I think pop music now accommodates a lot more of the actorly mannerisms and vocal affectations you’re talking about than it used to, though I don’t know if that’s because the artists are more comfortable with artifice or whether audiences are less able to identify it. Do you hear that?

Yeah. There's a lot of sort of vocal acrobatics. It's a show off, you know? It's not a sort of a sport; it's something you're trying to tell a story, hopefully, and trying to touch people and communicate with people.

Obviously, some people are sports stars. It's like someone who can do back flips or something. You know, someone who's got an incredible body or something, but I don't know. Someone's incredibly beautiful.

I think with singing, unless it's utterly, utterly, incredible then really what you should be doing is communicating and I don't like all that. I've never been a fan the sort of vibrato-y, Broadway style. It doesn't interest me at all. Everyone sounds the same. I don't want to sound the same as everyone else. I think the most interesting thing about why I'm singing a song is because of me singing it, rather than my voice. I don't try and “generic-ify” that.

Can you think of any precedents for the kind of show you’re doing? Any performers who scratch the same itch?

I mean, I think that what I'm doing is very old-fashioned, actually. I'm sort of reminded of a lot of people I've seen over the years. Especially in places like the Edinburgh Festival, you see the idea of someone doing a cabaret is very common, much more common than here.

I think the thing I do that's kind of unusual, and I’ve sort of started to realize is maybe my shtick or forte is that I sing songs you wouldn't expect me to sing. You know, in the last one I sang a Miley Cyrus song and everyone was freaking out about that. And in this one I'm doing a couple songs I'm sure people will be gobsmacked by.

And actually, my mission is to make people question why they like something or dislike something just because this year the current society way of thinking about something. I want people to question that and say, "Well, what do you think of it?" And why is something defined as tacky.

Like with Crocs shoes: I always think, why is it that we're all allowed to be horrible about Crocs? We've been given permission by someone, in general, but we've all jumped on it, like sheep and we all say that we hate Crocs. And I think that's fascist. Fascism at work. And so I'm always very leery of that and I am a big Crocs fan.

I'm always questioning. Like when I'm DJing and I see people being scared to dance because they think it's too tacky or too poppy and I just think: If you want to dance, just dance. It doesn't matter what it is. Who cares if it's tacky? If you want to, move to it. A lot of that goes on in America. It's just a cultural snobbery. And I don't like it.

Did you follow the recent—though now it feels like it happened during my adolescence— outrage and debate that followed Taylor Swift covering the Earth, Wind, and Fire song, “September”? Is that kind of thing on your radar?

What, culturally appropriating songs?

Yeah, I mean either in the context of the cultural snobbery you were just talking about or in terms of your own process for choosing songs to perform and record.

Yes, it is. I mean, I think cultural appropriation itself is not necessarily a negative thing. What's negative is when you are in some way abusing or not giving credit to the culture that it's come from.

Right.

And so, I'm singing songs that were originally sung by a lot of women, actually, in this one, but I feel I'm honoring them. I'm not appropriating them. I'm trying to say, you know, other people can sing these songs. I do find it hilarious that people have such strong opinions about the whole Taylor Swift thing.

The thing I'm most intrigued about with her is why she hasn't been more vocal about the political nature. With all the stuff that's being written and heard bout that. She must know that people are thinking that. Why she's not spoken out about that? I mean, I haven't paid that much attention. Maybe she has spoken out. That to me seems more like something I'd like to hear of than whether or not she's covered an Earth, Wind, and Fire record.

The FUCK did you say about Crocs?
"The FUCK did you say about Crocs?"

Well, what do you make of the idea that she, or that celebrities in general—though she represents a unique social crossroads—feel like they have to toe some kind of line before giving voice to convictions that might alienate some members of their audience?

Celebrities don't have to do that. Celebrities choose to do that. I don't do that. A lot of people don't. I understand. I think honestly this is, again, another American trait. We want to know what our celebrities are and box them into a thing. We don't really want to hear. I think a lot of people find it difficult that celebrities have so much power, especially now with social media. It's so easy to actually be vocal and to highlight an issue. A lot of people don't like it. Mostly they don't like it because if you don't have the same opinion as them, they would like it if you did. But celebrities have so much, you know, sway in terms of the cultural conversation.

But, I mean, there's a certain degree to which in just living your life in a way that is somewhat unconventional that certain people would object to. That is, in a sense, a political stance. I know that it’s not necessarily the leading cause for the way you actually live your life…

I feel like there's a whole spectrum of ways that you can work as someone in the public eye. You can just do your work and go home and not say anything. Or you can, you know, be very vocal. And there's also a whole spectrum of how you can be vocal. With my new TV show, you know, millions of people who are going to watch this will never have seen same-sex marriage portrayed on television before. And that's an amazing thing to be able to do, to actually show people that. And luckily, I think, in a sort of positive way. It's been handled really well.

And I just had this movie out called After Louie that was a very, very, very forceful discussion about the schism between different generations of gay men, because of AIDS—a much more on-the-nose and kind of a much more direct piece of activism art.

I think there's just a range of ways you can do it. Sometimes I wish more Americans, people I know, famous people, would speak out more, would be a bit more vocal about certain things. And I think it's great that the whole #MeToo movement has made a lot of people who would never have been empowered in this way to become empowered. I still think it's a sad cultural issue that we don't really encourage our celebrities to talk about important things. They're much more likely to say, "Tell us about your new hairdo." You know, "What do you think of Taylor Swift's new cover of Earth, Wind, and Fire?"

Right. "Where do you stand on Crocs?"

Crocs, I'm a huge fan. Huge.

Both in your public and private life, and also in your work, you've been outspoken about what you might call “all-purpose” queer equality, but also about more advanced facets of sexual liberation, like the idea that sexuality exists on a fluid spectrum. That’s a given to a lot of people, but maybe not, as you mentioned, to those millions of network-TV-watching Americans who’ve never seen any real-live evidence of gay marriage, for example. I often wonder if you think the reality of non-binary identity of any kind might simply be too outré and complex for certain people to ever fathom?

Oh, totally. I think it totally is. But, also, you know, I think trans people being much more in the mainstream in the past few years has been a really positive thing for fluidity in all areas. People actually understand the concept of, you know, someone who is not—who starts off one gender and maybe doesn't even go the other way, who's just in the middle and that's where they are.

That's been a really powerful thing to happen in the mainstream. And, I'm sure it's made people be able to understand the concept of sexual fluidity and other sort of non-binary forms of anything, actually. I think we've got a lot to thank the trans community for because it's really opened up people's minds to something that they had no concept of before.

It's true. It is also really striking that 10 years ago, this conversation would’ve sounded like it was happening on the moon.

I know. It is incredible, actually. Even the last couple of years, you know, the idea that trans characters in TV shows and it's not even referred to, and even the fact that, you know, my mom has met trans people now and understands that you'd ask what pronoun they want to be referred to and things like that. It's really amazing.

Getting back to Legal Immigrant, I got the sense earlier that you were not eager to divulge the songs you’ll be performing. Is it a surprise for the night?

I can tell you! I'm doing a medley of Kander and Ebb and Stephen Sondheim, one by Pink, one made famous by Marlene Dietrich. There's a bit of Peggy Lee meets Schubert. A Scottish song. There might be a Disney princess medley. Edith Piaf. An original. Two songs by [British comedian, best known for her work on UK TV in the ‘80s] Victoria Wood. I love her so much.

It sounds like you’re covering quite a bit of ground.

A lot of the songs I'm doing are about aging, actually. About time, getting older. A lot of them. And that's been an interesting thing to touch on in the show, too—

***********

And lo, before I could jump in to ask some obvious thing like, “Yes, indeed, hmm… was that a conscious choice going in, or did you discover it organically?” Or perhaps, “You don’t say! That’s interesting, because I, too, am getting older. Which leads me to ask: How did the song selection process work?”… Cumming’s next interview was on the other line and it was time to go.

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