For Alan Cumming, it’s all about “the long game”. And that means taking on true-life dramas like Any Day Now, “to flex a little acting muscle”

You can see why Alan Cumming was drawn to ANY DAY NOW.
Set in West Hollywood, 1979, the film charts the true-life case of struggling musician and drag performer Rudy Donatello and his district attorney partner, Paul Fleiger, as they attempt to save a neglected and disabled 14-year-old boy, Marco, from going into foster care. With Marco’s drug addict mum in prison, the duo convince her to sign temporary guardianship papers, but the courts prove a little harder to convince when it comes to permanent guardianship.
“I hadn’t heard of this case until I got the script,” says Cumming, down a crackly phone line from New York, “and it just hit me immediately. So, I just jumped on, and I was involved with it every step of the way from there. It’s an important film, but it’s also moving, also sweet, and funny, and tragic. All the things I like.”
And playing the part of a leading man who likes to break into song on a regular basis didn’t exactly deter the Broadway regular either.
Having broken through in the US thanks largely to his multi-award-winning portrayal of the Master Of Ceremonies in a 1998 Broadway production of Cabaret, the Scottish-born actor has been a regular fixture on just about every medium there is ever since. On the big screen, blockbusters such as X2 (2003) and GoldenEye (1995) sit alongside more serious offerings such as Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and, eh, the recent Smurfs 2, whilst on the huge box in the corner, early outings in the likes of Taggart and Mr. Bean contrast nicely with such arch American offerings as Frasier and The Good Wife. Add that to novels, radio shows, webcasts and all those big sparkly Broadway hits, and you’ve got yourself the sort of CV it’s hard to contain in just one paragraph.
So, given all his many years of taking on many, many roles, I ask the 48-year-old Cumming if he went full Bale when it came to playing the late Rudy Donatello in ANY DAY NOW.
“Well, I couldn’t go all that far, given that he’s dead,” comes the deadpan answer, “but I did have this incredible story for inspiration. The little boy at the centre of the court case was much more disabled than the Marco we show in the movie, and we took some other liberties with the details, but the truth of what these people went through is there.”

Given that you’ve proven yourself in Shakespeare and in musicals, the role of a drag queen and political activist must have felt like a godsend. This one met you more than halfway.
Alan Cumming: It felt like the perfect fit, yeah, but this was also a story that needed to be heard. Rudy is such an amazing character, who surprises you with his battle to help this young abandoned boy. And when you’ve got the last four minutes given over to just me singing over footage of what happened to these people, I just thought that was a wonderful way to end the movie.

Rudy says in the movie that his life is basically the blues, in F. How about you? Your life has been more like a calypso, right? Or maybe a power ballad? Something that reflects a happy life, right, even with all the judgement that comes with being a performer?
AC: Yeah, a happy life, even with all that judgement. And it’s not just the critics but something like this too, where you talk to someone and they go and write a piece about you. It’s just part of this job, and it makes you feel very strongly about what you think is good, and what your value judgements are. If you only sign up for stuff that you feel strongly about, the judgement from other people doesn’t really matter so much anymore. I’m in this for the long game, and something like ANY DAY NOW gives me a chance to flex a little acting muscle.
As for my life as music, I think it would be that final ceili fling at the end of a wild night…

The world was a much more homophobic place back in 1979. Hard to imagine, and or easy to relate to?
AC: Well, I wouldn’t recognise Rudy’s life, but I can totally recognise the homophobia, and the prejudice. And even though this is a period piece, it’s still not easy for same-sex couples to adopt. Even when it’s legal, you still have the prejudices of individuals who don’t approve. Equality is still a major issue…

Fame can often remove you somewhat from having to deal with people’s real prejudices…
AC: Absolutely. People go crazy, and tend to behave not in the way they would behave normally. You get treated differently once people recognise you, but there’s also the downside of having to deal with people who you know wouldn’t give you the time of day if you weren’t famous. When you get to know people, it’s very important to me that it’s because of who I am, and not because I’m ‘Alan Cumming’. It puts another layer on a friendship that you have to figure out.

You’ve come a long way from Aberfeldy in deepest, darkest Scotland – did you know early on when you knew this was all ahead of you, or does success always surprise you.
AC: I had no concept of my life ending up the way it did, none, none. It was a very gradual thing, and it all just seemed like a great surprise whenever something was successful. I never really had goals, or set myself deadlines, and when I left drama school, I just didn’t think I’d even make a living doing this.

That slow climb to where you are today coincided with a gradual change in your personal life too. You were married to actress Hilary Lyon from 1985 to 1993, and you’ve been married to storyboard artist Grant Shaffer since 2007. Did the glittering career help or hinder that growth?
AC: Well, I think everyone changes along the way, to become who they are. I kinda see where you’re going with this, and there’s not a story there. I felt as comfortable with my sexuality at 18 as I do now. There’s just been different relationships all through my life and I’m still friends with all my ex-partners – well, all except one guy, who was mental. I never felt that my job was ever a part of those relationships. It was always about love.

Art is there to help people have a new perspective on their own lives. Look at the impact of someone like Bowie…
AC: If my living my life as my own man, choosing how I want to live, with my work and with my personal life, and if being truthful inspires someone else, that would be wonderful. But I’m doing it for me, first and foremost.

You played Sean Walsh in Circle Of Friends back in 1995, and your mum has the grand oul’ name of Mary. Which suggests Irish blood…
AC: It does indeed, and I’m sure there’s every chance there is some Irish blood there. We’re pretty close neighbours, of course, so, who knows what the Celtic cocktail might be.

There are many signs of a star having truly arrived – the awards, the box-office, the novels, the cameos, the sell-out shows, and the OBE. For you, I think it might have been the launching of your first fragrance, Cumming, in 2005…?
AC: Yeah, and there’s another one that you can buy online, called Second Cumming. It was something that I really liked because it confronted people’s idea of endorsements. And the name being as saucy as it is, that was pretty irresistible too.

Talking of puns on your name, I saw one online, Uppin Cumming, that suggests a driving ambition on your part.
AC: That one came out of an article; thankfully, it’s never been my nickname. Not that I think ambition is a bad thing. It tends to be viewed as a dirty word, but drive is important. I never really chased roles in my career – I didn’t want to do Cabaret at first, when it was in London – but it’s important to be hungry, to have a lust for what you do. I think I have that good kind of ambition, where I also want to have fun. It’s not just all about the work.

One of your upcoming roles is playing Salvador Dali in The Surrealist, someone you’ve said you share a bonkers gene with. Which is pretty much a necessity when it comes to being a performer.
AC: Absolutely. When you think about what you’re doing – getting up on stage in front of other people – it’s crazy. Why am I doing this? Putting yourself at great risk of being mocked, of being laughed at, and when you’re tricking the audience into believing that you’re going to die, that’s got to be a form of madness. I’m happy bonkers though. I’m having fun with being crazy.

Words: Paul Byrne

ANY DAY NOW hits Irish cinemas Sept 6th