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Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews “4x4” (WATT/ECM) the latest CD by pianist and composer Carla Bley.



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Other segments from the episode on November 2, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 2, 2000: Interview with Alan Cumming; Review of Carla Bley's album "4x4."


DATE November 2, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Alan Cumming discusses his new film "Urbania," and
past performances in the musicals "Cabaret" and "Annie"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Even when he's in a small role, I find it impossible to take my eyes off
Cumming when he's on the screen. He's not handsome in the typical
movie-star kind of way. But he has a very expressive face that can be goofy
or menacing, attractive or geeky. And he has a very expressive body, which
used to great effect dancing in the recent revival of "Cabaret," in which he
played the emcee, the role originated by Joel Grey. Cumming created a more
sexed-up version of the character and it was a sensation on Broadway. In
film "Eyes Wide Shut," he stole the scene as a hotel clerk flirting with Tom
Cruise. In the Bond film "GoldenEye," he was an evil computer nerd. His
other films include "Get Carter," "Viva Rock Vegas," "Circle of Friends" and

He's now co-starring in the independent film "Urbania." Through the story
its main character and through the telling of several urban legends, the
describes how one act of urban violence can change your life. I asked Alan
Cumming to describe his character.

Mr. ALAN CUMMING (Actor, "Urbania"): I play this man who is a friend of the
lead character. And the lead character's on this self-odyssey throughout
night to try and solve some kind of internal mystery. And he's a man who
known from the past and he comes to see him and he's got--he's dying. And
it's just a little kind of--he's kind of this--it's a bittersweet sort of
couple of scenes. It's a really tiny part. I just really loved the script
much, so that's why I wanted to be involved.

GROSS: And I like you so much even in small parts. And I've seen you in
pretty small parts...


GROSS: even in "Eyes Wide Shut," you know...

Mr. CUMMING: That was tiny, yeah.

GROSS: That was tiny. It was my favorite part of the movie, the scene that
you're in, but--well, let's get back to "Urbania." You're very vulnerable
that role because, you know, your lover has left you. You're dying, we
assume, of AIDS.

Mr. CUMMING: Yeah, I assume this as well.

GROSS: And...

Mr. CUMMING: Yeah, it was kind of a weird sort of--it's a very funny place
to go to when you're just basically everything--even his flat, his
is horrible, you know, everything in his life is kind of decaying. It was
quite a sad--he's quite a sad little person. And even the friend who comes
round to see him, who he hasn't seen for a long time, is actually only kind
coming round because it's raining and he's actually waiting to meet someone

GROSS: Now I'm gonna ask you about "Eyes Wide Shut" because, one, I think a
lot of people saw it, and, two, it's been on cable a whole lot lately.

Mr. CUMMING: Oh, has it?

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. CUMMING: Yeah. Oh, my God, yeah. Someone told me that, that they woke
up in the middle of the night and were thinking about me and then they
switched on TV and then there I was.

GROSS: That must have been eerie.

Mr. CUMMING: I know. Weird.

GROSS: Well, you're in one scene and you're a hotel clerk who's kind of
flirting with Tom Cruise, who's come looking for information about this
dangerous man that he's looking for. And you kind of seem to know something
and you're kind of giving him information, but you're being very kind of
playful and evasive about the whole thing even though the information you
eventually give him seems pretty evil. And the whole time you're flirting
with him, you're eyeing him in this really flirtatious way and your eyes are
following his eyes and following his every movement. Can you talk about
kind of visual flirtatiousness that you're doing? 'Cause there's nothing in
the script, there's nothing in what you're saying that's flirtatious. It's
all in your body language.

Mr. CUMMING: Yeah. I just sort of--when, you know, I did it with Stanley
Kubrick, you know, you work on it quite a lot. And so we kind of developed
this person. I mean, it was always quite clear that he was going to be--he
was kind of coming on to Tom's character a bit. But I just sort of made
you know, completely obsessed with him. Within a moment, he was obsessed
this person. And it just kind of--I don't know. It just sort of felt right
and we worked on it and we just kept doing it. And it was kind of weird. I
mean, it is weird behavior. But actually, you know, sometimes, you know,
people do that. I love when you--in real life when you see something and
someone said, `God, you know, if you did that in a film, no one would
you.' And I'm trying to readdress the balance of acting, so weird in films
that it wouldn't be possible in real life.

But the thing about that scene was that I really--when I saw the whole film,
thought that Stanley was so amazing to--'cause actually, you know, it's the
funniest scene of the film--or kind of the only funny scene in the film,
really. And actually it's--the information that we as an audience are given
and Tom's character is given is actually the first really horrible, evil
information that is saying, you know, basically that his bad behavior could
have cost someone their life and he's gotten involved in this really scary
thing. And to sort of have that information within this kind of hilarious
flirtatious scene, sort of counterpointing it, I thought that was great.

GROSS: Now when I saw this scene, I was thinking--'cause I hadn't noticed
this before--that you looked just a little bit like Pee Wee Herman, and then
was reading some articles about you. And someone else mentioned that, too.
And I realized this must be a fairly common observation.

Mr. CUMMING: Yeah, I get that quite a lot. And it's quite funny. I know
Paul Reubens. And he gets it quite a lot, too. Like last year, he called
up and said everyone keeps saying to him, `Oh, you were great in "Eyes Wide
Shut."' So it works both ways. But yeah, I sometimes--yeah, I mean, I
know. I think I've got one of these faces--I get a lot of people
actually--Robert Downey Jr. I was getting recently and...

GROSS: No. I don't see that.

Mr. CUMMING: Yeah, I know. That's kind of weird.

GROSS: I don't see that.

Mr. CUMMING: Well, you should see my ripped, muscley body at the moment.

GROSS: I see. You're very buff and that's...

Mr. CUMMING: I'm joking.

GROSS: Yeah. Right. No.

Mr. CUMMING: No, no. But, no, I think I've got one of those faces that's
kind of odd and, you know, malleable. And so I look like a lot of different
people depending on what I'm wearing or what my hair's like.

GROSS: Actor Alan Cumming is my guest. I think a lot of people were
introduced to you in America through "Cabaret," the recent Broadway revival
the show. And even people who didn't make it to Broadway might have seen
on the Tony Awards and I think there were other shows that you were on in
which you performed excerpts.

Mr. CUMMING: Yes, it was something of a cultural phenomenon.

GROSS: Yeah. So why don't we hear--before we talk about the show, why
we hear you singing "Willkommen" from the cast recording.

(Soundbite of Alan Cumming singing "Willkommen")

GROSS: That's Alan Cumming in the cast recording of the revival of
Now this production of "Cabaret" was directed by Sam Mendes, who also
the movie "American Beauty." Your version of this character, the emcee, was
much more sexual than the Joel Grey version, which was--he did the original
Broadway. He did the movie. Whose idea was it to make the character that

Mr. CUMMING: It was kind of a combination. When we did it in London, first
of all, Sam directed it there. And then when we came to New York, Sam and
Marshall directed it together. And so it was--kind of grew in this journey
from London. But really, I remember saying to my--you know, I wasn't really
mad about doing the show at all. I didn't think it was really my bag. And
I was going to do it, I wanted to do it sort of properly and kind of like
the character a real person from that time. You know, I was really
by that time. And I had read ...(unintelligible) books and everything, and
I knew that there was much more kind of debauched and decadent--truly
than actually has ever really been portrayed.

And so the character in that kind of club, which is, basically, you know, a
sort of glorified sex club, I just felt would have more of a kind of--would
have more of the gutter about him. And, in a way, he's--the club saved him.
If it weren't for the fact that he got this job in the club, he would be,
know, on the streets and would--or, you know, would be dead by know,
is much more kind of realistic for that time and for that area of Berlin in
that time.

So that's why this whole sort of sex thing came about because I wanted to
it more realistic. And then, of course, when we started to work on it in
London and New York--more so in New York, I think, the sort of sexuality and
the kind of mischievousness of the sexuality became part of the whole--his
to the audience. And so--and then it kind of went from there, really.

GROSS: Mischievous and kind of implicitly kinky.

Mr. CUMMING: Well, yes, it was so--I mean, kind of like dare--I think what
was like--I found really fascinating about the whole sort of way that he or
was perceived in that time is that it was like kind of going--I was like,
know--the very first thing I did in the show was beckon my finger in a
spotlight. And it felt like I was doing that to the audience. I was
beckoning them because I was going, you know, `You know you want to come.
know you want to come. And you know you want to be naughty and you want to
bad things.' And then as soon as you get--as soon as they came in, I would
turn round and go, `What are you laughing at? This is not funny. This is
serious. You know, there's something more to this than just being sort of
dirty.' And that was really--you know, it had a much broader kind of
more--the whole kind of sexy, mischievous, kinky thing was actually really

useful in kind of--as a sort of theatrical device to bring the audience in
to get the message of the whole piece across.

GROSS: What did you wear?

Mr. CUMMING: Not very much; a variety of very slinky things. I wore--sort
of the thing that everyone saw and sort of balked at was kind of like
little--if you imagine little trousers that are cut off at the knee and then
kind of big boots and then that was the--that was basically it. And then
of--I sort of--it was like, you know, suspenders that men wear on their
trousers to hold them up; kind of a selection of those in--kind of around my
crotch and up my back and around my tummy--no, around my chest. But it was
kind of weird to describe, but--and basically a lot of body makeup with
marks and glitzy nipples and--so, basically, nothing on my body apart from a
pair of trousers and a little bit of suspender, which kind of--there was
kind of joke about--like I had the Wonderbra for the crotch because of the
suspender thing. It kind of--everything was left--because I had to dance,
everything was kind of lifted up and forwards into a very pleasing, you
array downstairs, if you see what I mean.

GROSS: Now did you get a lot of reaction from men and women?

Mr. CUMMING: Yeah, it was pretty across the board. I think it's really
fascinating because a lot of people who weren't, like, your normal sort of
or your normal kind of person who would get all wobbly-kneed start--did get
wobbly-kneed because this character was so--sort of kind of got under their
skin and it was so--it was like a little boy thing, in a way. It was like,
you know, you knew--it was like a little devil, a little kind of devil, but
you knew you'd have a great time. And it kind of stirred people up in some
very primal way that they were--they're not used to being stirred up in.

And I also think, you know, that I'm not like, you know, the conventional
of sexy--of a sexy man is not my--is not me. It's not--of what we're sold
told to be thought of as sexy is not me, so I think there was something
that as well. There was kind of, it seems, in a way, more safe and yet at
same time more dangerous to have some sort of skinny boy who is, you know,
stirring you in your loins in some way. And so people would--you know, it's
really fascinating; I mean, also extremely scary for me, but fascinating
people would say, `You know, I've never'--like a married man would say,
never had any sexual feelings for a man before, but I was very stirred up by
you and it made me really think weird things.' And then, you know, women
would say things in front of their husbands. And, you know, it was really
quite extraordinary.

GROSS: Well, how do you respond? Like if a man comes up to you and says,
`I've never felt sexually aroused by a man before, but watching you dance,'
etc. What do you say? `Thank you very much,' and move on to the next fan?

Mr. CUMMING: Yeah, you sort of go, `Oh, that's lovely. Good for you,' or,
you know, `Maybe you should get out more.' Things like that.

GROSS: Did you get in touch with sexual feelings of your own in a different
way or a sexual power that you had in a different way as a result of your
in "Cabaret?"

Mr. CUMMING: That's interesting. I think--I mean, not--I didn't really get
in touch with any sexual feelings that were new. I mean, I'd had those
before. But I think it did make me more powerful, yeah. It made me
more--well, I mean, it's hard not to be when you're, like, aware that you go
somewhere and everyone is thinking about you in a sexual way, you know.
was a time when I was, like, you know, this sort of little sex boy. And to
perceived like that--I mean, it's really fascinating because, for me--when I
was, like, 33 or something whenever it--when it happened, it was kind of
and also--yeah, it did make me feel really sexy that people were--and, you
know, I am quite a sort of animal sort of person. And I've always kind of
been quite comfortable with my body, but to suddenly have the whole world
of recognize that was weird.

I think if I'd been a woman it would have been horrible and I would have
really, you know--because, like, all the other work that I had done was kind
of--seemed to be--not to be important and, basically, you know, people were
ogling at my breasts--the equivalent of, you see. And that was a really
fascinating thing. But as a man and at the age I was at and with the
confidence I had about myself just as a person, I really enjoyed it. And I
think I still do. I enjoy being thought of as sort of, you know, kind of a
bit of bad boy and--or not necessarily a bad boy, but, you know, someone
quite open with themselves and who will give anything a go, you know. I
that is something that I have always aspired to, in some way, in my work as
well as a person. So to be kind of celebrated for that has been really

GROSS: My guest is Alan Cumming. He's currently in the film "Urbania."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music from "Cabaret")

GROSS: My guest is Alan Cumming. He starred in the recent Broadway revival
of "Cabaret" and has been in the films "Get Carter," "Eyes Wide Shut,"
"GoldenEye" and "Emma."

Now one of the roles that you brought--I mean, of all things, a role that
brought this sexually insinuating energy into was "Annie"--the TV production
of "Annie." And there's a great number, "Easy Street." It's a duet you did
with Kathy Bates in this production.

Mr. CUMMING: And Kristin Chenoweth is in it, too.

GROSS: Right. OK.

Mr. CUMMING: It's a trio, yeah.

GROSS: Yes. And you're doing this kind of bump-and-grind thing to this.

Mr. CUMMING: Yeah.

GROSS: Your dancing and singing was terrific in it. So why don't you talk
about this number a little bit, and then we'll hear it.

Mr. CUMMING: Well, this was--Rob Marshall, he choreographed "Cabaret," and
he co-directed it with Sam. He directed this. And I'd never seen "Annie."
didn't know the story or anything, and so I just did it because of him. I
just thought I would have a good time. I just thought he is great. And
so--and the best thing about him is that he makes you feel confident about
things that you're not actually very good at, which is a great skill as a
director. And Kathy said that--the same thing, you know. I don't think
done a musical before, and I'd never done a musical like this before, like
playing an American person and, you know, doing all that kind of like proper
musical sort of thing.

So this was--and also, there's, like, a 12-page dance break in it, and none
us--Kristin had danced more than Kathy and I, but it was one of these things
that's actually such fun to do, and I'm so glad I took part in it. And this
song is like when she runs the orphanage, Kathy, and I'm called Rooster, and
my and my girlfriend--I have a skit from prison and we come and we're trying
to sort out some scheme to make money and we realize that Annie could be the
key to this scheme.

GROSS: Let's hear "Easy Street."


(Soundbite of "Easy Street")

Mr. CUMMING: I remember the way our sainted mother would sit and croon us a

Ms. KATHY BATES: She'd say, `Kids, there's a place that's like no other,
gotta get there before you die.

Mr. CUMMING: You don't get there by playing from the rule book.

Ms. BATES: Uh-uh. You stack the aces...

Mr. CUMMING: Mm-hmm. You load the dice.

Ms. BATES and Mr. CUMMING: (In unison) Mother dear, though we know you're
down there listening, how can we follow your sweet advice to...

Mr. CUMMING: ...Easy Street? Easy Street, where you sleep till noon?

Ms. BATES: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Mr. CUMMING: She'd repeat, `Easy Street.'

Ms. BATES and Mr. CUMMING: (In unison) Better get there soon.

Mr. CUMMING: So, sis, who was the hot tomato...

GROSS: From the TV production of "Annie," my guest is Alan Cumming. So I
found it interesting that you hadn't really sung and danced before "Cabaret"
and "Annie." What did you have to learn in order to pull these roles off?

Mr. CUMMING: Well, you know, it's kind of--I mean, I'm not a proper singer.
I'm not like a big, proper--well, you know, how you imagine a Broadway, or
that type of singer. I'm not that, and I'm never going to be that. I don't
want to be that. So I actually didn't really--you know, things like
and blah, blah, blah, you have to kind of get better at, and I hadn't
done much theater for a while--I'd done a lot of films in between doing
"Cabaret" in London and "Cabaret" in New York. So I had to get in shape
again. But really, it's the same--I just think of it as the same thing.
know, you're just sort of acting, but you're just like singing--the singing,
in a way, in "Cabaret" was easier, because my character, part of his job in
the role was that he sang songs in a club. So that was fine.

And in "Annie," that was the first time I'd done that thing where you, like,
are talking and then you burst into song, which I've always had a problem
with. But it seemed easier because it was more sort of fun, and the style
it--I'd go into the sort of height and style of--it's about understanding
style, and about understanding your role within the thing; basically the
sort of rules that you would hope you would use for any part, whether you
to sing or not.

But the dancing was hard. I mean, I hurt myself doing "Annie," actually.

GROSS: What happened?

Mr. CUMMING: Well, there was this bit where we danced on the street and
I did a thing where I jumped up and down and it was concrete I was jumping
and down on, and there was a big crane shot, so we had to do a lot of turns,
and I injured my groin, if you must know, but it's better now.

GROSS: This is penance for your role in "Cabaret."

Mr. CUMMING: Yeah, I know. I know. I did all that and didn't get any
injuries, really. But, yeah, there was a lot of--that must be the groin

GROSS: Alan Cumming will be back in the second half of the show. He's
featured in the current film "Urbania." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CUMMING: (Singing) I know what you're thinking. You wonder why I chose
her out of all the ladies in the world. That's just a first impression.
good's a first impression? If you knew her like I do, it would change our
point of view.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: That's music from Carla Bley's CD "Social Studies," which has just
been re-issued. She has a new recording. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead
it, and we continue our conversation with actor Alan Cumming.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with actor Alan Cumming.
He's currently in the film "Urbania." He starred in the recent Broadway
revival of "Cabaret." His other films include "Eyes Wide Shut," "Get
"Viva Rock Vegas," "Emma" and "Circle of Friends."

You grew up in rural Scotland. Your father was a forester. I can't imagine
you got to see many movies or shows in rural Scotland.

Mr. CUMMING: No. No, I didn't. I mean, we didn't go to movies very much
all, and theater was kind of as rare, if not rarer, for us to go and see. I
mean, I remember going to, like, the Pantomine. They don't really have that
in America, but the Pantomine is a sort of annual thing at Christmastime
everyone goes to. It's sort of a vaudeville type thing, and we'd go to that
with the cups. But it wasn't like there was no sort of theater in my family
at all, and it wasn't like an interest of anyone's either.

GROSS: So how did it become an interest of yours?

Mr. CUMMING: It was more sort of through play. It wasn't like, oh, you
I wanted to go. It wasn't the sort of `the thing' of an actual building and
audience and stuff like that. It was like I liked--I have one brother, and
he's a bit older than me, so--and I grew up in a very remote place, so I
played a lot on my own and made up things, you know, sort of acted out
for myself. I think that's where it started. And then I remember a really
good thing happened when I was about eight or so. At my primary school,
was theater in education group came Dundee Repertory Theater, which was the
nearest theater, and they did this--we'd been studying the Highland
Clearances. You know, Bonnie Prince Charlie and all that stuff, and they

They did this little play in, like, our dinner hole, and it was like in the
rain. So we were all sitting around, and I just remember being so excited
learning more about all that Scottish history from that play than I had done
in all the classes. And I remember when they finished the show, they were
packing all the boxes up and putting it in their little van and driving off
the next school to do the show again. And I remember seeing them putting
their hampers and the costumes and dismantling the little bit of sets they
had, and I just thought, `That looks so fabulous. I'd love, love, love to

GROSS: Now you studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.
What kind of roles were you given as a student? What kind of type were you
perceived as?

Mr. CUMMING: Well, it's always weird when you're a student because, you
you have to play--you do play grown-up plays that are for people who are
40 and stuff, and you're like 19. So it's kind of a misconception
normally misconceived because you're actually, you know, like decades too
young. But I think I was sort of, you know, the young juve sort of person,
and that's not really happened since I've left. I think I was--yeah, I was
thought of as young and spunky and nice. I was a nice boy. That was the
of kind of roles I got.

And, actually, when I left drama school, for a while I was--because I looked
very young for my age, and so that, you know, affected the parts I got. And
when I started to do things, like, professionally, I would always be playing
like, you know--on TV shows, like the little boy who's running away from the
police and stuff like that. He was being wrongly done to and getting, you
know, drowned. I was always being drowned for a while. And then I started
get to play more nasty people. I don't know, something happened to me.

GROSS: Did something happen to you or just...

Mr. CUMMING: I don't know. Must have star--I don't know, but I think--I
mean, there was a sort of transition phase where I'd get these kind of like
baby-face, nasty people. I remember I did this soap opera in Scotland, and
played like this evil woodcutter for a while. And then--so I was like a
boy, ostensibly, but I always had, you know, a heart of darkness.

And then, shortly after that, I started to--I don't know. I suppose it's
of--I suppose if you're being told you're a nice boy, you're a little sweet,
cutie boy for so long, you kind of want to bring some other edge to it so
people--I remember actually thinking--oh, I've not thought about this
but I remember thinking, `Oh, I wish I was more interesting. I wish I
just like--you know, look like such a baby' when I first started acting.
so maybe I tried to bring other colors into my work so that I wouldn't have
play boring people all the time.

GROSS: Huh. Well, you know, I think a more contemporary version of that
of nice and mean mixture is in the James Bond movie that you did, "Golden
Eye," because...

Mr. CUMMING: Yeah.

GROSS: ...on the one hand, you're playing like a computer nerd, but you're
pretty evil.

Mr. CUMMING: Yeah, I know. I got people killed and everything, and I'm
involved in this plot to take over the world.

GROSS: Right, right.

Mr. CUMMING: Yeah.

GROSS: But you're not--it's not like you're a physically...

Mr. CUMMING: But I'm nice.

GROSS: ...menacing person.

Mr. CUMMING: Yes. No. No. He, like, wears little shorts, and he's got
specs, and speccy people are never too scary.

GROSS: Well, now I think one of your first breaks was in a Lee jeans
commercial. Is that right?

Mr. CUMMING: I did do a Lee jeans commercial. I went because it was one of
my first breaks, but, sadly, it was a financial break. Yeah, it was when I
was doing a lot of theater in London and I got this bizarre Lee--I can't
remember how it came about, but all of a sudden I was the Lee jeans boy in
America for a while and then did this commercial for them. You know, shot
in London and never saw it, except someone once sent me a tape of it, and
on TV in America. And it was one that I was like the Lee jeans relaxed-fit
boy. So, I mean, I thought it kind of sounds sexy when you're the Lee jeans
bean. When you say you're the relaxed-fit boy, it's like saying you're the
cardigan-wearing Lee jeans boy or the comfy, cozy one that Mom will like.
But, actually, I was. Yeah, I did that. That was funny.

GROSS: How were you posed in it?

Mr. CUMMING: Well, it was a TV commercial, so I was driving in my car; it's
sort of a '50s kind of feel. And there was a girl who was in the house, and
she was, like, struggling to get her tight jeans on. And there was a
mannequin in the car. And I come out, and I've got flowers for her, and I'm
doing my hair in the mirror. And I look up to the window and I see her.
She's bumped into the mannequin trying to put her jeans on, and I think
like, falling on the bed with another boy, and I look at the camera and the
little thing of flowers all kind of deflates and flops. And it's sad.

GROSS: That's funny.

Mr. CUMMING: And, of course, then there's a shot of my bum with the Lee
relaxed fit on. If only she had been like me and worn the relaxed-fit
we'd still be together.

GROSS: Now you went from Scotland to England and worked on the London


GROSS: Was your Scottish accent considered a problem?

Mr. CUMMING: I think it was, you know. I still find it weird--like today I
was just talking--the Royal Scotch Academy, where I went, has this mentoring
program, and I was just talking to the little student who I am mentoring
today. And he's from Glasgow, and we were talking about accents and stuff,
and he said, `Oh, you haven't lost your accent.' And I went, `Well, I would
hope not because, you know, I think you lose your accent, you lose your
personality.' It's really important for me that I sound like the sum of my
life. Do you know what I mean?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CUMMING: And it's less--and now, obviously, that I get to do films in
America and English accents are funny Irish ones, it's not a problem, but
that's because I'm more well known and people let you. But when I first
started, yeah, it was definitely things--people would ask me to go to
auditions and pretend not to be Scottish because they said, `You know you
do it.' And I would go, `Yes, I know I can do it, but I won't be me,' in
meeting, and surely--I mean, I've always thought the most important thing
about any actor is the person. And the more you can let of the person
through, the more successful you are about--and the more interesting you'll
to people. That is more interesting than technique.

GROSS: My guest is Alan Cumming. He's currently in the film "Urbania."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Alan Cumming. He starred in the recent Broadway revival
of "Cabaret" and has been in the films "Get Carter," "Eyes Wide Shut,"
"Golden Eye" and "Emma."

In 1993, you did "Hamlet" in London. I think you were around 28 or
which is I guess pretty young for the part.

Mr. CUMMING: Yeah, it was. I mean in terms of what people think of an
being ready to do--I know, so I played him--it was another one of those
where I think, you know, I come over younger than I--or there's an element
me that comes over younger than I think. And I just sort of thought, `Well,
what is Hamlet? He's this boy who is a student. He's away at university,
he's had to come back and he really wants to be away back with his friends
university.' And then so he's, you know, he's kind of like pissed off about
being there at all. And then all this other stuff happened to him. And,
know, he gets a bit ragged by it. And I didn't think he was mad. I just
thought, you know, anyone who went through those things would probably bit
nervy be--you know, a nervous breakdown sort of thing. So that's how--that
was my basic premise for him.

And so when it came out and everything, everyone was going, `Oh, my God.
made Hamlet this, you know, childlike student. And he's struggling with
manhood and all these things.' And it became this kind of like--it changed
people's perceptions of Hamlet a wee bit. Because in a way I just felt I
doing him, you know, how he should be played. If it was like look--if it
a film script, you'd go, `OK. This block's a student and he's bored being
home, and then all these bad things happen to him being at home.' But it
of--I mean, I didn't intend to make him like all those things. It
was the way I thought he should be. And I didn't actually realize he was
so--he was coming out as so childlike.

GROSS: Did you use your accent or did you did adopt an English accent for

Mr. CUMMING: No, I did my own accent for that. I really loved doing my own
accent in Shakespeare. I did--I've done a few. I've done Romeo in my own
voice. And then Hamlet was this--sort of the bigger one. And that kind of
caused some consignation as well because, you know, there's such a
view in Britain and it has, you know, come across here as well that there is
certain way to speak Shakespeare and that is in, you know, recede
pronunciation. And that really pisses me off because it stops people from
thinking that it's successful to them, not just as actors, but as an
as well.

So, you know, it just means there's a lot of posh people kind of singing
in some strange accent that only posh people talk in. So I've always--and
actually, you know, Shakespeare's language is so guttural and works really
well for accents like mine. So it's really--this whole, you know, recede
pronunciation la, la, la thing is so--is like a sort of 20th century or late
19th century invention by all those kind of actor-manager types. His name
carried on by like Olivier and Gilgert(ph) and some more recent actors. And
just don't like it. I think it's stupid. And I think it is wrong for what
Shakespeare's intending, which is to tell you the story about people and
people who really feel and really think about things. And then to me, it's
isolating and it just makes it--it's kind of like--it makes--it kind of
highlights the actor's sort of singing skills rather than his acting.

GROSS: Oh, I know what you mean by that.

Mr. CUMMING: Oh, good. That's not a very popular opinion sometimes. That
can really, you know, piss people off.

GROSS: Have you had to...

Mr. CUMMING: And...

GROSS: Have you had to learn American?

Mr. CUMMING: Yeah, I've done some American accents for films. I just did
one. Oh, no, I didn't. Oh, yeah, I did. I just did a film where I did a
of American and Arabian-American and in "Eyes Wide Shut," and in "Romy and
Michele's High School Reunion," I was American. And then I just was in this
film with Sylvester Stallone, and I was American in that, so I've done quite
few now.

GROSS: "Get Carter"?

Mr. CUMMING: "Get Carter," yeah.

GROSS: What are you most conscious of when you do American?

Mr. CUMMING: Well, my friends say when I try to do an American person like,
you know, just impersonating someone and--for fun and--at home or something,
every--they all say I sound the same. I don't know. I'm working very nasal
as American, you know, this kind of meth--all Americans sort of talk like
that. And so, that's how I do it when I'm trying to mock my friends. But
it's just quite hard when--I mean, I'm more confident about an accent I've
done a few times. And when you're on a film set, now I think, `Well, you
know, what you gonna do, fire me?' So it gets easier. But I was quite
of the first time I did it. If you--and it's another thing, it's a
thing. If you let people know that you're nervous about it, they'll come
tell you that there's things wrong. And then that makes you feel worse.
if you don't actually--if you just say, `Oh, yeah, I can do an American
accent. I'm just being this person now,' then they can leave you alone.

But I'm just, you know, it's quite a weird thing. It used to be when I was
working in England playing an English person, I felt like an imposter. And
sort of still do now, you know. Sometimes like, for example, like that
"Annie" film, or the first film I ever did in America was "Romy and
High School Reunion." Why they cast me in that, I just don't--I mean, I
I was OK in it and everything, and I think I deserved to be, but, you know,
it's kind of a weird sort of random thing to cast this Scottish person who's
never played an American person before in a film. And then "Annie," I know
was OK in it, but I--when you look at it on paper, I'm really miscast to do
that. This would be his second musical and he's never played, you know,
sort of style of American musicals. He's never seen "Annie" before. It's
the best thing to--not the best sort of set of things to bring to the table.

GROSS: When you were young, were you considered weird at all?

Mr. CUMMING: Well, duh. Yeah, I was. Yeah, I suppose. I mean, just sort
of like--yes, I was. I mean, I came from--you know, from a very rural
background. I mean, I don't think I was really like bonkers weird, but,
I was kind of different. I think my dad thought I was really weird, but not
many other people did. And so I think I thought I was weirder than I

GROSS: Why did your dad think you were weird?

Mr. CUMMING: Well, 'cause he's weird. And I--and because I wasn't like
I think he thought I was weird.

GROSS: Like him being a forester?

Mr. CUMMING: Oh, I think he grasped pretty early on I was not going to be a
man of the soil, but, you know, just in terms of--which is OK, though, you
know, it's fine.

GROSS: You're not gonna be the man of the soil. You're not gonna be living
in rural Scotland unless you choose to go back there. But do you feel any
connection now with the country because it is where you grew up?

Mr. CUMMING: Do you mean with the countryside or with the country of

GROSS: With the countryside. Yeah, with the countryside.

Mr. CUMMING: I do actually. I mean, I'm finding more and more that I

love--I mean, I think I used to hate all things green because it was--I was,
you know, I grew up there. I mean, I really did grow up in a forest. And I
had to do--you know, all do things in the nursery and blah, blah, and
saplings and gardens. And that was all I seemed to ever do. And I kind of
had a backlash against it. And now I really love gardening. I love going
to the country and I really--you know, I am a country boy at heart. I think
that's why I embrace the city so much. But, yeah, I definitely find as I've
got older, I really--I want to kind of have a wee hideaway place and
somewhere--I would love to have somewhere in Scotland, but it's a little bit
far, you know, when you're in America.

GROSS: Any new movies you have coming out in the near future that we should
know about?

Mr. CUMMING: Yeah. I've got a few. They're mostly next year, though.
There's one called "Company Man," which--Sigourney Weaver and Woody Allen
Doug McGrath and--it's funny. It's about the CIA in the '50s. I play
Batista of Cuba. And then one called "Spy Kids" that Robert Rodriguez
directed--Antonio Banderas. And that is really exciting because I'm going
be a doll and I'm going to be a tattoo. The merchandising is so fabulous.
I'm going to be a sticker.

GROSS: Oh. Oh. I thought you were playing a tattoo.

Mr. CUMMING: Yeah. No, no. I'm playing...

GROSS: I thought, `That's very abstract.'

Mr. CUMMING: No. Yeah. No, I'm going to be a tattoo. That's like my
favorite thing. And then the film I just made in Canada, "Josie and the
Pussycats" is coming out in April. And I did this Alan Rudolph film which
really looking forward to seeing called "Investigating Sex" that we made in
Berlin earlier this year. I think that'll be coming out in the spring, too.
So it's bit of a me fest next spring. Yeah. I would go away for the spring
if I could.

GROSS: Well, I thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. CUMMING: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Alan Cumming is currently in the film "Urbania." Remember when he
talking about how miscast he felt in the 1997 film "Romy and Michele's High
School Reunion"? One of the first times he used an American accent? Well,
here's a scene at the reunion. He's the former nerd who is now wealthy and
successful and still has a crush on his former classmate played by Lisa

(Soundbite from "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) of loving you.

Mr. CUMMING: Michele, after all these years you still take my breath away.

Ms. LISA KUDROW ("Michele"): Thanks. So you must be like the most
successful person in our entire graduating class.

Mr. CUMMING: Well, I guess that depends on how you define success. If to
you success means having a house in Aspen, one in Acapulco, a penthouse in
York, a mansion in Malibu, a 60-foot yacht, an eight-seat Windstar, a bell
Ranger, a Bentley, a personal trainer, a full-time chef, a live-in masseuse
and a staff of 24, then, yeah, I guess I am successful. But no matter how
much I accumulate, there's still one thing I just don't have.

Ms. KUDROW: Your own country?

Mr. CUMMING: I don't have you, Michele.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews a new CD by pianist and composer
Carla Bley. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Latest CD by pianist and composer Carla Bley

Pianist Carla Bley began composing around 1960. And before long, such jazz
musicians as Jimmy Guiffre, Art Farmer and Gary Burton were recording her
pieces. In the '70s, she began making her own records, toured briefly in a
loud band with Jack Bruce and ex-Rolling Stone Mick Taylor and started her
mini big band. She's also written and arranged for Charlie Haden's
Music Orchestra, for Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, and for big bands here
abroad. Bley continues to record in various settings. Jazz critic Kevin
Whitehead reviews her latest.

(Soundbite of music)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD (Jazz Critic): In the 1990s, Carla Bley's working group
seemed either too large or too little. Her band, which had slowly grown
nine or 10 pieces to 17 or 18, began to sound unnecessarily big, especially
because some good players never got a solo. In the '90s, Bley also formed a
duo with electric bassist Steve Swallow, which put her OK but unexceptional
piano a little too far out front. Now she has another and better touring
group, an octet whittled down from the big band.

(Soundbite of "Baseball")

WHITEHEAD: Carla Bley's tune "Baseball." It's on her new CD, "4x4," which
also the name of the group. There are four musicians in the rhythm section,
like organist Larry Goldings and drummer Victor Lewis, plus the four horn
players who took all the solos in her big band, including trumpeter Lew
and the trombonist Gary Valente. As usual, Bley writes catchy melodic hooks
more out of pop than jazz and she mixes clever ideas about form with low
humor. Sometimes, as on "Baseball," she integrates cornball quotations into
the fabric of a piece. Another composition is inspired by the artist Henri
Matisse's cut-out collages. It works in bits of "Jeepers Creepers." It's a
sort of musical analogue to the way visual artists use found materials.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: It's not all fun and games on Carla Bley's new record. "4x4"
revives a haunting ballad she wrote 20 years ago, "Utviklingsang," which
pronounced properly is Norwegian for development song. The tenor saxophone
soloist is Andy Sheppard.

(Soundbite of "Utviklingsang")

WHITEHEAD: Bley records for her own Watt Records; by my count, the second
oldest musician-owned jazz label. Watt is currently distributed by ECM,
has now made all her old Watts available on CD in the US, including finally,
her rare 1974 album, "Tropic Appetites." It has much of the same
as "4x4," but it's a little rougher around the edges, not always a bad
The music is built around lyrics by Canadian poet Paul Haynes. They're
sung by English rock and jazz singer Julie Tibbetts(ph), aka Julie Driscoll.
She gets an occasional assist from Howard Johnson, who also plays tuba and
reeds, and from Bley's daughter Karen Mantler, who was eight at the time.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JULIE TIBBETTS: (Singing) When you there, they could wait. But not
not now, they can't. They never wanted it. They never went out of their
to get it. And now they're getting over it. All of a sudden, we'll be glad
you did.

KAREN MANTLER: (Singing) We'll be glad you did.

WHITEHEAD: You can hear the inspiration Bley got from the theater music of
Curt Vile(ph) and maybe The Beatles. The band on "Tropic Appetites" is a
septet more or less, including bassist Dave Holland, and the then-sizzling
saxophonist Gato Barbieri(ph) from Argentina. Other of Carla Bley's old
records are also worth your attention, like 1978's "Music Mechanique," one
her weirdest but prettiest big band records. And 1980's "Social Studies,"
which includes the original version of "Utviklingsang." That album with a
nine-piece band offers more evidence that medium-sized groups suit Carla
very well. Not too big, not too small, they're just right.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is currently based in Chicago. He reviewed "4x4,"
new CD by Carla Bley.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits given)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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