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(Photo by Francis Hills)

March/April 2023 Cover Story: Catching Up With Everyone’s Favourite Queer Icon, Alan Cumming

The Tony- and Emmy-award-winning actor dishes on Och & Oy!, his current Broadway obsession, the Spice Girls and more

By Christopher Turner

Alan Cumming has one of the most eclectic resumés out there: he’s an actor, producer, singer, filmmaker and provocateur. He has a sly, disarming smile, has performed (and is friends) with Liza Minnelli, made a cameo in Jay Z’s video for “Picasso Baby” and is a bestselling author and former podcast host. Wed to illustrator Grant Shaffer, he’s also a vocal activist, particularly for LGBTQ+ rights, and has co-owned a queer cabaret bar, Club Cumming, in the East Village in New York since 2017. 

In short, he is a true queer icon. 

Cumming was born in Perthshire, Scotland, and studied drama at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama before embarking on a career that would have its roots on the stage. In his native Scotland, Cumming worked steadily in theatre and television in the 1980s before his career started to boom after a move to London, England. He won an Olivier Award (the British equivalent of the Tony Awards) for his role as the Maniac in Accidental Death of an Anarchist, received another Olivier nomination for his performance as the Emcee inCabaret in London’s West End, and critical acclaim for a variety of other roles on the stage, including his one-man adaptation of Macbeth. By the late 1990s, he was grabbing the attention of American audiences, especially after he took home the Tony Award in 1998 when he reprised his role as the sexually ambiguous Emcee in Sam Mendes’ dark, radical revamped production of Cabaret on Broadway.

His triumphs on the stage presented a new range of opportunities and it wasn’t long before Cumming was introduced to mainstream audiences: opposite Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997), with the Spice Girls in Spice World (1997), in Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1996), as well as Spy Kids (2001), X2: X-Men United (2003), The Smurfs (2011) and Battle of the Sexes (2017). He didn’t just have an impact on the big screen. On television, viewers will remember him as Eli Gold in the long-running legal series The Good Wife (2009-2016), and as academic Dylan Reinhart in Instinct (2018-2019), who was the first gay leading character in a US television network drama.

With all of these roles (and countless others not mentioned) he has proven his versatility, moving easily among styles and genres. Outside of his credits on the stage, film and television, Cumming continues to have an impact. Most notably he has taken a painful personal history and used it to inspire others through written words. His first highly praised memoir, the 2014 bestseller Not My Father’s Son, concentrated on his sadistic father and an abusive childhood on a rural estate in Scotland, while his latest book, 2022’s Baggage: Tales From A Fully Packed Life, is a funny and raw detailing of many of the A-list encounters and speed bumps that helped shape him into one of the most inspiring actors of his time.

For his latest project, Cumming is having a little fun and has teamed up with a voice known for delivering the news, NPR radio journalist Ari Shapiro, who is also sometimes a guest vocalist for the band Pink Martini. It may not be an immediately obvious pairing, but in a way it makes perfect sense: Cumming and Shapiro are both storytellers and their two-man show, Och & Oy! A Considered Cabaret, combines their big personalities with a hybrid of storytelling and, of course, song. Think of it as “an old-fashioned cabaret” that offers a mix of songs, Q&A and personal storytelling – which both men have been doing in various ways for decades.

ABOVE: Alan Cumming And Ari Shapiro in Och & Oy! A Considered Cabaret (Photo by Emilio Madrid)

“I’ve got to know Ari over the last few years, both socially and when he interviewed me for a couple of events,” says Cumming. “The last time was an evening in DC, and by the end of it I realized that our chemistry and the unusual combo of us, as well as the fact that Ari has an amazing voice, would make for a really great cabaret show. And kapow! We’re doing it!”

As for the title: “Och & Oy!” are words the duo says are Scottish (for Cumming) and Jewish (for Shapiro) meaning “Crikey!” or “Oh, for God’s sake!”

Featuring musical direction by renowned LA-based musician Henry Koperski, the show was originally planned for 2020, but was ultimately derailed by the worldwide COVID-19 epidemic. Last year, the duo debuted the show to praise and laughter. This spring, the 95-minute show will make its one Canadian stop at Toronto’s Massey Hall on Saturday, March 4. 

In anticipation of Cumming’s return to Canada, we recently caught up with him to find out more about the show, and chat about everything from his current Broadway obsession to role models to the Spice Girls and much more. Here’s what he had to say.

Let’s kick things off and talk about Och & Oy! with Ari Shapiro, which will be in Toronto in March. What can audiences expect?
It’s an old-fashioned cabaret. We sing songs and tell stories and revel in our differences – yet also show that we are partners in crime!

Partners in crime and, dare I say, an unlikely pair. How did the two of you connect and come up with the idea for the show?
We had met over the years several times and Ari had interviewed me for those kinds of “An Evening With” occasions when I was promoting a book, etc. We just really connected and I loved how we had a similar sense of humour, yet he also challenged me in conversation and I really responded so well to that.

(Photo by Francis Hills)

It’s all very Club Cumming. What’s on deck at Club Cumming in 2023?
As always, we have a huge range of performances and parties coming up. The motto there is “All ages, all genders, all colors, all sexualities.” Kindness is all, and anything could happen…and it frequently does!

I am excited about a new thing – the Club Cumming Film Society, where we screen a queer film classic once a month and then have people who were involved with the film come and talk afterwards. But it’s an ever-changing feast at Club Cumming and I love it!!

We have to talk about Broadway. Of course, you’re no stranger to the stage.… What’s your favorite musical, and why?
Most recently I loved and was obsessed with A Strange Loop. I saw it off-Broadway and thought it was the most innovative and exciting piece. So when it came to Broadway, I became an investor and producer. It felt good to support new work, especially this big, Black and queer-ass American Broadway show.

Is there a role you haven’t played on the stage that’s on your list?
No. I don’t yearn. I think it’s a very unhealthy thing to do. Stay in the present and be open to opportunity.

You’ve had some pretty iconic roles on the stage, TV and film. Which medium do you prefer?
Well, in the unlikely event that I had a gun to my head and someone asked me this question, I would choose the theatre. I love theatre for the connection with other humans.

What do you think is your most memorable or iconic role to date?
Alan Cumming.

You’ve previously written a lot about your childhood and how you’ve processed it over the years. Do you think your memoirs have served as an inspiration for queer people?
In my first memoir, Not My Father’s Son, I talked in depth about my childhood and my abusive father, and, yes, I do feel it was inspiring for people. I am contacted on a regular basis after all these years by people who read it and feel the strength to confront members of their family or people in their lives who have been abusive to them, or just that they feel less alone because someone like me in the public eye has spoken up about my past.

Do you consider yourself a role model for the LGBTQ+ community?
I do. Not a self-imposed one. It just seems to have happened and I do take it very seriously. But I am a role model because I am my own man, I try to do what’s right, and I speak out when I see injustice and I feel my voice could make a difference.

Who do you consider a role model?
There are lots of people you won’t have heard of, but my role models are people who have overcome struggles and continue to.

(Photo by Francis Hills)

Do you think you’ll ever do another season of your podcast Alan Cumming’s Shelves?
No. It was sweet while it lasted, but I think there are too many podcasts in the world and I don’t want to clutter up the planet with another one of my own.

What do you want people to know about you that they might not already know?
I have no wisdom teeth and I am really good at making food for large groups of people.

What’s next for you?
Season 2 of Schmigadoon, the series I did for Apple TV+, comes out in April. This time it’s called Schmicago! I also have a new movie with Katie Holmes called Rare Objects out in April too. And I will be filming a movie in Canada with first-time director Mike Clowater called Drive Back Home.

Finally…it’s been 26 (!) years since the release of Spice World. Who is your favourite Spice Girl?
Always was, always will be: Ginger Spice. Geri and I have actually stayed friends and I have loved seeing her blossom into the great woman she is.


CHRISTOPHER TURNER acted as guest editor for this issue of IN Magazine. He is a Toronto-based writer, editor and lifelong fashionisto with a passion for pop culture and sneakers. Follow him on social media at @Turnstylin.

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