Actor Alan Cumming is an undefinable force of nature. On stage, he’s best known for his Tony-winning portrayal of the emcee from Cabaret. On screen, he’s taken his turn as a Bond villain, played a political operative on The Good Wife, and danced like no one was watching in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. Did we mention he’s also a best-selling memoirist and lauded humanitarian? Originally from Scotland, Cumming reflects upon his experience immigrating to America in his new show, Legal Immigrant, which arrives at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach December 9. PBI caught up with Cumming to discuss acting, Legal Immigrant, and his favorite things about his homeland.
PBI: You’ve portrayed a wide range of characters. How do you go about selecting your roles?
Cumming: I choose roles for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they are things I am burning to do, other times they are because I really want to work with someone or go somewhere, and sometimes because I need to earn money! But like everything else in my life, I tend to choose roles by following my gut—my instinct, if you will. Also, the roles that speak to me are not necessarily the big showy ones; they are the ones that just have something—even a line or a moment—that I feel makes them worth inhabiting, and part of the story I feel I’d like to tell.
You’ve done a lot of bizarre things on film and the stage. What’s been the most surreal moment of your career?
There have been many over the years. Walking across a stage to stand underneath a sign that says in light bulbs “Liza and Alan” and beginning to sing a duet with Liza Minnelli is definitely one of them. Being invited to The White House for a party, and the Obamas recognizing me and knowing my name was another. There are also negative sides, too, times when details of my personal life were newsworthy. But mostly there are positive things—experiences or people I never thought I would encounter that I am having an intimate connection with. And I hope they continue to happen. I hope I always have a child-like curiosity and glee.
Your most well-known stage role is as the Emcee in Cabaret. How do you go about reinventing that character each time the opportunity to play him comes around?
Well, first of all, I will never play him again! And there was a 16-year gap between the last two times that I played him, so it’s not like I feel like I have to reinvent too much—I just have to try and remember what worked and what didn’t. But the great thing about that character and the production I did of it is that the audience was my co-star. I engaged with them more than anyone else on stage. And, of course, as they changed every night so did my performance and my experience. That’s how I was able to keep things fresh and the character vital.
What advice would you give someone who is about to tackle that role for the first time?
Don’t be like me. Don’t wear suspenders. Don’t die your hair black and look druggy. Find your own way. It’s such a great role open to so many interpretations, and it makes me sad that so many people send me pictures of their productions and they’re all trying to recreate something that we did rather than creating something new.
As someone who has found a second home in America, what did you find most surprising about the immigration process?
When I became a citizen, it was post-9/11 and the whole process was much slower and more complicated than it had been when I got my green card 10 years before. But the idea that it is easy to get citizenship in this country and that people are flooding in is a total myth. The immigration system is incredibly diligent and thorough.
What do you miss most about Scotland when you’re away?
I miss the sense of humor, the collective understanding, and, I know this sounds weird, but I miss the rain. Not the constant, pouring, nonstop rain, but the light mist we have. Well, it’s more rainy than a mist actually, but not so rainy to be actual rain. We call it smirr. I think that is why everyone has good skin—we are constantly hydrated.
What do you miss most about the U.S. and New York City when you’re away?
I miss the energy. I miss the feeling of home and roots, as New York has become my adult-life home. I miss being able to do anything I want whenever I want and miss people bringing you coffee within 30 seconds of you sitting down in a restaurant. I miss people talking to you on the street even when you don’t want to engage with them.
What can audiences expect from Legal Immigrant?
A smorgasbord of genders, topics, and emotions. I really do love the fact that the form of cabaret allows you to do pretty much anything; sing a song from any period, talk about any subject, but also, as I do in this show, have one through line as an umbrella that binds it all together.
What kind of commonality will audiences notice in the music selections for Legal Immigrant?
A lot of the songs I sing are by incredible women. I did not set out to make that a focus of the song choices, but when I realized it was going that way I embraced it. They are all songs I feel I can bring something to, and hopefully by my singing it the audience will hear the song in a different way. But they are all over the place from P!nk to Marie Dietrich, from Schubert to Peggy Lee.
What message do you hope to convey with this show?
The message I would like [audiences] to take away is that we should celebrate immigration and not deride it. And actually, looking at America and why it is such a great country, we have to conclude that being anti-immigrant is anti-American. I also want people to remember that being different is not necessarily a bad thing.