Alan Cumming on Speaking His Mind, Making His Own Hats and Getting In Touch With His Inner Elf

The star of the upcoming festival hit 'Any Day Now' speaks to TIME

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Paul (Garret Dillahunt) and Rudy (Alan Cumming) in 'Any Day Now'

Between his turns as a ruthless campaign manager on The Good Wife, Nightcrawler in X2 and, now, one half of a gay couple fighting to adopt a disabled boy in the 1970s in Any Day Now (out Dec. 14), we’re pretty sure Alan Cumming has one of the most diverse resumes in Hollywood. Here, the 47-year-old actor lets loose with TIME.

TIME: Congrats on all the festival awards you’re racking up. What do you think it is about this really specific story that appeals to so many different audiences?

Alan Cumming: I think it’s because they just see the great love and this family that obviously is really good together and loves each other, and they really care about the boy, and then they see that being torn asunder. Because it goes beyond a gay or LGBT issue. People are just so horrified by the injustice. That type of prejudice still exists and we’re part of a society that allows it. There’s a complicity that the audience feels that obviously really arrests them, as well as the actual plot.

I actually found myself surprised that was fiction, because it felt really true.

There was a character called Rudy and he did take in a very disabled, much more physically disabled than in our story, boy. But after that, the rest of it, the relationship and the legal battle, that’s fiction. But there actually was a guy called Rudy. He died of AIDS in the 1980s.

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Did you have to do a lot of research to get that very real 1970s feel?

Research on the Internet! There were obvious things I realized. Everyone was skinnier in the ’70s because they all smoked and probably there wasn’t as much processed food available. It’s an interesting time, moving away from the hippie thing and moving into a more progressive political era. But mostly it was trying to deal with a terrible wig and the lack of natural fibers that were in the clothes I had to wear. That was the biggest challenge in terms of research.

Is there another historical time period that you would like to do a period piece in?

I love things set in the ’20s. I did a movie in Berlin about ten years ago that was about all these surrealists. I love that—it’s much more progressive. And I suppose I’m quite connected to that time because of Cabaret. It was quite an exciting time because, especially in America, there’s a huge backlash. The progressive ways of sexuality and acceptance of those things, that all went up the wazoo. It was full of ideas and new movements and art and philosophy and everything. And also it seems such fun! I also did that Noel Coward play, Design for Living. That’s a perfect example. That was in 1923 or something and yet it’s quite shocking in terms of what it’s saying about living as a threesome.

And aren’t you playing Salvador Dali soon?

I hope so! I’ve been cast in it and it’s so fantastic. But there’s a window in my Good Wife schedule that they wanted to do it in last year, and they didn’t get the money in time. It’s such a great script and I just hope it all comes together. People obviously quite like the idea of me playing Salvador Dali.

Why?

We share a bonkers gene.

Do you paint?

Not really. I’m a mean hand at papier-mâché. I actually made a papier-mâché hat with some coat hangers and some Chinese newspapers.

What kind of hat? Like a fedora?

No, imagine if Frank Gehry had made a turban. I wore it to a Lady Gaga thing at Barney’s. I thought that would be an appropriate venue.

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You mentioned your work on The Good Wife, and it seems like Eli on Good Wife and Rudy in Any Day Now are very different but they both speak their minds. What draws you to outspoken characters like that?

I just like people who lay their cards on the table. The thing about Eli, he bottles it all up and then all of the sudden it just explodes out. He’s quite fun to play because he gets these rages and he gets these outbursts, but there’s just a lot of eyebrow acting with Eli.

If your Twitter feed is any indication, that outspokenness is definitely a personal quality too. Has that ever gotten you in trouble?

I don’t think so. It depends how you define trouble. I piss people off but I don’t think that means I’m getting into trouble.

You also describe yourself in your Twitter bio as a Scottish elf trapped inside a middle-aged man’s body. Which part of the elf do you identify with?

Flitting around. Stirring it up. A healthy connection to your inner child. And also having a big nose.

You are flitting around a lot. I heard that you performed with Liza Minnelli this year.

That was great. We’re actually doing it again in March. We’re going to do it in New York at Town Hall for a night. I love Liza. I’ve known her for years and we made a record before. She’s just such a sweetheart. We get on well and we have a real laugh, and it’s so amazing that she wanted to do that performance with me. It’s a huge deal. She’s Liza!

Is there anyone who you haven’t performed with before who would be a dream cabaret-act partner?

I’d like to do a cabaret with Meryl Streep. She’s so funny and I think she’s got a great voice and she’s ballsy and bold. She should do her own cabaret.

Is ballsiness the main criterion?

It’s very important. The cabaret I like and try to do is a very honest one. You reveal quite a lot about yourself, you’re quite provocative about things, you tell stories. It should be quite titillating, not in a tabloid-y way but it should make people go, “Ooh! Crikey!”

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Were the cabaret scenes in Any Day Now in the script before you signed on?

Yes, they were, but the songs were different. The thing about doing this sort of film is that you never quite know which songs you’re going to get the rights for until the very last minute. Obviously the songs, tonally and lyrically, they tell part of the story as well as just being a performance. I love the fact that the last moment of the film is a song that kind of says so much without the big scene of “we’re going to be okay.” You just see it because of that song, and I love that. But it’s quite hard to do because I had to record before we came to shoot those scenes, so you have to make decisions about certain things in a vacuum. But it all turns out all right.

Did you actually film that scene toward the end of shooting?

It was the very last day, the last scene of the film. We finished at like 5:30 in the morning. It was lovely and Isaac [Levya, who plays Marco, the son in the movie] came on the set to visit and just bawled, cried and cried and cried when he heard me singing that song.

You had such great chemistry with him. How did that develop?

With kids, I just speak to them. I don’t change my tone and how I relate to them. I think kids really respond to that. He’s not a kid anymore, he’s 22 now, but we just hit it off and he was just so excited to be in the film and just a sweetheart. He said he wanted to sing me a song and he sang an entire song, minutes and minutes and minutes. It was this Leona Lewis song, just looking into my eyes the entire time.

Wow.

It was intense and just so beautiful.

Have you and your husband ever thought about having children?

We have, but we’re not going to.

Did you learn anything new about adoption rights today during the course of making the movie?

The worst thing I learned was that nothing much has changed, actually. To adopt within the state system is pretty difficult and pretty rare. In certain states it’s actually illegal. There’s prejudice still. Obviously we know there’s prejudice, but that has got to change before all the legal matters can change. Really the point of the film is that it’s prejudice and bigotry that stops something loving and beautiful from happening. That’s not just a gay thing. That happens everywhere.

Do you think the situation shown in Any Day Now could happen today?

If you’re trying to adopt through the state system, absolutely. And if you have people who are as pissed off and homophobic as some of the characters in the film, yeah, definitely. And also there’s still a great taboo about gay men and children. That’s another issue as well that’s quite factually incorrect, that we’re sort of fighting against. There’s a whole load of stuff.

The last question I have, changing the topic completely, is whether you have any plans to do a third edition of your signature fragrance, Cumming.

Not just now. We only really did the second one because [perfumer] Christopher [Brosius] said he had a whole load of ingredients in his studio.

And because 2nd Cumming is such a great name?

If we do another one I’m going to call it Cumming Again! Who knows. It was a crazy idea in the first place, so never say never. We actually intended it to be a little indie—yet actually still a really good fragrance—project, but it blew up and Sephora bought it. It became this mass-produced thing, the first one, so the second one is nice because it’s back to that original idea and all the money goes to charity. My half goes to the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. As well as smelling nice, you can do good in the world.

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