I last spoke with Alan Cummingactor, writer, director, singer, noted queer activist and all-around Renaissance manin 2010 when he was in Chicago as the first recipient of the Chicago International Film Festival's OUTrageous Award for Artistic Achievement. As usual, since then Cumming has been busy with a myriad of projectsthe most prominent being his regular television appearances on The Good Wife and, now, in his moving lead performance in writer-director Travis Fine's Any Day Now.
Cumming stars as a drag queen who works the bar scene in the late '70s and aspires to a singing career. He partners with a closeted and rather fetching lawyer (Garret Dillahunt) and, in a rather strange turn of events, the two become the de facto parents for an abandoned boy with Down Syndrome. When the boy's drug-addicted mother returns to the scene a heart-wrenching court battle ensues. The movie, distributed by locally based Music Box Films, has won raves for Cumming on the festival circuit (it made my top 10 list as well) and opens at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., on Friday, Jan. 4.
Windy City Times: You helped to develop the material for Any Day Now, correct?
Alan Cumming: I was on board quite early. I wouldn't say I developed it but I got to offer my thoughts on the various drafts and certainly helped to develop traits about the characteryou know, things that I thought should be changed a little. And the script did change quite a bit in the three or four drafts that I read to be sure. It was exciting to be part of that and have those discussions because you don't normally get involved.
WCT: (SPOILER ALERT) It changed from a happy outcome to a much more tragic kind of piece, right?
Alan Cumming: There was a more upbeat ending, yes, when I first read it.
WCT: One thing that I loved about the movieand I don't know if this was intentional or notthe story was very true to the gay experience in the '70s but it's also true to '70s cinemathat downbeat thing. Did you and Travis discuss that?
Alan Cumming: The look and feel of it?
WCT: Yesand the downbeat ending, which is a hallmark of ''70s cinema.
Alan Cumming: Yeah. I think it definitely was. I know that Travis watched a lot of movies from the '70s and definitely that kind of aesthetic of those movies I think was in play when it comes to the look and feel of the film. And for me it really helped us that it was a period piece which takes it one step away from complete naturalism and you can really go for it. There's a grittiness to it that is perhaps something we associate with films from that period rather than present day thingscertainly that would be the case with gay stories.
WCT: I've read that you hesitated because it was a drag-queen character but because it was also a period piece, was that a mark in its favor?
Alan Cumming: When I first read it I just thought, "Oh, of course it's a drag queen," which is slightly stereotypical in terms of a story about a gay man. But actually it wasn't so much the '70s thing but it was his voicethat's what I thought was really interesting about doing the drag bit. I didn't want to do a negative stereotypical thing and there was a big potential for that so I was concerned more about that than anything else. And that's what was so heartening about working with Travis because every step of the way he confounded my worries by cutting stuff or by the way he treated the character. I think he's incredibly moving.
WCT: And there's certainly a very theatrical element inherent in the character and the storydrag queen adopts Down Syndrome child, drag queen shares jail cell with homophobic revolutionary ala Kiss of the Spider Womanthat kind of thing. I think it was pulled back when it needed to be. I also loved, having seen you perform in concert here at the Harris Theater, that the singing became such a part of this character. Was that developed after you came in specifically for you?
Alan Cumming: No, it was always there. That wasn't me.
WCT: But that must have been thrilling for you, as an actor and a vocalist, to be able to emotionally encapsulate everything in song.
Alan Cumming: Yes. I have sung in films before, that's true but I've not sung in this way where I am singing as a performer but also as being sort of the narrator at certain pointsespecially at the end. I think that's really interesting and was appropriate.
WCT: It was very true to the period. Using "I Shall Be Released" the Dylan song brought to mind Bette Midler's recording from that periodwhich gay men everywhere were no doubt singing along with at the time.
Alan Cumming: That's what they sent me! I didn't know the song so they sent me a YouTube clip of Bette Midler singing at the bathhouse with Barry Manilow playing on piano. I thought, "No pressure." [Laughs]
WCT: Well, you pulled it off beautifully.
Alan Cumming: Thank you.
WCT: Speaking about your singing for a moment, you bring a lot of character to your songs. Did I read that you recently did something with Liza Minnelliwho also utilizes that approach?
Alan Cumming: Yes; I've done a few things with Liza over the years. But this summer we did a couple of shows on Fire Island and it was an amazing nightwe did two shows at Cherry Groveand we're going to do it again on March 13 at Town Hall in New York. We had a lovely time together.
WCT: Back to that time periodthe late '70sit was very typical to meet somebody at a club and go home and spend the rest of your life with that person. That "love at first sight" idea was very common in those days. How did you get to that place with Garret? Did you have rehearsals?
Alan Cumming: No. We met a day or two before we started shooting and we didn't know each other at all. When you do something like this, you just know that you're going to have to dive off the cliff and, luckily, we just got on. He's such a lovely man. It wasn't ideal and I would have liked to have had more time and everything, but I think it worked.
WCT: Is it wonderful as an actor to play those emotionally intense courtroom scenes where you get to really let 'er rip? I love that over the top stuffit's very Bette Davis. [Laughs]
Alan Cumming: Yes. It was intense. There was never a day when there wasn't some intense scene to shoot.
WCT: It's easy to look at the movie and think, "How terrible things were for gay people back then" but this stuff is still going on.
Alan Cumming: One of things about doing this film is that it's made me feel more, sort of angrier because a lot of the press and reaction to the film has been just that: "Oh look at how bad it was and now gay people can adopt; it's great." That's not true. That family is torn apart basically because of bigotry and prejudice, and that definitely still exists.
We live in a society that condones it and though there are some states that allow you to adopt children, there are not that many. And most gay people either adopt in another country or do it through an agency or through surrogacy. It's still incredibly difficult to do it through the state system. And in some ways you can't blame people for being prejudice because the government is by its inaction condoning prejudice. So it's been interesting doing this filmI'm all for saying let's be happy for what's happenedbut let's not be complacent. Let's not think that everything's all finished now.
WCT: Not at all. Having played a parent, are you and your husband ever…
Alan Cumming: No, no. We decided against it quite a few years ago. We're content. We did think about it, but it's not for us.