Alan Cumming, a Scottish actor who tends to change accents, personas and hairstyles as often as a teenager, spoke before a live audience at Sag Harbor's Bay Street Theater on Saturday. His new film, "Any Day Now," about a drag queen trying to adopt a boy with Down syndrome, screens Sunday at 1 p.m. at the UA East Hampton.
Wearing black boots, houndstooth pants, a motorcycle jacket and a Hamptons film festival T-shirt that cheekily inserted "adult" into the title, the actor, 47, spoke to Time Out film critic Joshua Rothkopf about his eclectic career. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation.
Is that part of the way you develop characters, finding a voice?
It's rare that I use my own voice. So the accent of any character is much bigger. In America, you just speak with your own voice. American movie stars tend to be the same all the time. We like to see them again and again. If you're from somewhere else, you have a bigger opportunity to play other characters.
In your new film, "Any Day Now," your character is born in Queens, and the guy has a real honk. What about that role attracted you?
It's a story that I felt very passionate about as a human being and as an activist, to be in a story about same-sex adoption and just about being gay in general. I wanted to make him fight against what might be the archetypal idea of a gay man in the '70s that works as a drag queen. So I gave him a swagger. That's also an arsenal that he uses to get through life.
I see a thread through your films of the political and the personal. In the role of the MC in "Cabaret," at the end he removes his outfit to reveal Holocaust pajamas and a gold star and pink triangle. Was that your idea?
Yes, actually. When we did it first in London, I was playing Hamlet. And Sam Mendes asked me to do the MC and I said, "Ugh! I don't do musicals!" But he asked me again. When we did it in London, we also had a red circle for communist or socialist, anything vaguely lefty. But when we did it in New York, nobody understood what it was. Isn't that awful?
You met Jennifer Jason Leigh on that play. You created a real bond with her and the two of you did "The Anniversary Party."
It was with [the independent studio] New Line, sadly no longer with us. My favorite thing about that -- we went to Fox 2000 [another defunct indie], and showed it, and the man there cried and said, "We love this film, we love this film." And then they called me and said, "We'll pay for it if you make it a happy ending." They actually do say that. Isn't that shocking?
What was it like working with Kubrick [on "Eyes Wide Shut"]?
I loved Stanley, I adored him, and we had such a laugh. Stanley, his reputation was that he was this angry man, and the set was really scary, and you'd do thousands and thousands of takes. And we did do thousands and thousands of takes, but I always knew why we were doing it. He was hilarious and fun, and we had big chats and we kept in touch afterward.
I'd auditioned for it many times, but never met Stanley. And there they were: Stanley Kubrick and Tom Cruise. And I said, "Hi, Stanley, I'm Alan." And he looked at me, all angry: "You're not American." I said, "I know, Stanley, I'm Scottish." He said, "You were American on the tape." I said, "That's because I'm an actor, Stanley." (Does the zigzag snap) And I could tell he just loved it.
You don't seem to take celebrity all that seriously.
It's such a crazy thing, it's so stupid and weird. If you take it too seriously, that way madness lies. What it means is that people are interested in you, which is flattering, but they're also interested in really stupid people as well. So it could go either way.