In England, Alan Cumming is often touted as the next Olivier. But in Hollywood, he is just getting his feet wet, and he rates no higher than slimy villain. That's what happens to British character actors in America: They have to kill first and kiss later.
Earlier this year, Cumming played the creepy shop assistant who is Chris O'Donnell's rival in "Circle of Friends." Now in "GoldenEye," he faces off against James Bond, playing one of 007's mad-genius nemeses, a Russian computer hacker.
"I'm the brains," Cumming says in his unalloyed Scottish brogue. "I'm very arrogant. Most of the time I'm in front of the computer screen, although at one point I handle the GoldenEye--a special thing that goes into the computer."
When Cumming was asked to audition, he "got invited to go to a secret address," he recalls. "I wasn't allowed to see the script until after I got offered the part. They wanted to see a range of my work, so I did a scene from 'Cabaret' showing me being German and lewd."
Sitting here in the Almeida Theater bar in North London, brown hair falling in his face, Cumming runs through a variety of accents, including a dead-on impression of "GoldenEye" director Martin Campbell, a salty New Zealander. "I'd never done an action film before," he says. "I never thought I'd enjoy explosives, but I did. Pierce Brosnan is quite witty. I enjoyed being on the set with him. He doesn't take himself seriously."
Cumming tries to follow that principle himself but can't help noting, "People think I'm a bit of a boy wonder because I'm quite eclectic. I wrote and directed a short film [the award-winning "Butter"], I co-wrote a sitcom [the BBC's "The High Life"], I used to do stand-up comedy. I go out with Saffron Burrows [his statuesque "Circle of Friends" co-star], who goes up for any script that says 'beautiful woman.' "
What really brought him notice, however, was his performance as Hamlet. British critics called him "the definitive Hamlet for the under 30s" (the Guardian) and "one of the best Hamlets you are likely to see" (the Financial Times).
"Playing Hamlet was like playing myself," Cumming says. "He's very close to who I am--a young student, desperate to get away from home, angry, having a bit of a breakdown, crying a lot, longing not to be there. He's spoiled. He's a wee boy who never grew up.
"I'm 30. I did him at 28, and it took me a long time to recover because I was so churned up and maddened by it. With Hamlet, you can be angry at everyone and be sorry for yourself and know what a waste it is. He just pulls that plug and goes down the drain. I'm different now. I'd like to play a grown-up person."
Cumming grew on a rural estate on the east coast of Scotland. "I had a weird upbringing," he says. "My father was a madperson. He ran the estate, and he was quite strict. I definitely wanted to get out and away."
Having started school at age 4, Cumming was finished by 16--too young for drama school. So he spent a year writing for a teen magazine before enrolling at the Royal Scottish Academy for Music and Drama. In 1988, he came to London to do a play, was nominated most promising newcomer in that year's Olivier Awards and never left. He has worked regularly for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal National Theater and the Royal Court.
"I used to play naive boys, really nice boys," says Cumming, who at one point was "the Lee Jeans boy" in advertisements. "Sleazy boys are better fun. They're less naturalistic, more removed from you."
He could conceivably be back in the next Bond film--"I'm only frozen alive," he points out--but his future may lie in more artistic films. He is currently playing Mr. Elton in Miramax's version of Jane Austen's "Emma," now before the cameras in England with Gwyneth Paltrow, Greta Scacchi and Juliet Stevenson. After that, he may do an English tour of "Romeo and Juliet."