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Alan Cumming: A Great Fit For 'The Good Wife'

Alan Cumming plays image consultant Eli Gold on CBS' The Good Wife. (CBS)

Actor Alan Cumming got his start with a breakout performance in a 1993 revival of Cabaret. Now, he writes, directs and hosts of one of public television's signature series, Masterpiece Mystery! while also playing pithy and practical political consultant Eli Gold on CBS's The Good Wife.

This year, Cumming's performance on The Good Wife, now in its third season, earned him an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor on a Drama Series. He joins NPR's Neal Conan to talk about his time as Gold, a role that was originally only supposed to last a couple of episodes.


Interview Highlights

On how the character of Eli Gold is loosely based on Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel

"Sometimes when you play someone who's very, very different [from] yourself and a role that you don't really know and actually understand, it's sort of daunting. But actually ... I thought of Eli just as I've thought of many other characters I've played that I don't know anything about. But they tend, mostly, to be superheroes or animals or, you know, kind of mythical characters. So I put him in that same gallery.

"I did a little bit research on [Emanuel]. And, you know, the sort of coiled-spring nature of him I find quite helpful. ... It was more about reading about him and seeing the public face and in imagining what the private one was like. ...

"When he loses, it's about ... passion. ... It's about this absolute, inexorable need to just vent about the fact that he hasn't been able to do his job properly."

On Gold's and Emanuel's backstories

"Eli has this past where he was a concert pianist. It hasn't really been developed yet, but ... there's like a metronome in my office and this little basket of piano keys like a sort of little tchotchke thing. ... But I think that's interesting, because I didn't know until I started this that Rahm Emanuel was a former ballet dancer."

On being Scottish, but acting like an American

"I think American people forget how bombarded the rest of the world is by American culture. And so, you know, we hear an American accent so much more than you hear others, outside of American accents. So it's not as hard as it seems, I think. And if you have a good ear, like a musical ear, then you pick up on different signs and things like that. And obviously, some are harder than others. Like, I actually made a film in Minnesota called Sweet Land about five years ago. I had to play a Minnesotan farmer. That was a bit of a challenge. ...

"But I think actually some of it is being Scottish as well. ... In drama school I was told and trained I had to be able to lose my accent, otherwise, you know, there aren't many jobs just for people talking like this. So I think from early on I was used to having to do those different accents and being more attentive towards it. ...

"It's not everyone can do the American accent — I know that. But I think if you are as bombarded by British culture as we are by American culture, you would be better at it than I imagine you are right now."

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Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host: On CBS's hit TV show "The Good Wife," Alan Cumming plays Eli Gold, a pithy, spiffy political consultant-turned crisis manager in a law firm in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV PROGRAM, "THE GOOD WIFE")

ALAN CUMMING: (as Eli Gold) The first rule of managing a crisis: The top man answers the questions. That is the only reason you are here. That is the only reason I am talking to you. So in 10 minutes' time, you're giving a press conference where you'll order all your cheese products off the shelves. We need a split screen of that image with you looking strong - wrong tie, get him a red tie - then you apologize for any missteps and say, the buck stops here.

CONAN: Off of that set, Alan Cumming is a writer, director, cabaret singer, and the host of one of public television's signature series, where we get to hear his real voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "MASTERPIECE MYSTERY")

CUMMING: I'm Alan Cumming, and this is "Masterpiece Mystery."

CONAN: And if you'd like to talk with Alan Cumming, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Alan Cumming is with us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us on the program today.

CUMMING: Thanks, Neal. Nice to talk to you.

CONAN: And you have a red tie on.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: I'm completely naked, actually.

CONAN: Oh, that's charming. When do you get to play the real classic Scottish parts, you know, like Macbeth or James Bond?

CUMMING: Well, finally enough, I'm going to play Macbeth next summer in the gap between "The Good Wife" - in the summer holidays from "The Good Wife," with the National Theatre of Scotland, so it doesn't get much more Scottish.

CONAN: No, it doesn't. And any bites on James Bond though?

CUMMING: I think Daniel Craig is safe in his job for now.

CONAN: OK. I wanted to ask you, your part was introduced as a - in the first season of "The Good Wife" - as a campaign manager, and not intended to last very long.

CUMMING: No, I came on to do - well, I mean, they said one, maybe a couple more episodes, and then he just kind of stayed. He just sort of fitted, I suppose.

CONAN: Well, he took off because well, it's a good part, it's well-written, and you're playing it very, very well.

CUMMING: Thank you very much. I really enjoy it. I mean, it's a very - it's funny. Like sometimes when, you know, you play someone who's very, very different to yourself and in a world that you don't really know, initially, or understand, it's sort of daunting. But actually, I began - I thought of Eli just as I've thought of many other characters I've played that I don't know anything about. But they tend, mostly, to be superheroes or animals or, you know, kind of mythical characters. So I've put him in that same gallery.

CONAN: He is - the character part is loosely based on Rahm Emanuel - of course, served as a chief of staff to the president, Obama, and now the mayor of Chicago. Do you watch him for tips?

CUMMING: Well, I did a little bit at the beginning, but then, you know, you have to let that go. I mean, I just was interested about - I did a little bit research on him. And, you know, the sort of coiled, spring nature of him I find quite helpful. And just - it was more about reading about him and seeing the, you know, the public face, and in imagining what the private one was like.

CONAN: The ability to explode in private, and then turn around and present the calm face to the client.

CUMMING: Yes, exactly. And also the fact that, you know, when he loses it, it's about – it's passion. It's not about - it's not a mean - well, it is kind of mean, but it's about this absolute, inexorable need to just vent about the fact that he hasn't been able to do his job properly. I was also really fascinated by - I mean, Eli has this past where he was a concert pianist. It hasn't really been developed yet, but I'm...

CONAN: I was wondering about more back story because we don't know what he does when he goes home.

CUMMING: Yes. Not very much, I imagine. We're starting to find a little bit more this season, that we're shooting now. But the piano thing is - there's like, a metronome in my office and there's a little basket of piano keys, like a sort of little tchotchke thing – tchotchke, rather. And - but I think that's interesting because I didn't know until I started this that Rahm Emanuel was a former ballet dancer.

CONAN: I did not know that, either.

CUMMING: Who knew? I know.

CONAN: Yeah.

CUMMING: So, you know, that's a really fascinating, kind of bizarre twist to the story. But in this season coming up, we find - like, I am - last season, I had a daughter, a teenage daughter. And now I have an ex-wife, and that's being played by Parker Posey. So we've had some really great stuff to do.

CONAN: And a good cast to work with, too.

CUMMING: Oh, yeah. Oh, they're really such good actors. And you know what's lovely, those great, regular people who are just really nice people as well as being really great to work with. But then you get these amazing actors coming in for the guest-star roles. It's amazing, actually. Each week, when I see the new cast list, I'm really excited about who they are. And that - Parker, I've known for years and done a few films with, and we're having a real laugh playing former lovers.

CONAN: There is also a lot of music in your background, too.

CUMMING: Yes. Yes, I have been known to use my pipes.

CONAN: You have a cabaret show that you perform from time to time.

CUMMING: Yeah, I do. A couple of years ago, I starred - I'd always kind of been scared of singing as myself. And - but I actually - when I did do it, on the rare occasions I did do it, I really like the way that you connect with an audience. So there's not really the same veil of a character between you - you really just are you. And I'm really fascinated about just breaking down the layers of artifice between an audience and an artist. So I finally did this cabaret show I called "I Bought a Blue Car Today" - because it was sort of about me becoming an American citizen. And that was the sentence I had to write down to prove my - to prove I could read English in my test. And it was really an amazing thing for me, to do a show like that – that's that, you know, exposing. And I really liked it, and I've kind of kept doing it.

CONAN: Craig Ferguson wrote a book about his decision to move to this country and become an American citizen. And I don't know if you know him or if you're familiar with it.

CUMMING: I haven't read Craig's book, but I know Craig from - oh, like decades ago, in Glasgow. We were once in a show together, in a theater in Glasgow. It's when he used to do a character called Bing Hitler.

CONAN: Yes, I've read about Bing Hitler.

CUMMING: He was hilarious. So yeah, I know Craig from old times.

CONAN: Why did you decide to become an American citizen? You can cross the ocean and keep working.

CUMMING: Yes. When I had been - you know, I had a green card and I got another green card so I - but I really - the good thing about a green card is you can do everything that a proper American can do except vote. And I wanted to vote in the last election for Barack Obama, and I failed because the immigration process is slightly slower than it was, you know, 10 years ago - understandably. And so I didn't get to be - and actually, I don't think - I think I realized that once you become a citizen, you're not allowed to vote immediately. There's sort of like a time lapse, that you have to wait before you're allowed to vote. So I voted in the midterm elections, and I'm going to vote for Barack Obama again in - next year.

CONAN: We're talking with actor Alan Cumming, one of the emerging stars on "The Good Wife." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. This is Diane, Diane with us from Napa in California.

DIANE: Hi. I just want to say that I've been an avid watcher of "The Good Wife." And I just think you're phenomenal, phenomenal. And I'm sorry that I haven't - I don't know what I've seen you in prior to - but where - and now I'm hearing that you're from Scotland. Where did you get your start? I mean, what - where is it all from?

CUMMING: Began in a stable and...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DIANE: What was that?

CONAN: In a stable in Bethlehem.

CUMMING: No, Carnoustie. No, I - well, you know, I went to drama school in Scotland, and I started working in theater there, and then I started - and then I moved to London. And then I started to do films, you know, blah, blah. It's kind of...

CONAN: Well, you said a moment ago, you're singing for yourself. Your big breakthrough, at least as far as this country goes, was in "Cabaret," singing as The Emcee.

CUMMING: Yes, as I - so I mean, there's various moments in my life that changed things. And I played The Emcee in "Cabaret" on Broadway about 12 years ago, and that was a big deal.

CONAN: And nobody could imagine anybody but Joel Grey in the part until you came along.

CUMMING: You know, it's so weird that you say that. I had a dream about Joel Grey last night. Isn't that funny?

CONAN: Yeah. What did he do?

CUMMING: He - well, he had a - this funny wig on. We're just chatting. We're just chatting. But - and you know, I don't normally dream about Joel, but I just did last night. Isn't that weird?

CONAN: It is strange. All right. Diane, thanks very much for the phone call.

DIANE: Thank you very much. You're -

CUMMING: Thank you.

CONAN: I think she had something nice to say, and I hung up on her by mistake. I apologize.

CUMMING: I see. That's show biz.

CONAN: Yeah. Stephen is on the line, calling from Chaska in Minnesota.

STEPHEN: Hi, Alan. It's very nice to talk to you. I had a question about accents. You and Hugh Laurie are so American-sounding in your roles. How do you prepare for that?

CUMMING: Well, you know, you have - I mean, I think you have to have a good ear, definitely. But I think American people forget how bombarded the rest of the world is by American culture. And so, you know, we hear an American accent so much more than you hear other - outside-of-America accents. So it's not as hard as it seems, I think. And if you have a good ear, like a musical ear, then you pick up on different signs and things like that. And obviously, some are harder than others. Like, I actually made a film in Minnesota, called "Sweet Land," about five years ago. I had to play a Minnesotan farmer. That was a bit of a challenge.

CONAN: I lived in London for a while, and you used to see - this was some years ago - but some English actors had what I called the I-80 accent, that would wander from coast to coast and several stops in between. It was sort of generically American but aspects of the Bronx, and then right to Indiana.

CUMMING: That's right. Exactly. I know those ones. But I think actually, you know, it's something to do with being Scottish as well, I think. We are - I think - well, definitely in drama school, I was told and trained I had to be able to lose my accent. Otherwise, you know, there aren't many jobs just for people talking like this. So I think from early on, I was used to having to do lots of different accents and being more attentive towards it. But I do know - I mean, it's not everyone can do a good American accent; I know that. But I think if you were as bombarded by British culture as we are by American culture, you would be better at it than I imagine you are right now.

CONAN: And that only happens when we watch PBS. Stephen, thanks very much for the phone call. Let's see if we can get one more caller in quickly. Felicia, Felicia from St. Louis, we just have a few seconds.

FELICIA: Yes, I just wanted to tell Mr. Cumming I loved his character in "The Anniversary," which is a wonderful movie. And it was a very complex character, and I just wanted to know his thoughts about that.

CUMMING: Oh, well, thank you. I really - that - "The Anniversary Party" is - I wrote that and directed that.

FELICIA: I didn't even realize it. That was a great movie...

CUMMING: Oh, yes. Jennifer Jason Leigh and I, you know...

CONAN: And gave himself a wonderful part.

CUMMING: Wrote myself, and we wrote Jennifer a wonderful part. Yeah. We wrote and directed and produced that. So it's - you know, I really like that film, too, and I think it's interesting. It had, you know, it had a lot to say about a relationship, an adult relationship, and a lot to say about Los Angeles. And it was just something that was a real - something that Jennifer and I just, you know, something we thought, we managed to get it made, it all went down well, and people really connected in the way that we like. So that's one of my favorite things I've done, actually.

FELICIA: Oh, good. It's mine, too.

CONAN: Felicia, thanks very much. And finally, based on Rahm Emanuel, is Eli Gold going to run for mayor?

CUMMING: I don't know. I think Eli is slightly more obsessed with Peter Florek's political ambitions so far. But you know, who knows? That's the great thing about being on a TV show that doesn't have an ending. You never know what's going to happen. I used to really hate that about being on the show but now, I've really embraced it. And I like it.

CONAN: Alan Cumming, thanks very much for your time. Good luck on "The Good Wife."

CUMMING: Thank you.

CONAN: Alan Cumming plays Eli Gold. He joins us today from our bureau in New York. Tomorrow, of course, Wednesday. That means politics. We'll rate the Republicans' performances on the New Hampshire debate stage. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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