Alan Cumming on ‘The biggest crime in acting’

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“I really hate the word ‘process.’ I will say I’m not a cheese; I have no process.” –Alan Cumming

You might remember Alan Cumming as the eccentric evil villain and children’s show impresario in Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids trilogy; or maybe you recognize him as the volatile Eli Gold on the CBS television series The Good Wife; or perhaps you recall his scathingly cheeky performance opposite Tom Cruise in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Regardless of your particular reference point, Alan Cumming has been working consistently in film, television, as well as theater for close to thirty years. And he’s done so in a seemingly effortless fashion. Alan’s secret? “Mostly, when it comes down to it, I just pretend to be someone else and mean it…and that’s not that difficult.” Alan believes that actors, particularly American actors, overthink the process and muddle the craft. In fact, he goes as far as to say, “Overthinking is the biggest crime in acting.”

Cumming began his acting career at the Royal Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. “When I graduated from the academy, I just started working and I’ve never stopped,” he says. The Scotland native admits that others find his ease into the business to be annoying. He says, “I get asked, ‘How did you deal with your struggles and how did you deal with your periods of unemployment?’” In response to this line of questioning, he comes clean: “I didn’t have any.”

And a good deal of Alan’s success has been achieved in America where he’s been the go-to guy when you need a nebbish or clown or prankster or villain–or any number of outrageous characters. But the eloquent Scot is not necessarily a fan of American-born acting. “Especially in America, this over-mythologizing of acting has really made people very selfish sometimes in their performances. And they’ve forgotten that it’s a collaborative thing–it’s not just about you,” he asserts.

Conversely, Cumming is a fan of the dynamics of play when it comes to the craft. He considers acting to be “very much like kids playing.” He continues, “I always go back to the idea of play. Actors used to become players. It just means you play. You look at kids when they’re making up characters and if they pretend to be a dinosaur and you go, ‘Oh gosh, yes, your breath is so fiery.’” According to Alan, “That’s all you need to do.”

That is not to say the Scottish actor with a glint in the eye doesn’t do his due diligence. “If a character needs to do sign language or if there’s a certain job that I don’t know how to do, obviously I research that. And I research things,” he insists. But at the end of the day, the mercurial actor believes the craft of acting comes down to a very simple formula:

“All I try to do–aside from learning anything that is relevant to the character–I just let it soak in, think about it. And then when I arrive on the set, I just engage with other people, and just try and play, and be authentic.”

How about you? Been overthinking the craft lately? Or have you overthought roles in the past? It’s not difficult. With your passion on full display and your career on the line, things can get a little tricky. Please share your thoughts and experiences!

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