08.31.11

Alan Cumming Goes ‘Good’

Alan Cumming didn’t really want to play The Good Wife’s merciless campaign manager—but he now has a second Emmy nomination for the role. He tells Maria Elena Fernandez about learning to love Eli, the wig he didn’t get to wear, and why Cloris Leachman grabbed his crotch.

Alan Cumming is probably the last person you expected to see on a CBS drama. He understands. He felt that way too. But his turn as the ruthless political operative Eli Gold on The Good Wife has earned him his second Emmy nomination, and this time the recognition comes for an episode in which Eli revealed a surprising soft side.

In “Silver Bullet,” the ever-composed Eli, who once gleefully mocked a teenager and erased the world’s most important voice-mail message, develops unexpected feelings for a beautiful woman who happens to be an undocumented worker (America Ferrera) and whose life he almost ruins in the name of politics. The episode proves the versatile Cumming deserves to be in the same category with castmate Josh Charles, John Slattery (Mad Men), Andre Braugher (Men of a Certain Age), Walton Goggins (Justified), and Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones). Ahead of the Sept. 18 awards show, Cumming talks to The Daily Beast’s Maria Elena Fernandez.

You’ve been nominated for your second Emmy for a role most people are surprised you took. What interested you in Eli Gold and The Good Wife?

I have to say I didn’t really want to [take the role]. At first I was asked to do one episode as a guest star. I hadn’t seen the show. I read it, glanced through it, and didn’t really get it. I was also doing a film at the time, so it wasn’t going to be the easiest thing to schedule. My agent and manager loved the show and they really thought I should do it. They’d say, “This is a really great character for you. It would be a big mistake not to do it.” So their level of enjoyment made me go back to it and think, this is kind of interesting. In the first episode, Eli showed his cojones, and I quite enjoyed that. So initially, it was more of an intrigue, and then I stayed on for a few more episodes, and then he became a regular character. So I’ve kind of grown to love him. I think that people are surprised I’m playing this kind of role. I was also surprised to be asked to do a role like that. I was surprised because it didn’t really connect with me the way that I normally connect to a role initially. So it was a slower process. But within a couple of episodes, I really liked him, and now I love him. I love the writing. I love the range of what I get to do with this character. So it’s a surprise for me, too, but a really, really pleasant one.

“Obviously, you work in conjunction with the writers and you have a general arc, but anything could happen and I really, really enjoy that.”

Eli has evolved so much, and is such an integral part of the show, that it’s impossible to imagine the show without him.

In the new season, I’ve got this swanky new office in this undiscovered part of the building at Lockhart Gardner. Right by Alicia (Julianna Margulies). She’s got a new swanky office, and mine is opposite hers. So I feel that this season, especially, I’ve started making my dressing room more homey because now I’m finally in the building and not always on location. And that’s a very nice feeling. I really like it. I truly feel a part of everything.

Eli began as a ruthless political operative. But viewers have seen different sides to him now that we weren’t expecting. What caught you by surprise?

Probably how tender he was with America Ferrera’s character. That caught a lot of people off guard—maybe he’s ready for love. And you saw a glimpse of that. And even though it’s a story of someone he exposed and really made their life a mess, he was also able to connect. I think that makes him more of a grounded guy. What I like about this show—besides the fact that everyone is lovely and it’s great to go to work—is that there’s no one on the show who is black and white. Everyone’s quite complex, just like in real life. Even Alicia, who is the protagonist. The roundedness and complexity of the characters is what makes it so successful.

Working in television is also very different from working in film and theater, which is your world. It can be grueling hours and, as an actor, in many respects you’re working blindly. Are you enjoying the differences?

The biggest thing, which at first I didn’t like, because I found it very hard initially, was the fact that you don’t know where the story was going. The thing with film and theater is that you always know the story so you can play certain cues in each scene with the knowledge that you know where the story’s going to end and how it’s going to go. But on television nobody knows what’s going to happen, even the writers. Initially, I really found that difficult. When something happened to the character, I’d be like, “Well, what does that mean?” But actually, now I love it. I love the free-flying element of it. Obviously, you work in conjunction with the writers and you have a general arc, but anything could happen and I really, really enjoy that. It makes it more exciting and more surprising and keeps you on your toes. So that’s the biggest difference and the thing I like the most, which is funny because it was the thing I liked the least initially.

TV fans are very different from other fans. What do they say to you when they run into you in New York?

It really depends on what’s going on. Everyone is always very nice. But there are certain plot points. Like last season, everywhere I went, “How dare you erase that voice message?” That went on for a while. I don’t have a television, so I don’t see the show on the night it comes out. I usually watch it online or a DVD later. And so sometimes I’m walking my dog on the day after the show airs, and people will come to me and start talking about a plot point and I’m like, “What the hell are you talking about?” They say, “Love the way you dealt with that uppity teenager!” And I’m like, “What?” It’s a whole new level of people coming up to me from being on TV regularly. When you’re on TV, you come into people’s homes. In theater and film, they go to you—to the temple of the cinema or theater. And it’s very different. I think you are less big or daunting when you’re on television, so they let it rip a bit more. It’s very amusing.

Are you jealous that Julianna gets to wear all the nice wigs?

It’s funny that you ask that. In my renegotiation for this season, I did actually try to get a wig for Eli because I’m so bored with his middle-aged man haircut. They said no. But we got a little trim this year, so it was a bit of a compromise—something that Alan can enjoy a little bit more but still coiffed for Eli. But I did try to get a wig, but they were like, “No.” Alicia has new hair, too. She’s got some subtle changes in her life, but she’s got new hair, too. You’ll see.

Is there a political scandal you’d love for the show to take on?

There are so many! Already we’ve mentioned [former Rep. Anthony Weiner]. I had a line last week where someone mentioned Weiner and I went, “Oh, God, the day politicians discovered Twitter.” The show pretty much does it all in some form. We have a really great Palestine discussion thing in one episode. Every time something happens in the world, I wonder if that will be in my inbox in some form, and it usually is.

Speaking of Twitter, you don’t use your Twitter account much.

I’m not a fan of Twitter. I did it for a week. I have a website and a blog. And some stuff happened where I felt I was too available. With Twitter, I feel when you want to say something to people, it’s great to have an opportunity to do that. With Twitter, I don’t want to be that available. There’s the thing about feeling like you have to do it all the time. But more dangerous, I think, is a separate issue that it’s dangerous to have people commenting all the time on the experience they’re having rather than actually experiencing it and letting it sit, and I think that’s a little dangerous.

You do blog about the show and so many aspects of your life and interests. It’s a really good blog.

Thank you. I quite enjoy that and you don’t have to do it in 140 characters. For me, the whole site is fun because you can see other things about me other than “I’m at Starbucks having a coffee.”

Oh, yes, we see a lot. Like when you had your crotch grabbed by Cloris Leachman!

That was hilarious. And also, to put it into context for you, it was 9:30 in the morning on a Sunday. I love her. The film I did this summer was with Garret Dillahunt. We played boyfriends in [Famlee] and we had such a laugh. And he told me about working with Cloris on Raising Hope. And then I did the AIDS walk with Cloris and she did that and then she was like, “Let’s take a picture for Garret!” And she turned around and showed her bum. (Laughs.) When she felt my crotch, she had a big old feel, too. She stayed there for quite some time. But I thought, “When I’m 85, I get to put my pants down and feel people’s crotches.” It’s admirable. I really like her. That was a funny moment with her. I’d like to spend more time with Cloris. Later that day, a friend of mine sent me an email asking me what I did on Sunday morning. I replied, “I got sexually harassed by an 85-year-old woman. No. A crazy 85-year-old woman.”

Well, you’re both nominated for Emmys, so you will soon see her again. You were nominated last year as a special guest for playing Eli. Now you’re nominated as a supporting actor—against Josh Charles.

It’s really great because last time I was a guest star. I wasn’t really fully part of the show yet. So it feels like this is my job now—I’m not just dropping in and doing something. It’s my actual job. I feel it’s nice that I’m getting the hang of it and people are appreciating it. I’ve reached the zeitgeist a bit with him, and that feels very nice. I love it. I think we’re a show that has something to say about modern living, and I get to live in New York. It’s really a great time in my life, and to be nominated for an award as well is lovely.