This month Alan Cumming stars in Macbeth—in every role. Directed by the National Theatre of Scotland‘s John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg, Macbeth plays at NYC’s Lincoln Center Festival July 5-14.
How have you been prepping for Macbeth? Or rather, the Scottish Play?
Oh, don’t worry, I say Macbeth. I’ve definitely been physically prepping, working with a trainer the last few months. [Laughs.] There’s nothing like having full-frontal nudity in a play to get you to the gym. I’m playing someone who’s in a mental hospital who’s obsessed with Macbeth, so I get covered in blood and guts and get bathed by two nurses. There’s a fair chance my penis will be showing, at some juncture.
Macbeth in a mental hospital—who came up with that concept?
It was actually Andy Goldberg. I had this idea where Macbeth and Lady Macbeth get swapped each night—one night I would play Macbeth and the next night I would play Lady Macbeth. It’s an interesting thing, because there’s so much talk in the play about masculinity and what is a man.
We did a reading of it [in 2011] where we swapped halfway though, me and the other actors. And Andy said, “I’ve got this idea, why don’t you do all the parts?” And he had the idea of setting it in a hospital.
You’ve said Macbeth was the first Shakespeare play you ever read. And it’s the play in which you made your professional stage debut at age 20. Why do you keep coming back to it?
I think it’s a variety of things. It’s a ripping yarn. Of all of Shakespeare’s plays, it’s the most domestic. At the center, it’s about a couple faced with a dilemma and an opportunity, and how they deal with it, and what happens to them because of it. So it’s got a very graspable core.
Also, it’s about where I’m from. After I read it, as a child, it was always a disappointment when the next Shakespeare play I read wasn’t set in Scotland. I thought they all would be! It’s where my father’s family is from for generations, and Birnam Wood is just along the road from where I was born. And I used to go to these Sunday fairs at Glamis Castle. It’s so immediate to me, the geography.
Lady Macbeth is considered one of the greatest roles on stage. How will your interpretation be different, aisde from the obvious?
I don’t know! There’s an added narrative of me being a person who has dissociative fugue. That’s an actual psychiatric condition, where you have a blackout and you do something you’re not aware of while in that blackout. So that’s how I perform Macbeth.
And when I think about it—as I’ve been developing the different characters, different voices—Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are me. All of the things that Macbeth is worried about at the beginning of the play—“You’ll never get that blood off of your hands. You’ll go mad”—that’s what happens to Lady Macbeth. And she’s the one who’s initially in control—“We can do this, we can do anything, it’ll be great”—and that’s how Macbeth ends up. My Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are two halves of the one whole.
If you weren’t an actor, what would you be?
Probably a gardener. I have a place in upstate New York. It’s not really a garden, it’s more of a forest. My dad was a forester, and I understand how to handle things in the forest. It’s funny how these things you didn’t realize you know come out, by osmosis, almost.
Also, I think gardeners are very attractive folks, as they are very sorted out. I sort of ramble on all the time, and I find it very sexy to meet someone who has a lot of time to think and not talk. I find people who don’t talk very attractive.
Does your husband know that?
[Laughs.] Well, he never speaks, you see that’s why. No—he talks more than me.
Do you have a guilty pleasure TV show?
I don’t have a TV. When I go to the gym, I watch “Tabitha Takes Over.” I love Tabitha. I kind of wet my pants when I saw that she follows me on Twitter.
What’s the tackiest thing you own?
Let me look in my study, that’s where I’ve got all my weirdy stuff. Oh! Well, I own a pinball machine with myself on it. I saw my face on a pinball machine and I thought, “I might buy that.” Sometimes when you get a certain score, I come up on the LCD screen and my head falls off. That’s quite exciting. And oh, I’ve got my fake boobs that I wore when I was a transvestite in a miniseries a couple of years ago. They’re in a plastic bucket on my shelf. I like to take them out and show them to people because they feel really weird.
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