Scottish, versatile, and for a long time underappreciated, Alan Cumming is chameleon-like in both his choice of roles and his ability to inhabit them convincingly. Born January 27, 1965, in Perthshire, Scotland, Cumming studied drama at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama before embarking on a career that would have its roots on the stage. For years, Cumming worked steadily in the theater as a member of repertory companies, such as the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1992 he had his film debut in the largely unheard of Prague, which was essentially a historical overview of the city. In 1994 American audiences were introduced to the sound of Cumming's voice thanks to his role as the narrator of Black Beauty, but it wasn't until 1995 (Cumming's other 1994 film, Second Best notwithstanding) that they actually saw him, this time via his small but memorable role as a Russian computer programmer in Goldeneye.
Wider exposure followed, thanks to two successful films. The first, Circle of Friends (1995), featured Cumming as Minnie Driver's slimy, unwelcome suitor, and the second, 1996's Emma, saw Cumming playing yet another unwelcome suitor, this time to Gwyneth Paltrow. More sympathetic roles followed in For My Baby, Buddy, and Romy and Michele's High School Reunion (in which he played a sweetly awkward nerd with a crush on Lisa Kudrow), all released in 1997. Work in Spice World came next in 1998, as did the stage role that was to give Cumming critical acclaim, a host of awards, and the wider respect he deserved. That role was Cabaret's Emcee, and Cumming managed to make the character -- previously the sole territory of Joel Grey -- all his own, giving a wickedly delicious performance that was unabashedly dark, sly, androgynous, and altogether terrifying. His performance won him all three New York theater awards: a Tony, a Drama Desk, and an Outer Critics Circle. This triumph resulted in a new range of opportunities for the actor, one of which was the chance to be a part of what was to be Stanley Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Although Cumming's role as a hotel desk clerk was a small one, the actor turned in a sly and insinuating performance that reflected his ability to make the most out of even the most limited opportunities.
Cumming was subsequently given almost unlimited opportunities to showcase his flamboyance in Julie Taymor's Titus, her 1999 adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. In his role as the queen's (Jessica Lange) debauched lover, he gave a performance that was as over-the-top and rococo as the film itself, leading some critics to say his portrayal had a little too much in common with a Christmas ham.
Fortunately, Cumming surprised critics and audiences alike when he directed, with Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Anniversary Party (2001), a marital comedy-drama that starred him and Leigh as a husband and wife whose anniversary party exposes the many flaws of their fragile marriage. Featuring a cast that included Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates, Gwyneth Paltrow, John C. Reilly, and Jennifer Beals, the film, which was shot on digital video, earned a fairly warm reception from critics, many of whom praised Cumming for his work both behind and in front of the camera.