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Interview: Alan Cumming says handsome movie princes are 'boring'

The multi-hyphenate artist and voice star of "Strange Magic" has an unprintable word for the romantic leads in most animated films.

Alan Cumming is a renaissance man: an actor, writer, director, singer who’s written a novel (“Tommy’s Tale”) and a book against circumcision (“May the Foreskin Be With You”). He’ll do button-pushing works, like reprising his legendary Master of Ceremonies role in “Cabaret” on Broadway, but also do children’s films. The animated “Strange Magic” is of the latter: a loose cartoon rendition of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” that’s filled with “Moulin Rouge”-y pop hits, in which he voices a hideous villain — and the clear romantic partner of a pretty fairy (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood). But even that, in the world of animated film, is pretty subversive.

You’ve done a fair amount of voicework. Was there anything different about this one?

It took so long. We shot over a period of four years. But I didn’t go in that often. It’s like having an affair with someone. And then eventually you get married. You’re at your wedding and everyone’s asking you questions and you don’t really know each other.

Did the film alter at all over such a long production time?

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Things change, and they forget to you some song or some character is cut. In the finished film Maya Rudolph’s character is my mom. She wasn’t my mom before. She was just a person in my cave. And there was one version of the story, from several years ago, where at the end [his and Wood’s characters] sort of got together but they sort of didn’t, and she went backpacking. That was hilarious.

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One thing that’s really refreshing about “Strange Magic” is that it subverts the cartoon norm, where the pretty girl gets together with the handsome prince and the ugly, or at least less conventionally attractive, characters get nothing.

I was talking earlier today about “Frozen,” where the handsome prince is a d—. And he’s a d— in this one as well. I think this trend of telling young women especially that the glittery ones might not be the ones to look at, or don’t let the hot boys fool you. Maybe the other ones are kinder. Animated films, especially the Disney ones, are about patriarchal systems. The mother’s always dead, the heroine gets the guy but has to change something. She gets to no longer be a mermaid but she can’t sing. There’s always a punishment inflicted on the woman for wanting what she wants. But with this it’s saying you can the person you want to be and still get someone and be happy. I like the message that weird people will find each other. And I do really like that in both these big films, the handsome princes are total d—s.

Even in “Snow White,” Prince Charming has no personality. He has maybe two lines.

He’s so boring. And if you were a handsome prince, you would change your name from “Charming.” You’d call yourself “Prince Kind,” “Prince Vulnerable.” Not “Prince Charming.” Anyone called Prince Charming is a d—.

As an actor you’re always relinquishing some of your control over your performance to the filmmakers. But with animated voicework, actors often just record a bunch of lines then see what it’s like later.

That makes the actors sound very powerless. If you’re working with people you like and trust and are simpatico with, then you think it’s great to give up that power. And if you don’t like it, you become a director. If you feel understood by the director and you get their aesthetic, then it won’t be a surprise, because you’re in their head a bit anyway. The problem is when there are people who you think, “I obviously didn’t get you at all. We don’t understand each other one bit. Or I didn’t understand you because what you’re done is completely the antithesis of what I would have done.”

You’ve directed a couple films yourself. Has your approach to acting changed as a result?

I learned that as an actor your responsibility is to be able do the role the second you walk on the set. You owe that to everyone — the cast, the crew and especially to the director, because there’s no time for mucking about. I abhor actors who start asking loads of questions about basic things that should have been asked weeks before. When you are the director you don’t have time do deal with that. You want to have a discussion, make a decision and boom, do it. Being a director is about getting people to do what you want without them realizing it.

But you don’t want to be Otto Preminger and just scream at people.

I’m not fond of yellers. I’ve made quite a few films with yellers. The thing about them is that eventually people stop listening to them, and they keep yelling and people just ignore them more. So you just have to keep yelling louder. It’s a fascinating thing to see it, that logic of yelling. The thing is, when I get angry, people really notice, because I only get angry when I really, really feel there’s a need to. But if I was an angry person all the time, how would you know if I was really upset about something?

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
 
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