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Cumming exudes an impish charm

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HOLLYWOOD -- After only a few minutes with Alan Cumming, it's hard to resist falling under his spell. He comes across as witty, bright and engaging. Behind his impish grin lies an offbeat, often naughty vision of the world. His Scottish brogue is as thick as a brick. And unlike a lot of actors, he doesn't seem to give a hoot what anybody thinks about what he says.

"I don't know anybody who wouldn't hit it off with Alan," says writer-director Doug McGrath, who has cast the 38-year-old actor in three films, including Emma and Nicholas Nickleby. "He has a very infectious joie de vivre. He gets the maximum amount of enjoyment out of life. It's much more delightful to be with that kind of a person than with someone who is getting the maximum amount of irritation out of life."

Sporting gray, wide-legged trousers and a tank top that reads "Stud: San Francisco," Cumming is sprawled in a straight-backed chair in his hotel suite at the Four Seasons, chatting up his latest movie, X2: X-Men United, the sequel to the 2000 blockbuster based on the popular Marvel Comics series. Cumming plays the blue-skinned mutant Nightcrawler, who has the ability to teleport.

Nightcrawler, whose real name is Kurt Wagner, also looks like a devil, albeit a devil in blue skin, complete with a tail, cloven hoofs, pointy ears and carnivorously sharp teeth. Despite his initially menacing appearance -- a drug put him under someone else's control -- Kurt is actually an angelic creature who is very religious, constantly touching rosary beads, praying and even quoting scripture.

Lighting a cigarette, Cumming explains that he took the part for a number of reasons. "I will tell you the most altruistic one," he says, smiling. "I had never read the comics, and I didn't see the first film. When I read it, it was a surprise to me. I really liked the message in the film that we need to be more tolerant and understanding of other cultures different from ours and not to think because they are different they are bad. I thought it was amazing and unexpected. I also liked the surprising-ness of my character. When he's not being injected to do bad things, he's quite sensitive. And I liked flying through the air and killing people."

He describes himself as the "Cute Mute" of the film. He has nicknamed his equally blue-skinned co-star, Rebecca Romijin-Stamos, the "Beaut Mute" and Hugh Jackman, who plays Wolverine, is the "Brute Mute."

Director Bryan Singer pursued Cumming, having seen him in several movies, but what particularly impressed Singer was his Tony Award-winning role as the Emcee in Sam Mendes' Broadway revival of Cabaret.

"At first he was not available," says Singer. "Then closer toward production ... we got him." Singer thought he would be the perfect Nightcrawler because Cumming has a "charming sensitivity and a sense of humor but a kind of wicked side and a personality and a presence that would emerge even behind the makeup. What is most interesting about his character is that actually he has come to a place of faith and acceptance of what he is, and yet, by his history, the journey to get there was a difficult one."

Singer and McGrath say Cumming is easy to direct because he lacks pretension.

"He just tries his hardest to give you what you need," says McGrath. "Because he is so intelligent you can just have an easy, frank discussion with him about it. Because he is a writer himself and because he is a director himself, he knows what is needed, and because he is such a chameleon in many ways, he can give it to you. There are other actors around who need a discussion about motivation and he's very impatient with that."

Last year, Cumming published his first novel, Tommy's Tale, which he will soon adapt for the screen. Two years ago, he and Jennifer Jason Leigh co-wrote, directed and appeared in the indie film The Anniversary Party, and he's slated to write and direct two movies for a small British company.

Cumming also keeps his hand in theater. Last year, he and his ex-partner, Nick Philippou, created the Art Party theater company in New York. Their first production was Jean Gent's drama Elle, which Cumming adapted and starred in. Their next project will be Jean Cocteau's The Human Voice, which Cumming hopes will be mounted in the fall. The group also holds readings and conducts salons to bring people from different artistic fields together. "We say, 'be part of the party, be a member of the party.'"

Lighting another cigarette, Cumming says he wants to do more experimental theater. So he continues to do big films like X2 and Spy Kids, so he can finance his more offbeat projects.

"I have this thing I call the Hollywood bank," he says. "You have to make deposits sometimes so you can make withdrawals so I can do little films or write a play." And X2, he says, was a "big" deposit.

Susan King writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

For film events, see Page 42.

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