Metro Weekly

Gray Areas

Alan Cumming and Heather Graham on sex, politics, lesbian chic and their new movie 'Gray Matters'

On a snowy afternoon in early February, D.C. looks a bit more like Hollywood East, a bit less the nation’s capital. Tucked away in an otherwise vacant hotel bar sit Alan Cumming and Heather Graham. Nearby, Morgan Fairchild seats herself in a far corner for a series of celebrity phone conversations.

Where are the senators and political pundits for whom the city’s best tables are reserved? Excepting George Clooney or a crowded Kennedy Center gala, the scene looks surreally un-Washington.

There is a similar, surreal edge to Gray Matters, the new film featuring Graham and Cumming. From director and writer Sue Kramer, audiences follow Graham as Gray, a New Yorker with a confused sexual orientation. She has an oddly close relationship with her brother, and a distracting desire for his fiancée. Enter Cumming as the straight cabbie with a sympathetic ear.

In reality, it’s Cumming who recently married a man — following past relationships with women, like actress Saffron Burrows. Graham, on the other hand, hails perky hetero. For an afternoon, couched in reality, the pair is perfectly charming, Graham exuding charisma with a smile, while Cumming is full of colorful tales.

Heather Graham and Alan Cumming

METRO WEEKLY: Congratulations on your marriage, Alan. It was Jan. 7, yes?

ALAN CUMMING: Yes. Thank you.

MW: Do you refer to him as your ”husband,” or do you use a different term?

CUMMING: I call him my husband. It seems a little funny to say it, but you should say ”husband.” It’s kind of weird, but in Britain it’s legal now. Everyone says it now. Here, because it’s not legal, not recognized, it feels a bit odd. But I think you should say it anyway. Just because it doesn’t exist here doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

MW: What was the ceremony like?

CUMMING: It was great. First of all, everyone came on a boat down the Thames to Greenwich, and then we got married in this place called The Painted Hall, which is part of the Old Royal Naval College. It’s this beautiful building designed by Christopher Wren, who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral. It’s really beautiful.

And what the registrar said was lovely. It wasn’t as dry and official as you might imagine. My favorite bit is when you say, ”I choose you above all others to be my partner for life.” It’s really lovely. Lots of straight people are choosing to have that ceremony now, a civil partnership, rather than the marriage ceremony. I think it’s like an act of solidarity, and also they like the ceremony better.

MW: Heather, you’re from Wisconsin?

HEATHER GRAHAM: I was born there. My dad was in the FBI, and he was transferred. He was just working there when I was born.

MW: I read you had to turn down the lead in Heathers because your mother thought the language was too strong.

GRAHAM: My family is a bit conservative.

MW: Alan, in your background, it looks like right after college you helped start a magazine called Tops. That sounds like pornography.

GRAHAM: Tops? Hmmm….

CUMMING: Between high school and drama school, I worked for a publishing house. First you worked in the fiction department, then you got put on a magazine. I got to work on this new magazine called Tops. It was ”Tops is tops for pop and TV.” It wasn’t about where you are in that sexual food chain. It was completely innocent.

GRAHAM: It sounded much more racy at first.

CUMMING: It wasn’t at all racy.

MW: Another side to you is now you’ve got the fragrance: Cumming. I don’t see any D.C. retailers listed on the fragrance’s Web site. Why is that?

CUMMING: I don’t know. I’m a bit out of the loop with all that stuff, actually. The business side of it has been a nightmare.

GRAHAM: He was wearing it yesterday on the train. When he opened his bag today, it fell out.

MW: How does it smell?

GRAHAM: It smells good. And you were using it —

CUMMING: Oh, I wear it all the time. You know Kylie Minogue, right? Kylie came to my dressing room when I was doing [the play] Bent. I had a bar of my soap on the sink, and it says ”Cumming” on the top. She looked at it and said, ”Oh, you label queen.” [Laughs.]

MW: Speaking of celebrity, there is this distracting ”one degree of Sarah Jessica Parker” element in Gray Matters. You two, along with Bridget Moynahan and Molly Shannon, have all been on Sex and the City.

CUMMING: [To Graham] You were on Sex and the City?

GRAHAM: I had a really small part, but yeah. I love Sex and the City.

CUMMING: Me, too. Just one episode?

GRAHAM: Yeah. My friend, Nadia [Dajani], was on it, and I just played myself.

CUMMING: And Bridget was on, wasn’t she? She had a big part?

GRAHAM: She was Mr. Big’s wife.

CUMMING: I was a designer for Dolce & Gabbana.

GRAHAM: Oh, I remember that! That was one of my favorite episodes: the fashion episode.

CUMMING: And [Carrie] falls. That was my favorite bit — so good.

MW: How was it working together on Gray Matters?

GRAHAM: It was really great to work with Alan. There were a few nights where we were doing scenes in the cab and we just kind of hung out. Afterward, we had this long, long talk about all these personal things. We realized we’d been miked the whole time. It was funny.

CUMMING: Soundmen are very discrete, actually, pretending they’re not listening.

Bridget Moynahan, Gloria Gaynor and Heather Graham in a scene from ‘Gray Matters’

MW: How did you both get involved in Gray Matters?

CUMMING: I heard about it a long time ago. I met Sue [Kramer] about 1995 in Los Angeles. She knew Saffron’s agent and we went to stay with [the agent] when we were in L.A. We hung out with all their friends and that’s how I met her. When she wrote the script —

GRAHAM: She wrote that part for you, didn’t she?

CUMMING: Yeah, she did. This was a long time ago. She said, ”Will you read the script?” [It must have been] 10 years ago. It was going to get made, and then it didn’t, and then it came back again.

GRAHAM: It was frustrating, because we did get the money, we lost the money — I think that happened two or three times.

CUMMING: It’s like all these really great scripts that you want to get made and then they don’t. Then they’ve got a stigma attached to them if the money falls out. People just move on. But Sue is a strong-willed person, and she got it. She did it her way.

MW: Heather, what was your initial reaction to the script?

GRAHAM: I remember reading it, getting to the end and really loving the message behind it, and I loved that it was funny. I related to the story, which is really just to love and accept yourself for who you are. I loved what it was about, and I met with Sue. I thought it was a beautiful story. I thought it was a great part, too.

MW: Did you get to meet Sue Kramer’s sister, Carolyn, the apparent inspiration for the story?

GRAHAM: Oh, yeah. She was always there. They’re the most supportive family ever. And she was very helpful to me while we were shooting. Sue wrote the script about her sister, so we were able to quiz her and ask her questions.

MW: Was that the extent of your research for the part? Did you ever date women, or ask lesbian friends for advice?

GRAHAM: I could understand what it feels like to be attracted to women. And I did ask some of my friends who were gay, and they were telling me what it was like for them. And I asked Carolyn [Kramer].

I just related to the basic story of accepting yourself and how hard it can be, regardless. There have been different struggles in my life, feeling like people were rejecting me or not wanting me to be a certain way, so I think I related on that level. Maybe not so much in terms of being gay, but feeling judged, not liking myself and trying to focus on who I am.

MW: There does seem to be a sort of subtle transformation after your character comes out. For one, she seems to be a much stronger runner by the end of the film.

GRAHAM: [Laughs.] I knew this one guy who worked for my manager for a while. He lost so much weight after he came out of the closet. I think it’s like, in the closet, you’re just carrying around this weight. You come out and you’re lighter. And you can run faster.

MW: And you’re both fairly pleased with the finished product?

CUMMING: I like it as a ”rom com” that has a bite. It has something to say. I think you can enjoy it on many levels. It’s a feel-good film with something to say about gayness. It’s done in a genre that normally doesn’t handle that. I think that’s really great. The more times that stories like this are told, the more people are used to it, the more accepting people are.

People who go and see the film might never have thought those things — never have thought what gay people have to think about. I think it’s clever that Sue Kramer used that form, that genre, to bring home some things straight people might never think about.

GRAHAM: I really like the idea of making the gay character happy. I feel like there are a lot of stories about these really tragic, tormented gay love affairs. I love the idea of my character being really happy at the end, accepting herself, feeling good.

And I love the mixture: It is very traditional, old-fashioned storytelling method of romantic comedy. But it’s also this different thing, being about a girl who comes out of the closet.

MW: Heather, you said your family is very conservative. Did you have to consider that when making this movie?

GRAHAM: That’s what I mean when I say I can relate. I do relate by growing up in a conservative family and feeling that I was much more liberal-minded. It’s kind of that struggle of them wanting me to be different. Maybe that’s why I had to learn how to love and accept myself as I was, not as they wanted me to be.

MW: Were there any career considerations? This is the first time you’ve ”played gay,” right?

GRAHAM: Yeah. I was happy to. Look at all the actors who have played gay roles. It’s like the greatest part they ever had. I don’t think it hurt Hilary Swank or Heath Ledger or Jake Gyllenhaal. An actor just wants a great part.

CUMMING: It’s mostly the gay media that focus on that, I’m sorry to say. The more you mention it, the more attention you draw to it, the more people are going to go, ”Oh, maybe it is a problem for your career.”

In some of the interviews we’ve been doing, people said to me, ”So what did you do to play a straight person?” If I’m playing a murderer, I don’t have to go and murder someone. It should be easier for people to play whatever role they like, whatever their sexuality is. We should recognize that as good acting.

MW: Washington audiences can be appropriately political. Do you have a special invitation for them to see Gray Matters?

CUMMING: It’s on two levels. If you want to just enjoy it — laugh, cry, blah, blah, blah — you can come. If you’re having issues and struggles with your sexual identity, you might relate, too. People coming-out is an entirely personal thing. I don’t believe that people should be cajoled into that. However, I do think that if you’re in a situation where you are in some way validating nasty and negative feeling toward gay people, that’s very wrong. You’ve got to understand how damaging your situation is to other gay people.

MW: A possibly political-aesthetic angle is the relatively modern lesbian fashion sense. Today’s L Word-esque lesbian style reminds me of 1970s gay men turning to a radically masculine aesthetic, attempting to crush the cliché of gay male equating to feminine. Today, the lesbian Birkenstock cliché is making way for couture and coifs. Gray Matters seems to continue this trend.

GRAHAM: The movie doesn’t reinforce stereotypes. There are all kinds of people in the world, all kinds of lesbians.

CUMMING: And lesbians are gorgeous women like Heather, who find other gorgeous women attractive. It’s almost as much as much a cliché to say you’re breaking a cliché.

I was on the L Word last year, and a whole new fan base opened up to me. [Laughs.] I was like, ”Wow, these lesbians are so hot these days.” I hadn’t hung out very often in lesbian bars before. I’m sure it has something to do with the L Word, as a kind of empowering women. There was an earlier thing that if you were lesbian you kind of had to forego the kind of femininity that —

GRAHAM: It’s like what you were saying earlier about how everyone doesn’t have to be in these groups.

CUMMING: That’s when ”lipstick lesbian” was almost a derogatory term. If you wore makeup and things, you were kind of faking it in a way. What’s interesting now, everyone is like, ”Fuck you if I want to wear lip gloss.” You can be who you want to be.

I think I’m agreeing with what your saying. In the last few years, I’ve noticed from sort of outside the lesbian community, how much more glamorous lesbians as a group tend to be. Maybe that’s because they’re more visible in our culture.

GRAHAM: Like Ellen.

CUMMING: Ellen’s got a look — a kind of suit look.

GRAHAM: But her girlfriend, Portia de Rossi….

CUMMING: Her girlfriend is gorgeous. I’ve seen gorgeous lesbians. I mean some really hot ones.

MW: Back to politics, Alan, you’re donating 20 percent of your Cumming fragrance-line revenue to the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), right?

GRAHAM: What is that?

CUMMING: ESPA is like a lobbying group for gay rights in New York State and across the country. I’ve been involved with them and I think they’re a really great organization. On a personal level, I feel like they’re working for me and those like me.

MW: And the Human Rights Campaign has recognized you. Have you always been so politically involved?

CUMMING: I’ve always been politically involved. The more famous you get, the more people listen. Then you get an award for something and you make a big speech, and it’s kind of a snowball effect.

As an artist, you’re able to affect people. As a celebrity, you’re able to affect people in terms of what you believe is right, politically and socially. You know, the bad thing is when stupid people try to do that. [Laughs.] I believe I’m clever and right, of course. You don’t see Paris Hilton exposing her political beliefs, but if she did have some she could make a big difference too.

MW: Heather, are there any political issues that drive you?

GRAHAM: I get worked up about women’s-empowerment issues, not only in America, but around the world. Global warming is really disturbing, and I wish we were taking better care of our environment, our planet. Gay rights — it’s crazy that we’re trying to regulate people. It’s so stupid.

CUMMING: I’m actually big on foreskins now.

MW: Having them, or getting rid of them?

CUMMING: Having them.

GRAHAM: [Laughs.] That is a cause worth fighting for!

CUMMING: Seriously, I’m one of the patrons of this new thing in Britain called NORM-UK.

GRAHAM: Wait — are you being serious? Oh, my God.

CUMMING: Yes. I think circumcision is genital mutilation. We’re doing it to our foreskins for no reason. It’s not like you lop off another part of your body. So this organization is educating people about circumcision, and they have this thing about how you can grow back your foreskin. As a culture, we have all these weird reasons — religious or sanitary — about why men get circumcised. I think it’s wrong. I’m proud of my foreskin. [Laughs.]

MW: Before we conclude, would you both please define ”sexual orientation” on your own terms?

CUMMING: It seems important for people to qualify and quantify it and make it black and white. People want to feel an identity, to feel they belong, to wear a uniform of some kind. But I think it’s a much more fluid thing, a grey area — so, Gray Matters.

GRAHAM: It doesn’t matter. People should do what makes them happy. Beyond killing someone or raping someone or hurting someone, if everyone just did what made them happy, the world would be a better place. People who are really judgmental have something deep within themselves that they don’t like. The judgment is like an unhappy manifestation of that.

Gray Matters opens Friday, March 9, at area theaters.

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