‘A gay lead is a shock for America’: Alan Cumming returns to small screens as first openly gay lead in US network drama

Pushing boundaries: Alan cumming plays US TV's first gay lead
Pushing boundaries: Alan cumming plays US TV's first gay lead

Being gay is the “fifth most interesting thing” about Alan Cumming’s latest role. In new TV crime series Instinct the Scottish actor plays Dr Dylan Reinhart, a sweater-vest-wearing CIA operative turned psychology professor (keep up) who happens to be married to a man — a former lawyer who now runs his own cocktail bar (played by The Crown’s Daniel Ings).

When Cumming, 53, heard about the role, he was “shocked” because Reinhart is a TV milestone — he’s the first openly gay lead of an American broadcast drama, ever. Cumming, who is bisexual, had read the James Patterson book it’s based on and was intrigued by Reinhart.

“He’s an interesting character, a musical prodigy who rides a motorbike, is gay, married — a lot of disparate things, so it’s a great challenge for an actor.”

In the show, which starts on Sky Witness next Thursday, Reinhart is lured back to his old life after NYPD detective Lizzie Needham (Bojana Novakovic) appeals to him to solve a string of murders based on a book he wrote. He can’t resist a mystery — and it’s good material for his new book.

First look: Alan Cumming in character
First look: Alan Cumming in character

We meet Reinhart at a stage where he is trying to relocate his mojo (cue jokes about how it could be under the extra pounds he has piled on). His agent (Whoopi Goldberg) finds the first draft so boring that it sent her to sleep and longs for “dangerous Dylan” to return.

A gay character is “less of a deal in Britain but in America it’s a symbolic thing”. Cumming enjoyed playing someone for whom sexuality wasn’t the main focus.

“It’s hardly ever mentioned. That, to me, is the important thing and something I would like to see more of, not just in America. If you are a gay person on TV sexuality is probably one of the main thrusts of your narrative, and that’s getting a bit old for me.”

Reinhart has a Sherlock-style ability to get the measure of a person. When he meets his partner in crime Needham he does an arch rundown: “hardly any make-up, don’t-give-a-f*** suit hiding a massive gun”.

He’s trying to cut down on carbs but still brings friends pizza to cheer them up, and is attuned to modern issues, telling Needham: “I was afraid that kicking down a door for you would be disempowering.”

There’s a female, Indian mayor too (Sarita Choudhury from Homeland) — this is a taboo-busting show.

In his research for the role Cumming spoke to former spies. “My idea of being a spy is quite James Bond but it’s changed radically since then.” Could he do it? “I can do the dressing up and pretending to be different people bit but sacrificing your entire life is such a commitment.

On screen: Alan Cumming stars in Instinct
On screen: Alan Cumming stars in Instinct

"I don’t know how they have relationships or kids. I don’t think there are many stats about gay spies.”

Having grown up in Angus, Cumming now lives in New York with his husband, illustrator Grant Shaffer, and their dogs, Jerry and Lala. He was married to actress Hilary Lyon and had a relationship with actress Saffron Burrows (now married to a woman).

TV is mirroring an overdue change in attitudes. “For the past few years networks have had pressure on them about the lack of diversity, not just LGBT people but people of colour. [Instinct is] an example of how they are making an effort to reflect change.”

But why has it taken so long to have a gay lead on TV? Cumming has been touring his cabaret Legal Immigrant around the US and has seen a country “very backward in terms of social issues”.

“Recent strides forward have been a long time coming. The country is racked with a white minority holding back others, and the scary thing is that it is happening again. And it’s still a puritanical country; certain quarters are still shameful about sex.”

He has a second home in the Catskills and has registered to vote there instead of in New York so he can help swing it. “I was here when Bush was in and everyone was like: ‘Let’s move to Canada’. But I’ve made my roots and feel it’s important to stay and fight.”

“It was heartening when I did concerts in Midwestern states that voted for Trump to see people who were horrified this had happened, gathering to hear negative things about him. Just because a state went republican it doesn’t mean everyone there supports him.”

Despite being an honorary American Cumming still has a Scottish work ethic. “I like having a regular gig,” he says. “Working on Instinct meant 15-hour days, getting up at 5am, so I tried to get fit and I stopped drinking during the week. It’s a shock to the system.”

He realised that he likes routine while playing charming master manipulator political strategist Eli Gold in The Good Wife.

“I was going to go back onto The Good Fight, the spin-off, but it didn’t work out. But I’m sanguine about moving on. I don’t think there will be a film or a reunion. When I realised how popular Eli was it was a great thing and a scary thing — it makes you want to run for the hills when you get known for one character.”

He’d better prepare for that to happen with Dr Reinhart.