Arts

Theater

In this performance, Alan Cumming is an immigrant, and it’s no act

Alan Cumming
Yuchen Liao/Getty Images
Alan Cumming

The protean Alan Cumming, whose exceptionally crowded career has included a Broadway production of “Macbeth’’ in which he played nearly every character and a lengthy stint as manipulative political operative Eli Gold on CBS’s “The Good Wife,’’ knows a thing or two about cabaret.

Cumming won a Tony Award two decades ago for his portrayal of the Emcee in “Cabaret,’’ then reprised the role in a 2014 Broadway revival. In 2015 he premiered “Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs’’ at New York’s Cafe Carlyle, and last year he opened a cabaret bar in the East Village.

He also knows a thing or two about how it feels to be an immigrant: A native of Scotland, Cumming became a US citizen 10 years ago.

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On Sunday evening at Symphony Hall, Cumming will blend his knowledge of cabaret and his experiences and perspective as an immigrant in “Alan Cumming: Legal Immigrant,’’ presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston.

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The Globe spoke with Cumming about performing his new show at this fraught moment for immigrants, the emotional transparency required by cabaret, and his decision to play a crime-solving author on CBS’s “Instinct’’ — the first gay lead character on an hourlong broadcast network drama.

Q. Can you give a sense of what the Symphony Hall audience should expect from “Legal Immigrant,’’ in terms of topic and tone?

A. As the title might suggest, I’m talking about my experiences in becoming a citizen of America and also my feelings about the way the mood of the country has changed, in terms of the whole notion of immigration, in the past 10 years. It’s an old-fashioned cabaret evening: I sing songs, I tell stories. But it’s all held together by this umbrella concept of celebrating immigration. I talk about the present situation. This present administration has made it very clear it doesn’t want America to be known as a nation of immigrants. There’s such a change in rhetoric and attitude towards immigrants. It’s a very dangerous time, because we are being told to fear people who are different from us, and that’s a well-known way to bring out the worst qualities in people.

Q. Are you trying to remind audiences that we’re all immigrants?

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A. In general, people are afraid of things they don’t know. It’s very easy to tell scary stories about things that haven’t happened to them yet. America is actually a culture based on fear, I think. It’s easy to say “If you vote for me, I’ll stop this from happening.” People are comfortable now voicing things they might not have been comfortable voicing during the Obama years. Now they’re being shown at the highest levels of the country that it’s OK to have those feelings.

Q. You know a lot about the genre of cabaret, not least because you’ve played the Emcee several times in “Cabaret.’’ What aspects of your interests or abilities does the cabaret format allow you to showcase more than the other art forms you work in?

A. The great thing about the form of cabaret is it changes in a second. You’ve got to make people laugh and then a second later give them something emotional. It’s an incredibly personal medium. I’m asking people to come to see me, Alan Cumming. I’m not playing a character. I’m talking about myself, my experience, my [laughs] health. There’s a long stretch of the show where I talk about my scrotum. I talk about aging. You have to be very willing to be very personal and intimate. In my last show I talked about my relationship with my father. Cabaret is a form that absolutely depends on authenticity. I think I’ve gotten better at it, more prepared to be open and vulnerable.

Q. What do you try to bring to a song when you perform it, interpretively?

A. I try to bring myself. I try to sing it as though this is an experience I am having or have had. Obviously that can limit the kinds of songs that I’m able to sing. If you can connect to it and make the audience hear the song in a different way, that’s what it’s all about for me. I always sing songs that have something to say. I can’t just sing nice songs.

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Q. You’re known for your social activism on LGBT issues, gun control, health care. What is the obligation of artists in a time like this, with a president like Trump and a political climate this toxic?

‘I’m asking people to come to see me. . . . I’m not playing a character. I’m talking about myself, my experience.’

A. I see the role of an artist as someone who expresses themselves and their feelings and their opinions, and my opinions are connected to the feelings of my heart. I cannot just sing a song and be vulnerable without also wanting to share my feelings about what’s happening in the world, because they’re so connected. I don’t just do this because I have a voice. I do really feel it’s important to let people know who you are.

Q. In “Instinct,’’ you play a man who is the first gay lead character on an hourlong broadcast network drama. Was that an important distinction for you? What took TV so long, by the way?

A. It was certainly one of the things that drew me to the project. I feel it was meant to be, and why not me? The idea that this is the first ever, to have a gay lead character, is insane. It was almost my duty to attach myself to it and hope that the network would do it. I also really like the project, how that part was handled.

Q. Given how busy your schedule is, does it take something distinctive like that to get you to say yes to a role or a project these days?

A. Yes, I suppose it does. I always go with my gut. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. You have to be able to do things that are commercially successful or seen by a lot of people in order to do a lot of smaller things that you feel more personally passionate about. I understand it’s important to have a certain position in the zeitgeist that allows you to do tiny projects that wouldn’t be seen if you didn’t attach yourself to it.

Q. For you as an actor, does it all come back to theater technique, no matter whether you’re working on TV or in film or onstage?

A. I think it does. I think the discipline of repetition is very important on film. The discipline of being able to get to a place that you need to get to emotionally very quickly: That is something I learned from the theater. Drama school is great because you can just [expletive] up for two or three years and nobody sees you. People ask: “Can you explain the process?’’ I am not a cheese. I don’t have a process.

Q. You seem to be everywhere at once. Don’t you ever get tired?

A. Yes, I do. Actually, this show is harder than my last one, maybe because I’m dealing with issues that are very pressing and topical and therefore I feel there’s more at stake. I do get exhausted. Every now and then I do things in order to challenge myself, just to see if I can do them. I’ve gotten very good at napping. But when I’m engaged and excited about something, I find the reserves of energy.

ALAN CUMMING: LEGAL IMMIGRANT

Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Symphony Hall, Boston, Oct. 7 at 7 p.m. Tickets from $50, 617-482-6661, www.celebrityseries.org

Interview was edited and condensed. Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin