Alan Cumming Sets the Gold Standard on The Good Wife
Alan Cumming has a clone. What other explanation is there, really, for how he can simultaneously play an integral part on The Good Wife, travel the world with a cabaret act, star in movies and stage productions, host PBS' Masterpiece Mystery! — oh, and do enough charitable work to be honored by the U.K. with an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) citation. "I like to stay busy, try different things, mix and match," acknowledges the exuberant Scottish actor. "I'm quite good at multitasking!"
The clone theory works for Robert and Michelle King, the married cocreators of the sophisticated, deeply satisfying sophomore CBS drama about love, law and politics in Chicago. "He's finally going to be found out," predicts Robert. "It's kind of dramatic how many people are living inside him. I figure that in our third season, Eli will become Superman and fly around the world."
At first glance, the part of Eli Gold — Peter Florrick's buttoned-up, cunning campaign manager — wouldn't have seemed like a natural fit for Cumming. After all, the 46-year-old is best known for such gleefully over-the-top characters as the bottom-baring Emcee in Broadway's Cabaret, the Tom Cruise-besotted desk clerk in Eyes Wide Shut and Sex and the City's "Me likey!"-spouting fashionista. "On The Good Wife, I do feel like I'm playing in drag," he admits. "Every time I wrap for the day, I muss my hair up and put my tie around my head. It's become this little ritual to de-Eli myself," he says, adding, "but I really do like him."
Cumming's résumé of outrageous roles didn't deter the Kings one bit. "Years ago when we saw Cabaret, we knew we were in the presence of a great talent," recalls Robert. "Alan is very much a chameleon, and one of the things we needed was someone who could be that, do what [Obama chief of staff-turned-Chicago mayor-elect] Rahm Emanuel does." They also wanted "someone with wit," says Michelle. "And that put Alan on the top of the list." Luckily for them, Robert reveals, "Alan has always wanted to play a dad and a straight man." (A self-described bisexual, Cumming had a civil union ceremony in the U.K., in 2007, with illustrator Grant Shaffer.)
It's difficult to believe now, but Cumming's turn as Eli was originally intended to be a finite arc — a plan that was quickly adjusted as he became a fan and cast favorite. "He's very crafty in the part," says Chris Noth of his alter ego's consigliere. "You never quite know whether he's 100 percent diabolical. Eli's passion for behind-the-scenes politics is really a lot of fun to watch. And quite a lot of fun to play off of."
So what lurks behind that sly exterior? "Ultimately, I believe that Eli's a force for good," says Cumming. "He wants Peter to win the state's attorney election because he's the best candidate. But he works in a ruthless environment, so to succeed, Eli must be prepared to do some very bad things."
For instance: deleting a voice-mail from Will Gardner (Josh Charles) declaring his love to Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) — a game changer for the series. "It made sense, to keep Peter's career on track," says Cumming, "but everywhere I went, people were screaming about that! I expect a blowout scene between Alicia and Eli by the end of the season." In fact, expect payback for Eli's dastardly deed — plus ramifications from the Feds' wiretap of his phone.
Until then, Eli might find an unlikely ally in the show's heroine. "They are beginning to have sympathy for each other," says Margulies. That growing rapport means more scenes together, which is good news for the actress. "Alan is one of the most professional, fun, charismatic actors I have ever worked with," she says. "It amazes me how he can take the mickey out of everything, joke with me on set and when they yell 'Action!' go right into character." Confirms Cumming, "There's something fun about being all gussied up as Eli and Alicia and saying naughty things."
Lest Cumming get too comfortable in Eli's skin, he insists he hasn't given up on other, more radical projects. "I thought it would be quite nice to switch gears to play a 1960s transvestite," he says with a laugh, referring to his role in the new British miniseries The Runaway. "And I'm going to play Salvador Dalí [in a biopic] later this year. I'm intrigued to play all kinds of roles. Life's a banquet and you might as well partake!"
Still, he acknowledges that The Good Wife has become a comforting home base. "We're talking now about what Eli could be doing next season," he says happily. "I really like doing this. The writing is so great that I just dash home every time I get the next scene to read it — shoving people out of the way to get there faster!" Eli would definitely approve.
The Good Wife airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on CBS.
Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!