Alan Cumming is chill as can be in a hotel bed in Los Angeles, where he’s tugging on his crotch, illustrating to me the surprisingly flirty exchange he just had with tennis great and LGBT pioneer Billie Jean King.
“She just made a joke about my dick in the corridor,” Cumming says, amused. “I’m like, ‘Billie Jean!'”
King’s quip was a reaction to the loose nether-regions fabric of Cumming’s drop-crotch pants, which had the sports icon asking, “What are you packing down there?”
“I was like, ‘No complaints so far, Billie Jean.'”
Cumming obviously knows King fairly well, as the two met before he was offered a role in “Battle of the Sexes,” the film centered on her legendary win in 1973 against boastful chauvinist Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell plays Riggs, while Emma Stone depicts King). The Scottish actor portrays Ted Tinling, a designer who fashioned dresses for many female pro tennis players, including King’s outfit for her match against Riggs, and who was also a British intelligence spy during World War II.
Recently, Cumming told me I could keep my shoes on as I lay beside him in his king-size bed to talk about gay spies, King’s obsession with “The Good Wife” and why he feels like Emma Stone’s “big brother.”
Having known Billie Jean King for a while now, what do you admire most about her?
I mean, I think she’s a legend. She’s amazing, when you consider what she’s done and what she’s lived through and how she’s paved the way for so many people, both as a woman and as a gay woman.
She really was a critical stepping stone in queer and women’s liberation.
I think if she had lost this match it would’ve put the cause back years. And it’s hard because it’s so kind of show-business-y and frothy in the way it was presented. It really was a huge thing in terms of the women’s movement. It’s crazy.
What’s it been like to get to know her while making this film?
I knew her quite well. She came to my house for dinner right before I got the part. I did something for her foundation, but we also met over the years at this Amazon thing – this retreat Amazon does – and so I’d see her regularly. And she’s also such a sort of geek. She loved “The Good Wife.” She’s obsessed with “The Good Wife,” and she’d totally geek out to me about that, which was so hilarious.
But she’s such a darling, and she talks a lot about what she had to deal with. But the “Battle of the Sexes” thing – it wasn’t till after I got the part that I actually started to talk to her about it and also her relationship with Ted, which was so lovely, and he was obviously very beloved by her and all the (tennis) girls. There were a lot of them last night (at the premiere) – the other girls, the real people, and they were all sort of cooing about Ted.
He passed away in 1990, so did you learn about Ted through Billie Jean?
You can look things up on YouTube, but he’s not there very much. For example, he was a spy and, like, how am I going to get that into this (movie)?
There could be an entire biopic about every person in this film.
Yeah, they’re all fascinating. But basically, he’s there in the story to provide some sort of humor, but also to show the audience that (Billie Jean) has an ally to guide her, and then to deliver the big message at the end.
Your last scene with Emma really resonated with me as a gay man. It was really special.
It’s beautiful, isn’t it?
What was it like to shoot that scene with Emma?
It was lovely. The great thing about the film was it kept changing. It was actually really fluid, rewriting all the time, and in a very positive way. Everyone had ideas and things were being shifted and the way they shot it was very kind of fluid and not rigid. Often I didn’t even know we’d been covered in the scenes. It was like, “OK, we’re moving on,” and I’d be like, “What? Am I not in the scene?” “Oh, we got you.”
Did you feel how emotionally powerful that scene was while shooting it?
Yeah. I love Emma, and I do feel a bit like her big brother. When she was doing “Cabaret” on Broadway with me, she was a little nervous and I was kind of the old soul, so I think it made sense for that sort of dynamic between us (in this movie) and also it felt like, “This is a big moment in the film.”
Do you hope this movie speaks to new generations of queers who may not be familiar with Billie Jean, and how so?
On so many levels, oh my god. Just attacks on women and gay people again and massive persecution and hate crimes going up since Trump, and that’s what’s interesting. Obviously, when we made it, it was before all that. It felt like we were telling this really great story, but now it’s even more pertinent because a lot of the themes and a lot of the things that Bobby stands for are back in our society again and being endorsed by the highest officer in the land, which is horrible.
You are portraying a gay ex-CIA agent on CBS’s forthcoming drama “Instinct.” Do you feel playing gay characters in film and TV right now is a political resistance of sorts?
I do. And gay spies – that’s my new thing. I definitely feel like…
More of a call to action?
Absolutely. The fact is, it’s fun. I solve murders and blah, blah. But it’s the first-ever network drama to have a gay character in a leading role – that’s huge in this country, that’s massive. And I love the fact that his gayness is the fourth thing about him. I mean, he has a good relationship with a guy and it’s not angst-ridden. It’s just, also, he happens to be gay. We need more and more and more things like that, so the fact that CBS has decided to do this now makes me really grateful.