Rolling Heart into a Hard Role
Tim Cummings Talks with Brutal Honesty About His Journey in Portraying an Early AIDS Activist Icon
by Dann Dulin
Upon receiving an invitation for this interview, Tim Cummings asked if he would be naked on the cover and, if so, to give him a couple of months to lose 130 pounds. We replied that a lot of us have already seen him naked. Well, metaphorically speaking, that is.
Late last year, Tim gave a raw stellar performance as Ned Weeks in The Normal Heart at L.A.’s Fountain Theatre, a cutting edge award-winning venue. The now legendary play, which will be brought to the screen by HBO and Glee creator, Ryan Murphy, is set during the early days of the epidemic. Penned by the irascible AIDS activist Larry Kramer, the character Ned Weeks is, in fact, his alter ego. The show originally premiered at New York’s Public Theater in 1985. In 2011, The Normal Heart made its Broadway debut, earning a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play and for actors John Benjamin Hickey and Ellen Barkin.
Tim performed fifty sold-out performances, receiving standing ovations every night. Thus far, he’s won the Broadway World Award for Best Lead Actor. The Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle (LADCC) honored the production with four nominations, including Best Production (Revival) and Tim, as Best Leading Actor.
Raised on the North Shore of Long Island, Tim began his career on the New York stage. He served as Stanley Tucci’s understudy in the Broadway production of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. (Not an easy task being an understudy, yet a master class for the actor. “It was a magical and fulfilling experience,” recalls Tim.) For over a decade Cummings has worked with such talent as Edie Falco, Joe Mantello, Susan Sarandon, and Sigourney Weaver. His film and television credits include Criminal Minds, The Guys, Presence, and My Two Fans. He’s also collaborated with Big Dance Theatre and The Builders Association, and he serves as Co-Literary Manager for EST/LA and Associate Director of the Youth Program at the Ojai Playwrights Conference.
Tim and his partner, Paul, a former actor and currently a Psychotherapist (“He looks like Paul Newman”), have donated and volunteered over the years to HIV/AIDS organizations. During the run of The Normal Heart, many HIV/AIDS organizations attended the show and afterwards talkbacks were conducted. (“There were some amazing people who participated and I have it in mind to contact them and get more involved.”)
Living near the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the brawny six-foot-two Irish-Italian’s hobbies are astronomy, marine biology, and arachnology. Spiders?!
Dann Dulin: What was your experience portraying Ned Weeks?
Tim Cummings: “Jigsawian” is the first word that comes to mind. It’s not really a word, but it fits. Some nights the pieces of the puzzle all came together and I felt fulfilled. Other nights, the pieces were scattered everywhere and I felt overwhelmed.
But, I hope every actor out there with some chops gets a crack at a role like this. There are profound physical, emotional, and psychological challenges in inhabiting him. Every morsel of training I’d ever received as an actor, and as a human, was utilized in his creation and my portrayal of him. That’s a good feeling, you know? I learned so much and had such a blast.
How did you prep for this character?
Research. I’m very much a scientist when it comes to being an artist. I was steeped in the world of the play: the early eighties in New York City at the beginning of the epidemic. I studied an abundance of books, films, plays, movies, articles, and did meditation. And, I really studied Larry Kramer. I wanted to understand. I wanted to know who I was becoming, intrinsically.
It was an interpretation, I would later discover, that was met, critically, with celebration and fanfare, primarily, but also with much disdain and recrimination. Not surprisingly, when you really look at the role for what it is, it’s a curate’s egg—you’re trying to play a real person who was infamously difficult: loud, lonely, angry, brash in his Jewishness, unwilling to relent. It says these things in some form or another on nearly every page of the script, mind you, and it’s a huge script.
It certainly is and I believe you’re in practically every scene….
At the same time, Ned is the hero of the story; you have to like him enough to go on the journey with him: from the activist he has to become, to the love that he finds and embraces, the political and medical maelstrom he endures, and the crushing loss that he suffers. It’s a universal story. It’s the hero’s journey through-and-through.
I did get in touch with Joe Mantello [who played Ned in the Broadway revival]. Joe is a friend, a brilliant artist, someone I’ve worked with in the past, and he was instrumental in offering me support, advice, anecdotes, and humor as I went through it all.
C’mon! Ned is a banshee. You know? He has to yell and scream. A banshee warns of impending doom. That is what Ned was doing. That’s the point of the play. Danger. Unease. Love.
You just gave this reporter chills, Tim. It’s such a powerful, demanding role….
It was quantum leaping. It was channeling. It was a service job. And from the stress, I smoked a cigarette for the first time in six goddam years.
Did you do anything in particular right before your first entrance?
I danced. Every time. From our fifteen-minute call to “Places,” I was backstage dancing like a freak.
It’s been a couple of months since you were involved with the play, has there been any aftereffect?
Yeah, I feel like I’m experiencing aftershock. My head feels a little haunted. Sometimes I miss it all so much I feel like I should never act again, lest I wipe it clean from my mind and the memory vanishes. I miss the cast—a lot. When I said goodbye to Bill [Brochtrup, who played Felix, Ned’s partner] on the last day, I felt like we were breaking up. I mean, it felt as if we’d been in a relationship for months. I fell in love and lost him fifty times.
Other times I am so relieved I don’t have to do it anymore. On good days, I’m so proud of my dedication and commitment to the whole thing that I feel like I gave birth to a future sovereign. Look, doing low-pay theatre in L.A. is not easy. It’s definitely something you do for the love of the art. Primarily a theatre actor, as I am, L.A. is not, ultimately, the town I ought to be in. But, I’m working on that….
I hope so. I want to see what you tackle next. Did you ever see The Normal Heart performed?
I did not. I saw scenes from it while a student at NYU. During that time, in the early nineties in New York, Silence = Death [ACT UP’s rallying cry] was plastered everywhere. Young guys who were coming out of the closet and/or experimenting sexually had to be aggressively cautious, because although they seemed to have the epidemic under some kind of control—whatever that implies in the context of this epidemic’s history—you did not want to contract HIV. It was a death sentence.
My generation of gay men seems to have come up in more of a sexual repression than any kind of sexual revolution. I refer to us as “Generation II” or “Intimacy Issues.” I’ll never forget one guy who wrote and performed a song for our music class called “Masturbation: The Sex of Our Times.” He was right. It was a good song. I ended up giving him a handjob out of admiration—and, cos I thought it was appropriate.
Have you met Larry Kramer?
I’d like to. There were many people, however, who saw our production who came up to me afterward to tell me that they knew Larry well. They had been there with him during the dark times and that he would be extremely proud of my depiction. “God, you were so annoying,” they’d say. “Quirky, lovable, voluble—that’s what he was like!” That made me feel good, you know?
What a nice tribute. So you’ve completed Ned Weeks! What character are you dying to play now?
When I was young, I wanted to be Treat Williams as George Berger in the movie version of Hair. I just love that film and him in that role. When he does “I Got Life” on that dining room table, with Twyla Tharp’s choreography, it’s so sexy. I just got an awesome record player for Christmas, so I broke out my old vinyl collection from childhood, and I still had the original Hair soundtrack. I’ve been listening to it like mad.
What a breakthrough musical that was! The first Broadway show you ever saw was…?
Phantom of the Opera. I loved it because when I was in my teen years I was really goth. The first play I saw was Lost In Yonkers with Kevin Spacey, Mercedes Ruehl, and Irene Worth—such really inspiring performances. I also saw my first Pina Bausch [a modern dance performer, choreographer, teacher, and ballet director] show around that time and have been hooked ever since.
So where did you first hear about AIDS, Tim?
When I was in fifth grade. That would have been 1984. My parents were arguing profusely about AIDS and about gay men after watching something on the news one night after dinner. My father was a big Irish firefighter, my mother a voluptuous Italian opera singer. The passion and emotion and anger you saw on-stage? You can guess where I got it.
How has the epidemic affected you?
I had very personal reasons for taking on Ned and doing him the way I felt he should be done—that is to say, unreservedly. I’ve lost friends, peers, and professors to this epidemic.
Do you have any other causes close to your heart?
I recently completed a new play that deals with gay teenagers being bullied so badly that they commit suicide. At one point during the play, the antagonist from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies shows up. It’s terrifying. I’m rather infatuated with that book, its hard themes of civility versus savagery, and I wonder where that comes into play with the bullying of young gay boys.
As you know, the rate of HIV infection among younger people is increasing. Comment on your work with the young people you teach at the Ojai Playwrights Conference.
Man, I love my kids! They have brilliant minds, are eager, energetic, and hilarious. They came down to see The Normal Heart and we did a talkback. Some of them had never heard of HIV/AIDS and had no idea that this play was not fiction. It made them really sad. They likened it to what they had learned in school about the Holocaust.
HIV/AIDS absolutely…positively must be taught in schools! What are these educational administrators thinking in not allowing this vital aspect of human culture and human experience to be a mandatory element of every student’s curriculum? It baffles me. [He then yells.] People are going to have sex. [He pauses.] With whomever they like. [He pauses again.] Usually by age fourteen.
Do you wanna say anything else about the epidemic?
Keep fighting. Keep helping out. Don’t be afraid to be a dick!
Dann Dulin interviewed Cheyenne Jackson for the January cover story.