For the record, Alan Cumming saying the word "babyism" is funny. His Scottish accent clips the vowels, so "baby" sounds like "bebe," and the "-ism" follows without a breath like the whole thing is a real word. Susan Sarandon, the inaugural guest at what's set to be a monthly gathering of Cumming's friends and friends-of-friends, was confused. During the hour of conversation she and Cumming conducted Monday night in front of 30 or so onlookers in a rented-out Donald Trump bar in midtown Manhattan, nothing stumped her, except the word "babyism."
(You can hear Cumming saying it in the recording below this story).
By then the discussion had meandered from neaps and tatties, the Scottish names for turnips and potatoes (which Sarandon noted would also make good names for twins, and Cumming thought would work well for dogs) to how Sarandon's first child, the actress Eva Amurri, had been conceived.
"I had been put in the hospital and they said I had very severe endometriosis, which is a condition that a lot of women have," Sarandon said. "It's one of these not diagnosed conditions that can be quite, quite devastating. Actually, Padma Lakshmi had it."
Sarandon sat across from Cumming. Both were on velvet-upholstered bar stools facing the crowd, with bright green glasses of absinthe stirred with Midori on the raised table in front of them. The drinks came from Lucid Absinthe, the sole corporate sponsor of Cumming's private gatherings, or "old-fashioned artistic salons," as he's billing the series (the official name: "Lucid Conversations"). During his introduction at the start of the evening, Cumming referenced the long history of absinthe use among artists and jokingly thanked Lucid for restoring the "lost art" of patronage.
The crowd contained other recognizable faces -- Parker Posey, "noted fashion photographer" Nigel Barker, as Tyra Banks calls him -- as well as generic looking businessmen, a man in a wheelchair, and a few hipsters.
"It grows like a vine," Sarandon said, of the uterine condition she'd been diagnosed with. "It can do all kinds of horrible things. But you know, the kind of guys that I was seeing weren't really very good candidates for father at that time. So I wasn't looking to have kids really. And then..."
She paused and turned to her audience.
"If anyone out there's having trouble getting pregnant," she said. "Go to Italy."
A few people started to laugh.
"Have a summer and don't worry about it and eat and drink and ... fuck, and you’ll probably get pregnant."
The laughter got louder. Sarandon, whose eyes command her face, didn't blink.
"And that's what happened with Eva," she finished. "On the Spanish steps."
By now, Cumming looked as proprietary and intimate as a talk show host. One leg rested on the other, and his eyes lit up.
"Seriously?" he said, sounding stunned. "On the Spanish steps? That’s where Eva was conceived, on the Spanish steps?"
Someone in the audience said, "Oh my God."
Cumming raised his glass of absinthe, as did most of his guests. "Cheers to that!" he said.
In a 2003 profile for the Guardian, interviewer Alan Higginbotham set out to find out "how a boy from a remote community in the Scottish highlands became a movie star, director and the toast of Manhattan." Halfway through, Higginbotham works out that "when he appears on chat shows...[Cumming] is never really himself. He simply acts the part of Alan Cumming, a celebrity appearing on a chat show."
With Lucid Conversations, Cumming gets to plays the role of chat show host of his own private show (his next guest is Martin Scorcese). His highland-to-Manhattan trajectory was in the air Monday too, as the friends he's collected along the way -- actors and actresses, businessmen, his assistant, and at least one childhood friend from Scotland -- stood around to watch him interview his famous guest in a plush Manhattan bar.
"One of the good things about getting invited to all these parties is you find yourself meeting someone really fascinating you'd never meet in your normal life," Cumming told The Huffington Post, talking about how the salon series came to be. "Last year -- where was I? I was somewhere and it was just a really interesting evening. You know, one of those things where you find yourself talking all night and really connecting. I wanted to engineer that situation for others. I had this sort of yearning to have a decent conversation, and not just be endlessly photographed, not have to talk rubbish."
Monday night had all the hallmarks of a late-night party connection: Cumming and Sarandon bounced from jokes to politics, and followed new lines of thought without finishing the one before.
From the Spanish Steps, the conversation moved to the ageism, racism, sexism, and babyism ("once you've had a baby," Cumming explained) of Hollywood. How had Sarandon managed?
She mentioned Ingrid Bergman, who'd also had a child out of wedlock after a trip to Italy, with director Roberto Rossellini.
"Which brings me to another topic I'm intrigued to ask you about," Cumming said, as he launched into a discussion of American national identity.
LISTEN to Alan Cumming say "babyism" (at 00:24). Because why not? :