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‘The Traitors’: Alan Cumming on Reinventing Reality

Julia Alexander with Alan Cumming, the host of NBC’s hit reality show ‘The Traitors.’ Photo: Ralph Bavaro/PEACOCK
The Editors
May 21, 2024

Earlier this month, Puck’s Julia Alexander took the stage at Crosby Street Hotel for a lively Q&A with Alan Cumming, the iconic host of the hit NBC reality competition show The Traitors. Following a screening in front of a packed audience of Puck subscribers, they discussed the psychology involved in crafting a great reality show, the power of fashion to break down political barriers, bringing camp and theatricality to network TV, and why Martha Stewart would make a great “traitor.” The following conversation was lightly edited and condensed. 


Julia Alexander: What makes you so incredibly fun to watch is that unlike a lot of other reality show hosts, you really get into character. You really become part of the cast in so many ways. I wanted to know what your thought process was for coming into the show and figuring out how to play the role you do within Traitors?

Alan Cumming: This is unlike anything I’ve ever done before, and I couldn’t quite understand why they’d asked me. I’m not being immodest. But it sounded fun. My agent, who’s here tonight, had said, “There’s some show in a castle, and they want you to…” I was like, “What?” So I took the meeting and I realized they wanted me to subvert the form of hosting a show like this by playing a character. Everyone does a version of themselves when they host something, but here it was actually a very removed version of me, and it’s a very dandy, Scottish-layered… 



Well, I think what makes the character so interesting is that for longtime fans of reality shows—and I am an obsessive—you have a lot of personalities who are, by their very nature, larger than life. That is why we watch them year after year, and yet you somehow managed to out-character them in many ways. I’m wondering what it’s like playing that character?

Well, I think in a way everyone is playing a character. They’ve all got their shtick. The first series was half real people, and half reality people, which is such a crazy sentence, but by that I mean the people who are used to the camera and have a built-in persona already. So they play themselves very well, and they understand the role they have, and then they’re thrown into this thing where everything’s destabilizing for them. So I just guide them into situations that hopefully will destabilize them even more, and that’s what’s fun about it. 

I’m the stern daddy of it all, and it’s interesting to play that role and also try to keep some distance with the cast on the set. I don’t talk to them in between takes, and I don’t engage with them in a chummy way, like you might in a normal show where there’s other cast members. I think it’s important that I have authority, and that they’re sort of scared of me. And then, of course, after it’s all done, I can be a normal person with them. They all came to my bar, to Club Cumming, when they were here doing a press thing, and it was so hilarious. It was like them seeing Father Christmas having a drink or something.

I think that’s the sign of a good host, if they are scared of you. 



Yeah. They should be scared of me because I’ve got to reprimand them sometimes. I have to guide them. Obviously, there’s a lot of situations where I’ve really got to intervene, and my word is law, so it’s quite fun.

A terrifying figure, clearly.

That’s the thing. I don’t think I’m scary, but also I don’t take any shit. So I think I know how to play a scary person because I think I’m fair but firm in real life, and so you just amp that up a bit.

You have this beautiful gothic backdrop, and a lot of the events, whether it’s the funeral, whether it’s going to a cemetery, that all feel very theatrical and creepy. So how do you balance having fun while also subverting the usual narrative of this show format?



Well, what I think is liberating is the theatricality of it. Everyone in television is very scared of theatricality. If you ever tried to pitch a show to a TV executive, the word “theater” or “theatrical” is poison to them. So it’s very liberating to have that in its very D.N.A. It’s gothic and camp in the true sense of camp. I think American people sometimes don’t have the same understanding of what “camp” means to British people, but I think what we’re doing on the Traitors is camp. There’s an annoyingness to it, an archness, a theatricality, and a winking at the audience all the time about what it is. So there’s me in those insane costumes in this castle saying, “Welcome to my castle!” And bringing all these nutty personalities way out of their comfort zone, and then making them do these insane things and pitting them against each other. But at the core of it, it’s just a game.

I think I’ve discovered, in my crash course in reality-competition television over the last couple of years, that they are all basically the same. Survivor is the same as RuPaul’s Drag Race. They’re all just people doing things, and there’s intrigue and everything, but basically, it’s just schoolyard games of pushing one person out. It’s got these psychological layers that I think people underestimate. And also, they’re in a castle and they’re maddened, because they’re not allowed to use their phones, they’re not allowed to talk to each other outside. And all they think about from morning to night is the show and the game, and they go nuts. It’s great.

The Traitors has a British counterpart that came out before the U.S. version. I’m curious what had to change within the format for a different audience? 

I saw some of the first season of the British one, and it’s not as camp and theatrical as ours. So I think this is probably the first time ever in television history that an American version of a show is more camp and theatrical than the British one. I think that’s me and my fault, but I feel like, in a funny way, we were able to have more leeway in that department. And partly because it was a new show, and partly because of the costumes and me playing this character, I think we really amped it up.



Your outfits on the show are probably one of the best parts of it. They somehow get even more fabulous and glamorous every episode, and I’m curious what didn’t make the show, and how involved are you with choosing the outfits.

Well, very involved. I talk to [stylist] Sam [Spector] all the time. And especially in the first season, because I said I wanted to be this dandy Scottish laird… Do you know what a laird means? It’s like “lord” in a Scottish accent. So, a dandy Scottish aristocratic gent. To me, that means a lot of tartan, a lot of cloaks, things like that. I went to him with that idea and he ran with it. Then in the second season, we were able to amp it up a bit, and he themed the missions with my clothes—when there was one about birds, and I had a funny fake peacock in my hat.

One thing I really do like about the show is that, if we think about what’s happening in America, and the way that trans people and nonbinary people are facing lots of hatred and challenges, me in this show as a middle-aged man, being quite femmy and wearing a lot of practically female clothes, it’s interesting to be able to do that in a mainstream way and to challenge people’s perceptions of what is male and what is female, and maybe be a bit in the middle. And hopefully, when the audience sees someone in the street who’s nonbinary or non-gender conforming, they won’t be as shocked or horrified because they would have seen me in a funny dress and a cloak the night before. And I think that’s a really positive accidental thing that’s come out of the theatricality of the costumes. 

In the first episode, you’re walking around and you’re going to pick two Traitors. And there’s a conversation afterward between the cast members about the sound of your jacket rustling as you lifted an arm, or your footsteps, and the sound of breathing. How did you approach that moment, where you needed to be as secretive as possible?



It is absolutely the most terrifying part of the whole thing because I could fuck it up immensely in one fell swoop if they heard me or something. We film a thing where I touch everybody so in case it’s them, we’ve got the close-up of my hand. We film that first so they’ve got an idea of what it feels like to be touched. And then we go round and round and round and round. And obviously, it’s very tense in the room—when you’re blindfolded, your other senses are much more aware.

I was talking this week with Sam about what I was going to wear for that bit, and of course, there were things on my lapels, like little finch things, and I thought that’d be terrible because you would hear them. So you have to be really conscious of stuff like that because everyone’s senses are so heightened. It is exciting, but it is terrifying. 

I love when fashion is strategic.

Yes, fashion wins. Fashion kills.

I have two last quick questions for you. The first one, out of all of your friends and celebrities that you know, who do you think would be great on a season of The Traitors? And second, which role do you think you’d play better, a traitor or a faithful?

I would like to be a traitor. I think everybody would like to be a traitor. It means getting to go to the turret late at night and thinking about who you’re going to kill—I just think it’s such fun. And I think they get extra snacks when they go to the turret, so there’s that. But some people really don’t want to be, which is why we do this thing now where I interview them, and Lala and I are sitting there and they come in one at a time, and they’re really terrified. Some people are adamant they don’t want to be a traitor, and of course, it’s actually quite a good idea to make them a traitor when they’re feeling like that. That’s what I love about the game, there’s all these weird little confounding things you can do. 

I think Martha Stewart would be so good on this show because she’s so bossy and so strategic and so accomplished at everything. She would make that raft. She would get that catapult going. She would be at home in a castle. A lot of the people who come on this show, I don’t know who they are. I’ve got the tentative list of who’s coming in a couple of weeks, and I’m starting to do my homework to find out what they do and what their characteristics are. Whatever they’ve done, they’ve never done anything like this, and I think that’s what makes it so exciting. And also, we get to see people lying, and I think there’s something really fascinating about watching people lie. You know they’re lying, but none of the other people do.