Alan Cumming relaxes on the set of 'Masterpiece Mystery!'

Ed Symkus

Alan Cumming always seems to have trouble with the big parts.

He refers to his turn as the blue-skinned, long-tailed Nightcrawler in “X-Men 2” as “pretty painful, although I thought he was a really good character.” He admits that when he played “Hamlet” in a touring company in the early-1990s, he came close to a nervous breakdown.

“Basically you’re playing someone who’s having a nervous breakdown,” he says in his thick Scottish accent. “So if you do that for months and months, as I did, and if you’re in a bit of a state in your own life, as well … If you really delve into that role, then it’s gonna affect you like that. For me it was definitely a catalyst for sorting out some stuff in my life that needed to be sorted out.”

Cumming’s resume boasts a Best Actor Tony for his role as Emcee in “Cabaret,” writing the novel “Tommy’s Tale,” getting killed off in the Bond film “GoldenEye,” starring in and producing the film “Sweet Land,” recently completing an Off-Broadway run of “The Seagull,” and hawking his own cologne — “Cumming.”

Now he’s ready to tackle TV, set to fill the shoes of Diana Rigg as the new host of PBS’ popular “Masterpiece Mystery!” He introduces the season’s premiere episode on Sunday.

Excusing himself for being “a bit snotty” — a Scottishism for having a cold — via phone from his New York apartment, Cumming says, “I simply got a phone call saying would you like to be the new host of ‘Masterpiece Mystery!’ I was, like, ‘Yeah, that sounds good.’ ”

Thinking about it afterward, he recalled watching Diana Rigg “stepping from the shadows, in a sort of pool of light; it was quite melodramatic. I liked that.”

Upon receiving scripts of the intros, Cumming would practice them aloud, making notes where he thought they were a little jangled, then personalize them, but only slightly.

“They’re really well written,” he says. “They’re like little tiny plays in themselves.”

And he gets to act in them, all by his lonesome, kind of the way things were when he first felt the acting bug bite. As a young lad, in rural Scotland where his father was a forester, he would make up, then act out, spy stories among the trees. When he was about 9, a small theater company visited his school.

“It was the Dundee Repertory Theatre,” he says. “They did this play about the Highland Clearances in our dinner hall. It was all in the round, and they were jumping off these ramps. And I have a vivid image of them packing up their van with their hampers and props and going off to another school to do the same thing, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’d love to do that.’

“But it wasn’t like I want to be an actor and be famous, it was I want to be the people who come to the dinner hall and change people’s lives.

“I started to do plays, and then I went to drama school,” he adds. “The funny part is that my very first professional play was ‘Macbeth,’ and the woman who played Lady Macbeth had been in the company that came to my school.”

Throughout stints with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre, then later breaking in to films — he first got noticed in America for his role in “Circle of Friends” — acting has always stayed at a simple level for him.

“It’s just pretending to be someone else, and meaning it,” he says. “I love the fact that you walk onstage and it’s not you. In a way you’re being yourself, because you’re letting parts of yourself out, although you’re a different person, a different character. I think we’ve made a big mistake of mythologizing acting too much.”

Yet there’s been no grand plan. Cumming’s career has mostly consisted of saying yes to anything that comes his way that looks interesting. And he freely admits to being quite surprised at the level of success he’s achieved.

“I’m a combination of a lot of things,” he says. “I think I’m talented, but there are lots of people who are as talented or more talented than me. And I’m quite at home in my own body. I’m my own person, and I think that is immediately more attractive to people. They want to look at you because you exude something that’s comfortable. I think that’s got a lot to do with why people want to look at certain actors.

“All the other stuff is a combination of things hitting at different times, and luck. A lot, too, is that if you’re good at chatting and being on talk shows and being kind of media friendly, that really helps. When I do that, I’m playing a celebrity on a talk show sort of thing. That’s not really anything to do with being an actor. But sadly, in many fields these days, that is just another skill you’ve got to have.”

The new season of “Masterpiece Mystery!” begins on June 22 at 9 p.m. on WGBH 2.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@cnc.com.

Learning from some of the best

Alan Cumming has directed two films: “The Anniversary Party” and “Suffering Man’s Charity.” He’s also paid close attention to other directors in whose films he’s acted. He was asked to share what he’s learned from three of them.

Stanley Kubrick (“Eyes Wide Shut”): “He reminded me that there are no little parts, only little actors.”

Julie Taymor (“Titus”): “She said, ‘Don’t think you’re doing a little independent film when you’re doing “Ben-Hur.” ’ We all thought we were doing this little independent film, and when we got to Rome it was like this epic!”

Martin Campbell (“GoldenEye”): “Shouting doesn’t make people listen to you.”