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Alan Cumming is no stranger to broken ground, but as Dr Dylan Reinhart, a criminologist turned academic who is drawn back into the front line in the new procedural drama Instinct, he is borrowing from real life and playing a gay, married man.

Reinhart is the first gay lead character on a drama on the US CBS network. In American cultural terms, that is significant: CBS is the biggest, oldest and most successful of the US networks and, because of those factors, it is the network where cultural change is sometimes slower to manifest itself.

Former CIA operative Dr Dylan Reinhart (Alan Cumming) is lured back to his old life in Instinct.

Photo: JONATHAN WENK

"I think it is an incredible thing and also a terrible thing at the same time," Cumming says, referring to both the broken ground and the time it has taken to break it. "It's another layer to the character that makes it interesting to play, sort of socially and politically."

It also comes, Cumming adds, at a time when "we find in America gay people are being persecuted again, their rights are being removed and the president is actively condoning, by his silence, violence and persecution against the LGBT community. It's all the more important we should have a character with a healthy, successful same-sex marriage on network screens."

Coming off a stunning performance in the critically acclaimed drama The Good Wife, Cumming says the drawcard for him was that former CIA operative Dr Dylan Reinhart seemed, at first glance, to be a deeply confounding character.

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"He's sort of a fuddy duddy professor, a bit of a dandy, he is kind of a former spy, he drives a motorbike, he's gay, there are so many different layers," he says.

The infancy of the series means that Cumming felt able to engage producer Michael Rauch in a dialogue about the character. Based on the book Murder Games by James Patterson, the show allowed for interpretation so Cumming felt able to shape the character with some nuances of his own.

"That's the great thing about starting something off and having the showrunner there all the time, you have this great dialogue," Cumming says. Central to Reinhart, he says, are two relationships: on-screen husband Tracy, played by Daniel Ings, and his partner, Detective Lizzie Needham, played by Serbian-born Australian actress Bojana Novakovic​.

"It's actually great to sort of feel you're building those relationships," he says. "I am married to a man, so I brought that to the table. But I was also very conscious of the fact that when we see gay characters, on American television especially, their gayness is the primary thing, and the gayness is somehow a problem.

"What's really refreshing about this and what I was definitely advocating was that there's a successful relationship and they are very supportive of each other, and it's also the fourth or fifth most interesting thing about the character," Cumming says.

The series brings Reinhart's sexuality across from the novel but, producer Michael Rauch notes, changes several of the supporting characters, including Lieutenant Gooden and the New York mayor, to women.

According to Rauch, the decision was made to "make it representative of the current world, especially in New York City, and … balance out what feels like is a traditionally male driven ensemble in a police procedural and have this, in a way, subvert what sometimes feels like the traditional dynamics."

Novakovic, whose body of work in Australia runs the gamut from Heartbreak High and All Saints to Marking Time, Satisfaction and Rake, says she relished the differences between herself and Lizzie Needham.

"She's so different to me, she's so by-the book-meticulous," she says. "Not that I'm not meticulous and by the book at the best of times, but [I like to] create something that's a little bit different to me so that when I go home, I feel like a different person, because we are working 12 to 16-hour days."

In visual terms, Cumming was joined on the series by Dan Lawson, the costume designer he had worked with on The Good Wife.

"I've known him all those years and I really think he's very, very clever," Cumming says. "I think contemporary costume designers don't get the credit they deserve, because actually, it's much more flashy to do a period thing. And I think contemporary clothes are so telling, and the little details can really help you with the character and help the audience understand so much."

With Reinhart, Cumming says, "he's a bit of a dandy, and the clothes he wears are not really my taste, not my thing, but I like dressing up. And I really love the way it really helps me to get into that character. As soon as there's a new episode and there's a new outfit, I'm like, oh, here we go. And plaid, or tartan, as we like to call it where I come from, plays quite a significant part in his wardrobe, so I'm all for that."

At least initially, Reinhart's husband Tracy (Daniel Ings) is unaware that his spy-turned-academic husband has returned to work as a detective.

"They're kind of an oddball couple, he was a lawyer and has recently stopped, followed his dream and opened a bar, [Reinhart] was a CIA spy but realised he didn't want to have that life, fell in love and left the CIA and went into academia," Cumming says. "So pretty soon [with] my husband, I have to come clean. But it's quite a few episodes in."

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Michael Idato

Michael Idato is a Senior Writer based in Los Angeles for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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