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Celebrity Alan Cumming: Hosting the Tonys was terrifying – and surprising

Kristin Chenoweth, left, and Alan Cumming perform at the 69th annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on Sunday , June 7, 2015, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Charles Sykes/Associated Press

On Sunday night, I had one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. I was with an old and dear friend. A deafening, low boom was emanating all around us. We were holding hands so tightly I could feel her fingernails piercing into my flesh. Our hearts were pounding, our dry mouths clicking. A kind man came forward from the shadows and opened a bottle of water. We both guzzled hungrily from it. My friend looked up at me and told me she loved me. I told her that no matter what the outcome of our horrible predicament, we had tried our best and that was all that mattered. Suddenly the booming noise stopped and a raunchy, familiar bluesy tune began to blast and another man hissed at us to start walking away from him.

And then Kristin Chenoweth and I stepped onto the stage of Radio City Music Hall in New York, smiling and bouncy, and began to host the 69th annual Tony Awards.

In the days that followed the broadcast, even my closest friends have found it difficult to correlate my version of that truly menacing experience with that of theirs either watching in the theatre or at home on TV. "But you didn't look nervous at all," they say. I get their point. I watched the show a couple of days ago and didn't recognize the flirty and jokey version of me that appeared. Could he really be the same man who, midway through the evening, had been asked how he was feeling and replied he felt like someone standing in the middle of a freeway of oncoming trucks, dodging every one by some miraculous fusion of chance, adrenalin and lust for survival, never knowing if his next breath might be his last (or at least his TV-award-show-host career's last).

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The reason for this discrepancy is that terror, for me, is all about lack of preparation, and therefore confidence. The more celebrated you become, the more it seems you are asked to enter situations where you will have more potential to fail. Although it was announced that Kristin and I would be hosting the Tonys several months ago, we did not get most of the script until a few days before the broadcast nor actually rehearse any of it more than a handful of times.

Of course, anything scary in life becomes less scary the more times it happens. But that is not necessarily a good thing: If we had a gun drawn on us every day for a year, our hearts would eventually learn to hardly skip a beat. And so I am sure if I hosted a live three-hour television show every day, I would be okay with minimal rehearsal and walking offstage and being dragged by a burly stage manager through a crowd of sweaty dancers to a curtained tent to have my clothes ripped off and to rely on my assistant to tell me which words had to come out of my mouth the second I was prised into a new suit and flung back out into the glare of the lights and millions of judgmental eyes.

To say I was out of my comfort level as a Tonys host is an understatement. But … I actually had a really fun time. And here lies the epiphany last Sunday's stressfest allowed me.

Fun and terror have very similar traits. They can indeed be sometimes exactly the same, and for either to be truly successful they should both be unpredictable and even a little dangerous. Their physical manifestation in our bodies is identical: a rush of hyper-awareness, increased heartbeat and varying degrees of being out of control (laughing is only another form of shaking), and definitely giving us very visceral memories of the incident that induced them. Part of why we enjoy roller coasters is that they take us to a place of utter terror, but ultimately we know we will not (hopefully) fully spiral out of control, and adrenalin-induced laughter – perhaps at our own recklessness for having risked so much – will be the uppermost memory in the experience.

Had I felt really prepared, well rested and confident, would I have had such a sense of exhilaration at 11 p.m. on Sunday, having managed to wing my way through the show without any major screw-ups? Almost certainly not. As it was, as the show began I felt exhausted, lost, out of control and like I was about to walk into a car accident. All I was looking forward to was a martini at the after-party. But yet I did have a total blast.

So just as I do not advocate threatening anyone with a firearm, I also do not advocate hosting the Tony Awards. Unless you have the ability to conjure up Zen-like energy that can help you glide through those oncoming trucks, or ignore the click of the safety catch, or tell your body you will remember those dance steps even though you've never been able to do the whole number all the way through once, ever, without making several mistakes. Or that you have on your arm a little blond spitfire from Oklahoma, whom you've known since 1999 when she played your girlfriend in the TV movie of Annie, and you'd made a pact that whatever happened, you'd just try to have fun and be yourselves.

So this column is really a big thank-you to Kristin. I really couldn't have done it without her.

Alan Cumming is an actor and a writer. He is the author of the novel Tommy's Tale and the autobiography Not My Father's Son.

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