Alan Cumming on dealing with his past

Alan Cumming as Eli Gold in CBS drama 'The Good Wife'. Picture: Justin Stephens/CBS

Alan Cumming as Eli Gold in CBS drama 'The Good Wife'. Picture: Justin Stephens/CBS

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Alan Cumming’s shocking account of his violent father and a childhood blighted by fear and humiliation is at odds with the dazzling, larger-than-life persona of the actor. Yet the raw and visceral pursuit of joy is how the Broadway star deals with his past, finds Claire Black

When Alan Cumming picks up the phone from his home in New York, I can hardly hear him. There is a short delay on the line and a bit of a crackle but the reason he’s barely audible is because his voice is a croaky whisper. It’s early morning where he is, still in his “jim-jams” lying on the sofa. Having just racked up his 500th performance as Emcee in Cabaret on Broadway (opposite Michelle Williams and soon to be Emma Stone as Sally Bowles) I’m not surprised that he’s done in. “I am pretty tired,” he says, “and I’ve got the cold too.”

I’ve interviewed Cumming once before. It was just before he took to the stage in a gold kilt as Dionysus in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of The Bacchae. I had expected (hoped for) an extrovert full of candid confessions and juicy gossip – Cumming has a reputation for being a mischief, delightfully open about his sexuality (he’s bisexual, he married his long term partner Grant Shaffer, an illustrator, in 2012) with a kind of naughtiness never far beneath the surface. His Twitter profile is “Scottish elf trapped in a middle aged man’s body”. But that’s not what I got. Cumming was polite but reserved, quietly spoken and perhaps a little circumspect. There is a similar feel to this conversation. And when I consider what we are to talk about, I don’t blame him.

Cumming has written a memoir, Not My Father’s Son. It is the story of his childhood and the story of 2010, a year which if Cumming was ever required to select his personal annus horribilis, would be a surefire winner. The book is both powerful and shocking. I’m not surprised that he’s a little reticent to speak about it, that he feels exposed and, in some senses, vulnerable.

Back in 2010, Cumming had decided to take part in the BBC programme Who Do You Think You Are? He wanted to discover the circumstances in which his maternal grandfather, Thomas Darling, had died in Malaysia just after the Second World War. The explanation involved a “shooting incident” but there were enough silences and whispers in the family whenever it was mentioned to make Cumming suspect there was more to it. At the time of his death, Thomas Darling was just 35, he had been decorated for bravery for his actions during the war and he had a wife and children waiting for him in Scotland. That was the mystery Cumming wanted to solve. The way things panned out, though, it was just the beginning.

If celebrity memoirs aren’t exactly renowned for their startling honesty – or the quality of the prose – then it’s only fair to say, Cumming’s book is far from a standard actor’s autobiography. That he can write isn’t a surprise. Once upon a time he wrote a novel, Tommy’s Tale, a frothy romp through the life of the angsty and debauched titular 29-year-old bisexual London-dweller. Not My Father’s Son is a very different book to that, though. Written in four parts it tells the story of Cumming’s childhood, growing up on the Panmure Estate near Carnoustie with a loving mother and brother but a tyrannical father, whose many affairs were an open secret in the rural community. An emotionally abusive and physically violent man, the shadow he casts over the book is long. Alex Cumming terrorised his sons, Alan and Tom. “I really wanted to show that it wasn’t all bad in my family,” Cumming writes. “But I just couldn’t. There’s not one memory from our childhoods that is not clouded by fear of humiliation or pain.” Cumming’s father, head forester on the estate, took pleasure in belittling his son, giving him tasks that he couldn’t possibly manage – learning to ride his bike on an icy road, sorting out saplings to what end he didn’t understand – then viciously punishing him for failing. At the time, Cumming had no idea why his father behaved the way he did. He, like many children suffering abuse, thought it must be something to do with him, in some way it must have been his fault. But just two weeks before the start of filming for Who Do You Think You Are?, he got a very different insight.

Alex, from whom he’d been estranged for some years, contacted Cumming’s brother, Tom, and revealed that he believed that he was not Alan’s father. It was a hammer blow. On the one hand, it made some kind of sense and it gave him a kind of hope that somewhere out there was a better father than the one he’d had. But, of course, it pitched him into a full scale identity crisis. In a way, he says, the book permits him to give weight and importance to experiences he had during this time, while tracing his experiences back to his childhood. “Writing it over a period of a couple of years, it allowed me to stand back and analyse things. I wasn’t just reacting, I was getting the chance to think about things. It was calmer and that was really good for me. It’s also good to face that this was indeed crazy. Abuse is only really successful when both parties – abuser and abusee – pretend it’s not going on. The more it goes on the easier it gets. So it’s been really helpful for me to say that what happened to me was crazy and painful and I’m not going to pretend otherwise.”

Cumming really does lay himself bare. He writes of the breakdown (he calls it ‘nervy b’) he had contributing to the disintegration of his first marriage in the 1990s, his eating disorder, the flashbacks and powerful physical responses he’s endured which are the aftermath of the abuse he suffered as a boy. He delves into his own history and leaves no stone unturned, no dark corner unprodded. “Once I’d committed to telling this story I felt I needed to reveal the feelings I had and the experiences I had,” he says. “The graphic bits, the violent bits, were hard to write because I had to access those memories, to really go back there.” He describes in the book a period of time when he just couldn’t stop talking about what had happened to him. He had to keep telling his story because that was the only way he was going to understand what he’d been through. The book is the written version of that story.

Speaking out about his experience has been painful for Cumming – part of his reticence with me is about protecting himself from the emotional turmoil he has written about – but also in a way healing for him, his brother and their mother. Alex Cumming died in November 2010. “To finally let this stuff out, to not have so much shame and fear about it has been a great thing. It’s about speaking out to the world in a positive way. It’s good to finally feel strong and in control. I suppose the book is allowing me to reiterate for myself and for my mum and brother that it wasn’t me, it really wasn’t to do with me, I was just unlucky – wrong time wrong place – this person, my father, was out of control and it was his deal. That was very liberating.”

The task of portraying his father, of being honest about the anger and violence he meted out, and the impact this had has been hugely testing for Cumming. “It’s been a constant battle,” he says. “Not constant. But at various times in my life it’s been maddening trying to work it out. Even after he died. I’m still doing it, look at me, I’m doing it right now.” Cumming may never know what led his father to behave the way he did, but he can get comfort from sharing his story. He describes the contact that he’s had with the public so far as “amazing”. The book has already entered the bestsellers list and at events in the States, where it’s already published, it’s provoking a huge response from readers. “I understand how shocking it is,” he says. “I was on TV the other day talking about it in front of a live audience. I said a couple of things and people gasped. It was really amazing for me to know yes, it is gasp-worthy. It’s been good for me to be reminded of that.” He pauses and I can almost hear him smile. “It’s been a good thing to have people gasping at me.” He lets out a little laugh. “What you learn is that every family is dysfunctional. Even in happy families there are unresolved issues and shame and blame.”

Cumming’s quiet telephone voice is a bit at odds with the frenetic energy he exudes both in some of his performances and in his career in general. He is a successful actor on stage, in films and on TV. He’s had two Emmy nods for his current role as Eli Gold in US legal drama The Good Wife. The character is a departure for the actor, although he has found a way to put a Cumming-esque take on the ruthless spin doctor. “I’m playing someone age appropriate, a real person and I really hadn’t done that very much. I’ve always played crazy people and fantasy figures. But of course, in playing a normal person, a man in a suit, you then discover that he’s full of quirks and ticks. Everyone’s crazy basically.” Cumming also presents documentaries, hosts PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery series, has a range of body and bath lotions, recently had an exhibition of his photographs (AlanCummingSnaps!) and a while back made an album, I Bought a Blue Car Today. He does regular cabaret performances – most recently with Liza Minnelli – and for the last few months, while he’s been Wilkomming and Bienvenuing as Emcee (he last won a Tony for that part in 1998), he’s turned himself into club promoter, DJ and host, running “Club Cumming” (I’m not kidding, he’s even got the neon sign to prove it), a kind of post-show get-together in his dressing room, the photographic evidence of which appears on his Instagram feed.

There he is with Chita Rivera. There he is being kissed on each cheek by Emily Blunt and her husband John Krasinski. There he is with Monica Lewinsky. There he is in full make-up, vamping it up in red lipstick and kohl-black eyes. There he is looking a bit tired with his specs on. I wonder how he can be bothered after two back-to-back shows, to entertain and “have fun”? Knowing now the kind of emotional deprivation he suffered in his childhood, with all joy stomped upon, any sign of enthusiasm or pleasure an incitement to his father’s rage, Cumming’s dedication to pleasure and fun in his adult life takes on a different hue. It was Lewinsky who, when asked to describe Cumming, spoke of his “savage joy”. It’s such a striking phrase, certainly not accidental. I wonder if he liked it? “Yes, I did,” he says instantly, his voice clearer and stronger. “I think she means raw and visceral.” He pauses and the line crackles. “I wish I could show you the face I’m making right now. It just means really living. I’m not just happy, I’m f***ing happy. A moment is not just a moment, it’s the most amazing moment. Things are not just funny, they are hilarious. I think I do have that.” He draws a parallel with his grandfather Thomas Darling, the man whom he never met, who has until very recently only existed in black and white photographs and letters of commendation. “I want to live life like that. He lived with the volume turned way up and I think that’s what I realised when I was learning about him that I’ve got some of those traits from him.”

At the beginning of 2010, Darling was a shadowy figure, a man about whom neither Cumming nor his mother knew hardly anything other than that he had died in Malaysia and a gun was involved. As the Who Do You Think You Are? neared its conclusion – the production team, blissfully unaware that as they were solving the mystery of one father, and grandfather, another mystery concerning a father was occupying Cumming – the shocking truth about the way in which Thomas Darling had died was revealed. He was killed in a game of Russian roulette. The parallels that Cumming had discovered between himself and his grandfather had felt good, if a little “eerie”, but now they felt sinister.

“When I discovered how his life had ended it was like, f**k, that’s scary. Maybe that is where I could have ended up. But also it made sense in terms of my relationship with my granny. I think she maybe did see me in him, or him in me. I think I would have really liked him. I think I would have had so much fun with him. I felt an allegiance to him, I felt like him a lot of the time. That’s what made it so awful to imagine the circumstances that he lived through. It was a real eye opener. I was able to confront my father. I was able to take time off and sort my life out. He wasn’t able to do any of that.”

What Cumming knows better than most is that you can never tell from the surface what’s going on beneath. A career can look monumentally successful, a life amazingly happy and there may be truths in both of those things, but often there is something else going on too. “I think it’s good not to be defined by the success of your work or where you are in your career,” he says. “I think because I’ve always been successful people think that’s what I do. But I don’t.” Mental well-being and comfort are his priorities. He finds peace in his house in the Catskill Mountains, living in a landscape that in some ways is reminiscent of the east of Scotland where he grew up. “They are really important to me because I’ve seen how dangerous it can be to neglect those things. Even this experience right now, the book coming out and me talking about it and people saying ‘it’s going to be on the bestseller lists la la la’. I’m much more concerned about how it’s affecting me – are you all right Alan? That’s who I am, that’s what I’m concerned with.”

And I believe him. “The message of the book,” he says, “is be open and be kind and try not to bump into the furniture.”

• Not My Father’s Son: A Family Memoir by Alan Cumming is available now, published by Canongate, £13.99. Alan will be discussing the book in Edinburgh at The Assembly Roxy, 2 Roxburgh Place on Wednesday, 12 November at 7pm, with tickets (£8, or £20 including a copy of the book) available from Waterstones West End, tel: 0131-226 2666.

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