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Alan Cumming Has the Last Word

Whenever I’d seen Alan Cumming on TV, in movies or onstage—where he’s dazzling Broadway audiences once more in Cabaret—there was always something about his face that struck me as boyish. Today, that observation feels more than a little ironic with the release of the actor’s heartwarming, heartbreaking memoir, Not My Father’s Son (Dey St., a William Morrow Publishers imprint).

As its title deftly suggests, the book chronicles a father-son relationship built on deception and self-delusion. The unravelling of these, prompted by Cumming’s appearance on a British reality show that probes celebrities’ lineage, underpins the memoir. When fans see the cool customer of Eli Gold in TV’s The Good Wife or the brash exuberance of the Emcee in Cabaret, they’re not only watching a supple actor’s range but also a triumph of the human spirit.

Given the emotional and physical brutality Cumming endured at the hands of his father while growing up in a tiny Scottish town, coming out in one piece might have been victory enough. Which makes Cumming’s acting ascent as bright as his sly, disarming smile. In his refreshing acknowledgement of the good life fame has brought him, he credits a strong brother and, especially, a mother who in every way lives up to her maiden name of Darling. He’s also generous to his husband, Grant Shaffer, a man he contends, half jokingly, descended from a planet called “Kindness.”

In taking readers behind the scenes of the family-excavation show—brilliantly named Who Do You Think You Are?—a simmering debate about the fate of Cumming’s late grandfather is at long last settled. Its resolution, as well as cameos by other members of the actor’s clan, provides a window into the depth and humour Cumming lends to his work—and his life.

With both on display, he speaks to IN Magazine.

IN The discovery about your father, behind the compelling title of your new book, makes me wonder what advice you might give others who learn jarring things about the families they think they know.
ALAN CUMMING I would say that you need to take some time with it. It is very shocking and overwhelming to discover something so life-altering, but it’s a mistake to immediately react or act upon it. Let the dust settle, and give yourself time to calm down and breathe before you do anything rash.

IN Has writing the book helped ease the shock of what you learned about your father—and is there something reassuring that you took away from the process?
AC The book has definitely been very therapeutic, not so much about the shock of the discovery but more about how he [his father] treated me as a child. In writing it, I was able to analyze him and understand him and ultimately come to a really great place where I know that all of it had nothing to do with me. I learned some not-so-good things, too, though—like I’m probably an actor because I needed to be one so early to survive him.

IN You and countless other celebrities can’t seem to escape the sexuality tag when you’re identified in profiles, etc., in mainstream media. For some, though, there’s almost a nostalgia, a holding on to what makes a person gay or bi—can you understand where they’re coming from?
AC I can see this issue from both sides, absolutely. I actually think I have a sexuality prefix more often in gay press than in the straight world. I think that when gay outlets do it, I get that it’s signalling what a positive thing it is for someone to be open and out, and sometimes when straight ones do it, I find it ghettoizing and inappropriate. I’m really fine with everything, but it would be nice for all of us to get to a point where our sexuality isn’t the first or even the second adjective that is most associated with us.

IN Having seen you in Cabaret, I’m astounded by the energy each performance takes. Anything you can share about your diet or exercise routine that gives you the strength for a physically demanding role?
AC Well, first of all, I’m vegan and second of all, doing the show itself keeps me incredibly fit. It is a workout in itself. But I really do think being vegan and eating well also keeps me buzzing. I eat lots of little meals throughout the day, and, in fact, I find that I can’t manage a whole meal anymore. I just have to lie down right away. So I have to be very careful about the timing of food and any exercise. But I have always been a person with a lot of energy. I think I get it from my mom. She’s a firecracker.  

IN Of stage, TV or movies, do you have a favourite and why? Which would you like to do more of?
AC I always say when I’m asked this question: In the unlikely event that there was a gun to my head, I’d choose stage, purely because of the immediate contact and connection with the audience, but I like doing them all. I haven’t done many films over the past few years, because of The Good Wife. I do miss the way in a film you know how the story ends and how it’s finite rather than playing someone over several years.

IN Is there another book you have in mind? Any hints?
AC My next book is a book of photos and stories. A couple of years ago I did an exhibition of photographs called Alan Cumming Snaps, and I wrote a little story with each picture to explain and give more depth to each image. So now this book is going to expand on that. It will be a smorgasbord of my life and experiences.

IN You mentioned in a New York Times interview the haunting song And So It Goes. Is there a song you can’t hear without getting emotional?
AC I can have it playing, but if I listen too closely to Adel’s version of Make you Feel My Love, I’m just a wreck. I would love to sing it in concert, but I really don’t think I could get through it.

IN You’ve got a long, long way to go, but when you look at the likes of Chita Rivera or Marilyn Maye still out there performing, does it make the thought of growing older less daunting?
AC Seriously, I am not daunted by the thought of growing older, but, yes, it’s heartening to see those people still kicking, literally, at their age and that there are people—like myself—who want to see them. Maybe I still have one more round as the Emcee in me!

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