Alan Cumming on abuse: ‘I am better, but it is like a wound that is never going to go away’

The actor’s second memoir is neither tell-all nor reckoning. But it contains multitudes nonetheless

Alan Cumming: ‘When I identified with LGBT in the late 1990s, I became a poster boy for queerness’

Alan Cumming: ‘When I identified with LGBT in the late 1990s, I became a poster boy for queerness’

 

It is nearly 20 years since I last met Alan Cumming. This is worth mentioning because anecdotes in Baggage, his new memoir, press home how much has happened to us all during the intervening period. I talked to him in London before the release of Bryan Singer’s first sequel to X-Men. We chatted about the rise of the superhero (little did we know) before going on to other things. What we didn’t discuss — because the publicity cordon was still secure — was the extraordinary behaviour of the director.

Singer, according to Baggage, “was using painkillers at the time and he definitely exhibited corresponding behavioural patterns during filming: mood swings, tantrums, paranoia”. The catalogue of madness ends with the X-Men actors — Halle Berry, Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, others — confronting him on set. “You people … are full of f**king s**t,” Singer replied unapologetically. Later, in the wake of the Me Too convulsions, the director was the subject of sexual abuse allegations.

Was this sort of behaviour an open secret at the time?

“I don’t know. It was news to me when it happened,” Cumming says. “I went into that film not realising that, but obviously I learned fast.”

There was this rhetoric that said of me: I’m fixed; I’m cured. I think that’s an American thing, where they like to tie everything up in the Hollywood ending

So, could a director get away with that behaviour now? We are led to believe that the rules have all changed.

“Yes, I do. I do think so actually,” he says. “I think some things have changed — that some sort of power dynamics have been examined. But I think, in that corporate structure, they still function to enable that sort of behaviour, alas. Maybe not sexual — we are now more attuned to looking out for propriety there. But I think it is still possible for such people to make work environments toxic.”

Anyway, that is just one incident in an impressively packed memoir. The book takes the actor from childhood in rural Scotland to brief experiences as a journalist in Dundee to early success in films such as Circle of Friends and on to triumph in Sam Mendes’s stage production of Cabaret. We get musings on the trials of press tours. We learn about his early marriage to a woman and his much later marriage to a man. And we get plenty of celebrity chatter: Liza Minnelli, Jessica Lange, Monica Lewinsky. I particularly enjoyed the stories of Faye Dunaway at the Grammys weighing her food on a portable scale before allowing it to pass her lips.

“That is how she monitors her eating,” he says. “She does it everywhere. Or she did anyway. When you go to a restaurant out comes the scales and she weighs the fish. It’s just her way. And it works for her. She is in great physical shape for a woman at her age. I make no judgements, but I wish she wouldn’t do it in the front row of the Grammys. Ha ha!”

There is as much intense self-analysis within Baggage as there is jolly debauchery. The book follows on from Cumming’s much praised Not My Father’s Son, an often searing volume that addressed the physical and emotional abuse his dad visited on him as a child. He discusses his decision to confront his father later in life. He wonders how those early experiences shaped later emotional life. Alan is, however, uneasy about coverage of the earlier book that suggested he had somehow “cured” himself of that trauma. That is not how life works.

Alan Cumming: ‘Me being frank and honest about my trauma empowered people in some way to be able to do something in their lives’
Alan Cumming: ‘Me being frank and honest about my trauma empowered people in some way to be able to do something in their lives’

“There was that sort of rhetoric when the book came out,” he says. “People did contact me to say someone speaking out like that helped them deal with some issue in their family — or confront a molester or an abuser. Me being frank and honest about my trauma empowered them in some way to be able to do something in their lives. That is an amazing thing.”

He is plainly moved that the book had such an effect.

“That was from real people. People who had read the book,” he says. “Then there was this rhetoric that said of me: I’m fixed; I’m cured. I think that’s an American thing, where they like to tie everything up in the Hollywood ending. It’s about redemption. Because of those other reactions people were giving me, it made me more concerned about not obfuscating the truth with this glossy convenience. That is not the way to recovery. I am better, but it’s always going to be with you. It is like a wound that is never going to go away.”

I had an amazing time there [in Kilkenny]. It was one of those occasions when work took me out of a really difficult toxic situation and just transplanted me in this idyllic sort of environment

There is, nonetheless, a balancing of sorts in Baggage (the title is well chosen). He talks about a recurring dream drawn from appalling experiences of his father bullying him at the sawmill behind their house. But he also talks of the unconditional love he felt for dad.

“It’s really this primal, basic thing. You want the love of your parent,” he says. “You can’t help it. And, of course, when you’re abused the abuser relies on your shame to protect them. It’s wrapped up in that.”

At any rate, he made some sort of escape as a young man. Dundee is famous for “jam, jute and journalism”. Cumming spent a while talking to pop stars for a short-lived youth publication based in that city. Listening to his lively, sometimes acerbic voice, one is easily convinced he could have made it as a pop-culture journo. But that was never the scheme. When he was just 17 he made his way to Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and he has not looked back since.

“I was still a child — a child!” he says. “But I had always intended to go there. I never had a Plan B. It is so funny when you look back and think: what if that had not happened. I suppose something else might have come along.”

Cumming’s role as creepy suitor to Minnie Driver in Pat O’Connor’s lush adaptation of Maeve Binchy’s Circle of Friends marked his first engagement with high-end cinema. The film did well with critics and was a modest hit at the box office. The good people of Thomastown in Kilkenny still remember the shoot.

“I had an amazing time there. It was one of those occasions when work took me out of a really difficult toxic situation and just transplanted me in this idyllic sort of environment. This beautiful place. Making this really lovely film with this lovely group of people.”

Chris O’Donnell, Colin Firth, Minnie Driver, Saffron Burrows. Not bad.

“We really were a merry band,” he says. “And I got really good friendships out of that. Obviously, I went on to have a relationship with Saffron. I still keep in contact with Minnie.”

Ah, Saffron Burrows. In Baggage, Cumming makes the eccentric decision not to mention the names of his romantic partners. No shade is implied. The strategy applies to all. It is nonetheless odd that you could read the book without knowing that a discussed two-year relationship is with Burrows. What was his thinking?

“There were a variety of reasons,” he says. “What I wanted to talk about was my experience and what I’d learned from the mistakes I made with these people. I felt that naming them would make people want to Google them and find out stuff about them. It is not a tell-all sort of book.”

I just want to point out how lucky straight people are not to have to constantly answer questions about when they knew they were straight. That never happens

Baggage is also missing any mention of a grand coming out. It would take a most unsophisticated reader not to figure out from early on that he is bisexual. There is no reason why he should be any more explicit, but we do tend to expect that from a memoir. Perhaps that is unfair of us.

“I obviously did that on purpose,” he says. “I am so bored of talking about my sexuality. I just want to point out how lucky straight people are not to have to constantly answer questions about when they knew they were straight. That never happens. In a way I’m trying to redress that by not doing what people have been conditioned to expect from a queer person talking about their life. I talk frankly about my relations with both sexes. When it became necessary to discuss it I did come out.”

He was among the few busy actors of his era who identified as a member of the LGBT community.

“When I did that, in the late 1990s, I became a poster boy for queerness,” he says. “It was a little lonely and it did feel a little bit pressured. But I felt it was my duty and I thought it was necessary. I had a mainstream access that most queer people then didn’t have.”

Cumming is keen to stress that the book is not about him solving the problems of his childhood. But it does take us to a place of apparent stability. A versatile actor with a gift for sprightly comedy, he remains happily unavoidable. He served a long-running term as a sort of American Alastair Campbell in the TV series The Good Wife. He presents podcasts. He runs a bar in New York’s East Village. He and his husband Grant Shaffer, an illustrator, are ornaments of Manhattan society. He has dual citizenship. Yet, now a supporter of the SNP, Cumming remains unambiguously Scottish. He has a place in the old country where he and Shaffer can escape it all. There are suggestions in Baggage of the things about America that still get on his nerves. With little encouragement, he sets off…

“Yes. Ha, ha, ha! Things like the arrogance of saying the president is the leader of the free world. Nobody thinking it weird that the World Series baseball tournament only has America and Canada in it. No wonder people think you’re this imperialist arrogant power. Because you are!

“Saying that you think you are leader of the free world implies that the people you believe to be ‘free’ regard you as their leader. Things like that are so arrogant. Also things like the separation of church and state are just a joke. If the president did not end his speech by saying ‘God bless America’, there would be an outcry. If the First Minister of Scotland ended the speech by saying ‘God bless America’ there would be an outcry.”

If he hadn’t been swept up by the entertainment industry he could have found some job as a professional talker. There is little sense of a man who waits for life to come to him.

“Things present themselves and I just think: I’ll do that,” he says. “That sounds kind of interesting. That is how I have ended up where I am. I think that’s a good ethos.”

Baggage is published by Canongate

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