Alan Cumming: ‘I never thought about my foreskin until I came to America’

The Hollywood star on Harvey Weinstein, optimism and his fight against circumcision

Alan Cumming at home in the Catskills, New York. Photograph: Alan Cumming

Alan Cumming at home in the Catskills, New York. Photograph: Alan Cumming

 

“I’m loving the idea of being here for a sustained period of time,” says Alan Cumming, speaking over Zoom from his “country pile” buried deep in New York’s Catskill mountains. It is purpose-built for isolation. “I realised I’ve been craving it; it’s a shame it took a global pandemic to make it happen.”

The 55-year-old actor has been rigorous about lockdown. He is asthmatic, so he has been out past his gate only once in five weeks. Cumming spends his days with his husband, the artist Grant Shaffer, and their dogs Lala and Jerry, mostly writing. In the evenings, he has Zoom cocktails – last night it was with his old Good Wife co-star Julianna Margulies.

His home is cosy: a crowded bookshelf takes up most of the wood-panelled wall behind him; a blown-up cover image of his first children’s novel, The Adventures of Honey & Leon, illustrated by Shaffer, sits on the floor. He flips the camera to reveal a small outside clearing, empty apart from his trampoline, surrounded by maple trees. A porch swing is rocking; he points to a storm on the horizon coming over the Catskills.

Until there’s a vaccine, I don’t think people will really be comfortable sitting in a room with 1,000 people right next to you, coughing

Cumming was in London when the world began shutting down. He was starring in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame at the Old Vic, alongside Daniel Radcliffe. When the theatre closed on March 15th, Endgame still had two weeks left to run. Cumming may be enjoying this period of isolation, but he is worried about what state the theatre industry will be in when the lockdowns lift. There was talk of bringing Endgame to New York, but he thinks pinning down any dates would be too ambitious.

Cumming in Endgame at the Old Vic in London this year. Photograph: Manuel Harlan
Cumming in Endgame at the Old Vic in London this year. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

“Until there’s a vaccine, I don’t think people will really be comfortable sitting in a room with 1,000 people right next to you, coughing,” says Cumming. “I just don’t imagine the theatre or cinema as we know it is going to be able to function.”

Even if people are more appreciative of the arts during lockdown, it may not be enough to stave off theatre closures. The UK and US governments have always undervalued the arts, he says – a “rot that’s set in” since Margaret Thatcher (he has more than a few criticisms of Thatcher, having just watched the five-part BBC documentary Thatcher: A Very British Revolution).

“Many theatres won’t survive, because there’s so much money going into unemployment and the health service,” he says. “Not only will these theatres not have produced anything or had any income, but there’s going to be a whole range of cuts. We’re all f***ed.” It is unclear whether he is referring to thespians or, well, everyone.

One person he does include in his assessment is the US president. “This could be Trump’s downfall. My mother-in-law is a Trump supporter and even she’s said: ‘Oh gosh, it’s terrible what he’s doing, using all the Covid press conferences as a rally.’ It’s insane and embarrassing and just disgusting.”

He will be supporting Joe Biden for president, but he has his reservations. “He’s too old. I think Trump’s too old. But we seem to still be in this culture where old white men seem to be allowed to do anything.”

Cumming has one of the most eclectic CVs in Hollywood: he is prolific, versatile and prone to reinvention. As well as acting, he writes, directs and produces. He has tried his hand at photography (his latest project includes the self-portrait accompanying this article) and he is a committed activist, particularly for LGBTQ+ rights.

He co-owns a queer cabaret bar, Club Cumming, in the East Village in New York, and even has his own range of fragrances (the parodic advert for Cumming the Fragrance is essential viewing). He still has five bottles sitting on a tray in his bathroom in the Catskills. “I actually spray it in the wardrobe upstairs, because we’re not here very often, so I always just give it a little squirt of Cumming.” He describes the scent as “earthy”.

Alan Cumming at his bar, Club Cumming, in the East Village of Manhattan, New York. Photograph: Sara Naomi Lewkowicz/New York Times
Alan Cumming at his bar, Club Cumming, in the East Village of Manhattan, New York. Photograph: Sara Naomi Lewkowicz/New York Times
Cumming, a supporter of Scottish independence, takes a selfie with Nicola Sturgeon while campaigning in Glasgow in 2014. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images
Cumming, a supporter of Scottish independence, takes a selfie with Nicola Sturgeon while campaigning in Glasgow in 2014. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images

He has just taken over the pop star Will Young’s role as the co-host, alongside Chris Sweeney, of the Homo Sapiens podcast – in which queer people talk about queer life – which means he can cross off podcaster, albeit reluctantly.

“Everyone has a podcast now!” he says. “It’s like reality TV: I used to say I just wish everyone would go on a reality TV show, so we’ll all have done it and we can get it out of our system and move on.”

Yet the lure of exploring one of his biggest passions – icons of the LGBTQ+ community – was too big. Hannah Gadsby and Stephen Fry are just two of the guests on the new series; it also includes an interview with Cynthia Nixon in which she talks about parenting a trans child.

Cumming has held the title of queer icon since the late 1990s, when he was described by the New York Observer as a “frolicky pansexual sex symbol for the new millennium”. In November 1999, he posed naked for the cover of the US’s largest LGBTQ+ publication, Out magazine. The accompanying interview was his most high-profile announcement to the world that he had sex with men and women.

I was told that things were not available to me because of my Scottishness

“I still feel everything’s kind of grey,” he says. “It’s never felt complicated, my sexuality. I’ve never had shame about sex in general or homosexuality.” This he attributes to his late father (who died of cancer in 2010), who had an affair with another woman. He wrote about this extensively in his 2014 memoir, Not My Father’s Son.

“Growing up, I saw a man who was unable to control his desire. It made me feel like I’ve got a sexual appetite and it’s not a bad thing. Seeing my father struggle with this and realising that he had no control over it made me feel liberated.”

Cumming was born in Perthshire, Scotland. His father was the head forester on a large country estate on the Angus coast, which is where he lived with his mother, father and older brother.

His father was volatile and violent. He would mentally torment his sons by setting them ambiguous physical tasks around the estate, hitting them when they failed to match his infeasible standards.

Cumming had a breakdown in his 20s – the memories of a childhood dominated by a sadistic abuser resurfacing. Together with his brother, he confronted his father. They didn’t speak for 16 years, until his father caught wind of Cumming’s intention to appear on the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are?.

His father told Cumming (via his brother) that he was not his son; he said he was telling Cumming this to avoid him finding out on national TV. After a meticulous investigation, Cumming exposed his father’s story as untrue (he and his brother took DNA tests to confirm it).

More than five years on, he is still stunned by the feedback from readers of his memoir. Many said it helped them address their own problematic relationships. Has it allowed him to exorcise the trauma of his father’s abuse?

“I thought that maybe I would put him to rest, but actually that hasn’t happened,” he says. “He’s much more in my life than he ever was. And so he should be; he’s my father. Any parent is a huge part of your life and pretending otherwise is not healthy. I feel in a much healthier place with him.”

Cumming laughs dismissively when asked if his globe-trotting career has gone the way he thought it would when he was starting out as a young actor on the Scottish theatre scene in the late 80s.

“I was told that things were not available to me because of my Scottishness,” he says. “America was never a thing. London was maybe a possibility. The idea that I would be doing what I’m doing now or have the opportunities that I have now, there was no one I knew who’d had that trajectory... those things didn’t happen to Scottish people.”

And yet his career boomed. He moved to London after a roaring Edinburgh fringe success as half of the comedy double act Victor and Barry with his friend and co-writer Forbes Masson. Their TV series, The High Life, in which they played a pair of outrageously behaved air stewards, aired on the BBC before Cumming moved to London to play Hamlet at the Donmar under Sam Mendes. He scored an Olivier award for his role as the Maniac in Accidental Death of an Anarchist, as well as a nomination for his performance as the Emcee in Cabaret; he won a Tony award when he reprised the role on Broadway in 1998.

Cumming as the Emcee in the 1998 Broadway production of Cabaret, for which he won a Tony. Photograph: Jeff Christensen/Reuters
Cumming as the Emcee in the 1998 Broadway production of Cabaret, for which he won a Tony. Photograph: Jeff Christensen/Reuters
Cumming as Eli Gold in The Good Wife, opposite his friend Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick. Photograph: CBS Photo Archive/Getty
Cumming as Eli Gold in The Good Wife, opposite his friend Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick. Photograph: CBS Photo Archive/Getty

More recently, he has found success on the small screen with his scene-stealing performance as the spin doctor Eli Gold in The Good Wife. In 2018, he landed the starring role in Instinct, the first network drama on US television to feature a gay leading character.

As something of a Hollywood veteran (his vast filmography ranges from Goldeneye and Emma to Spice World and Spy Kids), he has expressed solidarity with the victims of Harvey Weinstein. In an Instagram post, underneath an image of Cumming and Weinstein together, he said that he had posed for the photograph despite knowing about Weinstein’s hotel room massage meetings, his rage and his bullying nature. Still, he says he was shocked by the scale of the abuse.

“It shows you how clever those people are,” he says. “There’s a difference between: ‘Oh, he’s a bit of an old lech,’ and being a rapist. That was shocking to me.”

Cumming was bullied by Weinstein, with the disgraced producer pressuring him to take roles he didn’t want. “I remember being at the premiere of The Hateful Eight... and I’d just said no to Harvey to doing this thing. He was very persistent. I saw him coming, he was on his phone, and I hid in this doorway to avoid them, because I just didn’t want to have to deal with them. He was scary and also he was just overwhelming as a personality.”

Cumming has witnessed phenomenal social change since he started his career, when homophobia was institutional and potent. “I think it’s great things should move fast,” he says. “The constant question I used to get was: ‘Do you think that coming out is bad for your career in Hollywood?’ It’s such a ridiculous question. I don’t think people in Basingstoke or Idaho are not going to go and see a movie because someone in it is gay. I really don’t think they care.”

He doesn’t miss a beat as he moves on to the latest battleground for LGBTQ+ people: gender identity. “When people get all weird about people putting pronouns at the end of their emails, I think: ‘Fuck you.’ These people are being kind to you and doing you a favour by telling you how they want to be defined.”

I’m sure there’ll be some sort of swing towards hedonism, where it’s just crazy. It’ll be like New Year’s Eve

As well as campaigning for LGBTQ+ equality and HIV charities, Cumming is outspoken against male circumcision.

“I never thought anything about my foreskin,” he says, “and then I came to America and I was having sex and people would just be gasping because they’d never seen a foreskin before. I was made to feel weird and freakish because I had an intact body.

“It’s genital mutilation. And I think people say: ‘Oh, that’s hysterical.’ But we do it to girls and it’s called genital mutilation.” As for the religious grounds for circumcision, he believes these are “ridiculous”: “We choose to keep doing some things and we just let the weirdest things go.”

Cumming is confident that this period of isolation will result in a positive social change. “I’m an optimist at my very core,” he says. “Any time when you’ve got to be away from everybody, to contemplate, meditate and be made to understand how your behaviour affects other people, I just can’t help but think that must be a huge positive.”

And what about in the immediate aftermath? “I think there will probably be a period of rabid shagging,” he says. “I’m sure there’ll be some sort of swing towards hedonism, where it’s just crazy. It’ll be like New Year’s Eve.” – Guardian

The new series of Homo Sapiens is available on all podcasting platforms

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