Alan Cumming: ‘Something was not quite right about my father’

When the actor was told by his cruel, ailing father that he was not his son, the revelation inspired a memoir that puts a positive spin on a tough childhood

 

In 2010, Alan Cumming was told by his estranged, cruel and ailing father, Alex, that he was not his son. It was the latest twist in their tortured relationship and there were more twists to come. I won’t spoil them here. The story is beautifully documented in Cumming’s memoir, Not My Father’s Son, in which he alternates an account of a grim and abuse-ridden Scottish childhood with his attempts in adulthood to come to terms with and get to the truth of his ambiguous parentage.

Cumming is the smart, funny, happily married, self-aware star of the television series The Good Wife (in which he plays the charmingly Machiavellian Eli Gold) and the Broadway hit Cabaret (a role he first played in 1998).

Prior to his father’s revelations he had been planning to write something very different – something more akin to a celebrity memoir, suggested to him, of course, by another celebrity.

“I went to stay with Gore Vidal in Italy, and he said to me, ‘You should write more,’ ” says Cumming. “He said, ‘You have a fascinating life. You meet fascinating people like me. Go write about that.’ ”

He said that? “Yeah, he did. So I wrote a story called I Am Writing this Because Gore Vidal Told Me To, all about that weekend with Gore and Howard [Austen, Vidal’s partner] and some of the stuff he was saying.”

Cumming’s original idea for a book, he says, “wasn’t a frothy thing. The idea was to write about what it’s like to be hosting a big gala and how insane it was. It would be more than just . . . [he feigns a haughty and offhand tone] . . . ‘I was talking to Princess Margaret the other day.’ It would be writing about it for an outsider.”

About the ridiculousness of it all? “Yes, exactly.”

With his father’s revelation and its consequences, however, it was clear that he had quite a different book to write. “After that summer I couldn’t really stop talking about it,” he says. “It was so intense that it just took up my every waking minute. And during that time I told the story a lot to taxi drivers, to anyone who was around, and in doing that I realised how great a story it was. And I got better at telling it and I realised that, through my storytelling, it would be quite a good thing for me to put it out there, just to kind of expunge it.”

 

Violent rages

In order to tell that story, he says, it was crucial that people understood the complex nature of his relationship with his father. The saddest parts of the book present us with a terrified child learning to navigate a grown man’s violent rages. Once, on an angry whim, Alex shaved his son’s hair off with rusty sheep-shearing clippers. Was it difficult to write about these things?

“Over the years I’ve not thought about those things as vividly as I’ve depicted them in the book,” he says. “Writing them down and going back and editing and trying to create the mood and the fear and the anxiety for that and other scenes – I don’t have that experience all the time.”

Even at the time, he says, he knew his father’s behaviour was wrong. “That’s an amazing thing to me, because what abusers rely on is the fact that they control their environment, that they’re the king. For me, to have been so young and to have worked that out, I’m very proud of myself.”

He still finds his father’s actions hard to understand. “I think there were various personality disorders and undiagnosed mental issues. His lack of remorse, his inability to consider anyone else’s feelings about anything, it’s quite a giveaway that something was not quite right. The only conclusion I can come to is that there was something wrong. He was ill.”

After school, Cumming studied drama and started moulding his own world, working for a pop magazine, as an actor (beginning with shows such as Taggart and Take the High Road) and as half of a comedy duo with Forbes Masson. “I definitely wanted to get away and have a life that I would be in control [of],” he says. “I’ve got friends who really look up to their parents and almost emulated them, and I think you can go that way or you can go the other way, where you make your own universe and mould it your way.”

His father, who he was largely estranged from at this point, “wasn’t much for vocal cheering”. His mother, whom he adores, “was kind of worried. For years doing films in Hollywood, I’d say, ‘Yeah, mum I got this job’, and she’d say [he adopts a thicker Scottish accent], ‘Oh good. Are you getting paid for it?’ She was always asking was I getting paid.”

These days, I suspect she doesn’t worry so much. After a failed marriage, a nervous breakdown and a confrontation with his father in his 20s (documented in the book), Cumming has had Hollywood success in films such as X-Men 2 and The Smurfs franchise (he’s unrepentant). He introduces Masterpiece Theatre on PBS and recently fronted a Sky series, Urban Secrets, for which he visited the Casino at Marino (“I live next door,” I tell him. “I love that place,” he says). He also, of course, stars in the incredibly successful and incredibly good drama The Good Wife. “It completely fell into my lap. The great thing about it is that I’m not flying around the world. For nine months of the year, I have a life and I’m at home. I didn’t realise how much I missed that stability.”

 

Scottish independence

Although he loves Scotland and campaigned for a Yes vote in the independence referendum, he became an American citizen in 2008. “Even becoming a citizen is like a game show in America,” he says. “[At one point during the test] you’ve got to get six questions out of 10 right. When I did it, I got the first six right and the man actually said, ‘You’ve got the six; do you want to go for the 10?’ ”

He has learned to embrace the dafter side of celebrity: “walking down the street and being aware everyone’s looking at you, or seeing your face on a bus, or having your dressing room sponsored by a liquor company because you can [his Cabaret dressing room is really sponsored by a liquor company]. Or doing daytime television with Kelly and Michael live at nine in the morning, discussing a book about child abuse. It’s surreal.”

Ultimately the sensational hook on which his memoir is built – whether Alan Cumming is or is not the son of Alex Cumming – is almost beside the point. This is a book about how experience can shape a person and how to reject the negative influences in life. “In a funny way, it’s a full stop on my father and the hold he had on me,” he says. “I think all my life I’ve been on a crusade against shame.”

As a child, he says, he couldn’t express joy lest it anger his father. “I think I’m the opposite of that now,” he says. “I definitely seize the day. I’m not one of those people who lets life go by. I do think it is a very positive book. Without a positive spin on it, I don’t think it would have been a book. I don’t think there’d have been a point to it. But actually it is amazing to me that we came through it – my mum, my brother, my husband – we came out of it so strong and so well.”

 

Not My Father’s Son is published by Canongate 

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