A Man for all Seasons
Alan Cumming is a true man of parts – singer, actor, cabaret host, novelist, X-Man, Smurf and Bond villain. Kennedy Wilson goes backstage
If there’s one thing showbiz teaches us it’s that talent is not enough. Luck plays its part and knowing the right people also helps. But what’s even more important is determination; the ability, in the words of the old song, to ‘pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again’.
Many successful people are driven by painful or lonely childhoods. They transcend their troubles through an ability to sing or dance or act, often drawing on painful memories to help them deal with the vicissitudes of a career in showbusiness.
Alan Cumming does not believe in Hollywood happy endings and yet his story from rural Angus to La La Land and Broadway is nothing short of miraculous.
Cumming’s first book Not My Father’s Son was a childhood memoir that detailed he and his brother’s horrendous upbringing and the terror he felt at the hands of his demented father (a burly forester never happier than with a chainsaw in his hands).
Cumming’s new book Baggage (just published in paperback by Canongate) takes the story on to his success on stage, TV and film. Five parts luvvie memoir to one part self-help guide it details the panic and anxiety he carried with him into adulthood. His father was appalled at his sissy son wanting to go to drama school and who years later denied paternity. For Alan’s part his bad dad made leaving home all the easier. ‘No one ever truly recovers from the past’, Cumming writes. ‘There is no cure for it. You just learn to manage it and prioritise it. The second you feel you have triumphed or overcome something – an injury to the body or mind, a habit, a person – you have merely decided to stop being vigilant and embraced denial’.
Alan Cumming started his working life at the Dundee HQ of DC Thomson on the Scottish publishing empire’s latest teen mag TOPS (tops for pop and TV) in the early 1980s. He also appeared in romantic photo strips in girls’ magazines like Blue Jeans. In 1982 he left it all for the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama for an audition. He used a speech from Hamlet never realising that 11 years later he’d be starring as Hamlet (with a Scottish accent) in London’s West End.
He always loved acting saying “I guess pretending to be someone else is both a way to show others who you are and at the same time not have to present your true self.” Drama school represented ‘an escape, a new life, a miracle’.
Cumming met Forbes Masson at the RSAMD and together formed the comedy duo Victor and Barry and went on to star as the two flight attendants in the TV sitcom The High Life. Then Cumming branched out on his own to bigger projects including playing the Bond villain in 1995’s Goldeneye and a period drama with Gwyneth Paltrow to serious stage work to being the voice of Gutsy in The Smurfs 2. In 1993 he took London theatreland by the throat after his triumph as the intimidating compere and master of revels in the musical Cabaret directed by Sam Mendes. When it was revived on Broadway he went too and won a Tony.
The toast of New York, he was regularly seen with gal pal divas Liza Minelli and Faye Dunaway. The anxiety and panic attacks still afflict him. ‘It’s hard to be your authentic self when you don’t know who you really are’, he writes. ‘To truly be whole as a person you need to be aware of everything that’s happened to you. If large and painful swathes of your childhood are not accessible to you you can hardly hope to become an evolved adult’.
He introduced his own range of toiletries called Cumming in 2005 complete with spoof ads mimicking those for Calvin Klein and YSL’s Opium.
During the New York revival of Cabaret Cumming began having after-show knees-ups in his dressing room. Well-wishers mingled with legendary celebs (like Sean Connery and Lauren Bacall) and so his fabled Club Cumming was born. So popular were these gatherings that in 2017 the actor founded a cabaret bar in the city’s hip East Village. It was another hit. The Lonely Planet guide hailed it ‘a quirky performance saloon [with] a promiscuous line-up promising “downtown debauchery” at its finest!’
Success has not spoiled Cumming who will be 58 next year. He’s a big supporter of Peta and a strong and outspoken LGBT activist. He remains likeable and approachable with none of the absurd affectations of showbiz people. Fast becoming a national treasure in Britain, he appeared to enormous acclaim at this year’s Edinburgh Festival in a one-man dance theatre piece called Burn which looked at the life and poetry of Robert Burns. He is also the narrator of the recent and much-praised documentary My Old School about the thirtysomething imposter who attended high school pretending to be sixteen again. ■
Info: Alan Cumming’s Baggage is available in paperback from Canongate publishing
Alan Cumming performing Burn at EIF 2022. Photograph: Tommy Ga Ken Wan