SALON TALKS

Alan Cumming: "Life's just the same show with different costumes"

The beloved actor talks about his new book, and the role that made him cry in the shower every night

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Published October 27, 2021 5:00PM (EDT)

Alan Cumming attends MAC Powder Kiss Cabaret Hosted By Susanne Bartsch Sony Hall on April 09, 2019 in New York City. (Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
Alan Cumming attends MAC Powder Kiss Cabaret Hosted By Susanne Bartsch Sony Hall on April 09, 2019 in New York City. (Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

There aren't too many people who could follow up doing a Stanley Kubrick film with a Spice Girls one. Who have done "Hamlet" and the movie "Romy & Michele's High School Reunion."

In fact, there's just one. A Tony winner for his now legendary performance in "Cabaret," an Emmy nominee for "The Good Wife" and a bestselling author for his previous memoir, Alan Cumming has had an enviably diverse career, ranging from "Spy Kids" to "Schmigadoon."

Cumming joined us recently for an episode of "Salon Talks" to discuss his new book, "Baggage: Tales from a Fully Packed Life," finding his voice and the role that made him cry.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I want to ask you about how you came to write this because when you wrote "Not My Father's Son," you said that you'd been thinking about doing a book about your career and the roles you've played, but wanted to tell the story of your family instead. What made you decide, "Now I'm ready to tell this other part of my life"?

Well, it was a reaction to the reaction to "Not My Father's Son." "Not My Father's Son" is very much about my dad and my grandfather and my dad being very abusive. And so it was an amazing experience. I mean, it went very well. Everyone seemed to like it and still to this day I get contacted on social media and things by people saying, "Because you talked about your childhood abuse and trauma, that has helped me be able to deal with mine or to talk to someone." It's been this very great, unexpected experience that I have. By being my true self, I'm actually helping other people.


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The "but" is that there was this rhetoric of "Alan has triumphed, Alan has conquered his past trauma." In a funny way, this book, although it's about my life and my career and all that stuff, it's really about saying, "I haven't conquered." Everyone has trauma, everyone has baggage. We all do. You don't have to have had a childhood like mine, but we all have something that we're coping with. It's about managing it, not thinking that it's done and finished. I think that's a dangerous thing to do. This book was really a reaction, that I want to write a book that's showing that I still make lots of mistakes and I flap around in life a bit, or I did.

You talk about closure and coping, and how those are different things. This idea of closure, of triumph, can be really tricky because when someone has that label put on them, that can be really damaging as well.

I think so. I think it's a very American thing actually to want everything to be tied up and, "Oh, it's done, we're finished, we're fixed," instead of, "This is just something that happened to you and you can't deny that it's happened, so let's try and just move forward in a positive way and incorporate it into how you live." I actually think the other thing I wanted to write about in this book is that all the bad things that have happened to me in work experiences as well as relationships and whatever. I think you have to try and think, what did I learn from them? How will I go into my life not making those mistakes again or not working with those people again? I try and think about it as a positive thing, because now I know, I don't want to do that, or I realize that wasn't good for me.

Maybe it's scuba diving, not again.

Oh, no.

Maybe being in "X-Men," not again.

No, yeah.

You say something later in the book, that if you can get through things and live a life of contentment, then no regret. 

Exactly. It's that same thing of trying to find a positive. I think of it like Jenga. If your life's like Jenga, you have to take one chunk out, then you would fall over. Even though that's a bad chunk, potentially in the past, it has built you where you are now. If you are content in the present, then I think it's pointless also to worry or to sit and wish things didn't happen that have happened. It's just a waste of time. I have this thing I always say, "Cancel, continue." Something happened, okay it happened. But we can't change that. Let's just move on. Let's learn from it, but let's not dwell on it. Let's not make the bad thing in the past not only spoil your future, but also dominate your present. It's done and we're going to move on.

This is a story of so many experiences like that, so many creative risks and going in different directions. It's such an eclectic, diverse career that you still seem to gravitate towards. You say, you're the only person who's been in "Eyes Wide Shut" and then followed that with "Spice World."

I loved that.

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How do you know then when something is a thing that you want to do? You talk about being on brand. What does that mean for you?

It's going with my gut. I think it's being idiosyncratic, which means eclectic, which means, I guess it's kind of eccentric. It's the idea that I don't judge something in the normal career judgment way as, "How good is this looking for me? What are the optics on this? Is it now time for me to move out of this type of part into this thing? Should I try and do this?" All that careery stuff I don't do, I haven't really done. I just do what I want to do and things that take my fancy and I go with my gut. But it's going OK. I think that's what makes me different, is the lack of adherence to the rules of how you do a career.

And then of course, eclecticism breeds to eclecticism and I think the more diverse things you do, the more people are going to ask you to do diverse things. Next year, I'm doing a dance piece, a solo dance piece.

I'll be like 75,000 years old. I'll be 57. I went to see a piece of dance and I was chatting to some dancers afterwards. I was telling them about that. I thought, you poor things. You're 27, your career's over. And I'm 57, and it's about to start.

That's the freedom of it, right?

Quite an ego, I know. And they're also not just coming to look at my legs.

There are very few actors who have what you have, which is a truly iconic, defining stage role. When you took on the Emcee in "Cabaret" on Broadway, you had people saying this was going to change your life. And it did.

It did, yes.

That can be scary though.

It was scary. Actually, when you said that I got a little flash of panic because it was a crazy thing. Also, where I was in my life at the time, I was quite happy for the first time in a while. I hadn't been to New York. My first time in New York is to star in a Broadway musical. It's like a movie. And my first time in America at all was to star in a Hollywood picture. It was nuts. That's all great and very privileged of course, but also you don't really have the tools to deal with it. I didn't know how things worked. It was like, you're kind of busking it at the same time as this huge thing happening to you.

So people would say that to me, that you're life's going to change. I was like, "Oh, how? What's going to happen? I quite like my life. Why does it have to change?" Then they don't tell you what the change is going to be. They meant it as a nice thing. They meant, your life's going to change in a positive way. You're going to be more well-known and you'll be more celebrated. Oh, that's what they meant. But to me, it just scared me.

You talk about how that comes from your childhood and this expectation that change is something that is scary. That makes perfect sense.

I think change is difficult for everyone. It's interesting right now. We're all coming back to real life again, and I've found that my life, I thought it would be a bit more gradual, I'd slide back into pre-pandemic. No, it's gone straight line, have a book out, and I think right on the wheel again. I've noticed, I've been talking to various people. I went for a fitting and my assistant, we're talking about how it's a shock to our systems because it's change and it's we're just not used to it. It's OK. We'll manage, but it's just another example of how change is hard and it can be discombobulating and make you anxious. When it was a change that I didn't know and hadn't experienced before and didn't know what the outcome was, it was really weird. I was just a bit lost at that time in my life. Even though I was having this great success, I went to cry in the shower every night as a way to release things.

You mentioned that in the book, and yet you returned to the role, what, five or six years later?

Sixteen.

No. You look at the pictures of you and it does not look like a 16-year passage of time.

Are you flirting with me?

Maybe. Who wouldn't? Who doesn't? I watched a clip of you doing the opening number and the first comment on YouTube is, "Anyone who says they're not attracted to Alan Cumming is a liar."

That's nice.

Tell me why you came back to it after that length of time.

They'd asked me quite a lot of times because when I left it the first time it went on for years and years, and then it was closed. I think every time the box office went down a bit they would ask me to come back. "Will you go in it for a month?" Or even, "Will you got to Tokyo and do it?" And I was like, no. I just didn't want to. It was such a huge thing and I didn't want to keep repeating. I think that's another American thing, that if something is a success, you want to keep it going. Do another one. I'm not really like that. What happened was Sam Mendes, the director, suggested it to me and I was like, you know what, it has been such long time. Then I realized that I would turn 50 during the run. I thought, that's a good reason to do it. That's partly why I'm doing this dance thing now is because I was 50 years old. I was the lead dancer in a Broadway show. I was dancing in a kick line with girls half my age. I'll never be that fit again. I thought nobody will ask me to do that again.

So I thought, I want to do this. I wanted to see if I can still do it. I'm really glad I did. Also, I think the second time I did it, the sensation of the sex stuff, the sexuality and all that side of it, 16 years later it wasn't as shocking to an audience as it was in 1998. The world was different and America certainly has a different attitude towards sex and sexuality than it did in 1998 with all the Clinton impeachment thing. This time round, I felt that I didn't overshadow the thing with all that sort of sensational stuff. The play was able to speak better, the darkness of the play. It still fun, but the balance was better. I think I enjoyed it better because of that. I think it was a better show because of that.

And yet, you haven't done a lot of stage musicals. Why is that?

Well, I've only ever done "Cabaret," but I have done it four times. I played Cliff in "Cabaret" in rep in Scotland, like 1,000 years ago. Then I did the Emcee in London and New York and New York. The revival of the revival of the revival. Then I did "The Threepenny Opera" on Broadway. Those are the only two things I've ever done on stage. 

You have a type.

I have a type. I have a niche. I have a musical niche and I'm sticking to it. I've done other musicals on film, but just not in the theater.

You know what, if there's another Weimar musical we'll expect you.

Call me.

I want to talk a little about your film career as well. You talk in the book about a lot of your co-stars, but there's one story about one co-star in particular that really got me.

Who's that?

Tonka. Talk to me about Tonka, because that is a really intense story.

Tonka is a chimp, and I did this film called "Buddy" with Rene Russo, one of the first films I did in America. There was a gorilla in it. That was an animatronic gorilla, but the chimps were real. There were four chimps, and my character in the film was the chimp-looker-after man. I would play with these chimps all day and I'd go and train with them and everything. It was such fun.

There was one of them called Tonka who loved me. I did a lot of scenes with him and he let me share his food, which the trainers were freaked out about because chimps don't share their food. He just loved me. He thought of me like I was another chimp, which I just thought was the biggest compliment. He would try and play with me like he would play with a chimp, quite aggressive play. He wanted to groom me. They wouldn't let him because they said that was crossing a boundary. Except on the last day of filming, they let him groom me. It was so intense.

So then what happened was the next year I came back to do press for "Buddy" and I thought, "Where's Tonka?" I thought I'd be doing pictures, and I thought they were going to surprise me with him. Then there was this other little chimp I had to do a photo shoot with. Then they said, "He's gone to live in Palm Springs. He's retired." But then I went on a talk show they said, "Oh, isn't it a shame about Tonka?" I was like, "Did he die, and they're just not telling me?" They went, "No, he's six now and he's sexually aggressive, so they were worried if he saw you." So they couldn't have him near me because I was too arousing for this chimp. I took that as a huge compliment as well. But I also thought I would not like to be on live television, being sexually molested by an amorous chimp.

Many years later they said he's in this place in Missouri, a so-called sanctuary. But it was awful. Someone went in undercover and they found there were terrible conditions. He was in a cage inside and not able to socialize, just awful. There's been this big, long lawsuit to get these chimps out. What is so awful is that since I wrote the book, they've got 10 chimps out and they're now going to this place in Florida. They'll able to socialize and live on these little islands and it's great. Tonka died and well, they don't believe the lady actually. They think that he might still be alive and she's sheltering him somewhere, so they're trying to get a subpoena. But she said he died.

If he's dead or if he's on his own being hidden, it's just awful. It's such a sad thing for me that I had no idea that there weren't the conditions and regulations in place for animals. Once they've done their thing in showbiz and they become too sexually aggressive, anyone could buy them, and all these awful roadside zoos and things like that that you see, they're just deregulated and these animals are treated appallingly.

It's a really important part of the book as well, that you're raising awareness of this. It really speaks to a chapter in the book that you call authenticity, and to the way that you really have stayed true to yourself, both in your career, in your advocacy, but also down to your voice. That is an important part of your identity as an actor. You talk about how in drama school you're supposed to do the posh voice, and how you got criticism for your Hamlet.

I think it's a thing that is more understandable and people are more aware of it in Britain because of the Scottish-English divide, which it's based on class and historical persecution. I'd been slightly derided in London for my voice, my accent. Certain assumptions would be made about my background, my intelligence, my worth, because of how I sounded. When I came to America, people loved my voice. They loved that I was Scottish. They loved my values. They loved that I was different. All those things that were slightly seen as negatives were very positive.

It made me think about, gosh, how interesting. There was an overriding thing that I had to temper myself or my authenticity in a way because of that to get on in London. I spoke to a lot of people about it. Then in drama school, I trained in a very traditional way that I never spoke in my own voice. We never did contemporary Scottish plays. I left drama school and I was very ill-prepared to play the array of young Scottish boys on the run from the cops as I did. I think as a country, Scotland is changing and has been changing for the last couple of decades, since it got devolution, has its own parliament.

That's been a huge change, and it is finding its own voice in a way. I think I am an example of that, that I've realized all these things. Sometimes you have to go away from where you are to look back at it, to understand what it is and how it's affected you and made you the person you are. I definitely feel that about Scotland. It's when I started singing, doing concerts, this is the international language of concerts. 

When I started doing concerts, I sing in my own voice. I sing with my Scottish accent. That reminded me. I love doing that. I think it's great to be able to let people know it's really you singing. You connect with people much more, but it reminded me of how, when I played Hamlet, it was a sensation that I was daring to play Hamlet in London, not using an English accent, even though he's Danish. It's like Jesus. If you see Jesus on telly, he's got an American accent. He was American and white.

Doing this book, you as you did more preparation to understand Alan Cumming than you have for any character you've played. Doing all that research, delving into Alan Cumming, what did it teach you about who Alan Cumming is?

He contains multitudes. I felt very compassionate. I think I've been through a lot. I obviously went through a lot in my childhood, but I think even as an adult. As a young adult, looking back at my life then and some of the things that happened to me, I felt sad for myself or worried, even though obviously it turned out right. I feel now that I feel much more balanced. I think it's a great thing. I'm also concurrently doing this show and called "Alan Cumming's Not Acting His Age." I talk about aging. I think that's definitely a product of having written this book, because you see these patterns in your life, especially when you write a book about it. I's about how the patterns keep repeating. Life's just the same show with different costumes. You know what I mean?

It's about what decisions you make when the show comes around again. I think that's what I've realized that I'm quite wise, I think. I know that sounds a weird thing to say, but I think I have wisdom because I've really listened and explored what happened to me and tried to think how I'm going to make a different decision next time.

Wisdom, but make it fun. 

Always, yes. Wisdom with gags.

More "Salon Talks": 


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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