Alan Cumming talks about his abusive father, bisexuality, monogamy, and why he doesn’t want children

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Alan Cumming not only is multitalented but also has become rather brilliant at multitasking. His versatility demands it. Who else could star in a critically acclaimed one-man production of Macbeth as well as furnish the voice of Chuck Masters, a paralyzed HIV-positive man, on Logo’s stop-animation sitcom Rick & Steve and serve as the host of PBS’s Mystery! series? While also starring again on Broadway as the emcee in Cabaret and welcoming patrons into the Kit Kat Klub eight times a week, he has begun filming the next season of The Good Wife, in which he appears as Eli Gold, the Chicago political macher who, he admits, is based on Mayor Rahm Emanuel. And if that is not time consuming enough, he is about to embark on a book tour for his heartbreaking, brutally honest memoir, Not My Father’s Son, to be published on October 7. 

In the book, Cumming tells the story of his hardscrabble Scottish childhood, as the child of a violent man who abused him both physically and emotionally and left him in a constant state of fear and shame. It is a wrenching story beautifully told, one that even has an air of, yes, mystery about it, so much so that at times it seems as if Cumming is eloquently playing host to the tale of his own life even as he unspools it for us. 

Acting and writing are not Cumming’s only passions. He is also known for his social activism. He has been honored with the American Foundation of AIDS Research Award of Courage, the Making a Difference Award from the Matthew Shepard Foundation, the Live Out Loud Star Award, the Point Foundation Courage Award, the Leadership Award from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Lambda Liberty Award, and the Trevor Project Hero Award. Indeed, when he received his OBE in 2009 as part of the Queen’s Birthday Honours list, the citation read “Alan Cumming. Actor, Producer, and Presenter. For services to film and the arts and to activism for equal rights for the gay and lesbian community, USA.” 

He has even received a Fleshbot Award for the sex positivity of his “Cumming, the Fragrance” ad campaign. And his latest political passion has been to become involved as a foreskin activist—or “intactivist,” as he called it when I visited him in his dressing room after a Sunday matinee performance of Cabaret (whereas on other matinee days, he concocts soups in a Crock-Pot and feeds the young cast members who gather there and use his dressing room as the show’s clubhouse). 

Cumming is a contributor to NORM-UK and is on the board of advocates of Intact America. Does this newest form of activism spring from his anger at having been circumcised himself or from his solidarity with those who have not been? “Oh, I have it. I have foreskin,” he says with his usual candor. “I think circumcision is genital mutilation. There is a reason you have foreskin. It was only when I came to America that I realized what a common practice circumcision is. I’d show my penis to people, and they’d go, ‘Oh my God! What’s that?’ They were so amazed and utterly unused to and unexposed to the natural body of a man. I thought that was a shocking thing. I was gobsmacked by that. I mean, you lose sensation there if you’re circumcised. From my point of view as a sexual and sensual person, the idea that you would hack away at that and lose sensitivity and nerve endings on the most pleasurable and sensitive part of your body is terrible. It all builds into my idea of America being shameful about sex and so puritanical,” he says, even though he is proud to have become a naturalized American citizen in 2008. 

Cumming is also a vegan. A couple of days before my visit with him in his dressing room, we met for lunch at the vegan restaurant Blossom on Carmine Street in New York’s West Village, where we talked about even more subjects. 

—Kevin Sessums 

 

 

Alan Cumming: For the last couple of weeks, I haven’t been eating the way I should. My dog Honey died, and I’ve been in mourning. Because of that, I haven’t been eating proper meals. I’ve been grazing. She was fourteen. A collie/shepherd mix. She was lovely. She had a great life. She had cancer, and it got really awful toward the end. But she had this really beautiful last weekend. I had all the Kit Kat Klub boys up to my house in the Catskills, and you could tell she was really happy to have them around. 

Kevin Sessums: In the past, those kinds of stories about pets dying would go right over my head, even though I’d acknowledge how sad it must be. But now that I have two dogs of my own, hearing about a pet dying breaks my heart. You’ve got another dog named Leon. How is he taking the death of Honey? 

AC: He’s become much more needy and clingy. He’s had to be with me a lot. In fact, he just went with me to Corsica to a wedding. He’s barking a lot more and has become really demanding. But it’s this weird thing about mourning which I’m still in the midst of about Honey. Yesterday, doing Cabaret, I was doing my number with the gorilla, “If You Could See Her,” and I went, “Up! Up!” to the gorilla, and I heard myself say it exactly the way I used to say it to Honey. I was still in character, but tears began to stream down my face. It was this weird moment of duality, of grieving and yet being able to completely function in the world. I have this friend who’s a priest—a nondenominational one—who is also, by the way, transgender—female to male. He’s a kind of grief counselor. He’s told me that the only thing you can do is to go through it. 

KS: You do tend to cry a lot, Alan. I noticed that when reading your book. 

AC: Well, that was a very tearful summer. But I do cry really easily.

KS: Does laughter come just as easily? 

AC: Yes. More so. But I do get very affected by stuff. 

KS: You’re like a divining rod? 

AC: Yes. 

KS: And how is your mother? I love that you call her by her original name, Mary Darling. May I? 

AC: Sure. 

KS: How is Mary Darling? 

AC: She’s great . She was so cute and comforting when Honey died. She told me she just wanted to come over here to America to give me a big hug. She’s in good form. This book of mine—for both her and for my brother—is obviously a big deal for them as it is for me. Yet they have both been so supportive. We all are a bit nervous about it coming out since it’s a very personal book, and I’m making myself very vulnerable in it. I think this book will perhaps change who people think I am. 

KS: I think it will too. But I also found it interesting to discover how you were going through all this personal stuff while getting on with your work which, as an actor, is about accessing your emotions, even though sometimes they are not the emotions that you are going through at that particular moment in your life. So it is a bit like patting your head and rubbing your stomach. You have to either access the emotion… 

AC: …or push it away. 

KS: Yes. That is when it becomes really interesting and complicated—the shutting down of the emotion you’re going through—so you have access to the other different emotion you might need in that moment as an actor. It’s the separating out of your emotional arsenal. But let’s get back to your mother. Would you have published the book if, after letting her read it, she had told you she didn’t want you to publish it? 

AC: No, I wouldn’t have published it. 

KS: Would you have waited until she died? 

AC: I don’t know. I do think my mom understood why I needed to do it. She did give me a few things she was uncomfortable with. I certainly wouldn’t have written it if my father were still alive.

KS: That’s interesting. It’s as if he’s still exerting some control over you. Is it because he would have sued you? Or would you have considered it too vengeful? The revenge is the same if the person on whom you are exacting the revenge is alive or not. 

AC: But there is not going to be a reporter showing up at my father’s house to ask him about it all and what he thinks of it. 

KS: Is there a part of you, then, that didn’t want to give him that chance to answer all that you write about him in the book? 

AC: I guess. But I’m nervous enough about it as it is. And I’ve been questioning why I’m feeling so nervous about it. Am I nervous about people knowing all this stuff about me, or am I just nervous about their being snide about it? Actually, I was nervous about my father’s anger about my deciding to write about it. But he’s not going to be angry because he’s not here. He had to be dead, in a way, though, for me to do it. It all had to be contained thoroughly in the past. The past had to be its own entity. What I wanted to say is that all this happened to me. It is a part of who I am. If you think you know who I am, it will shock you. Even if you don’t know who I am, it is shocking. But if you do have an idea of who I am, there is this whole other part of my life that got me to where I am today. It was crazy. 

In the course of documenting it all and writing it down, I realized that what is really weird about abuse in any form is that for the abuser and the person who is abused, the more it goes on—the more it goes unchecked and is not commented on or dealt with—it becomes regular. It becomes normal. It becomes acceptable. So what I am doing with my story is that by putting it out into the world, it will never be acceptable. People will be reading it and going, “My God,” and maybe some people will realize that their own abuse in their own lives is not acceptable either. 

KS: Speaking of God, I was struck in the book when your mother decides to drive you through a snowstorm to see the movie Jaws, and you write about how free you felt in that moment alone with her. How you sensed God for the first time. And how God to you was the absence of your father. Was writing this book freeing yourself of your father, or did he take even greater possession of you in the writing of it? 

AC: It’s a combo. He did possess me even more for a while. And I was kind of infused with him. But by the end of it, it was gone. Well, not gone, exactly. He will, in a way, be part of my life forever. And he will become a presence once more, and it will all become churned up again, because people will talk about it once the book is out. But I don’t know why my mother and brother and I have to continue to protect him, which is what I discovered we were doing as I was writing the book. It was such a huge thing that happened to us. We should acknowledge it.

KS: Do you think the “protection” to which you refer is another way of saying you felt complicit in your own abuse in some way? That if you told on him, that you would be telling on yourself? 

AC: Yes. That’s why you don’t talk about it as it’s going on. That’s why you’re ashamed of it. That’s why you can protect such a person. And also there’s the feeling that it’s the only time you have any contact with the person. When he was abusing me, it was the only time he really noticed me. So there’s that whole weirdness that was going on. My whole life has been imbued with the fact that my father didn’t love me. It’s a huge thing in my life. 

KS: Or is it possible he loved you and didn’t know how to express it? 

AC: Maybe. 

KS: He was certainly monstrous toward you. 

AC: Well, okay. My father was a monster then, whether he loved me or not. 

KS: And yet there had to be some tenderness in him because you write about all the affairs he had. Did he reserve his tenderness for the affairs he had in his life? 

AC: I think that was just all about sex. He was salacious. That’s one thing I do understand about my father. He was very sexual. And I am too. 

KS: So you didn’t inherent his monstrous qualities but… 

AC: …I certainly got his voracious sexuality. Yes. 

KS: And you got your own tenderness, then, from your mother. I am very moved in the book how your love for her comes through so beautifully. And how her love for you does as well. But when she tells you that she didn’t know your father had such evil in him, I did wonder how she initially fell in love with a man who possessed such evil, which then leads me to the question that is hard to ask because you do love each other so much: why did she stay with him and continue to put you all in such danger? She was certainly aware of the abuse that was going on. 

AC: That’s an area that’s hard to go to. She was living in fear as well and in the same position as my brother and me. But we were living in a feudal society on that estate where we lived in Scotland, and the fact that my mother did finally get away from him is to me really amazing. 

KS: Let’s talk about some happier things. I loved when you first mention your husband, Grant, in the book. It’s just dropped into one sentence matter-of-factly. Nothing much is made of it. You just happen to have a husband. No big deal. You’ve discussed your views on monogamy in the past. And you just said you’re sexually voracious. Do you and Grant have an open relationship? 

AC: No. We don’t have an open relationship. What I do believe is that monogamy is not a natural state, and it is not something we are conditioned to do as animals. So in my own life, I realized it’s not possible, and I don’t pretend I can do it. And also if you are kind and you are honest and you are faithful in a true way, then it is not the worst thing that could happen—that you have a little something on the side. 

KS: Well, that’s certainly spoken like your father’s son. 

AC: Except if I do it, I do it with honesty and kindness. 

KS: And how is something like that done honestly and kindly? 

AC: Because if something were to happen, you could say I shagged someone, but you know I love you and I find you sexy. 

KS: Or is it kinder not to say one has shagged someone and keep it a secret? 

AC: Or you have a relationship and an understanding where you’ve talked about such a possibility. It’s all about being kind to the other person. Above all else, kindness is what is most important to me. I mean, I don’t expect Grant only to have sex with me for the rest of his life. Don’t get me wrong—we have fabulous sex and a great relationship. I don’t mean to be a show-off about it. But we do have a really great relationship. We’ve been together for ten years. We really like each other. We really love each other. The sex is great. But I don’t think it’s realistic to think that we are only going to have sex with each other for the rest of our lives. Shit happens. And I don’t think that’s the worst thing in the world. That’s not to mean that we’d do what some of my friends do—go out together and then leave with different people. We’d never do that. 

KS: But there is also the factor of fame. You have to be careful that such behavior won’t show up in the press. 

AC: But, you know, there is no story if you say this is my life, and this is what I believe. If you are prepared to be that open and honest, then there is no story. 

KS: Would you and Grant ever have kids? Or are you just too old now? 

AC: Too old. We thought about it. Obviously. 

KS: It is too bourgeois?

AC: What happened was I got older, and I got content. I see so many people who have children as some sort of way to fulfill something in their lives. And I feel fulfilled. 

KS: But it’s their lives, not yours. Maybe that’s what they need. I don’t think we can make such a sweeping statement. 

AC: That wasn’t a judgment. That was an observation. 

KS: Do you still identify as a bisexual? 

AC: Yes. I do. 

KS: Some people have trouble with those who identify as bisexual because it connotes choice, and for political reasons they don’t want our political enemies to see our lives as a choice. I always have to remind them there is a “B” in LGBT for a reason. Some people are truly bisexual and therefore were born with choice as part of their makeup. 

AC: It’s also because I think we’re so willing and eager to just wear the uniform and belong to one thing or the other. But for me, it is not as simple as that. As for choice, I have no choice but to be bisexual. But in America, especially, everything has to be black and white. Even when you say you’ve watched a movie, people ask you what it’s about. I always go, well, why don’t you watch it and see? Everyone wants to know everything ahead of time. People are afraid of the unknown, so there is an element of that which goes into this sexuality question because people are freaked out if they can’t put you in a box. And even when they put you in the bisexual box—if you are living with a man—it doesn’t make sense to them. 

KS: Do you think your bisexuality helps in your portrayal of the Emcee in Cabaret

AC: Definitely. He understands all that. If you’re trying to portray someone from that time in history, which was kind of progressive sexually and hedonistic, it helps. I just have such fun at work. I really do. I get to go onstage and touch people’s genitals. 

KS: Do you think you could revisit the part of the Emcee for years to come? You’ll be like Carol Channing playing Dolly Levi. 

AC: I did feel like Carol Channing when I did my five-hundredth show a few weeks ago. I’ve now done if for over twenty years—in London and now twice in New York. 

KS: The age difference doesn’t matter in this production at all. Could you do it again in another twenty years? 

AC: I would definitely have to do it differently. I would be seventy by then.

KS: It would demand your being even more degenerate, perhaps. 

AC: Yes. It would get sicker the older you are. 

KS: That’s true, Alan, about everything. Trust me. 

AC: I do think my being a bit older there is more of a darkness to it. But it’s still fun. I’ve been thinking a lot about why I am doing this again. It’s because it’s about two things I feel really, really strongly about. First, it is about how important it is to embrace difference and to provoke people and to make people look at things they are maybe not too comfortable with. But also be careful. Be vigilant. Because any second now we could be up against a wall and shot. I really do believe that. This country could go so, so bad unless we are vigilant. 

KS: Do you think you would ever play the role of Herr Schultz in a future production? 

AC: I did say that in twenty years’ time, when they are doing the revival of the revival of the revival, I’m going to be Fräulein Schneider. 

KS: Let’s circle back to your book. Not only is it a story about the abuse you experienced from your father, but there is parallel narrative about learning the truth about your maternal grandfather. Within that story line is a lovely tribute to his wife, your granny. If you are not your father’s son, you are certainly your granny’s grandson. You say that you inherited three things from her: your mischief, your joie de vivre, and your passion. There is a wonderful story you tell about showing up with your hair dyed a crazy color to visit her with other members of your family, and she says if she were younger, she’d be a freak just like you. I love a granny who thinks of “freak” as a term of endearment. 

AC: I know. Wasn’t that lovely? Wasn’t that great? 

KS: Was she right? Are you a freak? 

AC: I guess I am a freak in that I am not conventional. 

KS: Because you’re a freak, are you amazed you are having the career you are having? 

AC: I think I am having the career I am having because I am a freak. 


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