Arts & Entertainment
8 min

Alan Cumming is on fire

On screen, in print and on stage — Cumming’s career has never burned brighter

Credit: Steve Vaccariello

“I think if you’re going to be a drag queen, you should just know the words. Do you know what I mean?”

Alan Cumming asks the question while grazing on pomegranate seeds in a conference room at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Impeccably dressed in a pinstripe suit and round Harry Potter glasses, the 49-year-old actor, author and singer is in Toronto in connection with TIFF’s Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition (remember him as the flirty concierge in Eyes Wide Shut?). After arriving in town the night before, Cumming caught a drag show in which he noticed the queens covering their mouths or turning from the audience when the lyrics seemed to escape them. But after his playful critique, he’s quick to add a compliment: “They were nice. I don’t like a mean drag queen — I think that’s a very over-rated virtue.”

Surely if anyone’s an authority on nightclub performance, it’s Cumming. While his acting resumé is as lengthy as it is eclectic, the Scottish performer is perhaps best known for his turn as the Emcee from Cabaret. In fact, you can catch him right now in the Broadway revival, returning to the iconic leather jacket and white suspenders he first wore more than 20 years ago.

His story about the drag queens makes him think of Emma Stone (his current “Sally Bowles”), who certainly knew the words in her epic lip-sync battle with Jimmy Fallon. If Cumming were asked to do battle with the Tonight Show host? “I’d have to do a slow song,” he says. “A Shania Twain ballad.” With a smirk, he reveals his favourite song from Shania’s catalogue: “From This Moment On,” in spite (or perhaps because) of her unique phrasing. “She chooses to breathe in the middle of the word ‘because.’” And then the Tony Award winner puts down his pomegranate seeds and bursts into song: “My dreeeams came truuue be—” pausing for a gulp of air, “—caaause of yooou. Seriously, listen to it. It’s a choice. But it’s not one that I approve of.” He gently skewers the Pride of Timmins in the same archly scolding tone he used on the forgetful drag queens.

It’s hard not to be charmed by Cumming. He’s handsome, well spoken and has a conspiratorial way of telling a story that makes you feel like you’re sharing a well-loved private joke. He’s funny, and when he laughs the deep dimples in his cheeks bring out a boyish, almost elfin quality to his face. On screen, he’s often doing an accent: Russian as a Bond villain in GoldenEye; German as the superhero Nightcrawler in X-Men 2; American as the acerbic Eli Gold on The Good Wife. As a civilian, he speaks with a soft Scottish brogue and the same easy candour found in his memoir, Not My Father’s Son.

Cumming’s second book is worlds away from your typical celebrity tell-all. While his wry Scottish wit is on full display as he describes, say, a funny story about auctioning off a duet by Patti Smith and Mary J Blige that neither knew she had signed on for, at its heart his book is a mystery and a family saga, unfolding in a series of cliffhangers and dramatic twists.

The book is divided into alternating “Then” and “Now” chapters. In the “Then” chapters, Cumming describes his childhood in rural Scotland. It is difficult to read at times; he remembers the trauma of growing up with an angry, violently abusive father who terrorized him and his brother. Meanwhile, the “Now” chapters track his experience filming on the British version of the reality show Who Do You Think You Are? in 2010. Cumming’s episode of the program (which investigates celebrities’ family trees) centred on his maternal grandfather. Tommy Darling, who died in Malaysia sometime after the Second World War, had always been a question mark for Cumming and his mother, Mary, who was only eight at the time of her father’s death. What had he been like? Why hadn’t he returned to Scotland? And how did he really die? In the midst of investigating these questions, the “Now” and “Then” threads converge as Cumming’s estranged father returns in the present with shocking revelations and long-buried secrets.

Gripping and emotionally powerful, Not My Father’s Son reads like the late-night confession of a close friend. “I couldn’t stop talking about it,” Cumming says. “I literally was obsessed with it.” His need to share his stranger-than-fiction story is almost tangible. “It was an urgent thing. I don’t think you can have something like this happen to you without expunging it in some way. It’s great for other people in the world to share in the same kind of anger or amazement or horror that you have experienced. It makes you calmer.”

While he doesn’t shy away from his harrowing relationship with his father, he also spends time describing the healthy relationships he shares with his mother and brother. “People tend to focus on the more violent bits, but actually, ultimately it’s about three people who survived. I think that it’s quite uplifting. ”

While the writing process was cathartic, Cumming worried how his family would take the candid memoir. “I was nervous about it coming out because of the effect it was gonna have on my mom, especially, and me,” he confides. “But actually, it couldn’t have gone better. My mom asked for 10 more copies to give to her friends. And I thought that was the best review I could have got!”

Cumming hopes Not My Father’s Son can help others who have experienced similar abuse come to terms with their past, or at least start that conversation. “Everyone’s got fucked-up families. I think that the word ‘dysfunctional’ is almost irrelevant as a prefix to the word ‘family,’ because everyone’s is. And so many people say, ‘Oh, I’m buying your book for my mom.’ And I think, ‘Wow!’ As a family gift, I wouldn’t put it at the top of my list. But I like it. I think it’s really making people talk about things.”

If exploring his past with his father was the most painful part of writing Not My Father’s Son, discovering the truth about his grandfather Tommy Darling was perhaps the most rewarding. As he travels with a TV crew through France, the UK and, ultimately, Malaysia, he pieces together an idea of the grandfather he never knew.

“The thing with Tommy Darling was I actually felt so close to him, so like him, and I know that I can spot the genetic line much more closely from that side than from my father’s side. And I think that’s also why I was so sad for him, ’cause I really could recognize parts of myself in him.” His grandfather was a combatant in some of the most brutal battles of the war, and Cumming believes Darling’s traumatic experiences shaped the man he became. “I feel like I have a form of PTSD from my dad. So, learning all this stuff about him, it was so intense. I did feel this — not sympathy, but complete connection to him. And to be able to go back to Malaysia and take my mom there — that was such a beautiful thing to be able to do.”

It’s fitting that Cumming is releasing a book that reflects on his past in the same year he returned to his star-making turn in Cabaret. Not that it was easy. “I am so fucking old!” he says with a laugh. “When I came back to doing it this time, I couldn’t remember anything about it. I had to go to the Lincoln Center Library and watch the video of it from last time to remind myself. But I have been doing it for 20 years. I did it in London, New York. I’ve only done . . . it’s only 660 performances — I count them every day.”

It’s amazing that a production that premiered in 1993 feels as fresh, daring and vital as ever — even when things go wrong. “There were some drunk people in the other night,” Cumming says, “and obviously, there’s drinks, you’re supposed to be in a club . . . But there was this kind of ugly scene afterwards with the audience saying how disrespectful they were being.”

In a departure from the original staging, the Sam Mendes–directed production ends with the Emcee stripping off his sexy leather jacket to reveal a concentration-camp uniform displaying both a pink triangle and a Star of David. “So I’m saying, ‘I’m going to a concentration camp; I’m gay; I’m Jewish; I’m dead.’ And these people are still laughing.” While the experience was jarring for both the performers and the audience, for Cumming, those kinds of reactions are important for the message of the show. “The audience were horrified that these people were not respecting this terrible thing that happened, but of course, the whole show is saying that you’ve got to be vigilant because there are those people who don’t get it and are going to be the ones who are going to let it happen. And so the whole thing sort of happened in microcosm right there.”

Here’s a game: open up Cumming’s IMDb page and scroll through his credits. You’ve seen him in more things than you realized, haven’t you? His artistic output is prolific and remarkably varied. He’s just as likely to pop up in highbrow fare like Julie Taymor’s Titus or a Jane Austen adaptation as something deliciously lowbrow, like Josie and the Pussycats or Burlesque.

But does someone who’s really “done it all” still ache for new challenges or pine for the roles that got away? “Mostly it’s like, ‘Oh, I dodged that bullet!’” Cumming says. “I’m not a yearner. People can waste so much time yearning or aspiring for something. That takes up your energy. That takes you away from the present and closes you off to what might happen. I feel I’ve tumbled through life and really fascinating things have come to me. And I just do what I like. I’ve actually more often had a terrible time doing something that I really thought I was doing for my art rather than for my wallet. Because when you enter into something because it’s a job to earn money, then you have fun; you get on with people. But when you go into something and your heart is in it, your soul is in it, and it doesn’t go well and people are dicks, then that hurts you more.”

When asked about his appearance in the critically reviled Jaws 4, character actor extraordinaire Michael Caine famously remarked, “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.” Cumming has an equally sanguine take on his less prestigious work. “You can actually trace my filmography through when I was either renovating a house or getting a divorce by the films I’ve done; that’s absolutely true,” he admits. “And why shouldn’t I do that?”

Recently, on the BBC’s HARDtalk, host Stephen Sackur asked Cumming if he regretted saying yes to certain roles. “He named certain films, like The Smurfs and Spice World. And I was like, ‘No. Why do you think I should just do rarefied, arty things just because you would like me to, rather than do The Flintstones to earn a lot of money?’ And finally I said, ‘And actually, I think Spice World was really good.’ And he went, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen it.’ And I said, ‘Then don’t cast aspersions!’ I love that film.” Besides, his role as a documentary filmmaker following the every move of Baby, Sporty, Ginger, Posh and Scary made him an instant hit with co-star Emma Stone. “Emma Stone is a huge Spice Girls fan!” he says, with a grin. “We have Spice Girls lip-sync battles in my dressing room with the Kit Kat Girls!” It’s probably safe to assume they know the words.