Interview with Alan Cumming: ‘Men have trouble controlling our desire’

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ALan Cumming wants us to know that we have Robert Burns all wrong. The Scottish poet was not, he explains, “that lanky plowman who happened to turn down some fantastic poems every now and then and then fuck everyone”. The truth is more complicated: “He was very fragile and delicate and a hot mess. Terrible things have happened to him,” he says, running his hand through his gray hair so that it stands up like a question mark. This summer, the actor turns the life of his country’s hero into a dance show for the Edinburgh International Festival. “And my motto is still: I dare!” said Robert Burns. It could be Cumming’s.

After all, he makes his dance debut at the age of 57 – something most would find quite daring. Burn is a dance theater piece choreographed by Steven Hoggett, who created the movement for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but it was Cumming’s idea. “It first started in 2015, when I was done doing it” Cabaret [for the second time]’ he says, as he speaks his words. “I had just turned 50 and felt like I would never get that fit again. I felt, ‘Oh God, this is it!’ – yet I had the feeling that I still had a dance-like thing in me. That was the beginning of it. I explain that to the universe. I didn’t know it would be this…”

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He grins broadly. We’re talking about Zoom, but his warmth and humor fill the screen. The point of talking to Cumming is that you ask him a question and he gives you an answer. It means that a conversation with him is always interesting, he shoots in a hundred directions while his quick mind considers possibilities, even in the hostile setting of a timed Zoom conversation. He oscillates between serious and frivolous, as you would expect from someone who has worked with both Stanley Kubrick and the Spice Girls.

He is also fearless, with a courage that makes him plunge into the unknown with dizzying abandon. In his career thus far, Cumming played a flirty, dangerous Dionysus in a gilded kilt in the Bacchusand presented a one-man version of Macbeth. He won an Olivier Award for his performance in Accidental death of an anarchistand a Tony in 1998 for his sexually ambiguous Emcee, both menacing and sassy, ​​in Sam Mendes’ dark, radical production of Cabaret. On television, he was Eli Gold in the long-running legal series the good womanand the first gay lead character in a US TV drama drama in Instinct.

In the past two months alone, he has taken on the role of reality TV host on the US version of a game show called the traitorsset in a Scottish castle, and filmed the second series of the popular musical comedy series schmigadoon! in Vancouver. It is a trajectory dizzying in its eclecticism, marked by a desire to try something new.

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He is clearly delighted with the idea of ​​presenting himself as a dancer. In Luggage: stories from a packed lifea book full of raw anecdotes, he describes the night he invited the great Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov Cabaret audience to dance with him. Now he tells an even better story, about another meeting when he jokingly changed into one of Baryshnikov’s tights—and found it was too tight for him. “I looked like an underwear ad,” he says, his voice rising and falling with comedic emphasis. “It was hilarious. There are always those embarrassing situations, but what can you do?”

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Actually, most people are probably better at avoiding them than Cumming, but it’s part of the high-spirited way he lives his life that he always throws himself into situations that end up as a brilliant story.

He’d been thinking about Burns for a while. “I wanted to get people to put aside what I call the ‘biscuittin’ version of him. I felt that dance would be good for that, because the idea that I am doing something in a different medium than you are used to helps you to think differently about the content. I feel like we don’t know that much about Burns. He is a mystery.”

What is known is at odds with the sanitized version of the poet’s life. Burns spent most of his days in abject poverty, which took its toll on his health and contributed to his death in 1796 at the age of 37. He was perpetually unfaithful to his long-suffering wife, Jean Armour; she bore him nine children, the youngest of whom was born on the day of his funeral. He had four children with other women and multiple affairs.

Burns night: Alan Cumming as the Scottish poet

(Gian Andrea di Stefano)

“I had also thought about how men struggle with their desire. I think men have a hard time controlling our desire. I look at Burns and I see someone who couldn’t, and I looked at my father and I saw someone who couldn’t. I grew up thinking, ‘Ah, your desire is such a part of your life force and your being that it’s wrong to suppress it.’”

He stops in the middle of his thoughts and rolls back his sleeve. “Did I show you this?” he says, raising his arm in front of the camera to reveal a tattoo that reads ‘Only connect’, EM Forster’s famous motto accompanying his great novel Howard’s End. Forster was a gay man who hid his sexual identity; Cumming is an outspoken champion of LGBT+ rights.

“It’s not just about making sure you have a real connection with people, but also connecting your desire to the way you live your life. That’s something Forster couldn’t do, and I think he wrote eloquently about the grief of that. I’m fascinated by how men wrestle and mess it up.”

The mention of his father takes us back to his upbringing, a story told in his first autobiography, the bestseller Not my father’s son. The book, published in 2014, details the sadistic abuse he and his older brother Tom endured at the hands of their father, who was a chief ranger on an estate in Angus, Scotland. Years later, the brothers approached him and asked him to acknowledge his behavior; he walked away. Reminder of the moment on Desert Island DiscsCumming recalled: “I had faced my monster and felt so much braver than him. That is a little help and comfort.”



I’m fascinated by how men wrestle and mess it up

Alan Cumming

Now he comments: “It’s just interesting, the difference between what my mother taught me and what my father taught me. My mother taught me that there is no situation in life that does not benefit from kindness, and you just have to be kind and considerate in how you deal with people, even if you have to tell them something terrible, or even if you hate them. to them. Be friendly about how you communicate and be honest. That makes it better.”

His upbringing stays with him in everything he does. “I don’t believe in the Hollywood end of life,” he says. “Trauma will always stay with you. It doesn’t just disappear because you go to a talk show or write a book about it. You just manage it better.”

He is proud of both books. Sharing both aspects of himself – the abused child and the confident, successful, vivacious man who runs a cabaret called Club Cumming – has “changed the story a bit”.

“Both things naturally exist. Neither is a lie. But neither is complete. In a funny way it was so great for me to have written these books because I feel like people now have a very holistic view of me – that you can be a happy party animal or whatever, but also have great darkness .

“I do have fun, but I choose to live in such a way that I don’t shy away from life. I’m not in dark rooms. I like the light. But I also have access to the darkness.”

His life is now divided between the US and Scotland. “I feel like I’m more connected to Scotland the longer I live. Wanting to do a play about a Scottish hero, with the National Theater of Scotland at the Edinburgh Festival, is obviously a big deal for me. My Scottishness is very prominent in my makeup and my pride.”

His American base has been important to an extensive film and television career, including the roles of Nightcrawler in X Men 2 and the evil computer geek Boris Grishenko in Golden Eye. A compelling part in Luggage is dedicated to making X-Men, particularly for the cast’s intervention when director Bryan Singer’s behavior became erratic during filming. The circumstances of that were very specific, but Cumming isn’t sure if he’d ever want to star in a superhero movie again. “Never say never. But those movies take forever and you end up acting with a big screen and dots on your head. It’s fun, but I like things where you have to talk to real people more and wear real costumes.”

Alan Cums With Halle Berry In ‘X-Men 2’

(Movie store/Shutterstock)

He is hesitant about the way the Marvel Universe has taken over cinema. “I feel like it’s not my thing, but then quite a few of the movies I’ve made aren’t my taste as a viewer, but I do them because there’s such a difference between being there and then choosing to check it out,” he says, with another quick grin.

“I don’t quite understand the whole Marvel thing. I find it confusing. I don’t know which are which. I do not give a hoot. We are in a very interesting time, because cinema itself is changing. We’re probably just going to the movies now to see those big extravaganzas for an experience, like a ride in a theme park, and we’re probably just watching normal stuff at home.”

In extravagant terms, he thoroughly enjoyed Daniel Craig’s last performance as Bond in No time to die. “I loved every second.” Does he have any thoughts on who should succeed Craig as the next Bond? “Not really,” he says, adding, “I think it would be great to have a colored one. We need to make things available to people they weren’t available to before. It’s time. It is very possible that James Bond could be of color. Being a woman is a bit trickier, because it’s written about masculinity. Write something else to get a female spy. More such as kill eve. That was a really smart way to see a woman represented in that way.”



It is very possible that James Bond could be of color. Being a woman is a bit more difficult, because masculinity is written about

We’re running out of time when I ask if marriage—to the artist Grant Shaffer, whom he married in 2007—has changed him.

“Enormous. Not because it’s lasted, but because it’s evolving within, and we’re talking to each other, and we’re listening and working things out. That’s what I think is successful: that idea that I can be an independent person and still have a relationship that’s very strong, and very grounded and very protective.”

It is far removed from that vulnerable youth. “Someone once asked Grant if he was worried about something I was doing.” He pauses and adds: “I was actually crowd surfing while drunk in a monkey suit after one of my Club Cumming parties, and he said, ‘Yeah, of course I’m worried, but Alan is a butterfly, and we need it to fly.’”

‘Burn’ will be at the Edinburgh International Festival from August 4-10, followed by a tour: nationaltheatrescotland.com/burn