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Alan Cumming: ‘My dad was a very good abuser’

The Scottish actor with a troubled family past has conquered both his demons and Hollywood

Most Brits will recognise Alan Cumming as Boris Grishenko, the Russian programmer with a dodgy accent and a dodgier hair-do in the James Bond classic GoldenEye.

He’d already had an award-winning career in Scottish television and across the British Isles, but largely disappeared from our TV sets after Bond, on his way to a glittering career in the States. in the 25 years since he has starred on stages and screens of all sizes, picking up dozens of awards and nominations including a Tony award for his turn in Cabaret.

He tells The Big Issue’s Jane Graham how he conquered both Hollywood and his troubled past in this week’s Letter To My Younger Self.

At 15 my main focus concern was on trying to avoid being hit by my father, and hoping to get out of my home situation. My brother had left home by then so I was alone with my father and I felt very desperate. I was just living in terror. But at the same time, at school I was starting to do some acting in plays, so that was a big change. And I think by then I was also going along to the theatre club in Carnoustie. Also, my sexuality was beginning to raise its adolescent head. So there were some brighter things on the horizon, the hint of a way out.

When I was 16 I left school and went to work for DC Thomson. That’s when everything suddenly changed for me, even more dramatically than when I went to drama school. Because I wasn’t my father’s slave anymore, I wasn’t in his thrall. I still lived at home but I finally had some sort of autonomy.

I worked in the fiction department of DC Thomson, editing these bodice-ripping stories which ran in comics or the backs of newspapers. There was a lot of “pressing his manhood” going on. Which reflected a lot of my own life at the time, so I enjoyed that. I also did a TV column in the Dundee Courier. But my favourite thing was writing the horoscopes for the Dundee Evening Telegraph. I just totally made them up.

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I wanted to be kind. So I thought, who’s reading this? What if it’s a little old lady who lives alone with her cat. I can’t just say Mercury is in retrograde and love is on its way. I would never say that. So I would say, Uranus is approaching, so best not to clean those cupboards yet. I always have an ‘audience’ in my head. Later on in my life, when it seemed like I was one of the few famous queer people in America, and I was helping raise awareness around gay marriage and equality, I would sometimes be asked to do things which were quite daunting. 

So I would think, what if there’s a little teenage lesbian in Wisconsin, and she’s looking at me and I’m not able to say this or that, or live the life I want, what message does that give her? So the little old lady in Dundee transmogrified into a teenage lesbian in Wisconsin.

I had a sort of double life in my late teens. Firstly there was the abuse and the shame that came with it. What I’ve since realised is that a good abuser will shame you into denying that it’s happening. My dad was a very good abuser, and my mum, my brother and I all covered up for him. It was a huge thing, actually, to talk about it in my last memoirs, making public something that had been very shameful for us.

Even after I knew the shame was ridiculous, I still felt it at the time.  But at the same time as all that was going on, I was having quite a fun time at school with good friends and doing plays and stuff. A lot of people I knew then, and met since I wrote my first memoir, have said, gosh, I had no idea what was going on. And I said, well no, why would you, how could you? I wasn’t able to tell anyone, I did everything I could to hide it.

One of the things that scared me most writing that book was the gap between the people who knew me as this fun cheery chappy person and this other side of myself and my life. Because they were both completely real. And now I’m older and it’s all out there, I’m actually embracing my natural cheery chappiness much more. It’s a decision you make. You choose to be happy. 

I’m wary about giving my younger self advice because I’m happy now and I feel like life’s a bit like Jenga, and if I go back and pull out one of the building blocks the whole thing might collapse. So I’m cautious about changing the past. But I’ve been in some toxic relationships in my life, and chosen to stay in them. 

So I would say to the younger me, slow down. Trust me, you’re good enough. You’re sexy, people are going to think you’re sexy. You don’t have to give yourself to everybody who wants you. Actually, that behaviour is potentially harmful. In the course of writing this new book I did discover that some relationships I thought were totally consensual and even empowering when I was a young man, actually weren’t. I was 16 and I looked even younger. I was so desperate to grow up and to feel desired. But I was so ashamed of myself and my body. So I’d like to go back and tell myself to… maybe just have more self-respect.  

When I was older and my father was alive, I had the chance to have a real conversation with him about the things that happened before. The best conversation I could possibly have with someone who’s not rational. Just before he died he said I wasn’t his biological son and I had to do a DNA test. After that I sort of felt complete. I actually said to him, that’s it now, I won’t speak to you again. I thought I had closed the door on the whole thing.

But when I was filming this travel series going around Scotland with Miriam Margolyes, we went to the house I grew up in. And I didn’t want to go inside. I did go into the shed, where something terrible had happened. Just being in the vicinity of that place affected me viscerally. So there are still things that trigger me. Men trying to manipulate me, things like that. I have bad dreams. It’s not a constant worry, but I know I can fall into bad habits with people if I allow them to take advantage of me. Hopefully I’ve broken the cycle but you’ve got to be vigilant.  

2016 Interviewing Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon for The Big Issue Photo: The Big Issue

I think I always felt that I was a funny person. I remember people at school finding me funny. When I first did a play at school, people were praising me and I was like, are you kidding? But then I thought, maybe I’m quite good at this. And also, I’m connecting with people in a way that I wouldn’t otherwise.

I really think that about Scotland, we use humour in such a great way. It’s about connecting with people in terms of saying the worst thing you could possibly think of, then laughing about it. I love that. It’s a grounding thing. It’s a great thing to say, you have to laugh or you’ll greet. It’s like our national mantra. It’s saying, I could stay hiding in the dark but I’m choosing to stand in the light. There’s things we could cry about, we’re not denying that. But we’re going to try to have a little laugh and have a drink. I really, really like that about Scotland. 

The nicest thing I could tell the teenage me would be, you will live independently one day. You will live on your own, eat what you want, put what you want on the shelves and paint the walls whatever colour you like. I’m really obsessed with things on shelves now. I say my shelves are the museums of my life.

2021 Playing Mayor Aloysius Menlove in US musical comedy Schmigadoon! Photo: Apple TV+

It’s mostly quite weird things, not showbizzy things. As a teenager I wasn’t allowed to have anything on the walls. Remember that Farrah Fawcett poster everyone had? I saved up tokens from The Sun – who of course years later turned their prurient gaze on me. So I got the Farrah Fawcett poster but I had to have it in a drawer. I’d just open my drawer and look at Farrah. I’d like to tell my teenage self, one day, if you want to have Farrah Fawcett on your wall, you can just put her there. 

If I could go back and re-live any moment of happiness, I’d go back a few years to a moment when I was DJing to a packed house in the Leith theatre, dancing onstage in a rabbit suit with my band accompanying me, a couple of drumsticks clacking away. I’m 50-something, I’m in front of hundreds and hundreds of people – my mum and my husband and my brother are up there in the balcony –  and I’m just being a total kid, dancing, dancing away. And everyone is loving it. Everyone’s having a great time and I’m feeling completely happy and completely validated and respected for the fact I’m standing on a stage dancing in a rabbit outfit.

Baggage by Alan Cumming is out now (Canongate, £18.99)

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