Alan Cumming: Unpacking a Life


Edinburgh International Book Festival
Central Hall, Edinburgh

Alan Cumming

Following on from his first memoir, Not My Father's Son, Scottish actor Alan Cumming's Baggage: Tales from a Fully Packed Life was released by Canongate in June, and he appeared before a packed Book Festival audience to talk about it with National Theatre of Scotland Artistic Director Jackie Wiley.

Cumming is currently appearing in Burn, his solo dance show about Robert Burns choreographed by Steven Hoggett and Vicki Manderson for National Theatre of Scotland, which is currently playing at Perth Theatre—he said proudly that this was the first time Perth Theatre had opened its balcony since the panto.

In his fifties, he decided he wasn't going to be asked to dance again, so decided to create his own show—but he didn't realise that his last dance show would be a solo piece about Robert Burns. He said he has rewritten his own narrative and thought Burns probably had done the same, and he uncovered some surprising information through some amazing academics. But still, he was in a bath of Epsom salts two hours ago.

He read the prologue to his book, saying he had in the past tended to repeat behaviour that made him unhappy, then mused on the nature of memory and whether memories are of what happened or of what we are told happened, then said that memory is not just for recall but for growth. When he was in Cabaret on Broadway in 1998, the management tried to persuade him to have his photo taken in the dressing room for the New Yorker, but he refused, saying those backstage areas are sacrosanct. Eventually he decided that there are some occasions where it is more of a hassle to fight than to give in and agreed.

The photographer was Amy Arbus—daughter of another renowned photographer, Diane Arbus—and they became friends, even recreating that photograph sixteen years later when he was playing the same part—and he thought he looked better the second time.

He said he has learned that acting is not about becoming someone else but about letting yourself come through; he used to think it was about putting things on top of yourself: make-up, costume, voices. A star—who is not necessarily a performer—is someone who lets you into their spirit.

He talked about how much he hates snobbery and hierarchy in art. At a press round table, a journalist asked how he could possibly bring himself to be in things like the The Smurfs movies when he has played such great classical parts—there was a big laugh from the audience when he said the journalist was from the Daily Mail.

He told a story about being in a movie in the 1990s called Buddy and becoming very close to a chimp, whose real name was Tonka. When they were doing the photoshoot a year later, he asked whether Tonka would be there, but the executives avoided the question; apparently as a sexually mature adult, they thought he may become too aggressive.

The organisation PETA, which regulates the use of animals in movies, has complained that there is no regulation for what happens to animals when they retire from the movies. Tonka was found in a sanctuary in Missouri, but when they tried to get him out, the owner told them he had died, whereas she was actually keeping him in her basement. He is now in a much more spacious sanctuary in Florida, due to campaigning and court action initiated by Cumming and PETA.

He doesn't expect everyone to like everything he does as he doesn't like everything he sees by other people, and some things will "piss people off", but then "artists should piss people off". He sees himself as a provocateur as well as an actor. He mentioned his support for Scottish independence, but, he said, as soon as he mentions it, people "tighten their sphincters". He thinks people should talk through these things and listen to one another more than most people do at the moment to find some common ground.

His final message of the talk was, "don't tighten your sphincter".

Reviewer: David Chadderton