Just try to stop him! Most days this fall, that whirling dervish with the devilish twinkle in his eye, Alan Cumming, is filming new episodes of CBS’s popular drama “The Good Wife,” then scooting up to Broadway where he continues his naughty and nice Tony-winning star turn as the Emcee in the Sam Mendes-directed revival of the revival of the Kander & Ebb musical “Cabaret.” That’s eight shows a week at the Roundabout Theatre’s Studio 54.
The perennially boyish actor and activist may turn 50 this January, but he clearly has all the energy of a hyperactive 13-year-old. Adding to his regular gigs, for the next two months on Mondays, his one day off from the show, he’ll be bopping to Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Toronto as part of a whistle stop book tour for his new memoir about intergenerational family secrets and his path to overcoming childhood scars from his relationship with an abusive father.
Oh yeah, and he also holds court at “Café Cumming,” a tongue-in-cheek post-show salon in his dressing room backstage at Studio 54. Along the way, he tweets, posts snapshots on his popular Instagram site, and does interviews, interviews, interviews.
Alan Cumming’s memoir tackles and transforms the legacy of a difficult childhood
All that’s left for him to do in the world apparently is to stage a coup in some small, out-of-the-way country. Oops, wait, he’s kind of already checked that off the list, too, having recently supported his homeland Scotland’s failed bid for independence from the United Kingdom.
“I’m totally exhausted. It’s a lot,” he said recently by phone from the East Village home he shares with his husband, graphic artist Grant Shaffer, and a couple of beloved dogs. “I try to stay healthy,” he added, having gone vegan two years ago.
However he’s done it, Cumming has been ridiculously productive and almost indefatigable, having appeared in more than 45 films, including three “Smurfs” movies voicing “Gutsy Smurf,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” and gay favorites “Burlesque,” “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion,” and “Any Day Now.”
Since coming out as bisexual in 1998, he’s also been an energetic activist for gay rights and AIDS charities, receiving the Vito Russo award from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation as well as recognition from the Human Rights Campaign, both in 2005. A well-known style maven, Cumming even has his own brand of cologne.
His just-published new memoir, “Not My Father’s Son,” from the Harper Collins imprint Dey Street, has much of the upbeat spirit for which the actor is known, but pushes into the melancholy territory experienced by two generations of men in his family. Raised in Angus, Scotland, Cumming and his older brother were often at the mercy of the humiliations and rage of their philandering father. After Cumming left home to attend the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, his parents divorced and he had little to do with his dad.
But in 2010, after agreeing to be the subject of the UK genealogy program “Who Do You Think You Are?,” which would focus on the mysterious death of his World War II hero maternal grandfather in Malaysia, his father precipitated an emotional crisis for Cumming’s family by announcing he was not the actor’s biological father.
The memoir unfolds as a mystery, with Cumming discovering hidden secrets about his father and grandfather and being forced to reconsider basic assumptions about what led him to become the artist and man he is today. It’s filled with love for his mother, brother, and grandmother as well as his supportive close friends. DNA testing would ultimately determine the actual truth about his paternity.
“It’s kind of overwhelming, people’s reactions,” he said when asked about the response of friends and family to the memoir. “Everyone in my life knows. It’s hard to know how people will react to it. Some people have been very upset by it.” In part, Cumming said, he wrote the book “in the hopes that people who are in similar situations can know that I’ve come through it and am a happy person.”
It’s an affecting and well-written memoir, filled with plenty of humor and insight that tempers the seriousness of a story that tackles issues including childhood abuse and combat-induced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Cumming stresses the lessons he’s learned about the healing power of being “open and honest.”
Well known for his pixie-like provocative humor, he’s quick to point out the difference between the persona he’s created as an adult and who he was allowed to be as a child. “Provocation was definitely not for me then,” he said, adding that in order to survive, “Humor was the thing, definitely. In many ways you have to find the funny in things.”
When asked if his sensitivity as a boy made him a target for his father’s tirades, Cumming demurred, noting his straight older brother, Tom, was a target as well. “That’s trying in some ways to rationalize something that’s irrational,” he said, referring to the abuse both boys suffered at the hands of a father he now considers to have been mentally ill. His father died of cancer in 2010, the same night Cumming was at the Tribeca Grand, hosting a charity screening of his genealogy program episode that benefited a PTSD organization.
At a recent Sunday matinee of “Cabaret”, the day before the book party for “Not My Father’s Son”, Cumming showed he still has the stuff. You could tell he loved climbing all over the stage set’s stairs and ladders, playing off the audience as well as his fellow cast members, including the intense Michelle Williams (“Brokeback Mountain), who will be followed in the Sally Bowles role in November by Emma Stone (“The Help”).
A couple of guys vacationing from Nova Scotia, sitting at one of the small round cabaret tables with the tiny red fringed lamps, said they were huge fans of Cumming and love his character, Eli Gold, in “The Good Wife.” Passing by at that moment, dexterously wiggling in between the tables with the Kit Kat candies he was selling from a big tray on a strap around his neck, was a friendly platinum blond young man who said he was eager to read Cumming’s memoir, even though some of it might be sad. “When you admire someone, you’re interested to learn how they came to be who they are,” he explained. “Even when some of that isn’t pretty.”
When you’re alone in the dark with the bright lights hurting your eyes, working really hard, juggling a lot of things at once, and trying to keep smiling, it’s nice to know the people out there watching feel for you and wish you well, so before letting Cumming off the phone, I shared the comment from the young Kit Kat hawker. “That’s really so very, very nice,” he said, clearly moved.
NOT MY FATHER’S SON | By Alan Cumming | Dey Street Books | $ 26.99 | 304 pages