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Age-appropriate: The Catalyst interview with Alan Cumming

Bill DeYoung

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As a performer, Alan Cumming is the very definition of “chameleonic.” He won the Tony Award in 1998 for his portrayal of the sinewy, androgynous emcee in a revival of Cabaret. For seven seasons, he played an American political advisor on TV’s The Good Wife (three Emmy nominations), and later starred as a genius crime solver on the series Instinct.

He is the recipient of an Olivier Award (for work in London’s West End theater district) and was made an O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth in 2015 (“for services to film, theatre and the arts and to activism for equal rights for the gay and lesbian community, USA,” the citation read.)

Cumming was in X: X-Men United (playing a blue German mutant) and had a recurring role as a cartoonish villain in the Sky Kids franchise. Most recently, he played the eccentric mayor of a small (and very strange) American town in the Apple+ series Schmigadoon!

A native of Carnoustie, east Scotland, Cumming speaks in a thick Scottish brogue, which makes his appearances in these – along with dozens of other films, TV episodes and stage shows – all the more astonishingly chameleonic. He is a master at accents.

The Catalyst spoke with Cumming, from his home in New York (he became a U.S. citizen in 2008), in advance of his appearance Sunday (April 3) at Ferguson Hall inside Tampa’s Straz Center.

Among other topics, the conversation included a spirited discussion of Cummings’ memoir, Not My Father’s Son, in which he detailed the years of physical and emotional abuse he’d suffered as a child and a young man, and its (generally more light-hearted) followup, Baggage: Tales From a Fully Packed Life.

We discussed Schmigadoon!, in which every interaction between characters devolved into a Broadway song-and-dance number, and Club Cumming, the East Village nightclub he owns (and sometimes drops into for a quick hello, or to tend bar).

 

St. Pete Catalyst: Your show here is called Alan Cumming is Not Acting His Age. What does that phrase mean to you?

Alan Cumming: The idea of acting your age I find very difficult to get an answer to. People say ‘Oh, you’re not acting your age.’ They can say I in a quite derogatory way, or they can say ‘Ahh, look at you, Alan, you never act your age! You’re so youthful’ and all this stuff. Well, what would I be doing if I was being a proper 57-year-old? I would have a cardigan and be smoking a pipe.

I think I wanted to challenge people about, what are these rules? Who makes up these rules? And why can’t you just do what you like? And I think that acting your age is actually, in a way, about closing yourself off to the possibility of experience. And stopping your life in a way. You’re kind of saying ‘OK, I’d better conform, play by the rules, and act in a way that’s deemed appropriate by some members of society.’

I think not acting your age is the way to go! Because it just means you’re being curious about life.

I have questions about the way that we have made aging of any kind the worst thing that can happen to you. That’s what our culture think. And what’s crazy is that it’s something that is inexorable. Something we have decided is awful. It could easily be the other way around.

 

Tell me what this particular show consists of – and how does it fit within that framework?

It’s an old-fashioned cabaret, I suppose. It’s a cabaret concert show, I have my band, I sing songs, I tell stories. All around the theme of aging, and what is age-appropriate? And I talk about all the big things – death, sex, relationships. All of it.

As you get older, more people die around you. That’s just a fact. And I talk about that. I talk about some people who have inspired me who died, and what they left behind. About sex and how that changes.

And also about visiting the dermatologist, how that becomes more and more of a dangerous thing to do as you get older. Some serious things, lots of funny things, some showbiz stories, some sort of personal things. And a lot about where I am in my life right now.

 

You’re in a good place. Do you still have the club?

Yes! I talk about that in the show, actually. I have a really great connection to lots of young artists, and people who come to the club, people who work at the club. It’s a really lovely thing to go there and be surrounded by all this great energy. And to also be able to mix it up, and for people to feel that you don’t have to be 25 to go there. You can be 60 and you’ll have a warm welcome.

It’s about sort of changing people’s perceptions – Club Cumming’s byline is ‘All ages, all genders, all colors, all sexualities.’ Everyone is welcome and anything could happen. I’ve created this space where I want to go. And I think that’s a great thing – no one’s too old to go to Club Cumming.

 

I was a big fan of Schmigadoon! It seemed like you must have been laughing all the time, at least while you rehearsed.

It was a real hoot. But because it was film, we didn’t really rehearse that much. And it was done during the pandemic, so all our rehearsals were via Zoom. Which is really difficult. But it was such fun, actually. I loved it. We shot it in Canada. And we’re doing another one, in May.

 

Will it be the same concept?

It’s the same sort of group of people, in a different time. A different style of musical. I think I’d better not give away too much about it. I don’t think it’s been properly announced.

Filming begins soon for a new season of “Lost in Scotland,” with Miriam Margolyes, for U.K. television.

Fair enough. What’s coming up next?

Next, I go back into the life after having Covid, again. I tested positive on the set of The Good Fight, which is the sequel to The Good Wife. I’ve gone back into it for a couple of episodes. Then I go to Scotland to shoot a new kind of weird game show set in a Scottish castle. Which I’m hosting. I think that’s going to be hilarious. Then I do the sequel to Schmigadoon!

Then I go to Scotland to do this solo dance theater piece about Robert Burns, the Scottish national poet. I’ve been working on that for a couple of years, doing workshops and researching. I’ve never done a whole dance show before. It’s kind of nuts at 57. That’s another example of not acting your age, I suppose.

 

After the first memoir was published, you said that you were surprised and pleased by the number of people who contacted you and said it affected them. Why is that sort of thing important to you?

For me, I had to tell this story – and I realized, with all the response, that in telling your story, revealing your truth and your authenticity, you really help people. Just by the very act of doing that, because it makes people feel they’re not alone. And it makes people realize that well-known, successful people can have gone through the kinds of things they’ve gone through. And they can go on and live a happy life.

I just think there are, unfortunately still, so few people that really talk about the darker sides of their lives. Being truthful and authentic is a big thing in my life, always, as an artist. And it happened again with my last book.

 

Was writing these books a cathartic experience? ‘I NEED to get this out’?

The first one was very much like that. I went to the publisher and said ‘I’ve got this story.’ I wanted to write more about my own life. Then in 2010, everything went nuts. I did the BBC Who Do You Think You Are? show, and I found out all that stuff … I couldn’t stop talking about it. I was so obsessed with it. I just need to expunge it in some way.

Yes, that was very cathartic, to actually set it all down and place it out into the world, and say ‘Don’t you think this is crazy, too? Don’t you think this is weird, what’s happened to me?’ I think writing about your own experience is very cathartic – you sort of re-live it, but you also place it in the world and you’re able to say ‘I think this is … whatever. I think this is weird, I think this is great, I think this is awful.’ And you’re able to sort of re-write your own narrative.

 

Does it ever get relegated to the past?

No, that’s what Baggage is about, actually. I was addressing the fact that it’s actually the opposite of that. In a way, you are dealing with it more than ever. Because you’re reliving it and you’re talking about it, people ask you about it. You’ve put it out into the world as an option for people to question you about. And I think that’s kind of as it should be. I sort of forced myself to deal with it, and to talk about it.

And also, you don’t recover from it. You just get better at managing it. And I think that’s quite healthy.

 

More information and tickets for the April 3 performance: Here.

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1 Comment

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    Karen J Douglas

    April 1, 2022at3:34 pm

    I have adored this actor since I saw him in “Tin Man”, a bizarre Wizard of Oz mini series. He was incredible. Also, I enjoy all the work you are putting out, Mr DeYoung. Have your book on the Skyway and I read every interview you write for the Daily Spark.

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