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Interview: Alan Cumming on Dundee mischief, lockdown obsessions and Baggage

Alan Cumming has released a new book, Baggage: Tales From A Fully Packed Life. Picture: Josh Going.

He’s seen as Scotland’s impish icon keeping it light in Hollywood, but The Good Wife star Alan Cumming isn’t afraid to get heavy.

In his new memoir, Baggage: Tales From A Fully Packed Life, the 56-year-old actor opens up about the highs and lows (often at the same time) of his star-studded career, from the magazines department at Dundee’s DC Thomson all the way to the red carpet.

Book-ended by his two marriages – the end of his first, to actress Hilary Lyon, in 1993 through to the beginning of his second, to husband Grant Shaffer – Baggage is the follow up to Cumming’s first memoir, Not My Father’s Son, which deals with his childhood abuse at the hands of his father.

In the wake of the first book’s publication, the Perthshire-born star says he received a lot of praise for having “overcome” his past – but he didn’t necessarily feel that was accurate.

Alan and Liv Tyler on Plunkett and Macleane. Courtesy of Alan Cumming, featured in ‘Baggage’.

“I came from a family where one parent told me I was precious, and one parent told me I was useless,” says Cumming. “And so I kind of made up my own mind.

“But,” he admits candidly, “Nothing has changed except me feeling stronger about my desire to tell people not to try and pretend that you don’t have bad things in your life.

“Because they’re never going to go away and I think it’s important not to deny them.”

Now, five years past his deadline – “I’m me, and it’s a book about my life, what were they going to do?” – the actor is hoping to smash the perception of the Hollywood ending, with Baggage written to “normalise being a hot mess” while still finding success.

“I realised I wanted to say to people that when you’re having great times, you can also be having bad times,” Cumming explains.

“This whole idea that we’ve got to live our lives in a certain way where we’re always happy, and we’ve done everything we’re supposed to do and have that perfect Hollywood ending… it’s not like that. And it’s totally fine not to be like that.

“Look at me – I’ve had a great life, but look at the series of messes I’ve made as well.”

Actor’s Tele horoscopes ‘a load of rubbish’

The book covers messes (affairs and killer Hungarian hangovers) to minor mischiefs, including some of Cumming’s antics at home of The Courier and The Beano, DC Thomson, where he worked aged 16 in the magazines and features department.

I would just like to apologise for bursting everyone’s bubble about the horoscopes in the Dundee Evening Telegraph!” he jokes, referring to a passage where he reveals he “entirely fabricated” the astrological segment of the daily paper.

Baggage: Tales From A Fully Packed Life.

“I always did it very tastefully and sensitively and tried to give a good message – even though they were a load of old rubbish in terms of astrological stuff! But I still hope people got something positive out of them all those years ago.”

Cumming has family roots in the city, with his mum living in Monifeith, and says Dundee’s “incredible makeover” continues to take him by surprise.

“It’s such a different city to when I was there,” he says. “Well, it was a long time ago! But I’ve been amazed about the way it’s changed, especially at the river front.

“I used to think it was so ugly, that bit where the leisure centre was. So It’s amazing to see it turned around with this whole new energy, and the gaming industry being such a big part of the town now – it’s really striking.”

Trans rights no piece of cake

Much like Cumming’s career tales, which encompass both Stanley Kubrick and Spice World, his conversation flits from high to low.

We go from joking about what’s always in his baggage – chopsticks for food on the go, an inhaler for asthma, eye drops and an underused net shopping bag “in case I suddenly buy loads of stuff” – to an impassioned chat about the issues he carries closest to his heart.

My lack of desire to be restrained in any form is central to my very being, my taste certainly, my output definitely, but also my sexuality, and even my hair.”

Alan Cumming, ‘Debauchery’, Baggage

Having received an OBE for both his acting and his activism in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights, it’s no surprise that the current debates around trans rights are on the actor’s mind.

“I’m really concerned about the way trans people are being perceived and some of the arguments that are being used against them in our culture.

“It’s really dangerous and demeaning, and doesn’t given them any dignity. It brings them down to a body, rather than people with rights.”

Alan with Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow on Romy and Michele. Courtesy of Alan Cumming, featured in ‘Baggage’.

Angered by the idea that a marginalised group being granted rights takes away from the rights of other, more privileged, identities, he scoffs: “It’s not cake!

“You don’t get less because they get more – or they get some, as the case may be. It’s never worked that way. It’s not true.”

‘I could potentially become a hermit’

Although it’s been in the making for years, lockdown gave Cumming the opportunity to really focus on his second memoir and work out the story he wanted to tell.

As a darling of the screen, one might think he’d miss the attention of his adoring fans – but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Spending lockdown with their dogs in the Catskills of upstate New York, he and his husband “blossomed”.

“I actually really loved not seeing anyone. I thought I could potentially become a hermit!” he laughs.

“So suddenly having to come back to real life again was shocking, because I hadn’t had to deal with anything to do with being famous for about nine months.

“You just live at a very big level of self-consciousness, so it was such a nice relief not to have that for such a long time.”

And as well as writing his memoir, Cumming kept himself going with an unusual new hobby.

“I became kind of obsessed with power cleaning!” he gushes. “You know those power washer things? It’s got all these different little hoses and you can clean all your paths and stuff.

“Also leaf-blowing. A lot of things where I got to blow things! Or holding hoses that did various things. I really liked that!”

Baggage: Tales from a Fully Packed Life by Alan Cumming is out now (Canongate, £18.99 hb).

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