Books

After writing about his father’s abuse, star Alan Cumming turns to joy

You can also catch Alan Cumming Feb. 10 in the Knight Concert Hall at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
You can also catch Alan Cumming Feb. 10 in the Knight Concert Hall at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

Alan Cumming has what’s known in showbiz as range.

Who else could be equally persuasive as a mental patient delivering the essence of all the roles in “Macbeth,” as savvy political operative Eli Gold on seven seasons of “The Good Wife,” as the pansexually appealing emcee in “Cabaret” and as the nerd-turned-billionaire in “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion?” And that’s just a fraction of the prolific Scottish actor’s work in theater, film and television.

Cumming — who will speak about his book “You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams: My Life in Stories and Pictures” in a Miami Book Fair “Evening With” event Nov. 14 — in fact has a range that extends far beyond his Tony- and Olivier Award-winning acting career.

His lengthy résumé includes work as a director, producer, TV host, screenwriter, cabaret/concert artist, magazine writer, photographer, outspoken activist for LGBTQ rights and Scottish independence, recording artist, an eponymous fragrance line, and author of the memoir “Not My Father’s Son.” That 2014 book, which reached No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, contained horrific revelations about the physical and mental abuse Cumming, his older brother and his mother suffered at the hands of his father, Alex, who was head forester on a Scottish estate.

In his 20s, Cumming suffered a breakdown over the abuse, which frequently involved his father ordering him to do something impossible, then beating the boy when he failed. The two were estranged for the 16 years before the elder Cumming’s death in 2010.

But as the actor, now 51, was preparing to shoot a 2010 episode of the British series “Who Do You Think You Are?” Cumming learned that his father was claiming Alan wasn’t his son. A DNA test proved otherwise, yet the title Cumming chose for his memoir was apt: This joyous, free-spirited, provocative, accomplished artist survived to become a man of infinite possibilities, the antithesis of his cruel father’s belittling narrative.

“You’re the sum of your parts. That’s why I don’t have any regrets. Everything that’s happened in my life has made me what I am now,” Cumming says. “I do feel by writing about the not-so-great things, it does definitely make you more aware of seizing the day. By dealing with it and writing about it and talking about it, it has reinforced the idea of allowing joy in and canceling negativity.”

“You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams,” the peripatetic Cumming says by phone from Los Angeles, was already in progress when he took a long pause to write “Not My Father’s Son.” The Herculean multitasker promoted it while starring in the Broadway revival of “Cabaret” at Studio 54 and shooting “The Good Wife.”

“In a funny way, this was the book I meant to write before,” Cumming says. “The stories about Gore Vidal and the Oscars I had written years before, and I updated them. The photographs, I’d been taking for years. But I put this book aside because I wanted to write something about my life.”

After he finished “Not My Father’s Son,” Cumming went back to working on what became “You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams,” which has a decidedly different in tone than his bestseller.

“I think this is a great antidote to ‘Not My Father’s Son.’ People say, ‘No! What more is there? What fresh hell is this?’ ” he jokes. “This is a bit of a balm. It’s not light, necessarily, but it’s a little less intense. And I think that’s good for my audience, as well as for me.”

The new book’s title came from a remark by Oprah Winfrey, as detailed by Cumming in a wry, observant essay. He and his Oprah-fanatic friend Eddie were attending an Elie Wiesel Foundation dinner honoring the entertainment mogul, and Eddie’s most fervent wish was to get a photo of himself with his idol, whom Cumming knew from a Vanity Fair Oscars dinner.

As she passed by their table on her way to the ladies’ room, Eddie said, “Oprah! May I have a picture with you? It would be my dream.”

She replied, “You gotta get bigger dreams,” then paused for the shot.

You’re the sum of your parts. That’s why I don’t have any regrets. Everything that’s happened in my life has made me what I am now

Alan Cumming

His lengthy piece about Vidal, which begins with a bit about his participation in the author’s 2012 Broadway memorial, includes this gem about an exchange with Vidal when Cumming confessed he was having trouble finishing his first novel, “Tommy’s Tale.”

“Gore was not the commiserating type: ‘Well, of course!’ he snapped. ‘You’re not a novelist,’ ” Cumming writes. “I remember debating if I should tell him that I had read one of his novels, and I didn’t think he was one, either, but I quickly told myself that would be wrong, that I’d only be propagating the stereotype that all writers are bitchy and vicious about other writers (especially younger, inexperienced ones who appear to be blithely writing novels from a supine position in their trailers between takes on movie sets).”

As befits a star of stage, screen and television, Cumming does get recognized when he’s out and about, though that doesn’t keep him from doing things such as driving cross-country with his beloved dog Honey (now departed), another adventure detailed in his book.

“Sometimes you go places that people really don’t expect to see you,” he says. “You can be a little more incognito because people can’t quite believe you’d be in Bozeman, Montana.”

At times, though, he resorts to a basic “disguise” — a hat and glasses.

“The disguise is for the person wearing it, not for other people. It’s about making the person feel less self-conscious. To feel hidden and calmer and safer. I’d rather have people think, ‘Who’s that weirdo with the hat?’ ” he observes.

Married to British actress Hilary Lyon from 1985 to 1993, Cumming entered into a civil union with American illustrator Grant Shaffer in London in 2007, and the two married in New York in 2012. The actor’s brief essay about his husband, illustrated with photos of Shaffer and Honey at a lake near Niagara Falls, shimmers with tenderness.

Typically juggling multiple projects, Cumming has filmed his cabaret show “Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs” for PBS, which will air it at 9 p.m. Nov. 18 as part of the 2016 PBS Fall Arts Festival. He’ll also perform the show at 8 p.m. Feb. 10 in the Knight Concert Hall at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

Of the show that will air on PBS, he says, “We recorded it in Las Vegas. It’s a truncated version, alas. Some of the stories did not make the cut because of the salty content.”

If you happened to catch Cumming’s “Alan Cumming: Uncut” (the barbarity of circumcision was a topic) at Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse in April 2015, you’ll know what he means by “salty.”

Cumming can procrastinate with the best of them — “You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams” includes a photo he took with a self-timer, feigning irritation as he was writing “Tommy’s Tale” — and he cops to interrupting himself by cleaning his apartment or thinking, “Gosh, I should really alphabetize all those DVDs.”

But he is now clearly a writer, as well as an actor. He often works at The Writers Room in Manhattan, a quiet shared workspace, and he’s planning to write more frequently in the study of the Catskills country home he and Shaffer share.

His next literary effort is already a work in progress, though he’s not extremely specific about its contents, except to say this: “My next book is another book about me, me, me!”

If you go

Who: Alan Cumming

When: 8 p.m. Nov. 14

Where: Chapman Conference Center, Miami Dade College, 300 NE Second Ave., downtown Miami

Tickets: $15; www.miamibookfair.com

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