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Actor Alan Cumming Is Not His 'Father's Son'

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Actor Alan Cumming Is Not His 'Father's Son'

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Actor Alan Cumming Is Not His 'Father's Son'

Actor Alan Cumming Is Not His 'Father's Son'

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In a terrible way, Alan Cumming's childhood taught him how to act. He learned how to read a room and to avoid his father's wrath. He talks with NPR's Scott Simon about his new memoir.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Alan Cumming is back on stage as the emcee in "Cabaret," a mesmerizing figure who laughs out loud and nurses a mystery inside. He first won a Tony in that role in 1998, and he continues to appear in the hit series "The Good Wife." And now, Alan Cumming has written a book in which a secret at the heart of his own life is revealed, a sad, damaged childhood, family secrets and finally the exorcism of the man who haunted him his whole life. Alan Cumming joins us from New York. His new memoir is called "Not My Father's Son." Mr. Cumming, thanks very much for being with us.

ALAN CUMMING: It's my pleasure.

SIMON: I wish I could begin in a softer way, but you begin the book in a very hard way. It - when you were a child, it was frightening for you to just come home.

CUMMING: Yes. Yes. It was pretty horrible, and, I mean, I think the worst part of it was that sort of tension and anxiety and kind of wondering what mood my father would be in. So, yeah, every day walking down the path from the school bus was filled with terror.

SIMON: And you used to kind of try to read his signals, right?

CUMMING: Well, yes, I had to. You know, it was sort of part of the whole survival technique. You know, I write about that in the book of that. I think that was my first studies of acting. That actually may be some of the reasons I've become an actor, to do with him and my needing to suppress my own emotions and feelings around him when I was a little boy.

SIMON: Could I get you to relate the kind of harrowing moment that you actually write about at the open of the book?

CUMMING: Well, yes. Basically my dad had this sort of weird thing about my hair. My hair was, you know, was never neat enough or short enough. And the first story I tell is about being at the dinner table and just my father kind of works himself up into a rage about my hair And eventually, drags me out of the kitchen and out into the - out into the yard and into a shed and shaves my head with a pair of sheep shearers - rusty, old shearers that are in a drawer. And I had to go to school the next day kind of looking - I say in the book - like someone from a concentration camp. It was kind of awful.

SIMON: Much of the story that unfolds here was kind of triggered from when you agreed to appear on a British television show that's called "Who Do You Think You Are?" Tell us the sequence of events if you could.

CUMMING: Well, in 2010, I was asked if I'd like to be on "Who Do You Think You Are?" And I said I would because there was a sort of a mystery in my family, that my mum's father - my maternal grandfather - he's called Tommy Darling - he was a soldier, and after the Second World War, never came home and died in Malaysia in a shooting accident. So there's a thing when they do that TV show, they go away for a couple of months and research you to find out if your ancestors are interesting enough to merit wasting a whole hour of television on you.

So one of the things that happened was that in the course of that research period, they contacted my dad, who I hadn't spoken to or seen for 16 years, and so he refused to be interviewed. But because of them reaching out, he knew that I was doing this show. And so two days before I started filming it, he - via my brother - he sent my brother to me to tell me that I wasn't his son, hence the title of my book. And so that was kind of, you know, obviously a little shocking. And then it kind of continued to go on. That's what kind of made me write the book, was that I thought it had finished and then more stuff happened. Then my father died. That's another part of the plot if you will. Even from beyond the grave, he kind of managed to jingle my brother and I. But, you know, my brother and my mum and I are very incredibly close and came out of this with a really positive attitude about everything.

SIMON: I understand how blessed we are - I hope, most of us in this world - to be able to say, you know, that reminds me of something my father said. Or that reminds me of something my father used to do. Or my father once made this joke. You and your brother can't do that.

CUMMING: No. I mean, no. Actually, in the book, I tried - my editor, she at one point said, I really think you need to show some balance, in terms of the stuff about your dad. Try and think of some times when - happy times you had, just to show that. I went, yeah, you're right. I don't want it to be this kind of, you know, monochromatic idea of him.

So I actually did go away and try to think of these moments where we'd all had happy times together, and I couldn't. I couldn't think of any. And I asked my brother, and he couldn't either. And the thing is I know they existed, of course we had some times. But even the pictures - I had put some pictures in the book where I'm on, you know, vacation, I'm a little boy, on go-karts. My father probably took that picture, and I'm smiling and I'm happy. But what clouds that picture of me is something else that happened on that holiday that was really upsetting. That's the way it is, you know. I just still - the overriding impression of my father is of someone who terrorized me.

SIMON: I hope this doesn't sound ethereal. Do you think you're going to see your father again?

CUMMING: Oh, no, no. Do you mean, like, in some afterlife situation? Yeah, absolutely not. No, I'm a total atheist. I mean, I see him in my dreams (laughter).

SIMON: Still?

CUMMING: And I think, you know, I think I don't buy that whole thing of, oh, gosh, I wouldn't be a successful actor blah blah blah if I'd not had this horrible childhood. I really don't like the notion of justifying any terrible experience at all. But at the same time, I feel that if I don't - I wish I hadn't had that childhood, but it happened and I, you know, made some lemonade. And in a funny sort of way, this book - I feel so proud of it, that I've been able to do it and it's - already I feel I'm not just affecting people, talking to people who've read it. I'm really so happy with the way that it's being beneficial to them in some way. And so for that, I really am grateful to my father.

SIMON: Alan Cumming. His new memoir "Not My Father's Son." Thanks so much for being with us.

CUMMING: It was a pleasure, really. Thank you.

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