Gene Therapy

Alan Cumming: The Truth About My Father

In 2010, the ‘Good Wife’ star received some shocking news about his paternity. He talks candidly about the saga, non-monogamy, assisted suicide, and why he is ‘bored’ of the gay actor debate.

10.14.14 9:50 AM ET

Journalists generally shouldn’t be part of the stories they cover. But today, sitting with Alan Cumming in the Union Square vegan restaurant Peacefood Café, it’s unavoidable. I am part of the story, a key one, it turns out; when I reached page 31 of The Good Wife star’s memoir, Not My Father’s Son, the color drained from my face when I discovered why. 

“Isn’t it funny? You’re actually integral to this book,” Cumming says, taking off his lovely, fitted checkered coat and scarf and liberating a curtain of dark floppy hair from under a jaunty hat. “If it hadn’t been for us meeting and doing that interview my dad would never have told me—at that time anyway…and maybe not ever.”

In 2010, I interviewed Cumming for The London Times, an interview that was, in its final printed version, boiled down to a series of quotes, including that Cumming’s life was better without his father Alex in it; that his father had cancer; and that the next time he saw him he’d be ill or dying, “and I may not see him.”

Tabloid journalists saw these quotes and contacted both Cumming’s mother, Mary Darling, and his father in Scotland. Alex then told Cumming’s brother, Tom, that Alan was not his son, but rather the product of an affair Cumming’s mother had. That was shocking enough; then Cumming took a DNA test, and discovered his father was his father after all, and that his mother had never had an affair. For 45 years, his father had created a fiction in his head—all this on top of being a “monster,” as Cumming calls him, abusive and terrifying.

“My dad freaked out when the tabloid reporter turned up,” Cumming says, in his lilting Scottish brogue. “He called my brother. He thought they had found out about me not being his son, and that I would find out about it via the press.”

Cumming’s eyes flick up. “Please don’t do that,” he says to a lady sitting at a neighboring table. She is surreptitiously taking a picture of him eating.

“Would you delete that?” Cumming says, not a request, more an instruction—and in the best don’t-fuck-with-me tone of his Good Wife character, Eli Gold.

“It happens everywhere, welcome to my world,” he says, rolling his eyes. He looks great: lean, a decade younger than his 49 years. Veganism helps, he says, as well as high-kicking his way through eight performances a week of Cabaret on Broadway, in which he plays the Emcee “alongside a cast of girls half my age” (Michelle Williams plays Sally Bowles). He lives in the East Village with his much-loved husband Grant Shaffer. He is quick, intelligent, funny, and very direct. 

Tom broke the news to Cumming that he wasn’t his father’s son—the incorrect news, as it turned out—on a London rooftop, just as Cumming was about to film an episode of the BBC celebrity genealogy show, Who Do You Think You Are?, which would focus on his mother’s father, Tommy Darling. Tommy’s wartime story, both heroic and tragic, forms another storyline of the memoir. As Cumming was filming a show about his family’s past, he was living a very fresh, awful present off camera.

“It’s because of your article that things happened in the way they did. It precipitated things,” Cumming says. “As I was writing about it I thought about contacting you.” The actor thought I had asked to interview him because I had read the book and seen myself on the page. But I hadn’t. I read the book after I had arranged the interview. “I'm glad we're doing this,” Cumming says. “I wanted to say there are no hard feelings. I'm glad I have the chance to talk to you about it.”

*****

Cumming and Tom grew up in rural Scotland, on the estate in Angus where his father was head forester. The childhood Cumming sketches in this compellingly written memoir was one freighted with fear, the two boys never sure how or when their father’s rage would flare. 

Typically, Cumming says, the boys would be set an impossible task, or one whose completion would never satisfy their father. Then he would lose his temper and strike out. On one occasion, asked to sort good and bad saplings, his father inspected Cumming’s work and without warning, “he backhanded me across the face. I flew through the air and landed in a heap against the stone wall of the shed.” His father smashed him in the face, then threw him into a pile of saplings whose spiky ends jutted into his eyes, then kicked him in the back for good measure.

“The thing that got to me the most was being told to do something which was impossible for whatever reason. I was like, ‘I don’t know how to do this,’ then he would make me. Starting a task knowing you’re going to fail at it, and knowing you’re going fail at it meaning you’re going to get hit, is so miserable and so cruel. Even when I said, ‘I can’t do this,’ I had to go through this dance and inevitably be whacked.” 

Alex would hit Cumming across the head, or kick his buttocks or the backs of his legs. “You knew it was coming. You could see the build-up. You closed down and waited for it.”

The menace and abuse was constant; it reads as a household under siege. When father and son did something nice—such as going swimming—it was usually an opportunity for his father to see another woman on the side, which Cumming would witness. Cumming's father cheated on Cumming’s mother constantly, a “pandemic of infidelity,” as Cumming calls it. At a country show his father deliberately lost him to pursue another illicit affair. 

As time went on, Alex and Mary lived separate lives. She got a job—“she was finding herself again”—but, just as she vocalizes the idea of leaving the tyrannical Alex to Alan and Tom, the car skids on some ice en route to a screening of Jaws

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She didn’t leave Alex—not then anyway. “Mum was living in fear as well we were trapped,” Cumming tells me. When the actor had a nervous breakdown in his 20s, he wondered, “Why didn’t she stop it?” But, he says today, “she was terrified, she was financially trapped by him. It was a feudal society. It was like living in the 1940s, a woman leaving a man was unheard of. She did the best she could do.”

Mary finally left Alex when Cumming was 19 and in Glasgow in his final year at drama school. In his late 20s, Cumming confronted his father about his abuse; in response, his father insisted, “I am not a psychopath.” Cumming never heard from his father again, until the “I’m not your father bombshell” nearly twenty years later.

When Cumming initially heard he was not his father’s son, he tells me, “I was utterly, utterly shocked, completely shocked—how it all happened, the speed of it. I was devastated. I thought I’d have a heart attack. I remember holding my chest. I thought my heart would leap out of my chest, it was so overwhelming. Then I was furious with him. It was such a maelstrom. Mostly, quickly, I was very happy to not be his son.”

It also meant, sadly, he wasn’t his brother’s brother. “It was like I was walking out of the forest into the sunshine, and Tom was still in the forest and I wanted to pull him out. It was like I’d gotten away. Talk about a mindfuck.”

“You’re lucky,” Tom told Alan when they thought Alex had told them the truth. “Of course, I had all this potentially new family as well,” says Cumming. He knew the man his father named as his father. “I didn’t name him in the book. I felt it would bring undue attention on him. He knew nothing about this, and, of course, it was all in my father’s imagination.”

His father’s story was so elaborate and detailed—he recalled seeing his wife at the party where she supposedly went off with the other man—that it made sense to Cumming. “But I couldn’t trust him. I wanted to do a DNA test. That’s why I didn’t want to speak to my mum before I knew.”

But he was so close to his mother, why didn’t he just ask her directly if she’d had the affair? She hadn’t, and could have refuted his father’s baroque misapprehension immediately.

“I know, it does seem weird doesn’t it?” Cumming says. “I just didn’t want to upset her any more, or bring her undue stress. I wanted to go to her and say, ‘It’s OK.’ I would have been glad if it was true. If it wasn’t true and my father was fucking with my head I didn’t want to bring her into it. You have to understand, my father suddenly coming back into my life was so shocking.”

*****

Cumming “felt blown away” by the revelation that his father wasn’t his father. “I wanted to batten down the hatches for a minute and think. He made my life chaos. He was such a negative and divisive person in my life I was trying to figure out the minimum amount of pain that could be caused here.”

The results of the DNA test came through on June 4, 2010. His assistant wrote to Cumming: “Yes, your DNA and Tom’s DNA absolutely match. He is your father. I’m so sorry.” Cumming said to his brother: “You know, I was so happy not to be his son. But at least now I know I’m your full brother.”

Then he called his father, who said on hearing the news that he was Cumming’s father (having told him he was not), “Well, I’m very glad to hear that.” Cumming told him: “It never happened, Dad. You imagined it all. Mum never had an affair. None of it ever happened.”

Cumming tells me he was “incandescent with rage, like I’ve never felt such rage” after he discovered he was his father’s son. “Fury. Because I did believe it, and he’d fucked with my head yet again. He’d made up the entire story. I felt much more empowered and in control to be able to say, ‘Listen, I’ve had 45 years-worth of this man messing with me, messing with my head.’ The very last thing he does is to say to me: ‘You’re free from me, I’m not your father,’ but he was. I was so angry.”

After receiving the results of the DNA test, Cumming finally spoke to his mother, who remembered the night his father had thought he had seen her go off with the other man. In fact, the man had just wanted to talk to someone about his drinking problem—that’s all that happened that night.

“Being able to tell your father what he has believed for however many decades—that you are not his son and the reason why—are both untrue is quite an incredible thing to have been able to do,” Cumming says. “I think I dealt with it in the most efficient way and minimized the pain.” 

In a phone call on Saturday June 5, 2010, his father told Cumming, “I didn’t do this to hurt you.” Cumming, furious, said his father had “based your entire life on a false assumption and you made all our lives hell.” Cumming told him he would never speak to him again. “Aye,” his father said—the last thing he would ever say to him. Alex Cumming died on Sunday November 7, 2010. 

Does Cumming think his father’s misunderstanding informed the abuse? “I do, but I don’t think it was the root of it. I think maybe it was the justification he used for that and how he treated my mum for having what he thought was an affair. When you’re dealing with someone who is mentally ill, trying to rationalize something which is not rational is pointless.”

Cumming adds, “His psyche was not the psyche of a well man. He could not process the truth. He was a monster. I think he was mentally ill, I’m not sure with exactly what. Aside from his violence and irrational rage, there was his utter inability for empathy or to understand anyone’s feelings, the brazenness of his behavior, the fact that he couldn’t compute that anyone was affected or offended or upset by him. That’s a personality disorder. That’s not somebody who is functioning properly in the world.” 

Tom received the same amount of abuse as Alan; and Alex thought Tom was his biological son, so thinking Alan was not doesn’t seem to have made much a difference in his treatment of either boy. I ask Cumming if he thinks any of the abuse was homophobic. “I don’t think it was a major factor. I was little, slight, a late developer. Tom was a sporty, macho man, and [he] got the same thing.”

*****

Was Cumming's father ever warm or loving? “Yes he could be,” the actor says. "He was charming, very charismatic. And he was sexy.” Even after his death, his father wasn’t done with the “mind-fucking,” as Cumming puts it. He left his sons out of his will, though he knew, under Scottish law and in the way he had left his estate, that it would revert to them. They had to decide what to do, if anything, with his money. Cumming shakes his head. In their last conversation, his father didn’t say sorry for anything. “He didn’t have any comprehension of anything—just total self-absorption.”

The only sign of contrition on his father’s part came, says Cumming, when he confronted him in his late 20s. As he and Tom were driving away, Cumming says he saw tears in his father’s eyes. “Shortly after that, my father's partner spoke to my brother and asked what happened that day, because my father was looking at photographs of us as little boys. I think he was trying to find the happy times, to show us he wasn’t all bad. Knowing he did that, that he was moved by it, gave me hope he was going to be in touch…then he never did.” Cumming pauses, smiles ruefully. “He reeled you in and let you go.”

All Cumming wanted to hear his father say was an acknowledgment of what he had thought all those years was wrong. “I knew I wasn’t going to get that. I knew he was an irrational man not able to say sorry.” Now Cumming only wishes he’d asked his father when the first moment of the misapprehension taking seed was, how old was the young Cumming at that moment, why did he want to believe Alan wasn’t his son?

Maybe Alex used his wife’s imagined adultery as an inner justification for his own infidelities, I say. Cumming agrees, “like the thief who steals money who thinks others are stealing from him. He had some sort of mental condition that precluded him from acting rationally and with empathy and respect.”

Writing the book has given Cumming “some sense of closure,” a statement of a “more holistic version of me.” While talking about the events of the past “churns things up, if anything it has reiterated for me none of this was about me. Whatever the results of the DNA test, even before that, I didn’t think I was my father’s son. I marvel at the fact I am related to this person.”

I ask if there is anything of his father in Cumming. “A voracious sexual appetite definitely. And I’m a charmer. When I was young I saw a man who couldn’t control his urges, who couldn’t control himself and didn’t. It’s not like he couldn’t help himself. Even as a boy, I understood lust I think. I could see, ‘That’s wrong, him doing that.’ Obviously having affairs the way he did—normally people hide that, why didn’t he? I could see he didn’t have control over that.”

So, if his father was like that, and Cumming shares his voracious sexual appetite, how does he behave differently? “My attitude to all of that is, ‘We are animals and we have needs and why should we pretend that’s not the case—and let’s be kind.’ I’m kind: that’s the difference. I like sex. I understand myself and I’m kind.”

Cumming was once married to actress Hilary Lyon, and he also had a relationship with actress Saffron Burrows. He and Shaffer, who he married in New York in 2012 five years after having a civil partnership ceremony in London, don’t have an open relationship, Cumming clarifies. “I don’t think monogamy is a natural state. If something did happen that wouldn’t be the worst way I could betray Grant and he knows that and I feel the same way. Anything we do we do with the utmost kindness and respect to one another, but it’s not like we go round shagging. We don’t go out like people do and come home with a different person, absolutely not.”

*****

Cumming, who achieved film mega-stardom in the X-Men movies, is having “good fun” shooting The Good Wife, and happily surprised to be in its sixth season. It means living and working in New York, not flying all over the place on location for movies. He and Julianna Margulies’s Alicia “rub each other a bit. She’s a bit like a dominatrix with me. Juliana and me are muckers, we get on really well.”

She has the most gorgeous husband too (Keith Lieberthal), I say. “Yeah, and she knows it,” Cumming laughs. “She loves taking him to [show tune bar] Marie’s Crisis. Last week he went to the opera, and out.com named him best-dressed man of the week, which she loved.” The Good Wife is his day job, Cabaret his night job, Cumming says, and he enjoys the boozy parties with gossip and dancing he has in his dressing room afterwards for fellow cast and visiting celebrities and friends. 

Cumming is one of TV and film’s biggest out-gay stars. What does he think of the level of out-ness of actors? “To be honest I don’t really care. When I hear someone came out I think, ‘That’s good, that’s healthy, the world is a better place blah blah. I feel sad if I hear someone feels they can’t. But I’m a bit bored with it all. I’m a bit bored with it being a story. You want to get to the point where it doesn’t matter. I feel if we keep talking about it slows the potential for change down.”

Next year Cumming turns 50, which he feels “really good” about. His beloved collie-shepherd Honey died of cancer this summer, which made Cumming think about his own mortality. “She was sick for a long time. The chemo was so awful we took her off it. It was a good example of how I think people should die if they choose to, instead of the constant ‘Keep people alive at any cost.’ She wasn’t herself, she was really unhappy. More chemo would have extended her life a couple of months, but we felt it wasn’t worth it.” Honey had “a lovely last weekend” at the couple’s Catskills home, then was put down. “I couldn’t deal with it when they gave me a laminated card and asked me which urn I wanted.”

Cumming would like to choose the moment he dies, if faced with a similar situation. “I would like to have that option definitely if I’m in great pain, especially in America, where the drug industry is so powerful—take a pill for this, you take a pill for that.”

He worries about his aging mother, but she’s chipper and headstrong: “If she wants something to happen, watch out.” The book was written with her and Tom’s blessing. All three agree that there’s nothing shameful in being open, says Cumming. 

Mary and Tom are concerned for Cumming, too, “as in the past there has been difficulty.” Does he mean when he had his nervous breakdown? Does he ever worry about having another? “I don’t. This week has definitely felt a bit emotional. But no. I’m much more conscious of it now. When I performed Macbeth, which was really disturbing, my mum came to see it and said afterwards, ‘You’re not going to have another nervous breakdown are you?’ I said, ‘No, I’m fine. I’m just playing someone who is.’”

Is therapy helpful? “I don’t have therapy to stop having a nervous breakdown, but I understand the value of therapy. I check in with myself and see what’s going on.” When Cumming performed in the searing gay concentration camp drama Bent he understood he had to leave the role at the theater, he says; the same with Macbeth. “I’m a more sorted out person than I used to be.” Shaffer is a vital, cherished and cherishing grounding influence. “He is a really amazing person, it’s hard to explain that in a book without sounding saccharine, but he is.”

It’s time to leave. Does Cumming feel like we’ve squared our curious circle, I ask. He laughs, sings a few bars of ‘Circle of Life’ from The Lion King, and then—with his sweet, flirty beam on full blast—says softly, “Bye Simba.”