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Alan Cumming says he's a provocateur and 'a storyteller for hire'




Actor Alan Cumming recently released the book,
Actor Alan Cumming recently released the book, "You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams: My Life in Stories and Pictures.
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Getting Alan Cumming to sit down for an interview was a bit of a feat, given that he never seems to be in one place for very long.

In recent years, he's performed in a number of plays and musicals on Broadway, including his Tony-winning performance in "Cabaret." He played campaign strategist Eli Gold in the hit CBS show. "The Good Wife," and it was just announced that next year he'll star in a new CBS show called "Dr. Death." 

But his work isn't confined to New York and Hollywood. He was recently back in his native country of Scotland to perform his live show, “Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs," at the Edinburgh International Festival.

The cabaret-style performance is a mix of him singing and telling stories about his life. The show was inspired by his time on Broadway in the 2014 revival of “Cabaret." And he turned his green room into an afterparty each night and called it “Club Cumming.” 

On top of all of this, he's released a new book titled, “You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams: My Life in Stories and Pictures.” The book includes recollections from his life as well as photos he’s taken throughout the years.

The Frame's John Horn spoke with Cumming about his new book, what he learned on his road trip across the United States, and how he's drawn to being a provocateur. 

To hear the entire interview, click the play button at the top of this page. 

Interview Highlights:

On the importance of his personal photography:

I feel as I've gotten older that memory is a collective thing. There's a time in my life, after I got divorced — the first time — a very close friend of mine, we couldn't really see each other. Those two people were the closest people in my life for about seven or eight years.

Suddenly, there was a whole swathe in my life that I had no collective memory with, and it was really difficult. That's when I first realized how important it is to have photographs if you don't have the people there to jolt your memory.

And I really love that idea that when you look back at something, you're looking back at the actual event, but also at this kind of sensibility and essence of what was going on and what was happening to you at the time. I think it's so much fuller a way of remembering things than a piece of film.

 

On what he learned on his road trip across the U.S.:

I listened to the radio a lot and I found, as I got further and further into America, more and more extreme views. In a way, it was a glimpse into what is happening now, actually. What seems to be happening now everywhere.

But this fear, everything was about fear — be afraid of this, be afraid of that. There was one thing on this program that said, If you're going on a vacation, call ahead to the hotel and find out the area nearby with the worst crime rate and stay away from it. I was like, Why would you even bother to call ahead? Just ask them when you get there. It was just full of things like that and I was really amazed and amused and really horrified by this utter fear everywhere.

Right now, I think, we've got that on the pandemic scale. Everything is about fear. Fear is being used as a huge weapon in this election. I just think that road trip for me was the first sense of that brewing. I also would listen sporadically to NPR to even things out a bit as I went through the country. I'd be on some right wing religious talk station and I would get so appalled and terrified that I would turn over to NPR. 

 

On performing Avril Lavigne's "Complicated" in his live show:

I really like, first of all, the idea that you challenge people's preconceived notions about something — anything in life, actually. You asked me how I describe myself and I said: "A storyteller for hire." I would also say, more accurately, a provocateur. That's really what I think you should do as an artist of any kind.

On a personal level, I really fight the idea that you just accept opinions that everybody else has. So with some of these songs that I sing on the show ["Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs"], and especially this one, it's partly that I want to challenge people to think, Ha ha — he's doing an Avril Lavigne song. But then I start to sing properly and I commit to it and it's about something that you didn't know because you never really listened to it properly before.

So for me it's this kind of challenge. And I sing it in the show after I tell a long story about an ex-boyfriend of mine. We had our names tattooed on each other's groins after knowing each other for two weeks. So I tell the big story, which is kind of funny, and at the end of that I go into "Complicated."

The first line is, Chill out, what're you yelling for? Lay back, it's all been done before. And it's just like I'm talking about him. Why did you go and make things so complicated? Also, what I love about that song is the bit that's like, You fall and you crawl and break and you take what you get and you turn that into honesty. What an amazing lyric, you know?

I think perhaps because of the production of that song when it first came out, and because it was sung by a little teenage girl with eyeliner, we didn't really listen to it and hear that. 

On being a provocateur:

I do think when you have more access and more reach as a performer, then obviously you can be more provocative because more people can hear you and more people can be affected by what you have to say. Or you have more people that you can jingle, you know, and provoke.

In a way, being Scottish, a lot of our ways of communicating and our performance style is very confrontational. I don't mean in a mean way, but engaging. So I think it's maybe a cultural thing as well. 

 

On opening up on stage and singing as himself:

I've come around a bit. I really do enjoy singing as myself. You have to think, Why do people want to look at me? Why do people want to listen to me? You have to own it a little bit. You can still be nice and humble, but ... once you realize people want to look at you, people want to listen to you, then you have to allow that as a given and move on from there.

It's a long process. I have trouble voicing it and explaining it, but I just think you have to accept and understand the fact that people are interested in you, and there's something about you that you have a quality that people are drawn to.

Alan Cumming's new book, "You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams: My Life in Stories and Pictures," is available now. 



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