Dialogs

Dialogs: Actor/Performer/Etc. Alan Cumming Brings Charm and Stories to Chicago Humanities Festival

By Carr Harkrader

With its dramatic palazzo ornamentation, twinkling star-lit ceiling, and mischievous cherubs nuzzling within insets, the Music Box Theatre was perhaps the perfect place for a talk with the performer and all-around-raconteur Alan Cumming.

Appearing at the theater as a part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, Cumming spoke about his career as an actor in Hollywood, London, New York, and Glasgow and across Oscar-worthy films, Broadway plays, television dramas and cartoons, and children’s movies (his most recognized work among younger fans: the villain in Spy Kids). His new memoir, Baggage: Tales From a Fully Packed Life, unpacks his journey from a young Scottish country boy to a plane-hopping celebrity rubbing shoulders (or, in the case of Liza Minnelli, sharing a used dampened towel in his dressing room) with cultural icons.

The early part of the talk focused on how he came to write this book, his second memoir. The first book had focused on his childhood and family, and the abuse that his father had inflicted on him. If the first memoir was “an expunging of family issues,” then Baggage was “sort of an accidental” response to his many fans that saw him as having fully overcome that trauma. “You mustn’t pretend it’s not there or you’ve overcome it,” he shared. Even as this memoir focuses more on his professional successes, he wanted to write about how he was still processing and living with the damage from an earlier time.

As he noted, with a grin that would make a Cheshire cat jealous, his goal with this book was to remind people “don’t buy into the Hollywood ending…but I’ll still tell you lots of stories about my Hollywood life.” Cumming talked about his need for freedom, both creatively and in his personal life. In his career, this has led to some amusing contrasts in projects. In his book, he wrote that “there are very few actors who can say they made back-to-back films with Stanley Kubrick and the Spice Girls. In fact, I know there is only one, and that is me!” Cumming loved working on the film, produced during the height of Spice Girls mania in the late ’90s (“replace zombies with 12-year-old girls” and you get the intensity of the fans hunting down the group, he said). It’s no surprise then that he “hates snobbery of any kind, especially artistic snobbery.”

Chris Jones, the editorial page editor of the Tribune and its chief theater critic, interviewed Cumming and highlighted his groundbreaking work as the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret on Broadway (both in 1998 and in a 2014 revival) and range of roles from Hamlet, in well, Hamlet, to Eli Gold in The Good Wife, the TV legal drama set in Chicago. Cumming said that he based his portrayal of the hard-charging political consultant on Rahm Emanuel.

Jones, originally from Manchester, England, noted that Cumming kicked off his new book tour with an interview conducted by Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland (and an avid reader). Sturgeon and Cumming apparently touched on a number of topics, including, somehow, the importance of jock straps. Although Jones chose to avoid the topic of undergarments, the capacity crowd nonetheless seemed to enjoy themselves.

Cumming said that he was off this week to Barcelona to film a “Philip Marlowe type film.” He has an original children’s story coming out on Audible (he voices the titular character of Cinnamon Bear) at the end of this month, a movie with Katie Holmes appearing in 2022, and he’ll be soon staring in his solo dance debut with a production about the Scottish poet Robert Burns. All artistic grist enough for a third memoir, no doubt.

Carr Harkrader is a writer and educator living in Chicago. He works for a nonprofit where he writes and designs online educational resources and content. Originally from North Carolina, he is often the slowest talker amongst any group of Northerners. He enjoys both crappy reality tv and literary fiction, while often not really grasping the meaning of either.

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