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'Cabaret' actor Alan Cumming unpacks his 'Baggage' in a new memoir

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Alan Cumming, has written a new memoir in which he explains that at some of his greatest career highs, he's been unhappy and confused. At his most celebrated, he's felt the lowest self-esteem. He traces some of this to his relationship with his father, who tormented him psychologically and beat him. Cumming also writes about his two marriages and his understanding of his own sexuality. In his 20s, he was married to a woman. Their relationship lasted about eight years. He's been with his husband for 17 years.

Cumming's memoir is also filled with insights about acting. Cumming became famous in the U.S. for his Tony Award-winning performance in the 1998 Broadway revival of "Cabaret." He played the emcee in a Berlin nightclub in 1929 and '30 as the Nazis are gaining power, but people in the cabaret are oblivious to what that means. Cumming's interpretation of the character emphasized the sexuality and debauchery of the club's culture. In 2014, that production was revived with Cumming again playing the emcee.

Cumming was nominated for three Emmys and two Golden Globes for his performance in the TV series "The Good Wife." His movies include the Kubrick film "Eyes Wide Shut," the Bond film "GoldenEye," the X-Men film "X2" and the "Spy Kids" trilogy. His cabaret act, "Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs," was broadcast on PBS. He co-starred in the recent series "Schmigadoon!" a loving spoof of musicals from the 1940s and '50s. Let's start with the opening song from "Cabaret."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILLKOMMEN")

ALAN CUMMING: (As Emcee, singing) Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome, fremde, estranger, stranger, gluklich zu sehen, je suis enchante, happy to see you, bleibe, reste, stay. Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome, im Cabaret, au Cabaret, to Cabaret. Meine damen und herren, mesdames et messieurs, ladies and gentlemen, guden abend, bon soir, good evening.

GROSS: Alan Cumming, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

CUMMING: Thank you.

GROSS: So you came to New York to do "Cabaret" and you say that it was an unusual feeling to not have people make assumptions about your class or about your intelligence because you were Scottish. What were the assumptions in Britain about you because of your accent?

CUMMING: Yeah. I - before I came to New York, I was living in London and, you know, there's quite a lot of baggage, as it were, being a Scot living in London - being from outside of the southeast of England and living - you know, and coming to live in London. It's not just about Scottish people. Irish people get it. People who are from the north of England get it, too. But there's - you know, the class system in Britain is pretty still incredibly vivid and also the whole kind of nationality thing, the sort of - you know, there was a sort of ancient historical persecution of Scotland by the English over the years. So there's - so what it meant to me, though personally, was that I - how I sounded would mean that people would assume things about my education, my intelligence, my class. And they were always not, you know, very positive things in their minds.

So when I came to America, when I came to New York, all the - I didn't really realize all this when I was living in London. It was just part of this sort of subliminal thing that you just had to deal with. It was part of what it was like living in London. And so when I came to New York, that's when I realized because I was being sort of celebrated for all the things that I was slightly derided for as a Scot in London. People liked my voice. People liked how I thought. People liked that I was different. And that's when I kind of realized that I'd been living with that and that Scottish people live with that just because of where they're from when they come down south.

GROSS: We talked a lot about "Cabaret" in our 2014 interview, so I don't want to go over the same territory, but I was really interested to read in the book that when you were first offered "Cabaret," you declined. You didn't want to be in a musical. Why didn't you want to be in a musical?

CUMMING: I just felt - I mean, I was being snobby, I suppose. I just didn't quite - I mean, I just felt musicals weren't for me. It was very much, you know, I hadn't done anything like that. I'd sort of - even the sort of stand-up comedy act that I did where we sang, we kind of were parodying and slightly looking down on that sort of, you know, and taking the mickey out of musicals in a way. I just felt it was not my thing. I saw musicals as something light. And I was - you know, I was a serious actor. I was literally doing "Hamlet" right before I did the emcee. So I think it was just my youthful arrogance, I suppose, and also slight - and also fear. But luckily, Sam Mendes sort of, you know, persuaded me. And I realized that my fear about doing a show like "Cabaret," which is about a very serious subject, doing that in the form of a musical, which by its very nature has to have certain tropes, that to me can sometimes demean the material, that was my worry. And that was also - Sam had thought about that through - and thought that through.

And, you know, the production that we - we both wanted to do the same thing, I guess, which was do this very kind of gritty, earthy production. And also "Cabaret" is a good musical in that there's a reason why you burst into song, certainly for my character because he's a performer in a club. So it's not quite - I mean, I still have trouble with - you know, I'm talking now and now I'm singing. I still have trouble with that when I'm trying to be sort of - you know, I can do it in a sort of a parody way, in a way that's heightened. But if I'm trying to be a real person, I still have some problems with that. I'm working on it, though.

GROSS: Were you comfortable singing in character?

CUMMING: Yes. I - singing in character is much easier. You have this sort of veil of the character between you and the audience. I find it really difficult, and, you know, I started doing my own concerts about 10 years ago or so. And that was a huge, terrifying leap to suddenly sing as me. And I'm so glad I - I love it now, and I'm really glad I've done it. And I do these concerts all over the place, and it's been an incredible thing for my confidence and for my - and also the way that I sort of want to - you know, what I want to talk about. Each show sort of has a theme. The one I'm doing currently is about sort of aging. It's called "Alan Cumming Is Not Acting His Age." I feel I can actually say things that I want to say using the sort of medium of cabaret, a true cabaret of, you know, talking about stuff, singing a song that kind of illustrates that, making people think, making people laugh, making people cry. That is - I'm really glad I'm doing that. But it was very, very, very scary to step outside a character and say, this is me.

GROSS: So you were reluctant to do "Cabaret" when it was offered to. You didn't want to be in a musical. You were uncomfortable about musicals. Now that you've been in an exceptionally successful musical, you were in another musical very recently, and this was a parody of classic Americana kind of musicals from the 1950s called "Schmigadoon!" It was a streaming series that I just really loved. So describe the character that you played in "Schmigadoon!" And "Schmigadoon!" - it's "Schmigadoon!" as in "Brigadoon" because the musicals that are parodied in this include, like, "The Music Man," "Guys And Dolls"...

CUMMING: "Carousel."

GROSS: ..."Oklahoma," "Carousel," "Brigadoon." Did I mention "Brigadoon" already? Yeah.

CUMMING: Yes. So Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong play a couple in the present time who go on this kind of getaway from it all, make your relationship better, sort of outward bound weekend. And they get lost when they're on a hike, and they go over this little bridge. And like in "Brigadoon," they come to this magical land called Schmigadoon where everyone is sort of in - is sort of a character from a, you know, 1950s, 1940s Hollywood musical. So it's just - it's actually a really clever because it's a parody and a homage at the same time.

GROSS: So you play this very repressed character. Like, you're the mayor. And one day in the woods, the Cecily Strong character sees you. And she's very confused about, like, who she's in love with and, you know, whether she should be breaking up with the person who she was partners with. And you sing the song "Somewhere Love Is Waiting For You." And the deeper you get into the song, the more you realize, the more viewers realize you're singing about yourself and that you're gay and so deep in the closet, like, you can't reveal that even hardly to yourself, let alone to anybody else. So let's hear this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEWHERE LOVE IS WAITING")

CUMMING: (As Mayor Aloysius Menlove, singing) Somewhere love is waiting for you. Someday it will come right on cue. Just as every morning, the sun comes into view, somewhere love is waiting for you.

CECILY STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) Oh, am I supposed to...

CUMMING: (As Mayor Aloysius Menlove, singing) And when you find him, bells won't be ringing, no angels singing to lead you to him. But when you find him, a little voice leaves you no choice but to pursue him. Then he'll smile at you, place your hand in his. And at once, you'll know that contentment is. And he'll hold you close in his strong, tanned arms dons. And your heart's afire, setting off alarms. At last, the love that was forbidden no longer must be hidden. Somewhere love is waiting for you.

GROSS: That is so much fun. And, of course, the love that was forbidden is your own love for another man (laughter).

CUMMING: Yes, for Fred.

GROSS: For Fred. For Fred Armisen.

CUMMING: Fred Armisen.

GROSS: Yeah (laughter). So did you go back to the source material and try to figure out what songs inspired this song?

CUMMING: No. I mean, I didn't. I sort of - I - you know, this was sort of an - I mean, it's an amalgam of lots of different sort of songs from all those shows. The thing that Cinco Paul, who wrote it - you know, he sort of said sort of a nelson eddy style of kind of performance for it. So that was kind of more what I focused on, that kind of - and I love that way that people - you know, like things that are spelt S0I-, like singing, S-I-N-G, or ringing. It's - you make an I sounds. You say, seenging (ph) instead - or I'm - (singing) bells won't be reenging (ph). It's just hysterical to me, that weird, slightly full operatic vowel sounds that singers like - of this style of song sing. So I really tried to do that. I really tried to sort of parody a style of singing more than a style of a song.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Alan Cumming. His new memoir is called "Baggage." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIM BEARD'S "HOLODECK WALTZ")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Alan Cumming. His new memoir is called "Baggage."

Your first memoir had a lot to do with your childhood growing up and your father's emotional and physical abuse. I mean, he tormented you. He beat you. You still write about some of that in your new memoir. And you tell this really horrible story about being locked in this tube. Your father was a forester. Can you give us the short version of that story?

CUMMING: It's a thing called a circular plant, there was a thing that wood - sort of railway would go into this big metal tube. And then it had wood on these little trolleys. And then they would sort of vacuum seal this big tube. And then all this...

GROSS: This was to like, cure the wood with some kind of chemical, right?

CUMMING: to make it more hard-wearing and to last, you know, like that sort of green color that you see wood and sort of fence posts and things have. And so what happened was that the - one time the little chains that kept the word on the little trolleys broke, and the wood kind of fell out. And so the thing was blocked. It couldn't come out. And so my job was - I was little. I had to crawl along the edge of this slimy, green, chemically tube and kind of try and pull the blocked wood.

And when I was inside doing that, I'd said to my dad, please don't shut the door because I was really scared he was going to shut the door on me. And he did. He shut this big door. And I was suddenly in the dark in all this big sort of chemical, you know, prison. And he just did it as a joke, just to be funny. But that's - I write about that in this book as a way to say I still - that's one of my nightmares that I have, a recurring nightmare I have that I was - that he - you know, he then - he opened the door again, and I was - I sort of - I dream that he's going to lock the door, and I'm going to be drowned in this - in all this circular chemical.

So I write about - I mean, I - in my first book, I talked in a lot of detail about my childhood. In this book, I sort of talk about the shadow of it, I think, and that - and also the fact that after writing the first memoir, I sort of, in some way, foolishly thought that I would have some sort of closure or something with my dad. But actually, of course, he came back into my life in a way - a much more vivid and present way than I - than ever before. And I actually realize now, that is for - that is as it should be. He is my father. But he's in my life now on my terms. And I just wanted to kind of talk back a little at the notion from the first memoir that somehow I was cured and overcome and I triumphed all my sort of childhood abuse. And I feel I want to say, no, you still have it. I still have these dreams. I still have things that trigger me. And I feel that you just - the most important thing is never to deny what's happened to you.

GROSS: I'm just thinking about how not funny and how very cruel it was of your father to lock you in, however briefly, in this tube - you know, this big canister filled with a chemical. And now that we know so much more about the toxic qualities and the long-lasting toxic qualities...

CUMMING: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Of many chemicals - I mean...

CUMMING: There's nothing good about it. Yeah, there's nothing...

GROSS: No. It's just a horror show.

CUMMING: It's a horror - I mean, and that was one of many sort of similar - I mean, it wasn't just physical. You know, he was violent. But it was also, like, that he did these really weird, sort of sick kind of games. And yes, he really - yeah, you're right. He tormented me and my brother.

GROSS: How aware was your mother of what your father was doing? And how did she handle it? And I'm wondering if you've - he's been dead a few years. So when you say he is a presence in your life, you mean, like, a psychological presence. He's not a living - a physically living presence anymore. But your mother is still alive.

CUMMING: My mother is very much alive and kicking. Yes, I just saw her yesterday. I put him - but my dad is - he's more - I mean, I talk about him. I'm talking about him now. You know, I talk about him. He's much more present in - when I'm - when I do interviews now, it's - you know, because I did sort of come out, as it were, as someone who had an abusive childhood. I feel that's very much a part of my identity. And I feel I've welcomed him back in, or allowed him back in to - I was sort of in denial about him for a long time. I sort of didn't even remember many of the things that happened to me.

So my mom - you know, we were - we all lived in terror. I mean, if you live in terror, it's a sort of paralyzing thing. You - I mean, I - there was nothing any of us could have done. We all - we were - we lived in fear of our lives. And I think - she eventually got away from my dad. And I really admire her. I really admire the kind of - you know, she's a survivor, too. And she made a life for herself and went on to find happiness with someone else. And I think that's sort of, you know, a testament to her character and her strength.

GROSS: You were already out of the house when she did that.

CUMMING: Yeah. I left, you know, when I was 17. I went to drama school as quickly as I could. I sort of fled. And it - you know, I took - but it was very many years after that before I could even remember things or even countenance idea of sort of confronting my own past, my own memories. It was - in a way, my body was protecting me from - I think, from - I was too little and too young to process the - what was happening to me. It was too - I shouldn't - you know, a child shouldn't have to deal with that. So I think my body kind of just said, OK, we're not going to actually deal with that right now. We're going to just store that away somewhere. And then when it was - when I was starting to try to become a father myself, I feel that's when my - that unlocked all those memories about my own father.

GROSS: When those memories started coming back to you, did you trust the memories? And was there anybody who you could talk to who could say, yeah, that really happened?

CUMMING: The person that I was able to be reassured by that it had happened was my brother. And I - but, of course, I think if anyone has had the experience of remembering abuse and that - you can't believe it happened to you. You can't - saying it aloud is - just seems - so you have to - I mean, it's really important to be believed, partly because you can't believe it yourself. And actually saying it - you know, a good abuser relies on you protecting them because you are so ashamed of what's happening to you. So actually finally being - saying, this happen to me, is such a huge maelstrom of emotion. And so it is very important to be believed. And if people doubt you or, as happened to me, because I was leaving a relationship whilst all that was going on, you know, to sort of hurt you, to sort of say that there - that it's not true and that I was making up - that was very, very difficult.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Alan Cumming. His new memoir is called "Baggage." We'll talk more after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN KANDER SONG, "WILLKOMMEN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Alan Cumming. He won a Tony for his performance in the revival of "Cabaret," playing the emcee at a decadent Berlin nightclub as the Nazis are slowly taking over. He won an Emmy for his performance on the TV series "The Good Wife." He's written his second memoir. It's called "Baggage." When we left off, we were talking about his physically abusive father, who beat him and tormented him. Cumming left home when he was 17.

Well, you write about - you hadn't - didn't talk to your father for about 16 years. But you mentioned that you and your brother returned to see your father and to confront him. What did you say to each other? Can - are you comfortable talking about that?

CUMMING: I wrote it all down, what I wanted to say. I said, you know, we remember these incidents of violence and abuse. And we listed some of the things. And we - I mean, I - obviously, I was getting a lot of therapy at the time, and I tried not to be too sort of, you know, therapy-speak with him. I tried to say, I want to understand why you did that. And if there was something - do you think there's something that happened to you that made you behave in that way? And, you know, we did all that.

And I just sort of felt I - I said the reason we are here today is to give you this back. We have carried this thing that didn't belong to us. And we feel - we understand that it happened now, but we want to give it back to you to take it all out in the open, say that it happened and see if we can continue having a relationship. If we're going to continue, you have to come back with us - to us willing to discuss this and willing to, you know, sort of explain. It's happened now. It's never not going to happen. But maybe you could make it clearer for us why you think it happened, what was going on in your life. And maybe, you know, you tell - let us know if you actually still want to be in our lives.

So we did that in a very - you know, we thought about it a lot. And it was a terrifying experience because we walked - we were having this conversation in the place where we had had the abuse. I mean, we went for a walk around the estate, actually, to not be in the house. And it was scary. I thought my dad was going to hit me at one point. And at the end, he - when we went - when we drove away, I could see he had tears in his eyes, and he - you know, we - and we sort of left the door open for him. And my brother (laughter) said this hilarious thing to me, like, when we got in the car. And we were both just shaking. And, you know, it was an incredible experience. And he said to me, gosh, Alan, you hardly looked at the script at all. That's what he said to me.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: 'Cause I had this piece of paper with all the things I wanted to say, and he made it like I was acting a scene, which I thought was kind of perfect, actually. But then we never heard from him again. The next time I heard from my father was many years later when he got in touch via my brother to tell me that I wasn't his biological son. That was the next time I heard from him.

GROSS: But you did some research and DNA testing, and you found out that he...

CUMMING: Oh, I was his son. Yeah, I was his son. He - that's - I was. So I had to...

GROSS: Why did he say that you were not his biological son? Did he believe that?

CUMMING: He totally believed it. And it was fascinating. I mean, you know, it was - obviously, it was a very difficult and emotional and - I mean, it's insane to actually - when it was happening. But now, you know, looking back at it, it's kind of fascinating that, at some point, he made something that was maybe a little niggly thing, a little sort of suspicion into the truth for him, I think, partly to justify in his mind the way he was behaving to my mother in terms of the affairs he was having and also to me in terms of - but it doesn't quite make sense 'cause, you know, he hit my brother as well. The logic of it is not quite clear. But he - you know, I - when I - I had - the last time I spoke to him, I called him up and said, I have got the results of the DNA test; I am your son. And he said - I mean, imagine (laughter) having that conversation. And he said, well, I'm very surprised to hear that. And I was like, I bet you are.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CUMMING: And he said to me, I - you know, he said things like, I had to believe it, Alan. I said, no, you didn't; you chose to believe it. And he said things like, you know, did you not notice that we never bonded? I was like, yes, oh, believe me, I noticed. It was just like I was dealing with a child. And I eventually had to say to him, you know, I'm going to stop this conversation now, and I won't talk to you again. I won't - we won't be speaking again. And it - I mean, it's really difficult because you can't expect rationality from an irrational person or - I mean, I think he was mentally ill. I think he had certain personality disorders. And goodness knows what happened to him when he was a little boy. He certainly didn't break the cycle, I think. But it was crazy.

GROSS: When you were a teenager and decided you wanted to act and started studying drama, was it a relief to get out of yourself and become other people?

CUMMING: Yes. Yes, it was. And I think that's still something that I feel is, you know, a great attraction for me about acting. I just love the idea that I play someone completely different to myself. I think, obviously then, it was more about the fact that I - my - if I dwelt too much on my present - I mean, I kind of wasn't doing that. I was kind of just not processing. I was just moving through it, trying to just - being quite blinkered. But the idea of being someone else, being someone completely different was very liberating and fun and, you know - and easy. So yeah, it was - that was a great thing.

GROSS: You know, you write in your memoir about your marriage to your wife, who you married when you were in your 20s, I think, and then...

CUMMING: Yes, 21.

GROSS: ...Your marriage to your husband. And you've been together for about 17 years. You say that, you know, after you were married for a while, you realized that you needed to make a change, that you needed to get out of the marriage. But you weren't really sure how to do it, and you also were going through a really rough period. Correct me if I have the chronology wrong here, but there was a period when you were doing "Hamlet" at night and rehearsing "Cabaret" during the day, which was, I mean, two extraordinary roles, but it turned out to be a very kind of dangerous brew for you because of the characters. What was seeping into your person from their characters that added to your depression and anxiety during that period?

CUMMING: Well, so "Hamlet," I was playing someone who's having, you know, a very difficult time with his family, who is being - you know, being asked to confront things about his dad. I was in "Hamlet" with - and the actress playing Ophelia was also my wife. I - in "Cabaret," I was being sort of - I guess having to mine my fantasies in terms of what the character would do sexually and things like that in the - there was just a lot going on. And I also, at the time, was trying to become a father. And the real sort of - the thing that precipitated my sort of breakdown was that, was unleashing all those memories from my childhood.

But playing those two parts, you're, first of all, exhausted. But also, there's sort of certain kind of, you know, things that are unleashed because of what you're dealing with. I didn't - I also - I didn't leave the work at home. I mean, sorry, I didn't leave work at the theater. I didn't - I took it home. I took the sort of angst and the despair of Hamlet home with me, and that was a disaster. I mean, I learned that lesson, but it was a very, very difficult lesson to learn.

GROSS: I think it must have been really complicated to be thinking, do I really want to be a father? Do I even really want to stay in this marriage? - while at the same time playing opposite your wife every night on stage because you were Hamlet and she was Ophelia.

CUMMING: Yeah, it was a hot mess. It was a total hot mess.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah.

CUMMING: And really, it was just - and it was just, you know - and then suddenly saying to someone, you know, who you'd been very assiduously trying to get pregnant with - suddenly saying, oh, I don't want to do this anymore. In fact, I don't even know if I want to be with you. I don't - and I don't know why. I'm just feeling really weird and depressed and incapable of choosing my clothes in the morning. I mean, it was just - and also not eating. That was another thing. I kind of had a sort of burgeoning eating disorder at that - right about that time.

So it was just - it was - I mean, I - one of the things about writing about yourself is - you know, and going back and researching - is I felt such compassion for my younger self. I really, you know - I was several times thinking, oh, my God, that - how - you poor little thing. That was a lot to deal with.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Alan Cumming. His new memoir is called "Baggage." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON PARKS' "SMALL PLANET")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Alan Cumming. His new memoir is called "Baggage."

I want to ask you about working with Stanley Kubrick. You were in his 1997 film "Eyes Wide Shut." And it's funny. You know, you auditioned with an American accent. And then when he saw you as yourself, after you got the part, he said, you're not American. You were American on the tapes. Were you afraid...

CUMMING: He was furious.

GROSS: Yeah. Why was he angry, and what do you - what did you fear the consequences would be? Did you fear there would be consequences?

CUMMING: It's funny. I felt kind of - I mean, I never met him until I - I only auditioned on tape and for some producers. I never actually met Stanley. So I was - the first day I was meeting him was - I walk on the - onto the assigned stage. There's Tom Cruise, there's Stanley Kubrick and there's me. And I said, hello, Stanley. I'm Alan. And that - he - and he seemed really kind of disgruntled. He was like, you're not American - like that, kind of grumpy. And I was like, yes, I know. I'm Scottish. And he said, you're American on the tape. And I did this thing that - I sort of felt I had nothing to lose, actually. I feel - I mean, I felt that, you know, I wanted to be in this film. I'd sort of held out, taking some time off, to wait for it to happen. But also, you know, it was 6 o'clock in the morning. I'd been hanging around for months to do this little part. And here's this old man sort of being annoyed at me because I wasn't the nationality that I'd been pretending to be on the tape. And I was just like, oh, you know - I was going to swear there. I'm not allowed to. But I was basically like, you know, F off, Stanley Kubrick.

And so I - but I said to him - he said, you were American on the tape. And I just said, yeah, that's because I'm an actor, Stanley. And he looked at me with this kind of - sort of over his glasses and kind of sort of - you know, you're kind of interesting. And after that, we got on like a house on fire, I think because I stood up to him. And I think it's an interesting thing about people who are perceived as gruff and scary and maybe even a bully. If you serve them, if you give them that type of behavior, if you are scared and walk on eggshells around them, I think it only - you know, it's a self-perpetuating thing. And if you kind of challenge them and just sort of say, you know, I think you're being unreasonable, I think they sort of snap out of it. And I think they're quite happy to not be sort of having to fulfill their own perceived destiny.

So that's - that was the case with him. And we really did get on like a house on fire, and I really liked him and I really felt that that tiny part in that movie was very invigorating for me as an actor. I didn't - I sort of was bored of acting and film acting at the time. And it just kind of made me excited about, you know, like, just doing that tiny little scene. But every little moment was packed with nuance, and every take we did, I knew exactly what we were trying to achieve, and that actually doesn't happen very often. Often, you don't really know why you're doing it again. You're just doing it again. And with Stanley, It was completely clear to me always.

GROSS: Yeah. You said that if it wasn't for Kubrick, you might not still be an actor today. Tell us a little more about working with him. Like, when he would ask you for another take, what would he tell you about what he wanted?

CUMMING: He would be very - it might even be, like, a little - very minute sort of moment. And he would take you to the monitor, and you'd watch what - the previous take, and he would point to little - a moment here. And it could even be a gesture. I mean, it was like a dance. It was like a very detailed, choreographed dance. And also, he would say, you know, let's try and take it a bit further, let's kind of up the ante, to the point where I was saying to him - like, me, Alan Cumming, is saying to him - that's too much, Stanley. I think we're going too far. And he would go, no, go on. Go on. So (laughter) I met my match in terms of, you know, big heightened performances because I - you know, there's a saying in Scotland is, you can be as big as you like as long as you mean it. And I feel that was - Stanley thought that, too, obviously.

GROSS: You've written several books, including fiction and two memoirs. You were writing when you were a teenager. You got a job at a publishing company that did, I think, newspapers and magazines.

CUMMING: Yes. Yeah. DC Thomson, it's called. And I had gotten...

GROSS: And so this was in Scotland.

CUMMING: This is in Scotland. It's in Dundee. I was - like, I left school at 16. I thought, what am I going to do? I've got to - I mean, I was going to be sort of chucked out of the house unless I got a job. And I - my mom saw the ad in the newspaper for, like, a subeditor at this publishing house. And so I applied and got it. And again, it was, you know, I feel like I've - in my life, I haven't really had a Plan B. I don't really think ahead in that way. And I - you know, I knew I was going to apply to drama school. But I only applied to one drama school. And I - if I didn't - hadn't got this job, I don't know quite what I would have done.

GROSS: One of the things you did when you were working for this publishing company is you started modeling for photo stories.

CUMMING: (Laughter) Yes.

GROSS: And one of the photos you reprint in the book...

CUMMING: I'm so glad this is a radio program and we can't show the actual pictures because that's happened...

GROSS: Oh, but I'm going to describe it with your help. So...

CUMMING: Oh, God.

GROSS: There's a photo of you with your - you're lying on your side with your...

CUMMING: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Head propped up on your elbow. You're wearing these, like, short shorts, a sleeveless T-shirt...

CUMMING: Very short.

GROSS: One of those, like, strap T-shirts. And it's a...

CUMMING: I think there's a headband, isn't there?

GROSS: And a headband, yes, because this is, like, a 1970s kind of thing...

CUMMING: A sweatband. Yeah.

GROSS: ...Or '80s. And you really look like you're posing for a gay magazine (laughter).

CUMMING: Yes.

GROSS: But it was just - it was a teen magazine. What do you think about when you...

CUMMING: It was a teen - he was, like, a - well, it was such - that one was hilarious. That was a sort of 10-part photo love story. And it was about this boy who - he couldn't - it was called "The One And Only." And he said, he can't find love because he's too busy trying to be the next Leroy from "Fame." Like, he was - he wanted to be a dancer. And I just thought, perhaps the fact that he's so obsessed with Leroy from "Fame" is why he's not finding a girlfriend.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: And nobody else seemed to think that (laughter). But, I mean, I look back at it, and I just - I think, actually, it's, you know, the thing you mentioned earlier, that I always looked younger than I actually was. When I was - I was 16, 17 doing those things. I feel I looked about 13 or 14. I feel it was, like, weird, you know? And that's another thing about looking back and writing about yourself is that you partly have that thing about feeling compassion for yourself, that you see how young you were, and not just how young you were but even, like, you looked - and I was kind of immature, you know? I didn't - I wasn't very worldly. And I was in these situations that I feel sort of concerned for myself now looking back at.

GROSS: Thank you so much for coming back to our show. I really enjoyed speaking with you again.

CUMMING: It's always lovely to be probed by you, Terry.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I like the way you said that.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: Mercilessly probed.

GROSS: It sounds like a horrible visit to the doctor's office.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Alan Cumming, thank you again.

CUMMING: Thank you.

GROSS: Alan Cumming's new memoir is called "Baggage." Here's a song from the album of his cabaret show "Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs." This is the Noel Coward song "If Love Were All."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF LOVE WERE ALL")

CUMMING: (Singing) I believe in doing what I can, crying when I must, laughing when I choose. Hey, ho, if love were all, I would be lonely. I believe the more you love a man, the more you give your trust, the more you're bound to lose. Although, when shadows fall, I think if only somebody splendid really needed me, someone affectionate and dear, cares would be ended if I knew that he wanted to have me near. But I believe...

GROSS: After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new memoir by a former journalist who spent months interviewing men who work on oil rigs and ended up falling for one of them. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO LA TENGO'S "WEATHER SHY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.