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Alan Cumming reveals how suffering abuse from his father taught him to act

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Alan Cumming has said suffering abuse at the hands of his father taught him “good qualities” for becoming an actor.

The 57-year-old Scottish star, best known for roles in Emma and Goldeneye, recalled on Desert Island Discs how he and his brother endured emotional and physical abuse as young boys.

Cumming was born in Aberfeldy, Perthshire and lived on the Panmure Estate, where his father was head forester.

Reflecting on his first steps into acting at school, he told host Lauren Laverne: “My dad didn’t break my spirit.

“I feel that the qualities you need to deal with someone who is an adult who is abusing you, and you are powerless, are good qualities for being an actor.

“Listening, pretending you are not feeling what you are feeling, not showing fear.

“I always knew that I was going to get out and I was going to live the life I wanted to lead.

“And I was helped by some of the people in this playlist today.”

Cumming did not have any communication with his father from his 20s until shortly before the filming of his episode of the series Who Do You Think You Are? nearly 20 years later.

Ahead of filming, he discovered his father believed he was not his biological son, but Cumming later disproved this using a DNA test.

“The crazy thing is that none of that was true,” he said.

“He had made it up. I eventually had this DNA test because I didn’t believe him and I had to then phone up my dad and tell him – and disappoint him – that I was his son.

“And the phone call ended and I knew he was dying. He had cancer and stuff.

“I told him I thought he was a coward, because I had been the one to go and find out the truth – and (he) had used a fallacy that he had believed as a justification to abuse me all these years.

“So I said all the things I could possible want to say to him, and I went to say, ‘OK, I have got to go now, take care, I will talk to you’ – and I went, ‘No I won’t, I actually won’t talk to you again – but take care’.

“So I said goodbye to him in that thing as well.”

Cumming said once he put the phone down he realised he was wearing full drag, as he was shooting in South Africa and playing a transvestite.

He said: “It was just perfect.

“I thought if my father could see me right now, it would be his worst nightmare probably.

“Not anything I thought I would have to go through.”

Cumming also recalled how as a boy his father would cut his hair with sheep shears.

Asked what set his father off, he replied: “You just couldn’t tell. That’s the thing with a tyrant. Constantly on edge.

“I could tell by the clack of his boots, the way he opened the door.

“Often it would be to do with my appearance or my hair. He was obsessed with my hair. When I would go to get my hair cut as an adult I would vomit.”

His musical choices included Dignity by the Scottish band Deacon Blue, Barcelona by Freddie Mercury and operatic soprano Montserrat Caballe and I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) by the Proclaimers.

Desert Island Discs is on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Sounds on Sunday at 11am.


Alan Cumming has said suffering abuse at the hands of his father taught him “good qualities” for becoming an actor.

The 57-year-old Scottish star, best known for roles in Emma and Goldeneye, recalled on Desert Island Discs how he and his brother endured emotional and physical abuse as young boys.

Cumming was born in Aberfeldy, Perthshire and lived on the Panmure Estate, where his father was head forester.

Reflecting on his first steps into acting at school, he told host Lauren Laverne: “My dad didn’t break my spirit.

“I feel that the qualities you need to deal with someone who is an adult who is abusing you, and you are powerless, are good qualities for being an actor.

“Listening, pretending you are not feeling what you are feeling, not showing fear.

“I always knew that I was going to get out and I was going to live the life I wanted to lead.

“And I was helped by some of the people in this playlist today.”

Cumming did not have any communication with his father from his 20s until shortly before the filming of his episode of the series Who Do You Think You Are? nearly 20 years later.

Ahead of filming, he discovered his father believed he was not his biological son, but Cumming later disproved this using a DNA test.

“The crazy thing is that none of that was true,” he said.

“He had made it up. I eventually had this DNA test because I didn’t believe him and I had to then phone up my dad and tell him – and disappoint him – that I was his son.

“And the phone call ended and I knew he was dying. He had cancer and stuff.

“I told him I thought he was a coward, because I had been the one to go and find out the truth – and (he) had used a fallacy that he had believed as a justification to abuse me all these years.

“So I said all the things I could possible want to say to him, and I went to say, ‘OK, I have got to go now, take care, I will talk to you’ – and I went, ‘No I won’t, I actually won’t talk to you again – but take care’.

“So I said goodbye to him in that thing as well.”

Cumming said once he put the phone down he realised he was wearing full drag, as he was shooting in South Africa and playing a transvestite.

He said: “It was just perfect.

“I thought if my father could see me right now, it would be his worst nightmare probably.

“Not anything I thought I would have to go through.”

Cumming also recalled how as a boy his father would cut his hair with sheep shears.

Asked what set his father off, he replied: “You just couldn’t tell. That’s the thing with a tyrant. Constantly on edge.

“I could tell by the clack of his boots, the way he opened the door.

“Often it would be to do with my appearance or my hair. He was obsessed with my hair. When I would go to get my hair cut as an adult I would vomit.”

His musical choices included Dignity by the Scottish band Deacon Blue, Barcelona by Freddie Mercury and operatic soprano Montserrat Caballe and I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) by the Proclaimers.

Desert Island Discs is on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Sounds on Sunday at 11am.

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