Alan Cumming Would Like to Play the Title Character in ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’

“I would play her as a man, not in drag or anything,” says the Tony-winning actor Alan Cumming, whose new memoir is “Baggage.” “Once you’ve played everything in ‘Macbeth’ (like I have) there are slim pickings in terms of great, complicated, messed-up Scots left to play!”

What books are on your night stand?

“The Politics of the Family,” by R. D. Laing. I’m fascinated by Laing. His belief that madness or mental illness is not something to be locked away and hidden but that it is potentially a shamanic experience with much to teach us is fascinating to me. Part of the reason I wanted to write “Baggage” was to show I am still on a journey, still learning and still affected deeply by trauma I’ve had in my past. I also used to have a therapist who was a student of Laing’s and so I had this fascinating insight into the man himself. He definitely wasn’t easy. A brilliant, troubled, drunk Scotsman. We specialize in them.

“A Short History of Islam,” by William Montgomery Watt. Religion really confuses me. The concept of having faith in a higher power, some kind of symbol that gives you succor and moral guidance and all that is totally fine. I just get confused with all the different types and their origins. I think my upbringing in rural Scotland was so monolithic in terms of religion. There were only ever Protestants around. I remember it being a big deal when some Catholic kids enrolled in our high school. I didn’t meet a Jewish person until I was 18. I also embraced atheism early so I just never got into the habit of retaining information about the different types of religion and now I’m trying to catch up with the crazy.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. I have had this on my night stand since I was given it at my naturalization ceremony in 2008. I have to say I think the word ‘naturalization’ isn’t good. It suggests that becoming an American is the natural thing to do, and therefore not being American is unnatural. That obviously explains a lot of U.S. foreign policy, but doesn’t really help in the P.R. department. I always take delight in pointing out this type of arrogance to my American friends. Like why is it called the World Series when only America and Canada play in it? And saying the president is the “leader of the free world” also smacks of jingoistic superiority as it assumes the rest of the world that considers itself to be free must also consider itself to be led and guided by America and its leader, and — spoiler alert — that has not been the case for a while (especially during the last presidency).

“The Rural Life,” by Verlyn Klinkenborg. I have a fantasy that I will plant a beautiful organic garden and tend to it, barefoot and serene — a bit like Nicole Kidman’s character in “Nine Perfect Strangers.” But then I remember that I travel too much and other people would have to look after it for me, and then I think of all the times throughout the summer when gardener friends suddenly become manic and try to fob off all their excess bounty on anyone who comes into their orbit and I fear I would become the version of Nicole Kidman’s character who is off her tits on psychedelics and lying under a tree with blood coming out of her nose and I decide to postpone my garden plans for another year.

“Card Tricks,” by James Weir. I don’t know why I have this on my night stand. I mean, I am a magic nut and I want to learn some card tricks but I keep forgetting to bring a deck of cards to bed so I can practice, and then I think how weird it would be and not a good sign for my relationship to start playing cards in bed, so I don’t bring them and therefore I have never learned a single card trick from this book.

“The Gospel According to Jesus,” by Stephen Mitchell. This can be filed under me trying to catch up with the weirdo religions of the world. But I have to say that, as an atheist, I really like Jesus. He was obviously a great guy, cared about people less fortunate than himself, befriended and championed sex workers, he even eschewed organized religion. It’s just such a shame that so many awful, mean and, yes, right-wing people have hijacked him and used him as an excuse to behave so horribly to their fellow man.

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    “My Autobiography,” by Charlie Chaplin. I was going to play Charlie Chaplin in a mini-series but it kind of petered out and never happened as these things often do. Of course I was going to play him in his older, drunken, whoring days, right before he turned things around and against all odds pulled off “The Great Dictator.” Anyway, I loved finding out more about him. Did you know he used to vacation in Nairn in Scotland? I didn’t either.

    “Starbook,” by Ben Okri. I once met Ben Okri at a literary festival in New Zealand and so now when I read him I hear his beautiful voice. I also love the mythical, fablelike quality of his stories. There is something very comforting and ancient about them. I can’t wait to get sucked into this one.

    What’s the last great book you read?

    “Shuggie Bain,” by Douglas Stuart. I can’t think of anything more immersive and all-encompassing. It was beautiful. Heartbreaking and awful and all the worst of humanity right next to the most touching and tender moments and then the biggest belly laughs. It made me miss home actually. Not because Shuggie’s life is anything like my upbringing, but more because of the tone and the fact that my country produces people like Douglas who can capture its spirit and essence and laugh at itself as well as bare its soul. It made me very proud to be Scottish.

    Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

    At my house in the Catskills I have had a tree house built. In it are all the books I want to read but haven’t got round to yet. There is a hanging chair and also a loft bed so I can lounge or lie down and read in utter peace. I’m surrounded by trees and there is a beautiful smell from the wood timbers. And like anything so lovely and comforting, even the thought of it makes me happy, sometimes as much as actually being able to sit in it and gorge on a book.

    It’s also a pretty nifty venue for writing.

    What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

    “After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie,” by Jean Rhys. People know her for “Wide Sargasso Sea” (written as a sort of prequel to “Jane Eyre”) but I think this one is so brilliant. It feels very autobiographical, about an Englishwoman living in Paris in the ’20s who has been financially supported by a man (Mr. Mackenzie) and suddenly at the start of the story the checks stop coming. She is getting older, drinks a bit too much and is now desperate. Like “Shuggie Bain” it feels like you are experiencing this person’s life, not just observing them.

    I read a biography of Jean Rhys and the saddest thing was that she had a resurgence in the ’60s when not only was “Wide Sargasso Sea” published but some of her earlier work was seen for the first time. She was much feted, even winning the W. H. Smith Literary Award. But her comment on all this success was “It has come too late.”

    What book, if any, most contributed to your artistic development as an actor?

    I hate deconstructing acting. I hate talking about it. I hate mythologizing it. When people ask me about my acting process I always say, “I am not a cheese, I have no process.” But I think of two books — “The Catcher in the Rye,” by J. D. Salinger, and “The Trick Is to Keep Breathing,” by Janice Galloway — that are both written in the first person and both feel that you are inside someone’s head and so I think that idea of being completely lost, completely overwhelmed and immersed in a role was fueled very much by reading them. Both are also about someone going through a mental breakdown, so make of that what you will.

    Of all the characters you’ve played, which role felt to you the richest — the most novelistic?

    Recently I have played a couple of sleuths who had really amazing back stories and both of whom were actually also writers. The first was Simon Hoxley on “Prodigal Son,” a Europol agent and best-selling novelist who seemed to be from another era. He was so juicy to play and I was sad “Prodigal Son” was canceled as I looked forward to him returning and chewing more scenery. And in “Instinct,” the series I did on CBS for a couple of years, I played Dylan Reinhart, a consultant with the N.Y.P.D. with a seemingly endless list of accolades and former iterations: a C.I.A. spy, a child musical prodigy, a phonographic memory, a university professor, a motorbike rider and a happily married gay man. Both seemed to have endless possibilities. Dylan even saved Whoopi Goldberg’s life by shooting a glass of poisoned iced tea out of her hand. I mean, come on.

    What character from literature would you most like to play?

    Brodie in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.” I would play her as a man, not in drag or anything. I just think that her story has become so sweetened, biscuit tinned as we would say in Scotland, neutered of its horror through the years of us becoming accustomed and inured to it. But she is a fascist and was extolling fascism to young girls! I also think a man losing his lover to one of his female pupils would induce the necessary shock that we have perhaps lost. It’s also just a really great part and once you’ve played everything in “Macbeth” (like I have) there are slim pickings in terms of great, complicated, messed-up Scots left to play!

    You’ve recorded audiobook versions of everything from “Macbeth” to “Dracula” to Michael Cunningham’s “Specimen Days.” Does performing a book aloud change your perception of it?

    Oh, definitely! First of all, just reading it aloud in such a concentrated, prolonged way makes a book incredibly vivid and contained in your mind in a way that isn’t possible just reading as a layperson: It has been a very long time since I had the luxury of reading a book constantly for two or more consecutive days, for instance. Also, if there is a lot of dialogue between the characters you have to give them different voices and idiosyncrasies and so you imbue and invest so much more in them.

    I really like when people say they listened to my first memoir (“Not My Father’s Son”) because it means they have spent a long time eavesdropping on me opening up and being vulnerable in an even more intense and personal way than by just reading.

    Of course reading a book aloud can also make you more conscious of its weaknesses. I wrote a novel (“Tommy’s Tale”) in 2002 and didn’t read the audiobook till 2012 and when I did I realized that the people who had said the ending was rushed were right.

    What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

    That Marina Abramovic watched her boyfriend’s father die and didn’t shout for his wife or her boyfriend to come in and be there as it happened. It sounds a bit callous or weird, but actually I think she made the best decision. They sounded awful.

    Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

    The lost histories of people of color; how impossible it is for a country as big as the United States to have a collective mentality or morality; anal sex.

    What moves you most in a work of literature?

    Character, character, character. The contradictions of character. Always.

    How do you organize your books?

    Usually just in piles around the floor. I used to have an assistant named Joey who arranged my bookshelves based on the Dewey Decimal system which I really liked because if you’re in the mood for a play for instance, then you can see all the plays you have at once and so you get so many more options to choose from than just thinking of and looking up one particular author. Also, the Dewey Decimal system allows for more messiness when putting books away again and I’m all for that.

    What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

    I was having a good scour of my shelves looking for something that might surprise, or that might indeed even surprise me, and then I thought that hopefully people think of me as eclectic and adventurous enough to not be surprised by anything I might read. I actually quite like the thought that I might be in such a perpetual state of transgression that people don’t blink an eye at anything I do or say or have on my shelves!

    What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

    I was a voracious reader and mad for Enid Blyton as a child. The Famous Five series was a particular favorite. It was the sheer adventure and excitement of them that got me. There were always secret tunnels and people sending coded messages via flashlight from little islands to the shore, and I imagined that the countryside around my house was similarly packed with incident and potential crime. I reread one of the stories a couple of years ago and was fascinated to realize that one of the five — George — is basically trans. That makes these books sound hugely more progressive than they actually were. In fact they were often vaguely racist and always very elitist but they represented escape and adventure in my youth.

    What do you plan to read next?

    “Home Stretch,” by Graham Norton. He is such a good storyteller and delivers a good cliffhanger at the end of every chapter!

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