Alan Cumming on his violent father, his Hamlet-induced breakdown and being slapped on the bum by Shia LaBeouf

'Sometimes fame can become your job'
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The Independent Online

Dealing with my father's violence was the beginning of my acting studies

My father's abuse was about demanding that I do certain tasks for him that I wasn't capable of doing; we both knew I was going to fail, but he'd make me try, and because I failed, he'd hit me. There was a misery of always going through that process, knowing what would happen. But I learnt skills important to acting, such as understanding a mood, picking up on someone else's energy, and addressing your feelings.

When someone tells you that you're not their son, it changes everything

Your interpretation of everything up to that moment is affected. [In 2010, before Cumming began filming BBC 1's Who Do You Think You Are?, his father called up to deny being his biological relation.] My dad tried to justify his cruelty towards me by saying, "You must have known you weren't my son." It totally messed with my mind [and, after a DNA test confirmed his parentage, turned out to be untrue].

I apologise to anyone who saw me in my first years as a professional actor

I remember a moment [in 1986] when I did Mr Government at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, two years out of drama school. I was playing a boy who had learning difficulties and I realised, oh god, that's acting – I've been getting it all wrong, thinking it's all about putting things on top of yourself and hiding yourself, but instead it's about letting yourself come though. It was a big revelation.

You can't play 'Hamlet' without being affected in a primal way

[Cumming played the role opposite his ex-wife, Hilary Lyon, as Ophelia, in 1993.] It was the perfect role, but my own emotions and life experiences merged with it and I started to feel out of control – but then, so did Hamlet. It was a double-edged sword and afterwards I freaked out and started having a breakdown; like Hamlet, I wanted to be absent.

The older you get, the more of a relationship you develop with your audience

They know what it means when one of my characters raises an eyebrow in a certain way. It's a Brechtian air; your character works as they know the roles I play and I am adding something, a sensibility. They're laughing because they know you're laughing.

Sometimes fame can become your job

I think that some actors in Hollywood get overwhelmed by it and they can forget why they wanted to be an actor in the first place.

What Shia LaBeouf did was horrible

[LaBeouf was arrested in the summer after he slapped Cumming's behind when the latter walked through the audience as the master of ceremonies in Cabaret]. I could see he was wasted and out of control but I think he has learnt a lesson, and hopefully won't do it again. A lot of people said I've been very nice about Shia, but in a funny way, like with my father, I understood his issues and, as with my father, I've realised that I'm very forgiving.

I'm bad at leaving fun

I'm like the host I'm playing right now [in the Broadway run of Cabaret]. I love hosting a party, and if I'm having a good time, even though I know I should go home and go to sleep, I find it hard to turn it off and shut down. My partner is always texting photos of the food he's prepared for me back home, hoping I'll get in the car and come back. 1

Alan Cumming, 49, is a Tony- and Olivier-award-winning Scottish actor who has appeared in plays from 'Hamlet' to 'Accidental Death of an Anarchist', films from 'GoldenEye' to 'X-Men 2' and TV shows from 'The L Word' to 'The Good Wife'. 'Not My Father's Son: A Memoir' (£16.99, Canongate) is out now

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