Alan Cumming’s treasured objects: ‘It seems cumbersome and profligate but it works’

Alan Cumming is, by his own description, a man with his “finger in a lot of pies”. His three-decade career has spanned film, theatre, music, writing and activism. He has acted for Stanley Kubrick, duetted with Liza Minnelli, received an OBE from the Queen and penned a bestselling memoir. He may also be the only person to ever launch a fragrance called “Cumming”.

Recently the Scottish-born star added some new roles to his resume. He has spent the past month living in Australia and serving as the artistic director of the Adelaide cabaret festival, which just wrapped up in the South Australian capital, and was planning to head around the country in June and July to tour his cabaret stage show, Alan Cumming Is Not Acting His Age – although that has now been cancelled due to the current Covid-19 outbreaks.

In 2021 he also began recording the podcast Alan Cumming’s Shelves. Every episode sees Cumming reach for one of the curiosities, rarities, or oddities that he has collected throughout career to tell the story behind it. One of his most cherished items, though, came not from a movie set but the gift shop of Disneyland Paris. Here, Cumming tells us about it, as well as two other important belongings.

What I’d save from my house in a fire
Gosh, this was really hard. I’m quite a curator of precious things. But I thought long and hard about this, and I think what I would choose is a snow globe with Minnie Mouse in it.

In 1994, I was in a very bad way – in the middle of a nervous breakdown, I got divorced, all sorts. I was living with my dear friend Matthew Bourne, the choreographer, who let me be his lodger because I had nowhere to stay. One day, when I was in the depths of my depression, he said, “let’s go to Disneyland Paris”. And I was like, as if! But he took me there and it was absolutely a magical time. I poured my heart out to Matthew and I laughed and had joy for the first time in forever.

During that trip I got a little Minnie Mouse snow globe and it just reminds me that there is hope in the world and how even if you’re at your lowest ebb, the sun will come out tomorrow. It really is a talisman for me about how things do get better, and you can rise again from the pits of despair. So if my whole house burned down, I surely would want something to remind me of that.

My most useful object
I have developed a system where I have about five different notebooks that I carry around with me all the time. I know it seems cumbersome and profligate but it works for me.

I have one book that’s just for general notes and things to tell my assistant; stuff I need to write down so I don’t forget it. And then I have different books for different projects. So I’ve got one now called Alan Cumming Is Not Acting His Age, where I’m writing down thoughts and notes about my new cabaret show, for instance. I’ve got one called Alan Cumming’s Shelves, on the podcast I do, I’ve got one for the film adaptation of Macbeth that I’m working on right now.

I feel like I’m someone who has a lot of things going on. I have my finger in a lot of pies, and my way of dealing with so many different projects running concurrently is [to have a lot of different notebooks]. I find it the best system to make all of that work.

The item I most regret losing
The item I most regret losing is my granny’s wedding ring. I loved my granny very much; she was so inspiring to me and kind of nuts. I have her slightly wacky and kooky and hilarious spirit. Or I hope I do, anyway. And she was the first person who made me realise it was OK to be different. When she died, my mum gave me her wedding ring, which I wore on my pinky. It made me feel really connected to her.

Then I lost it when I was packing – I was making a film somewhere and I was putting things into bags and it must have slipped off. After that, I went to London for a long time to do a play and I was really sad about having lost this connection to my granny. But then, six months later, I finished the play and I went into the cupboard to get my bag out and pack again. I opened up my bag and right there was my granny’s ring. And I just think that was incredible, how did I not see that? Somehow she had brought it back to me.

Then I lost it again, of course, in another similar packing incident. One day I looked down and it wasn’t there. And so I still feel that maybe it’s going to find its way back to me one day. I love the way that you misplace things and they come back to you just when you need a little lift or really have forgotten about them.