With a candid new memoir, Baggage: Tales From a Fully Packed Life, out October 26, the prolific actor celebrates everything — good and bad — that has led to this moment.

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Alan Cumming
Cumming with husband Grant Shaffer and their dogs.
| Credit: Courtesy Alan Cumming

I've always tumbled through life. Instead of staying in my safety zone, I've been open to new opportunities and said yes to ones that felt good. I'm impulsive in that way; I listen to my desires. A few years ago, I was shooting the series Briarpatch in New Mexico and kept seeing tumbleweeds roll by. I thought, "Oh my god, that's me!" I think it's a good way to be, as long as you're a tumbleweed in a safe and kind environment.

As I get older, I create structure to feel secure — there are more responsibilities, boundaries, and schedules. But as much as I focus on work, I also focus on letting go. The best roles I've had are the ones I had fun doing. [The 1993 West End production of] Cabaret came at a time when I was ready to push buttons and be provocative. My character in Spy Kids, Floop, resonated with so many young people and has continued to be a magical part of their childhood long after it premiered in 2001. And I learned what I could do as an actor when I played Eli Gold in [the long-running CBS drama] The Good Wife.

But [the 1998 movie] Spice World was the epitome of total fun. I was in London filming with the Spice Girls at the height of their phenomenon, and like me, they couldn't believe this was their life. I'd just finished Stanley Kubrick's film [Eyes Wide Shut], which was intense but renewed my interest in acting, then I immediately worked with the girls, who taught me dance moves and reminded me of the joy in acting. That back-to-back combo rejuvenated me.

One of the great things about working in showbiz is that you have really short, intense relationships with people you'll see throughout your life. But I've also learned from being in the public eye that people become as — if not more — interested in your personal life as your work. It's difficult to maneuver, and being coy or less candid invites speculation. If you don't control the narrative, other people will, and that can be stressful. 

Alan Cumming
His new book, Baggage: Tales from a Fully Packed Life.
| Credit: Courtesy Dey Street Books

It's best for me, psychologically, to be honest. After I wrote about difficult things like the abuse in my past in my first memoir, Not My Father's Son, people told me they were inspired to deal with their own similar issues. That was unexpected. But writing is therapeutic: It's as though you hold your life up as a mirror and the reader looks into it too. Analyzing events of my life from a distance allows me to better process the lessons I've learned. For my latest book, Baggage: Tales from a Fully Packed Life, I researched myself a lot. I had forgotten some things, so I looked at myself as a stranger. Luckily, the Internet is filled with old interviews and logs of where you were, who you were with, and what you were wearing.

Looking back, I feel a bit sorry for my younger self. I was not fully formed and allowed other people to control me, since that was familiar. But I've learned to cut myself some slack. I don't think of my divorce [from wife Hilary Lyon in 1995] or other ended relationships as failures. I tried hard to make each one work and thought, "This is it." Obviously, it wasn't. There was a lot of self-discovery after my divorce — you start to notice patterns. Wisdom, really, is just living long enough to see yourself repeating behaviors and deciding to make different decisions next time. 

Everything that's happened has brought me to the happy place I'm in now. I don't take anything for granted and value the relationship I'm in [with husband Grant Shaffer] every day. I feel understood and seen. I don't expect everyone to like everything I do, but I'm not doing it for them; I'm doing it for me. That's why I don't believe in having regrets. I think of life like a game of Jenga: If you were to pull away one of the pieces and say, "I wish that hadn't happened," then everything would fall over. All the bad bits are the foundation for who you are. Living a beautiful and fully packed life means embracing everything from your past, the good and the bad. Instead of denying the challenging stuff, make peace with it and grow from it. It's just one ingredient that makes up the whole you.

For more stories like this, pick up the October 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Sept. 17th.