Home Entertainment ‘A damaged person’: Alan Cumming on playing the schoolboy who was actually 30

‘A damaged person’: Alan Cumming on playing the schoolboy who was actually 30

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What most individuals bear in mind about Scotland’s infamous schoolboy impostor Brian MacKinnon is the dimensions of the lie. How did a 30-year-old man, with solely a dodgy accent and a worse perm, reach passing himself off as a 17-year-old high-school pupil in probably the most salubrious suburbs of Glasgow, hoaxing lecturers who had already taught him some years earlier than? Furthermore, why would anybody wish to?

MacKinnon made sky-high headlines within the mid-Nineties, however these questions are re-posed three many years later with curiosity, humour and a few tenderness in My Previous Faculty. Directed by Jono McLeod, a college modern of MacKinnon’s (the second time round), the movie items collectively the recollections of former classmates, buddies and lecturers, lastly permitting his friends their say on the subterfuge that outlined their coming of age.

Ought to reminiscence require refreshment, the extraordinary deception went so: calling himself Brandon Lee, MacKinnon enrolled at Bearsden Academy in 1993 with the intention of finishing his Highers and making use of to medical faculty. However Lee wasn’t 17. He was a person of 30 who had already graduated from the identical faculty a decade earlier, and been thrown off his course at Glasgow College after failing his exams.

He was ultimately uncovered however not earlier than dazzling his lecturers, internet hosting home events for his new teen friends and taking the lead within the faculty musical South Pacific, delivering an off key and – in hindsight – bravura efficiency of Youthful Than Springtime. Though he secured the required grades, he was later expelled from his medical course at Dundee College when his double life was uncovered within the media.

As a Glasgow teenager myself again then, I vividly recall the pictures of pupils crowded spherical a lone copy of the Every day Document, on their open faces a mixture of awe, thrill and confusion. There was a doubtful undercurrent to this tallest of tales even then – a grown man in a room filled with youngsters, whose hyper-focused desperation trumped all different propriety – however in some way it was overshadowed by the wonderful, bonkers boldness of the episode.

With out ever looking for responsible, My Previous Faculty untangles a few of the questions that again then most examined credulity: how couldn’t one single instructor have observed one other grownup of their classroom? Why did no one query it when the children within the playground instantly nicknamed the brand new arrival “thirtysomething”? Did his friends settle for he might drive a automobile as a result of the age restrict was 14 in Canada, the place MacKinnon claimed to have lived along with his opera-singing mom earlier than she died in a tragic accident and his professor father returned to dwell within the UK?

The documentary options Alan Cumming because the younger pretender. MacKinnon agreed to be interviewed for the mission however not filmed, so McLeod requested the actor, who he knew had a longtime fascination with the story, to lip-sync MacKinnon’s taped phrases – which he does so seamlessly that he swiftly evaporates into the character. The ordinarily puckish Cumming sits stiffly behind a desk within the classroom wearing beige and quietly speaking a lifetime of discomfort in his personal pores and skin.

The real Brian MacKinnon, AKA Brandon Lee, in 1995.
‘Nicknamed thirtysomething’ … the actual Brian MacKinnon, AKA Brandon Lee, in 1995. {Photograph}: Picture Scotland/Alamy

“It’s surprising how, in plain sight, folks can get away with essentially the most unbelievable issues,” Cumming instructed me once we met in Glasgow. “Folks faux to be various things on a regular basis, however as Scots we consider ourselves as canny. ‘You possibly can’t pull the wool over my eyes.’ So for that to occur right here … that’s why it was such an enormous story and why we’re nonetheless speaking about all of it these years later.”

It’s arduous to not ask Cumming questions as if he gave an easy efficiency, particularly when a lot of this considerate movie revolves across the explanation why MacKinnon was performing himself. “It feels barely disingenuous speaking about this ‘character’ when it’s truly a documentary,” admits Cumming. “I really feel protecting of him. It’s a tragedy too. On the centre of it’s a very broken individual.”

It’s a mirrored image echoed by McLeod: “It’s arduous to speak about Brian MacKinnon as a result of I don’t know him that effectively. However all of us knew Brandon Lee.” McLeod says that MacKinnon, who was the primary individual he interviewed for the mission, “is the final word unreliable narrator. My tackle it’s simply that there are some folks in life who’re wired in another way to the remainder of us,” he says with a generosity that everybody talking for the movie extends to MacKinnon. “When he’s explaining to you the explanation why he did it, it makes an odd type of sense.”

The film-making course of was like making an attempt to piece collectively a jigsaw, he explains. “While you’re coping with this many lies, it’s actually troublesome to get to the reality. So that is simply as shut as 30 classmates and lecturers can get by coming collectively.”

It’s additionally instantly obvious from watching the movie that it is a story that would solely be instructed by McLeod. At one level, a former classmate expresses her amazement that she was so fooled by MacKinnon earlier than she appears straight at McLeod behind the digital camera and shouts throughout to him: “So have been you, ya mug!” The mutual expertise of being duped means the belief between director and topics is palpable, and his probing is rarely supercillious.

A school photo with 30-year-old MacKinnon centre.
Class act … a college picture with 30-year-old MacKinnon, centre. {Photograph}: PA Photographs/Alamy

Certainly, whereas the now 59-year-old MacKinnon stays a largely unknowable determine, My Previous Faculty is much extra in regards to the expertise of Brandon’s friends. It’s a degree that Cumming emphasises: “Think about having the ability to return and talk about one thing that occurred to you at a really formative age, to revisit that collectively as adults. What I discover fascinating is how we will all have skilled the identical incident and have very totally different recollections of it.”

It’s fairly beautiful to see how protecting the classmates are of each other, and even of MacKinnon (whom all of them nonetheless name Brandon), maybe so as to protect the purity of their very own recollections. That is particularly so round a few of the darker threads of the movie. Lee is remembered with especial heat by a black pupil, Stefan, who says the brand new boy defended him in opposition to racist bullies. Then again, his South Pacific co-star Val blanches as she realises what his enthusiastic kiss on the finish of the manufacturing appears like from the attitude of maturity.

That kiss proved a specific problem for McLeod. Whereas considerations have been raised on the time of MacKinnon’s publicity, there was not the safeguarding outcry that there could be these days – a reminder of how considerably responses to potential sexual exploitation have modified in a reasonably brief house of time. “All of us collectively felt that, whereas the movie another person would make could be that sinister, darkish take, we didn’t need that,” says McLeod. “However then, once I stumbled on the South Pacific tapes, I realised: ‘Effectively, truly I’m going to have to carry this man to account.’ I took my steer from Val. Her tackle what occurred is it makes her really feel a bit icky, and that was so far as she needed to go when it comes to condemnation.”

MacKinnon in 1995.
MacKinnon in 1995. {Photograph}: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

The movie additionally spotlights the brutality of high-school life. As a homosexual teenager, McLeod’s personal recollections of Bearsden Academy are “hellish”, he says, and he was decided to position the racism Stefan suffered on the collective report. “It was a shock for lots of the classmates who got here to the screening, after which instructed me afterwards that they had no concept that was what Stefan’s expertise was. I don’t even know if Brandon helped Stefan all that wittingly, however he completely modified the man’s life for the higher, so it was solely proper that I depict that.”

For McLeod, one of many overriding themes of My Previous Faculty is privilege: “Bearsden is a city of ambition: folks wish to dwell there as a result of they need their children to do effectively.” Within the movie, classmates dissect this sharply, differentiating between the luxurious homes and “spam valley”, the world for much less well-off households who moved in with the aspiration to ship their youngsters to the native faculty. A type of households was MacKinnon’s, and the movie reveals the hefty inter-generational pressures on him to succeed. One other former classmate studies that MacKinnon can nonetheless be seen on the computer systems in Bearsden library, trying to find medical faculties all over the world that may but settle for him.

In a tradition through which the crucial is to comply with one’s dream it doesn’t matter what, when does the relentless pursuit of a purpose find yourself damaging your self or these round you? Cumming picks up this query: “What’s harmful about that message – and I discover it in America notably – that something will come to you if you would like it sufficient, in the event you work arduous sufficient, is that it’s simply not true,” he says. “Inform that to a single mum with 4 children on a council property. You possibly can work as arduous as you possibly can, but when your circumstances and the political scenario you reside in are usually not conducive to serving to you then it’s not going to alter.”

My Previous Faculty is launched on 19 August within the UK. It’s also screening in Australia on 21 August as a part of the Melbourne worldwide movie competition.

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