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 scale 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 some of the salubrious suburbs of Glasgow, hoaxing academics who had already taught him some years earlier than? Furthermore, why would anybody need 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however these questions are re-posed three many years later with curiosity, humour and a few tenderness in My Outdated College. Directed by Jono McLeod, a faculty up to date of MacKinnon’s (the second time round), the movie items collectively the recollections of former classmates, buddies and academics, 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 college. However Lee wasn’t 17. He was a person of 30 who had already graduated from the identical college 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 academics, internet hosting home events for his new teen friends and taking the lead within the college 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 images of pupils crowded spherical a lone copy of the Day by day Report, 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 stuffed with youngsters, whose hyper-focused desperation trumped all different propriety – however one way or the other it was overshadowed by the wonderful, bonkers boldness of the episode.

With out ever in search of guilty, My Outdated College untangles a few of the questions that again then most examined credulity: how couldn’t one single trainer have observed one other grownup of their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, individuals can get away with probably the most unbelievable issues,” Cumming informed me after we met in Glasgow. “Individuals 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 laborious to not ask Cumming questions as if he gave a simple efficiency, particularly when a lot of this considerate movie revolves across the 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 laborious 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 individuals in life who’re wired otherwise 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 the explanation why he did it, it makes an odd form of sense.”

The film-making course of was like attempting to piece collectively a jigsaw, he explains. “Whenever 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 academics can get by coming collectively.”

It’s additionally instantly obvious from watching the movie that this can be a story that might solely be informed by McLeod. At one level, a former classmate expresses her amazement that she was so fooled by MacKinnon earlier than she seems to be immediately at McLeod behind the digicam and shouts throughout to him: “So had 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 faculty photograph with 30-year-old MacKinnon, centre. {Photograph}: PA Photos/Alamy

Certainly, whereas the now 59-year-old MacKinnon stays a largely unknowable determine, My Outdated College is way extra concerning 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 completely different reminiscences of it.”

It’s fairly pretty to see how protecting the classmates are of each other, and even of MacKinnon (whom all of them nonetheless name Brandon), maybe with a purpose to protect the purity of their very own reminiscences. 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 towards racist bullies. Alternatively, his South Pacific co-star Val blanches as she realises what his enthusiastic kiss on the finish of the manufacturing seems to be like from the angle of maturity.

That kiss proved a selected problem for McLeod. Whereas issues had 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 area 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 came across the South Pacific tapes, I realised: ‘Properly, 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 wished 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 reminiscences 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 informed me afterwards they’d 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 Outdated College is privilege: “Bearsden is a city of ambition: individuals need to dwell there as a result of they need their youngsters 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 college. A kind of households was MacKinnon’s, and the movie reveals the hefty inter-generational pressures on him to succeed. One other former classmate experiences that MacKinnon can nonetheless be seen on the computer systems in Bearsden library, looking for medical colleges 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 objective 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 significantly – that something will come to you if you’d like it sufficient, for those who work laborious sufficient, is that it’s simply not true,” he says. “Inform that to a single mum with 4 youngsters on a council property. You possibly can work as laborious as you’ll be able to, but when your circumstances and the political state of affairs you reside in usually are not conducive to serving to you then it’s not going to vary.”

My Outdated College 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 pageant.

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