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Steven Culp Still Becoming

(c) Back Stage West

December 14, 2000

By Jamie Painter Young

"What I loved about him was that he was somebody who didn't seem to stop evolving," said Steven Culp about Robert F. Kennedy, whom the actor—a dead-ringer for the famous politician—has portrayed not once but twice, first in the 1996 HBO tele-film Norma Jean and Marilyn and then recently in the soon-to-be-released film Thirteen Days, which depicts the Cuban Missile Crisis.

"Whereas JKF is sort of fixed in our minds—he was killed at the height of his career—Bobby was still developing. He was always in the process of becoming," said Culp.

A similar sentiment could be said about Culp when it comes to his acting. As the Los Angeles-based actor explained in a recent interview, his work has allowed him to continually grow as a human being.

"I really love this job. I love the way you have to think. I love the way you have to use yourself. I love the particular discipline it takes. It really sparks a lot of things in me, and I find metaphors for growth in my own life through the work that I do," commented Culp, whose film and television credits include Nurse Betty, James and the Giant Peach, ER, Ally McBeal, Chicago Hope, Family Law, and a recurring role on the CBS series JAG.

As a highly respected stage actor, Culp has performed in Tony Kushner's Angels in America at American Conservatory Theatre, Raised in Captivity at South Coast Repertory, If Memory Serves at the Pasadena Playhouse, Slavs! at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Light Up the Sky at the Ahmanson Theatre, Highest Standard of Living at Playwright's Horizons, Coastal Disturbances at the Circle in the Square, The White Rose at the Old Globe, and Richard III at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Most recently, he starred in SCR's production of Yasmina Reza's Tony Award-winning play, Art.

Culp especially found his latest screen role in Thirteen Days, which co-stars Bruce Greenwood as JFK and Kevin Costner as trusted presidential aide Kenneth O'Donnell, to be a great opportunity to stretch himself. Not only was this his biggest screen role to date, it was also one of the most complex characters he's had a chance to play.

"This role is so rich, and there is so much to draw from," he said. "It's like a great Shakespearean role. You could work on it all your life. It's this huge vessel, and you'd never be able to fill it, but there's a lot of room to run around."

Little did Culp realize that all the research and preparation he did for his small part in Norma Jean and Marilyn, in which he had one scene with Mira Sorvino, would pay off so greatly four years later.

"When I did Norma Jean and Marilyn, I remember I was sort of laughing to myself then, because I did an inordinate amount of research for this three-page scene, but even for that I felt that I had to be prepared. To try to catch somebody at a certain point in their life's trajectory and to try to be true to the spirit of who he was at that point in his life's journey, you've got to have a lot of stuff in you that becomes second nature.

"Even for this little scene in this HBO movie, I was watching tapes and pouring through books. So you can imagine how intense my preparation for Thirteen Days was." In addition to further researching information about the Kennedys and speaking with people who knew Robert Kennedy personally, Culp spent a great deal of time practicing with a dialect coach to master a Boston accent. The actor also worked with a physical trainer to trim his body, so that he appeared more "wiry," as Culp described the man he was portraying.

Whether playing a well-known historical figure or a fictional role on film or onstage, Culp feels a certain responsibility toward any character he plays. He recalled, for example, his experience in Angels in America, in which he portrayed a Mormon who is in deep denial of his homosexuality.

"Doing that was great preparation for doing a role like Bobby. That's a play where you have to have all of this stuff at your fingertips to even be able to play the scenes—to even say the first word."

What's most telling about Culp's respect for his craft is that, long before he was offered the job in Thirteen Days, the actor prepared for his numerous callbacks as if he had already gotten the part—not because he thought he was a shoo-in for the job but rather because he wanted to walk away from each audition with his dignity intact.

"I thought I was a real long shot," he admitted. "I thought, They're not going to hire me to do this part. I'm not a big enough name. But I'm going to go in there and blow them away, and maybe I'll get something else.

"You have to be in a place where you say to yourself, I'm really going to work hard on this, and I don't care if I get it. You really do have to love acting. In the last four or five years, I have tried to consciously maintain this philosophy of going in there, knocking them dead, and forgetting about it."

Culp said he has not always practiced such a healthy attitude. He recalled a period during the 1980s in which he spent most of his time working in New York and in regional theatres. Looking back, Culp believes he wasted too much energy being frustrated with his career and jealous of his fellow actors.

Said the Virginia native, "I was doing very well in New York. I worked with Terrence McNally, Pete [A.R.] Gurney. I worked with a lot of the best directors in New York. But I was always frustrated. I was going, Why can't I have what he's having? Why is it always so hard to get the next job? Why am I never seen for movies? Why don't they see me for this TV series? I was angry a lot. I didn't know how well I was doing."

Ironically, what turned Culp's attitude around eventually was working for free as an actor in 99-Seat theatres in Los Angeles. After moving to Los Angeles in 1990 with his wife, who works as a costume designer, he found himself in a rut.

"I had four or five years where I worked, but I actually felt like, Well, it's over. I'm going to be this guy who does theatre for free and gets the occasional television job to pay the bills, and this is going to be my life. During this time, I was getting dragged into doing theatre by playwright, actor, and director friends of mine, knowing that people in the industry don't care about theatre here and knowing that it wasn't going to do my career a huge amount of good.

"I was doing it for me, and that's when I started to reconnect with the work again and started enjoying, once again, doing the work for its own sake. I thought, If my career comes around again, I am going to have a really good time, and I am going to make a point to enjoy myself and to say thank you for all the little things that come. And you know what? It just started coming along again. All of a sudden I was doing great theatre again. I was working at Louisville and up at A.C.T. and down at South Coast. I got this recurring role on JAG, which is delightful. I think it had everything to do with my change in attitude," said Culp, who is currently a member of the L.A.-based Interact Theatre Company, where he often participates in staged readings when he's available.

Indeed, things are looking up for this fine actor, who, like his character in Thirteen Days, is still in the process of becoming.

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