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Beach Actor Gets Big Break in "Thirteen Days"

(c) The Virginian-Pilot

January 11, 2001

By Mal Vincent

FIRST COLONIAL High School alum Steven Culp used to play guitar at The Jewish Mother when he was a teen-ager in Virginia Beach. Tomorrow, with the opening of "Thirteen Days," he debuts in front of a much bigger audience: America.

Now a veteran actor, he stars as Bobby Kennedy in Roger Donaldson's eagerly awaited, $80 million movie about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. After over a decade in theater and television, Culp, First Colonial Class of '74, has found "that role," co-starring with Kevin Costner and generating Oscar buzz in the supporting actor category.

"I thought I was a real long shot," Culp said as he looked back over the road that led to the part. "I thought 'They're not going to hire me. I'm not a big enough name. But I prepared for this part as if I already had it. I studied the Boston dialect. I studied Bobby Kennedy in every way possible. He's not a simple man.

"My philosophy was not to go in there as if it was an audition, but to do a full, prepared performance. My idea was 'Knock 'em dead' and then don't worry about it. I figured I wouldn't get the role, but it would be good experience doing the audition. In the last four or five years, I changed my approach in that I stopped worrying about whether or not I got the part. Just prepare. Present myself. And don't worry."

It paid off.

"Sure, this part is a break in films, but I think it was Walter Matthau who said that, in show business, you need about 50 lucky breaks to make it. I've had a few. The thing is to be ready for each one."

He appears in a recurring role as the mysterious CIA operative Clayton Webb on the CBS series "JAG." He's guest starred on "ER," "Ally McBeal," "Chicago Hope," "Touched by an Angel," "Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman" and "Murphy Brown." He played John Hay in the Emmy-award winning NBC miniseries "Gore Vidal's Lincoln," which was filmed in Richmond. He recently starred with Angela Lansbury in the CBS movie "A Story to Die For."

In movies, he was in the soap opera sequences in "Nurse Betty." He played the father in the opening, live-action, segment of "James and the Giant Peach." He was in "Dead Again" with Kenneth Branagh as well as "Fearless" and "Gross Anatomy."

On stage, he received Drama-Logue awards in California for "Angels in America" at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and "Raised in Captivity" at the South Coast Rep. He appeared on Broadway with Annette Bening in "Coastal Disturbances" at the Circle on the Square.

Stage, television, and, now, movies. He's touched all the bases and is now ready to bloom. But is Steven Culp impressed?

"It's always a matter of the next job," he said. "You have to love it. If you didn't, it wouldn't be worth it."

He quickly corrects the picture. "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 theater for free and gets the occasional television job to pay the bills, and this is going to be my life. There was a time when I was doing small theater just for exposure. Then, I stopped worrying about it. I love acting, and that's that. I started doing it for the sake of the work. That's when I started doing great theater again - and getting great jobs."

Shelly Link, his sister, remembers that he was always into theater and performing. "He loved it. We grew up in a family of two boys and two girls and, as far back as I can remember, Steve wanted to perform. He played the guitar. He was at the Virginia Beach Little Theater. He did it all, just because he loved it. Our Mom was for his stage career 100 percent. Our Dad was a little wary - a little more careful. He was a little worried about how Steve would support himself, but he was supportive too."

Culp was born in La Jolla, Calif., but, when his mother and father divorced, was raised in Virginia Beach by his mother and stepfather. "I was always still friendly with my real father, who lived in Florida, but I thought of the family in Virginia as my real family.

Both his father and step-father (an electrical engineer) were in the Navy - a factor he used in identifying with the Cuban missile crisis for the film.

Culp's sister, who teaches physical education at Shelton Park Elementary School and is a personal trainer out of her home in Pungo, said "Steven has had hard times and good times in show business. Through them both, he always remembered home - and returned. Both our parents died of cancer in recent years and he came home to help me take care of them during their illnesses - between his acting jobs. I talk to him on the phone often. I think the illness of our parents brought us closer together."

He returned in the summer of 1993 to his alma mater, The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, to play Brutus in the Virginia Shakespeare Festival's "Julius Caesar."

"It was something I always wanted to do - to come back and act at William and Mary again."

At William and Mary, he majored in English literature and had professors who wanted him to be a writer, "but I got in with the theater crowd. I was interested, but I wasn't hooked, yet. As a part of an exchange program, I went to study English literature at the University of Exeter in England. When there, I stuck pretty closely to academic study. I'd go into London to see theater, but it was only when I came back home that I decided, once and for all, that I was going to go all out and study theater arts and acting. It was at Brandeis University that I really became committed to it. The first year or so in New York, I regretted my choice, but, eventually, jobs came."

For Terence McNally's play "The Lisbon Traviata," he considered the part so good that "I took it, even though I had to appear on stage naked. I've had to appear naked in three different plays. A real risk - and not what I had in mind when I started."

When he first went to Los Angeles, he had a job on stage with Peter Falk in "Light Up the Sky." But he went back to New York afterward. "Finally, I was flying back and forth to Los Angeles so much that I was spending more than I was making. I made the big decision to stay in Los Angeles. It was hard, at first. It was like starting all over."

Careful preparation has always been a part of his creed. Actually, "Thirteen Days" is not the first time he has played Bobby Kennedy. As Kennedy, he had one, brief scene opposite Mira Sorvino in the 1996 HBO movie "Norma Jean and Marilyn."

Even though it was only a three-page bit, he said of it: "I had to be ready. I laughed at myself, and friends laughed at me, for doing so much research for this little part. I watched Bobby tapes and poured through books. I felt it was needed to try to catch at a certain point in their life - and to be true to who he was at that point. I remember that I had to pay for my own haircut to try and look like him and that when I got there, the clothes didn't fit. I had to keep seated so it wouldn't show. It was entirely different for 'Thirteen Days.' Making a feature film is an entirely different thing. What a difference!"

For the film, he had months to prepare.

"I didn't tell them I had played Bobby Kennedy in the TV movie," he said. "I thought it might do more harm than good. It was after three auditions that I got the role. The last one was a screen test to see how I looked. I, actually, don't look much like Bobby Kennedy, but the idea was that we were doing a performance, not an impersonation. It was at the last audition that I met Kevin Costner. He was immediately a part of the ensemble - not a star. There is such a great, human soul inside. He was struggling and striving to get there - just like the rest of us."

Five weeks of physical training was undertaken before rehearsals began, prior to actual filming. "I'm a couple of inches taller than Bobby, and I have broader shoulders. He was wiry - kind of the runt of the litter, actually. They hired a personal trainer for me, a former Mr. Universe. He put me through it. I lost weight. I wore flat shoes and false teeth. At the same time, I had a dialect coach."

While filming "Gore Vidal's Lincoln" in Richmond, he met Barbara, a television costume designer, whom he later married. They live in Southern California.

His sister is planning a community get-together Friday to see "Thirteen Days" at the Regal Cinema's Strawbridge Marketplace 12 Theaters. "I follow every thing he's in, but this is the first time that the role has been this important," she said. "All his friends are turning out in force."

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