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Capturing Kennedy

Actor Steven Culp recalls his brilliant portrayal
of Robert F. Kennedy in Thirteen Days


July 10, 2001

By Stu Kobak

It's crunch time for an actor when he's called upon to portray a real life figure for the bigger than life movie theater screen. Every gesture, inflection of the voice, even the way you scratch your nose, is under the magnifying glass of history. Steven Culp recently dug into the scrum of history and came out looking fresh and ready for more. Playing Robert F. Kennedy in Thirteen Days, a dramatic depiction of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Culp captured the man with uncanny screen magic. The suspenseful 2001 thrilling drama appears to be the breakthrough film for the actor.

Culp's Bobby Kennedy was one of the three pillars of "Thirteen Days". Culp nails Kennedy with rare insight, not only finding the mannerisms of the former Attorney General and New York Senator, but digging underneath the gaunt exterior of the man deep into his psyche. Along with Bruce Greenwood, portraying John F. Kennedy, and Kevin Costner as Kennedy confidant Kenny O'Donnell, Culp was part of the troika that the film crisis revolved around. Culp had high praise for co-stars Greenwood and Costner. But of the three pivotal performances, it is Culp's that finds rare character insight. He thought hard and clear about Bobby Kennedy using a base of diligent research and an actor's gifted intuition to enrich Kennedy as an individual and as a part of thrilling drama that plays out in "Thirteen Days".

"David's script "(David Self, screenwriter of Thirteen Days)" is very factual and you have to dig underneath to understand the characters. After I delved into it and did a lot of research on the characters, when I went back to the script—I had about five weeks from the time I was cast until the time we started shooting and for most of those weeks I threw the script away concentrating on building up the character--I found was that one thing that I love about Bobby is that he has all these contradictory colors to him. I realized there was room to get as many of those colors into the character the way David had written the role," the actor recalls with succinct analysis. "I thought one approach you might take with Bobby is that he's the runt of the litter. He was the guy in the family who really wasn't naturally gifted at anything. Who always had to work harder than anybody—who drove himself and people around him harder than anybody. He was kind of desperate to please his father and his family. He began to find himself as his brother's keeper, the guy who did all the dirty work. That was all knocked out from him when Jack was killed. He was not the most introspective reflective person. He was always growing and changing. It's interesting to note how Bobby changed and grew with the moment. He's the voice of caution against the sneak attack on Cuba yet he was one of the strongest proponents of The Bay of Pigs. Bobby was an incredible guy capable of growth and change, but some of it does spring out of that feeling that nothing is ever good enough—that he has to work harder than anybody else to make his mark. And that was something that you could definitely bring to the script."

Turbo-charged Career Performance

Steven Culp punctuates his response to the question of how many years he's been acting with laughter: "A lot. I spent a lot of the eighties in New York doing theater—regional theater, off-Broadway, a little bit of Broadway and some soaps and then came out here and spent most of the nineties in California. " Culp is a bi-coastal spirit, seeing the career virtues of both Coasts. At heart, he says, he's a Virginian. "I came up in the theater and that's my background. New York seems to be a better place to come up in theater than Los Angeles. But there are those who would disagree. Actually since I've been in California I've done some of the best theater I've ever done, so go figure." Culp again displays his sense of humor when asked about his inspiration into acting. "I fell in with the wrong crowd. At that time I wanted to write and I wanted to be a rock and roll star. I was playing guitar and singing in bars and clubs and stuff, but instead of meeting up with musicians I fell in with actors. I still work at writing--but writers are much more prolific than I am, I think. For me writing is somewhat like pulling teeth whereas when I am not acting for a while I'll be picking up plays and reading them to the walls. You know what I mean. I can't stop myself."

Steven Culp's amazing vital performance in "Thirteen" "Days" should turbo-charge his career engine. Though Culp had played Robert Kennedy before in a small role in the television film Norma Jean and Marilyn, he did not want to tell the "Thirteen Days" team about when he auditioned for the role. "I didn't know if they knew or not and I wasn't going to mention it because that can be as much a hindrance—you know, this guy played him before in this HBO thing, we want someone fresh, " recalls Culp. "I spent an entire summer auditioning. I first met with Dianne Crittenden, the casting director. We read some scenes and she grabbed me and took me next door to Ilona Hertzberg's office, who was one of the producers,--I never thought I was going to get cast until I got cast."

Culp was on the set pretty much every day once the shoot started with few days off, but the actor was delighted since "Thirteen Days" was pure joy for him. Culp's role demanded constant attention. Sometimes he wanted to spend down time on the set preparing for the upcoming scene. Even during the shoot he continued his research into the character, looking at another book about Kennedy or watching videotapes of Bobby to work on the voice making sure he wasn't getting sloppy with it. "Bruce and Kevin and I were researching all the way through. It was a twenty-four hour a day commitment. Especially for me because I was on a physical and dietary regime the entire time to whittle myself down into this skinny little Bobby Kennedy body. I'm several inches taller and broader built than he was. I am actually a little bit taller than Bruce and as you know JFK was much taller than Bobby." Despite the disparity in historical heights, Culp never noticed an attempt to elevate Greenwood through the camera lens.

Staying in the moment was a prime example of Culp's acting strength. "I think just trying to comprehend the moment takes enough of your consciousness. In a way, working on this role is analogous to these guys dealing with the situation they dealt with. When you're first confronted with this (the role) you go, it's just too enormous--where do I begin? Then you start to break it down. Break it into pieces and take off manageable chunks, which is the way these guys dealt with the situation. One early revelation for me on how to approach the character in the movie was that Bobby was not a reflective guy—he was a man of action—in every scene when the characters are sort of flummoxed by the situation, I am always saying what do we do, what do we do next."

Culp Truly Inhabits the Moment

There are many terrific scenes in the film and Culp is wired to the character in his every screen moment. He recalls one of his favorite scenes :"There's a great scene early on with the three of us out on the portico, Bobby and Kenny and Jack. It's right after we're first confronted by the missiles and the three of us go out to talk about what we're going to do. I love it because everybody is so true to their character yet everything in the scene is informational and yet you catch so much of who these guys are as individuals and who these guys are to each other—their relationships through the actions that they take in this scene. I don't know if you've ever had tragedy in your family, but if you've had a sick mother and the family is gathered around talking about what they are going to do—if you sat and watched you would learn a lot about their relationships and who they are as people and I think that's a great thing that happens in that scene and throughout the movie."

Culp listens brilliantly in "Thirteen Days". Listening is one of the most underrated aspects of acting, but creating a character is more than just speaking dialogue; it's inhabiting the moment, and Culp truly inhabits the moment and the character. "Maybe it's just being from the theater, having the experience of really trying to alive and find things to keep you in the moment and to respond to. Maybe that's it," reflects the actor. Culp can laugh at himself with refreshing pleasure. "Sometimes I watch myself and I just go, oh would you please relax. Stop listening so hard. I just try to go in there and have a thread that pulls me through each scene and then the larger thread that's pulling me through the entire story."

Culp professes amazement at how well "Thirteen Days" takes a well-known historical incident and still make a thrilling drama out of it. "A lot of that is a credit to begin with to David Self's script, but it's also a big credit to Roger Donaldson and editor Conrad Buff." Following the line of all the characters, understanding the historical moment requires concentration to maximize the tension. "I think "Thirteen Days" demands more of an audience, but in a really good way. The more I see it the more unabashed proud I am that I'm in this movie. I think it's a terrific movie. It's the kind of movie I loved when I started watching movies. It's the kind of movie you could watch over and over again and get something else out of them." Culp feels that twenty odd years ago the storytelling in "Thirteen Days" was the norm but nowadays films are dumbed down in so many ways. "A movie like "Chinatown," which is one of the great movies, would probably be considered much too complicated for an audience to comprehend today."

"You're Always Looking For Inspiration"

Culp is savvy and knowledgeable about movies. It's not surprising that when asked about acting inspiration, he thoughtfully acknowledges the enormity of the task. However, but he did single out a few classic screen icons "James Stewart, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, the classic guys. I found my appreciation for certain actors deepening over the years—Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, I just saw Cary Grant again in "Notorious" and he's just great in that. Actually there are a lot of actresses I really like—I can barely pick."

"Getting in to acting in college," remembers Culp, "my ambition was to be in a Robert Altman movie because I loved the ambiance that he set up and it seemed to be an actor's paradise to work in those movies. I'd love to work with M. Night Shyamalan. He's the most Hitchcockian of contemporary directors. In that there's and an emotional resonance that goes beyond the material. Shyamalan is the only one who has such a strong emotional pull and seems to be about things that are unnamable and it's not just a tricked up thriller plot. Even "Unbreakable," which will probably go down as minor Shyamalan in later years still has an incredible pull. He really hits an emotional place."

Steven Culp talks about movies and acting with excitement. He has a DVD player at home and a recent favorite was Bertrand Tavernier's French adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel, "Coup de Torchon". "What an incredible film. I had never seen that before." DVD is inspiring many movie lovers to delve into cinema history for their viewing pleasure. Culp was impressed by the new Infinifilm treatment given "Thirteen Days," citing the use of footnotes as particularly interesting." He uses video to constantly study his art. "I'm always watching. I'm always trying to pick things up. You're always looking for inspiration."

From New York to LA

"Thirteen Days" must be considered the highpoint in the actor's career that includes a frequent starring role as Clayton Webb in the television series "JAG". The toughest point in Culp's career was when he moved from New York to California. "I didn't expect myself to have to start over again on such a level. I had a lot of really good theater credits and had worked with a lot of the best playwrights and directors in the business and when I came to Los Angeles; it didn't seem to count for much. So I had a hard first couple of years when I was here." Culp's relocation from New York to California wasn't planned as a career move. "I got a play out of Los Angeles that was supposed to come to Broadway and didn't, but I got out here and it was the middle of winter and I had just left record breaking cold in New York. I was seduced. I'm out here, doing a play at the Ahmanson Theater, making nice money with per diem with the rented car driving with the windows down and my short sleeved shirt in February looking at the snow capped peaks and buildings everywhere with signs saying apartments for rent and I thought to myself, this is paradise. New York was the total opposite in every way. I came back again several times for work but I was spending more money that I was making living on both coasts and then my wife who is a costume designer was getting a lot of work in California so I finally just decided to move. Once I moved all the work seemed to dry up. I went through a couple of lean years and I was doing a lot of theater for free in Los Angeles through playwright and director friends, reconnecting with why I started acting in the first place and I started thinking, you know…when I was younger, doing a lot of good things in New York I was always dissatisfied…I was thinking why can't I have that—the grass was always greener and during the slow period I decided if it ever comes around again I'm going to make a point to have a good time and to say thank you and to appreciate it. And it's starting to come around again and I am having a good time and enjoying what I do and to relax about it," the actor enthuses.

Hoping to parlay his success with Kevins, next up for the talented Culp is a role alongside Kevin Kline in "The Palace Thief". The drama just finished shooting in New York and is scheduled for a 2002 theatrical release.

Special thanks to Steven Culp for graciously sharing his thoughts with our readers and to Amy Gorton of New Line and Nan Leonard of Nanette Leonard Public Relations for coordinating and making this interview possible.

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