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Steven Culp: Major Hayes Gets a Hero's Send-Off

(c) Star Trek Communicator #151

August/ September 2004

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By Neil J. Dennis

Steven Culp is no stranger to playing heroes. After all, he's played Robert F. Kennedy twice in his career. So, sliding into the role of MACO Major Hayes was not a problem for this accomplished actor.

"[Hayes] is like a strong, silent type," Culp says. "He's like a David Mamet character---how it's all about the job for him. He's a soldier, a good soldier."

And Culp should know a bit about it: Both his father and stepfather served with the U.S. Navy. But growing up in Virginia Beach, VA---a mere stone's throw away from the naval shipyards at Norfolk---didn't sway Culp at all into a life in the military. He had other aspirations.

"When I was going to [The College of William & Mary], I was either going to become a writer or a rock star," Culp says. "I couldn't decide between the two. I played the guitar. I did some writing. Somehow, I fell in with the actors and realized that I liked getting into a room and collaborating with people like that."

For years, Culp was modestly successful with a number of regional theater gigs and a stint on the soap opera "One Life to Live." However, not until he landed a major role in the television movie "Gore Vidal's Lincoln" in 1988 did his stock really begin to rise. Starring along-side Mary Tyler Moore and "Law & Order's" Sam Waterston, Culp portrayed Lincoln's outspoken assistant private secretary, John Hay.

From there, film roles and television guest spots began to spring up. By 1993, he took one of his most out-of-left-field roles as a man who literally becomes possessed by the black heart of Jason Voorhees in "Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday."

"I'm reading the script and just shaking my head, thinking that a year ago I wouldn't even have read this---and now I'm auditioning for it," Culp says with a laugh. "I put together an audition that was a little tongue-in-cheek. It was like, if I were making this movie, how would I be doing it. I started reading and [producer] Sean [Cunningham] literally got up out of his chair and started slapping the floor because he was laughing so hard. I was cast within a day."

Sadly, "Jason Goes to Hell" was not allowed to become the film its creators wanted. Originally, it was to be a tongue-in-cheek John Woo-inspired piece, but New Line Cinema saw the initial cut and demanded it be made into another "teen sex equals death" romp, when all was said and done. But that was OK---there were much better roles on the horizon.

By 1996, the actor found himself with a recurring role as Special Agent Clayton Webb on the hit CBS drama J.A.G., as well as his first turn as Robert Kennedy in the film "Norma Jean & Marilyn." A Marilyn Monroe biopic, it also featured fellow Star Trek alum Jeffrey Combs (Weyoun, Shran) as drug-addled film legend Montgomery Clift. But it would be Culp's second brush with RFK four years later---in the Kevin Costner-produced "Thirteen Days"---that brought him his greatest acclaim.

"I never thought I was going to get the role," Culp admits. "I just thought that I would give a good audition, and maybe I would get one of the smaller roles. I just figured they would cast a larger name in the part. They brought me back and brought me back. They did originally offer it out to Guy Pearce, but he was unavailable. They offered it out to others too, but kept coming back to me."

A final screen test with Bruce Greenwood, who had already been cast as President John F. Kennedy, sealed the deal.

"I was working on the [Kennedy] accent in the car [on the drive up] and listening to a speech Robert Kennedy had done before a largely black audience the night Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed," Culp says. "He was the one who told the audience that King had been killed. It's an amazing speech. Problem was, there was no time to transcribe this for the screen test and somebody hands me this book and says I might find it interesting. It's a book of speeches, and the Robert Kennedy speech is sure enough in it. Before they had Bruce and me read together, they had me stand up there. The director, Ronald Donelson, told me to say a few words and I said, 'How about I read you this speech' So I started reading this speech and later Bruce told me that Armyan Bernstein, one of the producers of the film, came walking into the [make-up] room while I was talking, going 'It's happening! It's happening!'"

Plenty has happened to Culp since his seminal role on "Thirteen Days." Currently, he's filming "Sisters," a modern adaptation of Anton Chekhov's play "The Three Sisters," starring Erika Christensen and Chris O'Donnell. On the small screen, Culp has had recurring roles on both "ER" and "The West Wing" as well as his turn as Major Hayes on " Enterprise." Sadly, after just five appearances, Major Hayes was killed off in the penultimate episode of the season, "Countdown"---but not without a Sickbay death scene befitting a hero's hero after giving his life in the rescue of Ensign Hoshi Sato.

"I really didn't know much about Star Trek going into it," Culp says. "I knew the original series, but I wasn't really familiar with anything after "The Next Generation." [In] the first episode ['The Xindi'], I really didn't have much to do. Around the second episode I worked on, titled 'The Shipment,' I came across this article in the [ Los Angeles] "Times." It was about this young soldier in Iraq who had grown up in a bad neighborhood, grew up kind of a troubled kid who found himself in the military. He seemed like this dedicated gung-ho soldier who had found fulfillment in the military. I took it to the director [of the episode] and said, 'This is me. This is my character.' It grew from there."

Hayes' "gung-ho" mood particularly was true of the "Harbinger" episode. With tensions between he and Dominic Keating's Lt. Reed coming to a boil, Culp's character was one of the central figures of that episode— including one of the most intense fight scenes ever to appear on a Star Trek series as Hayes and Reed traded grudge blows for so long it almost turned semi-comic.

"Originally, it was going to be even more elaborate than it ended up being," Culp says. "It was originally going to spill out into the hall and sort of go on like "The Quiet Man," "the John Wayne movie. It would just sort of go on all over the ship. But in practical terms, it couldn't be done in the time allotted. So instead, [stunt coordinator] Vince [Deadrick Jr.] would work out a section of the fight. Vince would take on the technical fighting stuff, and then Dominic and I and [director] David Livingston would sort of shape it all into more storytelling terms.

"As it ended up," he goes on, "Dominic and I pretty much did the entire fight when we were shooting it. [The stunt doubles] did a lot of the fancy kicks that (a) we could not do and (b) would not do for safety issues. Often times though, even when they would say, 'OK a stunt double will do that' I would go, 'But Vince, I learned the punches. Let me try to do it.' After we'd do it, Vince would go, 'God, I'm really glad we got that footage because now we can really intercut it.'"

Oddly enough, Hayes wasn't Culp's first brush with Star Trek, He had pre­viously been cast in "Star Trek Nemesis" as the ' Enterprise-E's' new first officer, Commander Martin Madden. Unfortunately, the small role at the film's end was ultimately dropped from the final cut (though his scene is among the deletions included on the DVD release). If and when a new Star Trek film is announced, it seems Culp would be more than happy to reprise Madden

"I remember reading somewhere that they were going to cut the movie down another 40 to 50 minutes and thinking, 'Well, there goes [my] scene,'" says Culp. "It was just a little scene that didn't add anything to the movie, so I knew they'd get rid of it. But if [the Madden role] ever did come around again, I'd do it. It would be worth it."

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