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Exclusive Q&A with Steven Culp


February 15, 2015

From April until May 2014 Steven Culp fans had the opportunity
to submit questions through the Steven Culp Online website and Steven Culp Online Facebook page for Mr. Steven Culp to answer.

Thanks to everyone who submitted questions.

Above all, many thanks to Mr. Steven Culp!

Read the first installment Read the second installment Read the fourth installment

Third Installment

Note: © Steven Culp Online 2015 - The Q&A is exclusive to Steven Culp Online and may not be published on other websites or the like.

(20) Ashton: What was your favorite class that you took in college?

Steven: I was an English major in college, and so had many wonderful literature courses. I remember enjoying survey courses in 19th and 20th century British and American literature, contemporary American poetry, a fascinating seminar on the works of James Joyce, and a workshop where I spent a semester writing poetry. I spent a year in England at the University of Exeter, where my three main literature courses were called—I still remember their names—"Shakespeare and the Drama of His Time," "Development of English Poetry," and "Practical Criticism." I loved the fact that these courses stretched over an entire academic year, as opposed to having everything squeezed into one semester, as we did in the States. Where the American system seemed to focus for the most part on quantity—how many Shakespeare plays can we cover in a week?—the British system favored spending more time on less material. For example, with Shakespeare: instead of spending just one class session on a particular play, we'd spend three or four, really absorbing ourselves in it. There wasn't the rush to cover absolutely everything. As a (somewhat paradoxical) result, I found myself reading more of the plays than I would have normally; I used the extra time to read them for pleasure, because the class was so interesting. My year in England was the year I began to really appreciate Shakespeare, and I think it's because of the way it was taught. And then there was a weekly tutorial, where we read Jane Austen, Henry James, and E.M. Forster, among others, and for which we wrote papers and essays. I remember coming up with my own project, a long paper on T.S. Eliot's THE WASTE LAND. With the more relaxed teaching method, there was also a lot of time to play, go to pubs, travel around the countryside, and in general be a college student having a good time. It was a great year. I also want to mention a two-semester course in American History I took as a sophomore; the professor was one of the best I ever had. He saw the Civil War as the central event of American history: everything radiated from there. It was a fascinating and illuminating point of view. He also turned me on to one of my favorite authors, William Faulkner. Oh yes, last but not least: there was a film course where I first saw such classics as Notorious, Citizen Kane, and The Graduate. Ah, those college days! It was a privilege to be able to study all this stuff.

(21) Ashton: Do you speak any other languages?

Steven: And now, after all that, I have to confess to being a terrible language student. I don't know why. I took two years of Spanish in high school, four semesters of French in college, and I am woefully incompetent in both of them. I've theorized that, because I've always read a great deal, I was able to absorb my knowledge of English grammar from my reading; writing grammatically seemed to come naturally to me. So I never really had to sit down and learn the rules by rote. And as a result, learning grammar in another language is something I find very difficult. I don't know for sure whether or not that's true—but it sounds good! All I know is that in French, especially, the grammar just killed me. Maybe if I actually lived there and had to speak the language every day I would become better at it. But yes, I am your typical ignorant American when it comes to other languages.

(22) Florence: Hello Steven! I hope you're doing great and are enjoying the questions. As an animal lover, I was wondering if you liked animals and if by any chance you had one or several pets? Thank you! Have a nice day!

Steven: We do have a pet, a Sheltie. His name is Scout. He's a herding dog, and is very industrious and eager to be of service. These types of dogs are happiest when they have work to do. This is terrific when you have sheep you want to round up, but it can become a little wearing when he barks and runs circles around you every time you take out the garbage. But it's great when, say, the phone rings and you don't hear it, because he'll come running to get you. He just wants to be of use! He's at his best when we travel; I think he thinks he's protecting us the whole time, and that makes him relaxed and content. He's a good dog.

(23) Rose: Mr. Culp, selecting just two of your many roles, you portrayed CIA Very Special Agent Clayton Porter Webb in JAG, and US GA Robert F. Kennedy in "Thirteen Days" with excellent skill in personality projection, manner of speech, personality quirks, etc... With your vast experience in all performance acting genres and at this point in your career do you prefer the challenge to develop a definitive personality in a fiction character, or do you prefer the challenge to capture the full essence of a living person?

Steven: It's interesting that you should link those two roles together. Back when I was working on THIRTEEN DAYS, it occurred to me that playing Webb was very useful preparation for working on RFK. Webb was what I regarded as my first "character" role in TV or film. I felt, at least in the beginning, that he was very different from me. When I went in to read for the role, I adopted a very specific vocal cadence (borrowed from a particular person I knew), because I didn't think my own cadence had the authority needed for the role. I wanted Webb to be always pressing forward, to never apologize for what he was doing. If the script said he said something "defensively," I ignored it. There was a book of recent American political history I was reading at the time, and I found a real-life person whose background and personal characteristics I used to help flesh out Webb's background and character once I was actually cast in the role. Webb's outlook, his way of doing things and interacting with others, was, I felt, very different from my own, and I worked to build up a structure that I could inhabit. And then, interestingly enough, after I had inhabited it for a while I came to see that the role fit me like a glove. I'd just had to work to discover the way that it fit. So then I was able to refine and make more subtle certain elements (like the strident way of speaking) that had perhaps been a little overdone in the beginning. With RFK, the differences in voice, bearing, etc., were apparent from the start; the nature of the role demanded that you work on those things so that his dialect, tone, physicality, etc., became second nature to you, part of your bones. And at the same time, I was researching his background, family life, career, personal characteristics, and I tried to wed them to the physical life of the character, so that the physical life was an outward manifestation of the inner life. Accomplishing this task on film was something that I'd already experienced with Webb, and I have to say that gave me confidence and some first-hand knowledge when I approached Bobby. And as with Webb, after a time I came to see that the role of RFK was much closer to me than it might have seemed to me originally. Now as far as which I prefer, the challenge of playing a real character or a fictional one, I don't think I can answer that definitively. In some ways the playing of a real person involves inescapable technical demands: you have to be convincing as that person, and if people aren't convinced by the outward manifestation it's not going to work, no matter what's going on inside. But you have a real life, a blueprint, to go by that's helpful. You don't have to make him up out of whole cloth, as you do playing someone like, say, Truman or Rex Van de Kamp. There your blueprint is simply what's on the page, and what you can bring to it with your imagination and your experience. So the tasks present challenges, some similar and some different. But ultimately, I think, there is hopefully a moment where you take a leap of faith and, whether or not the character is a real or a fictional one, you're able to meld it with something personal to you, and have it resonate in your own being. That's when it's really working, I think.

(24) Michele: Mr. Culp, thank you for taking my question. I actually have two questions, if I may, relating to the character of Clayton Webb. First, regarding the "JAG" episode, "Webb of Lies," in which it was revealed that Webb was a cellist and pianist, and that he'd competed in the Olympics, were these details about his history created solely by the writers, or did you have some input into that? Second, a friend and I have been pondering a theory that the character of Commander Skinner on the "NCIS" episode "Chimera" might actually be a post in-from-the-cold Clayton Webb, working undercover; the reasons for his acting not quite like himself being because of some of the recent events and difficult circumstances of his life at that point (i.e. residual from the events in Paraguay, Sarah dumping him the way she did, etc.), plus maintaining his cover. Do you have any thoughts on that theory? Thank you very much, and may you continue to enjoy success in your career.

Steven: I had no input into the script for "Webb of Lies." The first I heard of it was when Mark Horowitz, the JAG producer who was directing this particular story, called me at home and said, "You're getting killed in this episode." After allowing me a moment of panic, he added, "But not really." They liked to joke around, those JAG producers. Webb's background as revealed in the script was just great, I thought. I was by then used to being surprised at Webb's hidden facets and abilities. I remember I had shot just my second episode (which was the first one where Webb appeared, interestingly enough) when Don Bellisario called to tell me he had written a scene for my next episode in which I was tangoing with a mysterious woman—who turned out to be my mother. From there on in I was ready for anything. One thing I loved about playing Webb was that I was constantly being surprised, in a good way. I loved all the stuff the writers came up with—it made him a wonderfully rich character. As for NCIS, I spotted Skinner's Webb-like qualities right away. But he had his own kind of Navy swagger; witness his very overt flirtation with Shepard. Those scenes were fun to play, and not at all like Webb. But yes, Skinner's function in the plot, and the way he dealt with information as currency, spending it only as a last resort, reminded me a great deal of Webb. But no one else on set mentioned it. So I just tried to make him as different from Webb as I could. I was happily surprised when they asked me to do the show, because I figured that my character was established enough on JAG that playing a different character on NCIS was not in the cards. So I was delighted to be there. They are a wonderful group, and I was very glad to be able to work with Lauren Holly before she left. As to your theory—I love it! You can certainly make a good case for it. I'd love to shoot that episode again and see if I could work it in: what is the hidden secret of the mysterious (and somewhat arrogant) Commander Skinner? I see a fan fiction story brewing somewhere!

(25) Angel: On "Revolution," you were not given much backstory for Truman's character, now that the writers have developed his history, is it close to what you envisioned? And is it easier for you going forward knowing what motivates him?

Steven: It took me a while to build up a backstory for Truman that I liked, and that worked for me. I said in an interview last year that I wouldn't reveal what it was because I might get a script which shot my theories all to bits. So when, shortly after, I received the script for "Exposition Boulevard," which dealt with Truman's background, I was struck by how much of what I had imagined dovetailed with what I read. There were differences in the details, of course, but the overall circumstances and trajectory of his character outlined in that episode were very much in line with what I'd been thinking. All the more remarkable because I never discussed anything with the writers; they were all back in Los Angeles and we were in Texas. It makes me wonder: were they picking up on nuances they saw in the performance? Or was I picking up on nuances in the writing? I think the answer is: a bit of both. We were all sort of making it up as we went along, seeing what worked, what didn't work, finding out through the playing of each scene who the character was and what was the most effective way to play him. I can't remember the specific scene, but I remember seeing a stage direction describing Truman as "poker-faced," and thinking, "Ah ha! They're starting to get the hang of him!" because it just felt so right. I thought from the beginning that Truman was a "true believer;" I also came to feel that, at least in his mind, he was destined for better things. And he must have come from a disadvantaged background, because if he'd been "connected" he would have had a more powerful job. I came to see him as someone who'd had to work his way up through the ranks. And that he had a real desire to be the hero, to be looked up to as a great heroic leader, and would even manipulate events to make that happen. I think he probably had a terribly negative self-image, and he lived in denial of that: he constructed a persona that made him feel powerful and in control, but that was divorced from reality. So all the circumstances that the writers gave me fit in perfectly with that, as did the way the rest of the season played out. I can reveal now that I was set to be a series regular in the third season—but then the show was cancelled. So, unfortunately, we'll never really find out what happened to Truman. I have a feeling that, like a tenacious insect, he would manage to survive.

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