Exclusive interview with Steven Culp
January 15, 2014 | The charming actor Steven Culp is no stranger to dedicated viewers of television shows. He has been involved in over 100 projects over the last decades and is best known for his role as "Desperate Housewives" husband Rex Van de Kamp, he played Doctor Parker in season 9 of "Grey's Anatomy" and plays the part of Edward Truman in the second season of "Revolution". With myFanbase Steven talks about his work as an actor, his take on the group of Patriots on "Revolution" and the role that had the most influence on him.
1. In season 2 of "Revolution" a new party was added: The Patriots. You are Edward Truman, a high commander of this group. What is your take on the character? And how would you describe this new group and their motives from what we know so far?
I'm not sure how I should answer these questions about Revolution. For one thing, there are many secrets on this show, and even the most casual answer may reveal something that the producers would rather remain a secret. Obviously, my character was alive at the end of the mid-season finale, so you can assume that he'll be returning with the show in January. But for how long? Well, you'll just have to watch and see, because I can't give anything away--and I might not even know myself at this point.
It's been an intriguing show to work on, partly because I know so little about where things are going. The character of Truman, and the Patriots themselves, were somewhat mysterious to me when I started. I only knew what I read in each script as it came. I could only guess at what Truman's motives were, what drove him, what he wanted, what his personal ambitions were, his strengths and weaknesses. I always spend a lot of time preparing and rehearsing on my own, and I always try to come up with a strong backstory and given circumstances for my character, but on Revolution I would find, repeatedly, that when I got onto the set and started playing the scenes with other actors it would be very different from what I had envisioned. A lot of the time it was about finding the right tone, the right key in which to play the scene. Working with the directors and my fellow actors, I would try to find the most effective way to play each individual scene, and as those scenes came together I would discover something new about Truman, or would at least learn something from my mistakes. And so the character began to take shape.
I had a similar experience working on Grey's Anatomy, where the first time you saw a new script was at the at the table read, with the rest of the cast. And I liked it; I liked being surprised, not knowing what was coming, discovering things even as I was reading them for the first time. It felt more like life to me, just going from moment to moment like that. But the reality on Revolution is much more heightened and extreme than on Grey's, and developing an inner life that could accommodate that took more time. It was a bit trickier.
Now, all these episodes in, I find that this opaque quality of Truman's--he can be very hard to read at times; you're never quite sure where he's coming from--is one of my favorite things about him. There's always a bit of give and take between the writers and the actors--they see what we do, and they respond to what works--and we all seem to have found a good groove with this character. There are qualities emerging in the writing that are distinctly "Truman." And I have come up with a pretty strong backstory for myself, one that I like and that works for me. But, if you don't mind, I'm going to keep it my secret for now. For one thing, I might get a script that totally repudiates everything I've come up with in my mind. I want to keep things fluid for myself. And I'd like to keep the audience guessing as much as I can. Ask me again when it's all over.
The Patriots, at least at first glance, appear to be the "good guys." They want to restore order, get the food and medical supply lines up and running again, protect towns from the various warlike clans that have sprung up in this dystopian society. And Truman takes pains to make sure that that is how they are perceived. But, as we've seen, that's far from the reality: I think it's safe to assume that they are intent on grabbing power and establishing a "New World Order" of their own, one in which they call the shots. "Restoring America to its former glory" seems to be an important concept for them. There's any number of parallels you can draw from history or current events. And that's all I'll say at this point.
2. When you got the part on "Revolution" was there any actor you really looked forward to working with? Or still do, since you haven't worked with all of the cast yet?
It would be unfair to single anyone out, since they are all so terrific. I've really enjoyed working with everyone there. Early on, I was sitting on the set at 3 a.m. with Elizabeth Mitchell and Stephen Collins, waiting for a shot to be set up and having a very interesting conversation about one thing and another. And it occurred to me: if I'm going to be sitting on a set at three in the morning, these are the people I want to be with. There's a real sense of camaraderie on the set--all for one and one for all. And a lot of humor, which is a tonic on a show where cast & crew work long hours under sometimes adverse conditions. Everyone has been lovely, and very supportive and encouraging, which is not the case on all shows. Though I have to say I've been very fortunate in most of the programs I've worked on.
3. "Revolution" draws a world (almost) without any kind of technology. Which is the one technology or technical device you wouldn't want to live without?
The printing press. And the wheel.
4. What one thing about "Revolution" would people not know?
I'm not sure what people DO know about "Revolution." Did I mention that the cast and crew are a great bunch of folks? If you think of a Hollywood (or, in our case, Austin) set as a place of vanity and ego and "star" behavior, then I would suggest you visit the set of "Revolution" and experience the opposite of that. I will also say that our background players are some of the hardest-working I've ever seen. Take note of them next time you see the show.
5. Your "Grey's Anatomy" character Dr. Parker addressed two important issues: competitive doctors struggling to be teamplayers and aging surgeons in the OR. Do you think he was ultimately right in what he confronted Cristina with?
Well, I always strive to see things from my character's point of view, so yes, I do think Dr. Parker was right. His interest was in protecting the hospital, and protecting the patients. And perhaps there were personal issues there, too, involving power and control, but they would be on the subconscious level. Was he right to use Cristina the way he did? Probably not, though I don't think he believed he was being dishonest with her. But that's the funny thing about people, isn't it?
They tell themselves they're doing things for good reasons, but quite often they're kidding themselves. For one thing, the fact that he was sleeping with Cristina muddies the ethical waters considerably. I thought it was interesting that Parker made such a thing about there being no egos on his hospital staff, that everyone was a team player, and yet he seemed to have a very good-sized ago (and with surgeons, that comes with the territory), and subverted at least some notions of teamwork in his behavior. Very human, that.
6. Looking back at "Desperate Housewives", what's your fondest memory from working on this show?
Well, what's not to like? Everyone should be part of such a phenomenon at least once in their lives. It was a very heady time: all the parties, the awards shows, rubbing elbows with people you respect and admire. But the best time was spent actually working. I was really pleased with the character we developed. Rex could have been just a one-dimensional foil for Bree, someone for the audience to hate, but he came out a lot more complex and nuanced than that. And funny. He had his own particular sense of humor. And I loved the chemistry that Marcia [Cross] and I had. It really was like we'd been married for 20 years; we just seemed to have an instinct for each other. I love the fact that so many people responded Rex and Bree as a couple.
7. Rex van de Kamp had a fondness for S&M sex, a subject that's now widely popular through the bestseller "50 Shades of Grey". Do you think Rex might actually count as a bit of a pioneer in freeing this subject from taboos as it was addressed in his storyline on this hugely successful show 9 years back?
I've never actually thought about it, but yes! I like that . Rex as a sexual pioneer! I'm all for that.
8. Which character you ever played, was the hardest work? And which one had the most influence on you?
I've been fortunate in that I've had a lot of roles, onstage and onscreen, that have been challenging, and from which I have learned a great deal. Way back when I was not too long out of school I performed Coriolanus with the Champlain Shakespeare Festival; we had only a 2 1/2 week rehearsal period! In a situation like that, you can't hold back; you stick your head out on the chopping block and dare the audience to cut it off. I was actually recognized for that one several times, a whole year later, when I was in New York; people would come up to me on the street and say, "Are you Steven Culp? I saw you do Coriolanus last summer!" That was very gratifying.
So there have been many roles that I could talk about, and maybe I'll write a book someday (because, as you can tell from this interview, I can be very long-winded). But if I had to pick, I would say that playing Joe Pitt in ANGELS IN AMERICA was the most challenging and fulfilling role I've ever done onstage. We did both plays (it's a 2-parter) at ACT in San Francisco, back in 1994-95. It was a marvelous cast that included Garret Dillahunt and Ben Shenkman, and was directed by one of the best directors I've ever worked with, Mark Wing-Davey. The roles were particularly demanding, Shakespearean in scope and size, the plays were massive, Tony Kushner's writing brilliant, and Mark was very much tuned in to the nuances of human behavior; you'd be doing things that were so close to the bone that you couldn't perceive them yourself, you just had to go forward and trust that it was working. And it did work, like nothing I've ever seen. It changed us all; we all came out of that production different actors, and different people.
Onscreen, I'd have to single out the role of Bobby Kennedy in THIRTEEN DAYS. I don't think I've ever put so many hours into preparing for a role, and so much sheer physical effort. I'd spent most of the summer auditioning for the movie, and had already done a lot of research on the Kennedy family history. Then, when I was cast in the part, Bruce Greenwood, who was so brilliant as JFK, said to me, "Well, we've qualified for the Olympics. Now we have to go to the Olympics." And that's what it was like. Working with a trainer to get that lean RFK physique, watching films, listening to audiotapes, working on his accent and physicality, hours and hours of reading and research--in the weeks leading up to the film, I felt like I was in boot camp. I'd be up with the sun and work till I went to bed. But it paid off, I think. The actual filming felt effortless, in a way, and I think that's because of the intensity and thoroughness of the preparation. That's one film I'm very proud of. I love it that these powerful heads of state are fighting as hard as they can to NOT go to war. And bucking much of the military and political establishment in trying to prevent it. It's a lesson that time has not diminished.
But really, virtually every role presents challenges, as well as opportunities for growth, both as an artist and a human being. I'm happy to be in a profession that provides these experiences, over and over again.
9. Do you like traveling? Have you ever been to Germany? What did you see or what would you like to see?
I don't enjoy traveling as much as I used to. Or, I should say, I love going places, but I don't really enjoy getting there. Does anyone enjoy flying these days? I'd rather drive if I can. I was in Berlin several years ago when THIRTEEN DAYS was at the Berlin Film Festival. I had a terrific time, though much of it was spent working. My wife got to see the sights while I did press. I'd love to return at some point so I can actually experience more of the city. In fact, I'd love to spend a few months in Europe--it's been a while since I was there. It would be great to get the whole family over at some point. When traveling, I like to spend time getting to know a place. I'm not the whirlwind-tour type. I'd rather spend more time in fewer locations, really soaking them up.
10. Since myFanbase is an online magazine about U.S. television shows, what are your favorite shows?
It's astonishing how little TV I actually watch, relative to what's out there. It's a question of time and schedule, really. I know there are people out there binge viewing, but I don't know where they find the time. Do they have kids, I wonder? (Not that my kids watch much TV either--the last thing they were interested in was iCarly, and that was a few years ago. They prefer playing outside.) For me, binge viewing is watching more than one episode of something in a week.
There are usually one or two shows running at any given time that I'll try to keep up with. I love MAD MEN and BREAKING BAD. Those are brilliant shows. I've become a big fan of GAME OF THRONES, but only started watching that on Netflix a few months ago. THE GOOD WIFE is one of the best shows on network TV; it's amazing the high quality they maintain episode after episode. Same with SCANDAL, though I've fallen scandalously behind on that one and will need to catch up. (And GREY'S ANATOMY is still remarkably strong after ten years.) I made it a point to see HOUSE OF CARDS, which I liked very much, because I was in (creator) Beau Willamon's new play, "The Parisian Woman," last spring.
I'm looking forward to the return of that show, and of JUSTIFIED. Also VEEP. I enjoyed HOMELAND in its first two seasons, but somehow missed the entire third one. And how about a shout-out to the cast of NCIS? They're a terrific ensemble, with a lot of chemistry; there's a reason that show's been on top for so long. I will say that the default channel in our house is Turner Classic Movies. I can always find an excuse to sit down and watch a classic movie, for at least a few minutes, anyway.
Thank you, Steven, we wish you all the best for your future!
All the best to you! Thanks for having me.
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