Joseph Culp Interview
Frank Talk On Acting Technique, Growing Up With A Movie
Star Parent, Marriage, And Healing Childhood Wounds
By Beverly Cohn
anta Monica resident Joseph Culp grew the son of Hollywood icon,
Robert Culp. He has carved out a successful career as an actor, writer,
and filmmaker and has had a recurring role on the television hit series
Mad Men. He is currently appearing in Raymond J. Barrys
Awake In A World That Encourages Sleep at the Electric Lodge
in Venice where he also runs the Walking Theatre Workshop that is committed
to developing new projects for theatre and film. He has several projects
in the works including a black comedy feature he plans to direct called
Mens Group, which he co-wrote. He is also working
on the restoration of his father's 1969 civil rights documentary "Operation
Breadbasket," a film about young Reverend Jesse Jackson who led
Martin Luther Kings economic boycott program. Culp plans to shoot
new footage with Jackson and other civil rights leaders to coincide
with the re-release of his dads landmark film.
Joseph Culp as Paul in "Awake In A World
That Encourages Sleep." Photo Courtesy Electric
This multi-talented man recently sat down with your
reporter for an exclusive interview conducted at the Casa del Mar hotel
and the following has been edited for continuity and print purposes.
Cohn: What was your process for developing
the character of Paul in Awake In A World That Encourages Sleep?
Culp: The process of a character coming
to life is a very mysterious process that always fascinates me. If you
just start with learning the words, then through repetition they start
to move into your body and awaken certain things that you identify with
personally in the character. Certainly this is a role that is very much
the opposite of how I think of myself. Im not a conservative person
or intensely political and dont relate to Pauls values and
lack of empathy. I do relate to his passion for what he believes in,
even if its to the sacrifice of the people around him
Raymond J. Barry and Joseph Culp in "Awake
In A World That Encourages Sleep."
Photo Courtesy Electric Lodge
Cohn: You and Ray have similar technique training.
Can you comment on that?
Culp: Ray and I both have extensive training. I trained
for probably 20 years at HB Studio in New York with Uta Hagen and we
both studied with the late character actor Kenneth McMillan, who was
a brilliant teacher. Thats a process that matures you, hopefully,
to the point where you can say these words over and over and allow certain
things to take place without forcing, without using any tricks, with
just allowing your psyche to meld with the material until something
(L-R: Raymond J. Barry, Joseph Culp) Culp On developing
a character: "...Hopefully you can say these words over and over
and allow certain things to take place without forcing." Photo:
Courtesy Electric Lodge
Cohn: Has your technique changed over the years?
Culp: After years of trying to approach plays from an
intellectual place, like working out all the beats (transitional
moments) and knowing exactly what were doing, we threw that
all away. We committed to the words and to being with each other. By
not caring so much, the scene or whatever were working on, will
take on something extraordinary. Maybe someone bursts into tears, maybe
they laugh uproariously, maybe it becomes dangerous, but its because
were allowing anything to happen. Then something gets sculpted
over time where the performance does get defined, partially by the words
you have to believe in, and partially by the process of elimination
where finally there are certain actions that are appropriate and make
A scene from "Security" produced by Joseph
Culp's Walking Theatre Workshop at the Electric Lodge in Venice. Courtesy
Cohn: Youve done a lot of work in film and
stage. What are the advantages and disadvantages of both?
Culp: Film, for the most part, is a very naturalistic
medium, meaning that the human behavior you create on film is instantly
But in the theatre, so many other things are possible,
which is whats so marvelous about it. Sure, there are naturalistic
playwrights like Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and their works are
brilliant and challenging. You can also create plays like Rays
that have interesting modes of behavior or rhythms of speech that make
statements about our humanity - about our culture. There are whole worlds
that can be presented on a stage whereas in film, you are beholden to
a much more generally realistic regimen. So, as an actor, there are
roles you can play on the stage that you would never be cast for in
L-R: Tacey Adams, Joseph Culp and Raymond J. Barry.
Photo Courtesy Electric Lodge
Cohn: What are your thoughts about having to sustain
an emotion on stage vs. film?
Joseph Culp's famous father Robert (R) starred
with Bill Cosby in the blockbuster television series, "I
Spy." Courtesy Photo
Culp: Thats both the challenge and the fun of
theatre. I often think of it like a ritual. The lights go up and you
go out there for an hour or two and create something live for the first
time, and it will never been seen again. The energy that goes into that
is both exciting and terrifying. But when you come off of a good performance,
theres a satisfaction in your body and in your mind where you
feel like you met the task, whereas in film, youre getting a minute
or two at a time and its hardly satisfying. I like being in movies
and I like to watch movies and if I do a good job, I think wow, Im
part of a good movie. But, satisfaction? Youll never have it.
Its the directors satisfaction, if anything.
Cohn: Did your dad do a lot of theatre?
Culp: My dad started out in theatre in college and did
his first Broadway play when he was about 24 or 25. He did theatre in
New York and the provinces and then very quickly live television snapped
him up and he started doing all those live television programs in the
50s and then off to Hollywood to do the I Spy a series
with Bill Cosby.
CULP: "My father was away a lot so there were
long periods where I didnt see him and you have a longing for
your parent." Courtesy Photo
Culp: Before he died he did a staged reading with Rita
Moreno of Love Letters which was a benefit to save a theatre
up in Washington State. He called me up on the phone and said Im
going to tell you something. I havent been on stage in 50 years.
I said, what are you worried about? Youre fine. Just
go out there and do your thing.
Among his many films, Robert
Culp co-starred with Natalie Wood in "Bob & Carol &
Ted & Alice."
Cohn: As a child, did you understand that your dad
was a big movie star or was he just dad and how did it affect you?
Culp: Thats an interesting question and a real
mixed bag. I did know he was a famous movie big star and I lived in
his glow and all that comes with that. Hes dad, but hes
also this otherworldly person that I dont have access to. My father
was away a lot so there were long periods where I didnt see him
and you have a longing for your parent. Youre both proud of him
and also feel a little insecure because your impression is hes
so much bigger than everybody else because everybody treats him that
way. At school youre worried that the kids will think you might
think youre better than them and that creates a certain kind of
conflict. Eventually, there was a real benefit that I enjoyed because
of having a famous father, not a physical or monetary kind of benefit,
but a kind of permission that I could actually have a career and do
something as outlandish as being an actor and a writer and a filmmaker.
Because my dad did all those things, I felt I was allowed to go down
the same path.
Joseph Culp as Archie in the hit television series
"Mad Men." Courtesy Photo
Cohn: Did you go to public school?
Culp: My brother Jason and I went to a private boarding
school, but after several years, he switched to public school.
Cohn: Was it a good experience for you?
Culp: It was the only experience I knew so it was both
good and had its own kind of drama, like being alone at school. But
I have great friends that came out of that same experience who were
like family, and were still friends to this day.
Cohn: What about your mother?
Culp: My mother (Nancy Ashe) was a beautiful
woman who died tragically when I was about 20. Because of their divorce,
and my fathers various divorces, there were a string of stepmothers,
including France Nuyen who wasnt very important because that marriage
was short lived. The really important stepmother was Sheila Sullivan
who he married during the 70s. She lives in New York and Im still
very close to her. I didnt see my dad and lot and didnt
see my mom a lot. So that, coupled with going to boarding schools, was
kind of growing up like an orphan. Learning how to trust and to be intimate
with people was a problem. Who do you trust? Were also sitting
in a place (Casa del Mar) where I spent some time as well. It
use to be Synanon. (Started out as a drug rehabilitation center founded
in 1958 by Charles Chuck Dederich, Sr.)
Cohn: Are you ok being here or does it bring back
Culp: Its so reworked and very beautiful, but
in my mind its filled with ghosts. My siblings and I were here
for 14 months a year and two months. It wasnt as long as
a lot of the other Synanon kids, but when youre seven years old,
it might as well have been your whole life, particularly with the kinds
of things that went on. This was an absolutely bona fide cult and it
was right here in Santa Monica and was in a sense, an inner city. Obviously,
for the adults, there were many positive things. It helped them get
off drugs and reform their life style, but like all cults, it went the
same way, with power in the hands of a few, particularly the leader,
Chuck Dederich, who became mad with power and was very controlling and
everybody had to buckle under and do what he wanted. So, all the freedom
that the place was about, eventually went away and it became just one
mans trip. My mother finally decided to get out. She had married
a man there who became my stepfather and went through whatever changes
she needed to go through, but by the time that happened, as far as the
children were concerned, certain types of damage had been done that
would not be easily undone except with years of therapy later on, which
most of us had. Also, our relationship with our mother was irrevocably
changed because when you brought your kids to Synanon, they became Synanons
kids and the mothers stepped away. My brother Jason is writing a book
that has been nothing less than a spiritual odyssey in uncovering things
and getting them clear for him. (Note: Synanon also accept non-drug
users as life stylers who conformed to Synanons restricted
way of life.)
Cohn: What do you say to people who came out of childhood
challenges and went on to live full, productive lives, such as yourself?
Culp: If you have a childhood story, that doesnt
mean you have to live by that story. Your brain can absolutely rewire
certain ideas and habits and behaviors. Its provable and has been
done. With post-traumatic stress disorder, which I had, you definitely,
over time and practice, learn that you dont have to respond to
those signals any more. My wife is a psychotherapist and works with
people in the field of brain research in terms of creating a more secure
attachment, which refers to kids who didnt have a secure
attachment to their parents. Its been demonstrated that if youre
in a relationship for about five years, you can actually reform an attachment,
which is having a sense of trust and being open to being intimate.
The Culp Family: L-R: Son Jackson, Joseph, wife
Lauren and daughter Sedona. "Family is like a blessed thing and
Im so glad I have it." Courtesy Photo
Cohn: What role does marriage and being a father
play in your life and how does it support your career?
Culp: My wife and I just celebrated our 20th anniversary
and my marriage absolutely helped me heal a lot of those issues and
made me strong and trusting and open. We know what the world of an actor
or artiste can be like. It has a certain unreality to it. Its
ephemeral. So, having a family gives me a real life and grounds me.
We have two beautiful kids who are in high school and theres a
richness from that which feeds my creative life. Theres another
way of being, and it works for some people, and that is not to touch
that way of life or to have more superficial relationships or maybe
not even have children. For me, its like digging into life, whether
its being up with a crying kid when theyre sick or driving
kids to school. Theres something that makes your soul more full
because of that experience. Then theres the joy that comes from
having a little birthday breakfast with your children and your wife
or going on vacations. It expands who you are and definitely healed
me in many ways and expanded whoever I am. Hopefully I have that to
give to the work. Making movies and doing plays is like living a life
of dreams pure dreams. Family is like a blessed thing and Im
so glad I have it.