Santa Monica resident Joseph Culp grew up 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. Barry’s “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 “Men’s 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 King’s economic boycott program. Culp plans to shoot new footage with Jackson and other civil rights leaders to coincide with the re-release of his dad’s landmark film.
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. I’m not a conservative person or intensely political and don’t relate to Paul’s values and lack of empathy. I do relate to his passion for what he believes in, even if it’s to the sacrifice of the people around him
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. That’s 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 happens.
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 we’re 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 we’re working on, will take on something extraordinary. Maybe someone bursts into tears, maybe they laugh uproariously, maybe it becomes dangerous, but it’s because we’re 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 sense.
Cohn: You’ve 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 recognizable.
But in the theatre, so many other things are possible, which is what’s 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 Ray’s 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 a film.
Cohn: What are your thoughts about having to sustain an emotion on stage vs. film?
Culp: That’s 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, there’s a satisfaction in your body and in your mind where you feel like you met the task, whereas in film, you’re getting a minute or two at a time and it’s hardly satisfying. I like being in movies and I like to watch movies and if I do a good job, I think wow, I’m part of a good movie. But, satisfaction? You’ll never have it. It’s the director’s 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 50’s and then off to Hollywood to do the “I Spy” a series with Bill Cosby.
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 ‘I’m going to tell you something. I haven’t been on stage in 50 years.” I said, ‘what are you worried about?” You’re fine. Just go out there and do your thing.’
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: That’s 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. He’s dad, but he’s also this otherworldly person that I don’t have access to. My father was away a lot so there were long periods where I didn’t see him and you have a longing for your parent. You’re both proud of him and also feel a little insecure because your impression is he’s so much bigger than everybody else because everybody treats him that way. At school you’re worried that the kids will think you might think you’re 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.
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.
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 we’re 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 father’s various divorces, there were a string of stepmothers, including France Nuyen who wasn’t 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 I’m still very close to her. I didn’t see my dad and lot and didn’t 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? We’re 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 unpleasant memories?
Culp: It’s so reworked and very beautiful, but in my mind it’s filled with ghosts. My siblings and I were here for 14 months – a year and two months. It wasn’t as long as a lot of the other Synanon kids, but when you’re 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 man’s 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 Synanon’s 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 Synanon’s 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 doesn’t mean you have to live by that story. Your brain can absolutely rewire certain ideas and habits and behaviors. It’s provable and has been done. With post-traumatic stress disorder, which I had, you definitely, over time and practice, learn that you don’t 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 didn’t have a secure attachment to their parents. It’s been demonstrated that if you’re 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.
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. It’s ephemeral. So, having a family gives me a real life and grounds me. We have two beautiful kids who are in high school and there’s a richness from that which feeds my creative life. There’s 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, it’s like digging into life, whether it’s being up with a crying kid when they’re sick or driving kids to school. There’s something that makes your soul more full because of that experience. Then there’s 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 I’m so glad I have it.