Life Resonates with Brett Cullen
The Houston Chronicle
— April 5, 2008
Written By: Andrew Dansby
It’s impossible to discuss the film The Life Before Her Eyes without bringing up death. Brett Cullen plays the husband of a woman who, as a child, survived a Columbine-type school shooting. The Houston-born, -raised and -trained actor calls the film “a sad, visual poem.”
Cullen, who doesn’t believe in one-word answers, quickly gets to the story of his own near-death experience. As a teenager with “hair down to my (butt),” Cullen was surfing off of Mexico when the “swell jacked up to 18 feet.”
He went under, fought until his arms and legs gave out. Cullen says all the life-flashing clichés held true.
“I gave up,” he says. “I left my body and had one of those moments. There was this longing pain of what I was gonna miss. Three things, and they sound absurd: the taste of my mother’s salad, the smell of my father cooking steak on Saturday and the smell of mowed grass.”
Instead of drowning, Cullen got pulled by his hair onto another surfer’s board, threw up and got back to living.
He says Life reminds him of that experience. “It’s not necessarily a vocal memory as it is a visual thing, an imaginary sort of visual poem.”
It further resonated because Cullen has a 13-year-old daughter.
“It hits on that fear of loss,” he says. “I try to explain that to my daughter, that everything can change in the blink of an eye, and it scares me deeply.
“I don’t know what happened in this country that makes kids want to get guns and go to school and kill other kids or teachers. But we’re doing something wrong. … I’ve always said for life, marriage, friendship and business, you need to communicate or it dies. I feel like we’re not communicating with our children anymore.”
Cullen’s next movie project similarly touches on generational family issues. The Burning Plain doesn’t yet have a release date. It stars Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger and is directed by Guillermo Arriaga, who wrote 21 Grams and co-wrote Babel.
Cullen’s looking for another project. He seems to have had few breaks in an almost three-decade career that began shortly after he graduated from the University of Houston, having studied with the storied Cecil Pickett.
He’s tallied nearly 100 credits in film and TV. Lately Cullen, 51, has had a particularly enviable run on the small screen with parts in shows such as Lost, Ugly Betty, Private Practice and Friday Night Lights.
Cullen’s involvement in Lost was limited, but his character, Goodwin, was deemed important enough to the narrative to have been shown multiple times over four seasons, though rarely without the reaper nearby. Goodwin typically is shown a) being sent to his death, b) getting killed or c) dead.
Having been buried twice, Cullen’s not expecting a call from the show’s creators, but he hasn’t ruled it out. He says he joked to executive producer Carlton Cuse that they should create Badwin, a twin brother. “He can be the total bad (expletive),” Cullen says. “Out to avenge his brother’s death.”
Despite the brief appearances, he says the show also gave him the opportunity to visit Hawaii to surf with buddies.
His Ted LeBeau on Ugly Betty also seems to have run his course, but the renewal of Friday Night Lights opens the possibility that he will return as Walt Riggins, the troubled father of one of the show’s troubled teens.
Cullen slipped into the role with chilling menace.
After a dispute with his son, Walt walked away from his family a second time with an unnerving haste. “Watch how easy this is,” Walt said.
Cullen raves about that show’s shooting process. Upon arriving on the FNL set, he inquired about rehearsals, only to find out there weren’t any.
“They told me we didn’t have to be word perfect; as long as the context of a scene is there, you can improvise,” he says. “You don’t have to hit marks. There are three cameras there, they catch the performance.
“It’s the most exciting thing I’ve done in a long time. You just go. Run and gun, turn on the lights and start shooting.”
Cullen says he doesn’t miss the humidity and heat of Houston, though he enjoyed the opportunity to get back to Texas for FNL. He doesn’t get back as much since his mother left her Bellaire home and moved to California.
“She’s now living in my garage apartment,” he says. “The woman’s 85 and she’ll start getting after me at 5:30. ‘Hey, can I have a beer?'”
© 2008 Houston Chronicle