When Brett is Bad
— August 24, 2000
Written By: Louis B. Parks
In The Replacements, Brett Cullen is the rival quarterback who gives Keanu Reeves a hard time.
“You’re not a has-been,” he shouts to the eager-to-make-good Reeves. “You’re a never-was.”
Being a nasty character is not the image Cullen usually projects. Friends of the Houston-born actor — who has been making a steady living in Hollywood for 21 years — prefer to think of him as a nice guy.
“A lot of friends of mine didn’t dig (that part) at all,” says Cullen, who had never before played a “villain” in a major film. In fact, some people even asked him why he was playing a bad guy.
“Because they paid me,” Cullen told them, “and I got to work with Gene Hackman. Come on.”
Cullen also got to go to football camp, although he’s still not sure whether that was a treat or a punishment. The training session, called “hell camp” by the actors, was held for three weeks last summer in Baltimore, just before shooting began.
“I was only there for two weeks because I was a quarterback,” Cullen says with a laugh. “It can get up to a hundred degrees in Baltimore in July and August, so it was really hot and humid.
“We’d do it from 8 in the morning until 1 in the afternoon. Then you’d rest most of the day and have weight training late in the day if you wanted.”
Still, “it was not as bad as Texas in the summer,” Cullen says.
At 43, Cullen is in pretty good shape. He’s a lifelong surfer. He started at age 8 on the Gulf Coast. When we talked, he was packed to head to a spot north of Malibu, Calif., for a day of catching waves.
Athlete or not, he needed some training from real NFL quarterbacks to pass for a pro onscreen.
“I hadn’t played football since I was in junior high school. I was a baseball pitcher until I was 20, so football was kind of an alien concept at my age,” he says.
In the movie, Reeves, as quarterback Shane Falco, proves he’s better at winning than Martel, the NFL pro played by Cullen.
But that’s the movies. Who was really the better quarterback at camp?
“I think Keanu has youth on me,” Cullen says, dodging the subject slightly. “I’m very athletic. Keanu’s more of a musician.
“Keanu’s work ethic is impeccable. When we finished (workouts) in that 100-degree heat, we’d quit and he’d stay out there another 30 minutes or an hour. He worked really hard. He was throwing the ball better than I was.”
Reeves is a regular target of critics for his acting — or nonacting — skills, but Cullen is quick to defend him.
“I really like Keanu,” he says. “I think he’s a really smart guy. He knows what he does well. Therefore, he’s very smart about the choices he makes.”
Cullen started honing his acting skills under the late Cecil Pickett at the University of Houston. He is proud of the fact that since he went to Hollywood, he has always made his living as an actor.
In addition to guest roles on television and featured roles in TV movies (The Thorn Birds), he’s been a regular on several TV series, including Falcon Crest and The Young Riders. His favorites were two recent short-lived shows: Orleans, with Larry Hagman, and UPN’s Legacy, in which he starred.
“My heart was broken when Legacy was canceled last year,” he says. “I really loved that show.”
His film list is lengthening, too. Among his most memorable experiences was Apollo 13. In Something to Talk About, he was the horse trainer who briefly drew Julia Roberts’ attention away from philandering husband Dennis Quaid.
Cullen remains close friends with several actors who trained at UH, including Brent Spiner (Star Trek: The Next Generation) and Dennis and Randy Quaid. He’s especially good pals with the Quaids; he sees them on a regular hangout basis.
For the past 10 years or so, Cullen and Dennis Quaid have been trying to get a project off the ground in which Quaid would star as a character closely based on Cullen’s father, who died in January.
The elder Cullen was an oil industry executive who was inducted into the Blackfoot Indian Nation and was made a chief in 1953 for his work in developing Blackfoot natural resources.
The younger Cullen thinks the film may actually happen: “We finally got a script we like.”
Cullen is married to actress Michelle Little (Article 99, Apollo 13). They live in Venice, Calif., with their 5-year-old daughter. His mother and other family members still live in Houston, and Cullen gets back frequently to visit.
Playing a nasty character in The Replacements might actually be a pretty good thing for Cullen. Already, he says, a number of folks are talking to him about other less-than-charming roles. But if he’s bad, it’s really just for the camera.
He remembers during shooting scenes with some real football players for The Replacements, when he had to do repeated scenes in which his character abused his teammates in the huddle.
“One day one of the linemen said, `You’re a … .’ (The player went on to call Cullen several things meaning a really bad person.) I turned to him and said, `Look, I’m really not like this. I’m just acting.’ ”
© 2000 Houston Chronicle