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Much Ado About Benedick – JD Cullum

March 14, 2010

The moment Benedick comes on stage during A Noise Within’s Much Ado About Nothing, you may think Shakespeare foretold the looks of John Astin. It’s not just the dark mustache or the vision you may have of Benedick taking the arm of Beatrice and kissing up to her shoulder.

JD Cullum has Gomez Addams’ forehead.

Without looking up from his burger, Cullum says, “I made out with John Astin. We were in a show together at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC. I played, among other roles, a woman John’s character was quite fond of. Eventually, before I could fight him off, he laid one on me.”

Astin continues to teach acting at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where Morticia’s husband earned his Bachelor’s Degree in drama. “Those days back east,” Cullum says, “were good for me. I grew up on Manhattan. I was asked to take over the lead in Romance Language off-Broadway when I was only 18. I had six days to learn the role and I told my dad there was no way I could do it.”

 Enter two-time Tony Award winner, John Cullum. “He took me line by line, promising I would learn it. He was right.”

 John turned into a formidable (and timely) acting coach. “I never studied drama,” JD admits. “I remember struggling with a moment in Romance Language when Huck Finn sees Tom and has to greet him. I didn’t know whether to say ‘Tom!’ first or hug him first.”

John stepped in, Cullum says, and told his son to hug him. “So I hugged him. Then he said to hug him again. So I hugged him again. He said to do it again, and again, and again. Finally, he said, ‘Now say Tom when you hug me’ and the name came out spontaneously with the hug. That was the moment that it clicked. It’s all about losing the self-consciousness. And about pretending really, really well.”

JD Cullum hit Broadway at 20 in George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell, as Phillip, with Uta Hagen. “My dad replaced Phil Bosco as the waiter part-way into the run. During a rehearsal, he was balancing drinks on a serving platter and spilled them on everyone. I was so upset I had to leave the room. Later, during the live show, I was mouthing my dad’s lines. Finally, Victor Garber (Dr. Valentine) slid his hand across his throat, telling me to knock it off.” Cullum laughs. “I had to let go. I realized that my dad knew what he was doing and would be just fine.” Five Tony nominations later, JD was right. John currently portrays the only white member in The Scottsboro Boys at the Vineyard Theatre in New York.

The elder Cullum (Northern Exposure) also played Beverly in the Broadway run of August: Osage County, occupying the first 16 minutes on stage [spoiler alert??], then darting off to do another play because his character does away with himself.

“When I have a problem figuring out a line, a scene, or another actor, I often think, ‘What would my dad do?’ So,” JD says, “I’ll call him. We’ll talk things through.”

JD met his wife, Shareen Mitchell, at a yogurt shop in Studio City. “She had come in with a friend of mine. I saw Shareen in a play, we got to know each other and the rest….” You don’t need a road map to fill in the thought that trails off. “She owns two vintage clothing boutiques, one in LA and another in New York. I can’t go in. Boys aren’t allowed. It’s like one big living room for women to try on clothes.”

JD Cullum came to Much Ado About Nothing at the invitation of director Michael Murray. “I had worked with Michael in Tonight at 8:30. I was also in seven of the eight Noel Coward one-acts Antaeus put up a while back. Michael directed two of them.”

I wondered how Murray cast Torri Higginson as Beatrice. Like JD, Torri has a sci-fi TV background, having appeared on Stargate Atlantis. “Michael and I spent a lot of time talking about who should play Beatrice,” JD recounts. “Her character has the largest consciousness of anyone else in the play. She’s the most self-aware. We auditioned a lot of actors, but when Torri came in, we knew she was perfect for it.”

Cullum says learning a Shakespearean character is much easier than a Klingon role, as he tried to do in Star Trek: TNG. “I wish I’d studied more. I should have done more research. I didn’t realize Klingons were supposed to be stoic, so I never felt that I nailed the character. But I justified my inappropriate behavior by reminding people that I was playing a Klingon boy, not an adult. That way, I could be forgiven.”

We forgive those growing up. And growing up is what Cullum says Benedick does in Much Ado. Benedick swaggers out, cavalier, and care-free in the first act, “But he matures in the second. At first,” Cullum says, “Benedick has a special relationship with the audience. He’s the most open, vulnerable. But he goes through a change.”

I ask about the physical choices Cullum has made. There are times he gestures so little, you can’t help but be drawn to his faces, his eyes.

“I have to remember that Shakespeare is the star. It’s all about the language. It’s tempting to lay on gestures to emphasize language you think people won’t understand, but I realized that works against me. I decided, in many moments, to just stand there without gesturing, and talk.”

JD Cullum, despite his love of Shakespeare, is not tied to it. “I’d love to do a modern play,” he says. “While I’d love to do Richard III, I’ve also got a friend with a wonderful translation of Gogol’s The Government Inspector, which I’d like to pitch.

“But, really,” Cullum adds, mopping up the last of his mushroom burger at The Bucket in Eagle Rock, “I’ll do whatever comes along.”

Anyone up for another Addams Family?

Much Ado About Nothing continues through May 21 at A Noise Within in Glendale.

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