From his work on General Hospital and Law & Order: LA, to House and Charmed, you've no doubt seen Teddy Chen Culver display his talent. More recently, many will recognize the Bay Area native from his role as Elliot in the indie film Eat With Me, starring alongside Sharon Omi and George Takei.
Beyond his on-screen work, Culver has explored different facets of filmmaking, working as a writer, producer, and film editor. In 2010, he made his directorial debut with The Boxer, a short film he wrote and starred in after winning CAPE’s Digital Shorts Contest. Recently, Teddy and I got to speak about these experiences, along with his path into acting, making Eat With Me, and his plans moving forward as a storyteller.
You've been acting for several years now, in a variety of roles and genres. How did your journey getting into film begin?
"In high school I felt like a loser. I just felt really insecure all the time, and I remember watching 'Die Hard 2' with Bruce Willis, and he was jumping out of planes, he was killing bad guys. He was doing all this cool stuff, and he was so charismatic, and I was like, 'Dude, I want to be like that. I want to be as cool as he is, and I want everybody to love me like they love him.'"
"So it came from this desperate need for approval, I guess. But then it transitioned into understanding that it's a craft; understanding that you're a storyteller. It's about moving people through your performance and bringing the script to life and asking yourself, 'How can I tell this story the best way possible as an actor?'"
"So in terms of getting into [acting], I just got in my car with all my stuff and drove down from the San Francisco Bay Area, and showed up [in LA]. I didn't have anybody to guide me. Nobody gave me any advice. I just had to ask around and for a long time I was just bouncing around not knowing what I was doing."
What was your first break after you made that leap and moved to LA?
"I got my [Screen Actors Guild] card, because when you're an actor, the immediate goal is to get into the union. Well, the immediate goal is to get an agent and then get into the union. So, I booked a Ross Dress for Less commercial, which they took a chance on me because if they book a non-union actor, they have to pay a penalty fee. So they were willing to do that for me, and I got my card."
"I guess the role that jumps out in my mind is I played a character on 'Charmed,' and that was cool for me. That was the first time I was on a major show, and I had a pretty cool scene. It was really exciting."
How did you get involved with Fresh Like Strawberries, the short film that eventually became Eat With Me?
"That was just seeing a casting call and walking into the audition. It wasn't through my agent because it was a student film, it was LA film school. So I showed up and met [director and writer] David Au in the room. He was there auditioning people. I made it to the callback and got the part."
What was it about the role of Elliot and the plot of the film that made you want to be involved with the project?
"Any time it's a lead role and it's an Asian character, that's always appealing. But specifically, I've always been fascinated with the dynamics between Asian families. There's a sort of dynamic that exists that is not the same as American families, like Caucasian families. Specifically, the stereotypical example is the tiger mom, that kind of thing. I've always been fascinated in how those things come out and what are the different coping mechanisms that people use if you're unable to look each other in the face and talk about your feelings and the only way that you can show love for your child is to feed them and to be critical of them."
"Of course, I'm just portraying the most stereotypical example, but I do see it. I see it in my life. I think I'm fascinated with how, as Asian American children, we react to that. Traditionally, you're supposed to be very obedient, you're supposed to just take it on the chin and do what your parents say. But I think when you mix in American values, which are more about individuality and defining your own path, that creates an interesting tension. So, I'll jump on board with a project that explores those themes any day."
What was your favorite scene to film with your on-screen mother, Sharon Omi?
"The one that jumps out right away was the scene at the taco truck where I want to share something with her. Like I said, one of the love languages of Asian culture is food. So, for me, taking her to a taco truck that I adore and love is a way for me to show her love. I thought that scene was expressive of that. Then the scene transitions into the awkwardness of her wanting to know what my love life is like. There's that awkward back and forth but nothing's really said. It's just like, 'Okay. Yeah. We know. We know we don't want to talk about that.' So I thought that scene encapsulated a lot."
Elliot is a complex character who deals with several issues throughout the film. What about him did you most identify with?
"I think the thing that I most identified with him personally is just his escapes. I grew up in a household similar to Elliot in the sense that we didn't sit at the dinner table and say, 'How was your day? Tell me how you're feeling. What happened today and how did you feel about it?' We didn't do that. Everything was very logical. It was just sharing facts rather than feelings."
"I think when you're not able to express [yourself] in that way, you develop a lot of escapes, and addictions. [But] you're never comfortable in that situation either, so you develop ways to avoid talking about your feelings. I identified with that, with Elliot, because he has his sexcapades, and you can sense that he wants more, but he's not the best at being direct about going to get that."
What was the most difficult aspect of making Eat With Me?
"I think the hardest part for me was just getting to the right emotional levels for each scene. I mean, just regular actor stuff like trying to stay in the moment, trying to have it be a real, organic experience instead of this overly rehearsed or calculated thing. I think my brain naturally goes to a place of wanting to plan things out, and with acting you can't do that. You have to have an idea of what you're going to do, but then once the camera rolls, you’ve got to throw all that out and just be there interacting with Sharon or whoever's in the scene with me. I think for me that was the toughest part –– just trying to let go and just be; just be in the moment, and be a real person in this situation."
What has been your biggest career challenge so far?
"It's tough to find the next gig. I do a lot of writing, and I've spent the last couple years making two short films. Actually, I stepped away from acting for a while. I wasn't auditioning at all because I wanted to make these films. For me, it's about telling stories. That's why I got into this. I wanted to explore other parts of that from the filmmaking angle."
"The biggest struggle for me was, 'Where do I put my energies? Should I go all out in the acting thing? Should I just become like the ultimate actor or should I try to find some kind of balance where I get to play with all these things?' I think I'm more going in that direction because I think they all feed each other. The writing feeds the directing, [which] feeds the acting. When you understand all the components of [filmmaking], you can better execute your role in it. The challenge has just been finding the balance and making a living at the same time."
What else can you share about your short film endeavors?
"So those projects are super low-budget. I just took money from my own pocket and they were never intended to be distributed. It was practice, I guess you would say. I had these ideas in my head and I was like, 'You know what? I want to just put these down on video. Let's just shoot it. I know how to edit myself so I can cut it together.' And then I completed them and I watched them. I shared them with some close friends. And I think I got everything I needed out of it. I got fantastic feedback. It's not always good feedback, [but] that's the whole point, right? You’ve got to understand how your work can improve."
Moving forward, what are your goals in learning about and contributing to the industry?
"My goal, now that I made these two shorts, ultra low-budget, [is] to do one 'the right way.' Get some funding behind it, get the production value up, and take what I learned from these two smaller films and put it into a short work. Because ideally, I mean, just this conversation we're having right now is really thrilling to me. To be able to do this on a regular basis, to talk about something that I made and explore it with somebody else, that to me is the best. I would love to make another short that has that kind of impact."
Be on the look out for more to come from Teddy, and be sure to check out Eat With Me, available now on iTunes and Netflix, and The Boxer, available above!