The phrase "age before beauty" does not apply to John Cullum in the new play Casa Valentina.
Playing Terry, the oldest of a group of heterosexual men who gather at a resort in the Catskills to dress as women, Cullum's stylish onstage attire includes a purple lace dress and pearls, as well as sensible low-heeled sandals. Terry's age and experience provide him with an excited delight in his surroundings, as well as a gravitas he contributes to an impassioned discussion about whether or not to establish the resort as a public non-profit.
Cullum, a two-time Tony Award winner for Shenandoah and On the Twentieth Century, also counts The Scottsboro Boys, 110 in the Shade, Urinetown The Musical and Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas among his numerous stage credits.
Cullum chatted with Playbill.com about stepping into Terry's sensible shoes and the surprises that the show, penned by Tony winner Harvey Fierstein, held in store for him. Tell me about your character in Casa Valentina. She has a very interesting history that she shares with her friends.
John Cullum: She's a very interesting character. She's happily married and she has been a cross-dresser for many, many years. It started when she was just a child. She didn't discover other transvestites until later in life, and Casa Valentina is like a paradise for her.
I guess my character is the oldest one in the play. I'm not as concerned with that particular aspect because I'm a happily married man. But I've also had these feelings of wanting to dress in women's clothes since I was a child. Casa Valentina was discovered by me later in life, and it was like dessert to a long wonderful meal. So I'm very protective of it. I don't think of it as a change of character. That's external, just like the dresses.
Finding that community must be very special for her.
JC: Very much so, and she's very protective of it, and that's part of the story. She's very anxious to protect Casa Valentina.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
What drew you to the play?
JC: The script. I've known about Harvey since we were young working on West 4th Street. He was down the street from me. I had a totally different opinion of what transvestites were. I thought all transvestites were like Harvey. When I got the script, I thought, "Well, this will be a story about Harvey." It's not. Harvey is a wonderful writer; he writes with great skill. I've worked personally with William Inge and Arthur Miller, and I was very, very impressed with the script when I got it. It tells an honest, strong story, and it was a revelation to me.
Casa Valentina is set in 1962 and it's being performed for a 2014 audience. How do you think the play will speak to today's audience? JC: I'm hoping that people will look at it as a drama and not come with pre-conditioned ideas about what it is. Just let the story tell itself. If that happens, I believe we have a good drama. We certainly have good actors and a wonderful director, and I believe very much that Harvey is a wonderful playwright.
How did you go about developing the character of Terry?
JC: I don't have to worry about the dresses. I put the dress on, and it's like a costume for me. It makes me feel like a character. That's the only way I can approach it. That's the way I've approached all the roles that I've done in life, so it's not that different for me. It will be a different experience for the audience who goes to see me clomping around in high heels and a skirt. It's naturally going to have a different effect on people than to see me playing a Virginia farmer in Shenandoah.
Was adjusting to walking in heels a challenge for you?
JC: They're not too high for me. If you give me too high heels, I'll have to use a walker. They're sandals, so they don't hurt my feet. They're quite comfortable.
(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)