ST. BONAVENTURE, NY – Who would have thought the guy who got turned down for leading roles at Garret Theater would end up playing roles next to some of the most famous faces in show business?
Well, that is what’s been happening in the life of St. Bonaventure alumnus Sean Cullen, who earned a degree in mass communication in 1983.
Cullen has been cast in “Paterno,” an HBO film directed by Barry Levinson and starring Al Pacino as the disgraced late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, which is set to premiere Saturday.
He plays Dan McGinn, the Washington, D.C., strategist the Paterno family chose as a spokesman.
“I worked with Al Pacino once before,” Cullen said. “I played his lawyer in a movie called, ‘Simone’ that I did in L.A. in 2002,” Cullen said. “I went to re-introduce myself, not thinking he would remember me. And he remembered me, which I thought was really nice.”
The Buffalo native played Franz, the butler in “The Sound of Music Live,” a TV special starring Carrie Underwood that aired on NBC in 2013.
“It was so unique,” he said. “When it went on the air, it was live so it was a different kind of pressure.”
The “The Sound of Music Live” cast rehearsed for two weeks, and there was no time for error, he added. And whenever the live show cut to commercial, everyone would have to hustle over to the next set.
“Carrie Underwood grew so much over rehearsal time,” he said. “She took a lot of criticism because she’s never done a musical. What she and everyone else was able to do in a short amount of time was really remarkable.”
Cullen played a Navy commander in the 2008 Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” with Kelli O’Hara. And he played Gene Clayton in the 2007 Oscar-nominated George Clooney movie, “Michael Clayton.”
Cullen, who resides in Kerhonkson in New York’s Catskill area with his wife Tess and their daughter Clara, also owns an apartment in Park Slope in Brooklyn. He said he memorizes his lines is by going for long walks. And during those long walks, he learns the characters he is playing.
He remembered developing a passion for acting and theater at a young age and that when he attended Bishop Timon High School in Buffalo in the 1970s, he had been a standout in several high school musicals.
St. Bonaventure’s new president, Dr. Dennis DePerro, one of Cullen’s Timon classmates, recalled Cullen’s talents.
“It was very clear when he was at Bishop Timon that acting and theater was something he had a profound interest in,” DePerro said.
The university president said he once saw Cullen act in theater at St. Bonaventure but added that the two pretty much lost touch after going separate ways for college.
“The most recent contact I’ve had with him was when I became president,” DePerro added. “He sent me a message to congratulate me and tell me that it was great that I was going to be leading his alma mater.”
Cullen completed two years at St. Bonaventure, spent his junior year at SUNY Fredonia and ended up coming back to SBU for his senior year.
“I had an idea at the time that mass communication would somehow be my fallback, like my day job career,” Cullen said. “I was making money playing records on the radio, and producing came along once I was in college.”
As a freshman, Cullen lived on the second floor of Robinson Hall. Joe DiMura, a 1979 St. Bonaventure graduate who had lived on the same floor, remembered they played intramurals together.
“He was a very personable and friendly guy who was part of a great freshman class that were fun to be around at that time," DiMura said. "There was such great camaraderie living on second Rob at a time when dorm and floor spirit on campus was so prevalent.”
Cullen, who always saw acting as what came naturally to him, did not let his lack of leading roles at Garret Theatre get him down. He wrote plays and produced on his own. He even did a production of the musical revue “Side by Side by Sondheim” in the spring of 1980 in Butler Gym. When he was a senior, he decided he wanted to go to graduate school for theater directing.
“I graduated in ’83, and I tried four years in a row to get into drama school,” Cullen said. “I got into Yale School of Drama on my fourth try – when I was 27.”
And he recalled creating monologues for his Yale audition. And then also got involved with making television commercials.
Cullen has appeared in a number of television shows, including “Bull,” “Suits,” “Law & Order: SVU” and “House of Cards.” And he has been on Broadway four times. His first show was the 2000 Tony Award-winning “James Joyce’s The Dead,” a musical based on the Irish writer’s last story. Cullen understudied Christopher Walken.
Though he has established a career playing a mix of unique roles, Cullen admits it is difficult to be successful in acting.
“It’s not easy to be good,” Cullen said. “There’s a lot of pressure. I’ve had more opportunities in theater to play roles that have been really challenging.”
Cullen has created opportunities for others. For example, in 1999, drawing on his experience and love for theater, Cullen developed the concept of a non-profit national institution providing a platform for American theater artists. And that concept led to his founding of the American National Theatre, which has resulted in enhanced opportunities for the growth of theaters across America.
To this day, Cullen remains active in the organization as a board member.
After founding the national theater, Cullen started auditioning for movie roles, literally driving all over Los Angeles to manually deliver his resume to 25 people in hopes that he would get his big break. He got chosen for “Simone.”
Cullen remembered auditioning for “Michael Clayton,” a film directed by Tony Gilroy that concerned a fixer in a top-notch New York City law firm. He went to the casting directors for his callback, and they seemed pleased but not knocked over.
“It was like not getting cast in Garret Theatre. I was so dispirited,” Cullen said.
Three days later he found out he had gotten a role.
“George Clooney is just the nicest guy, really,” Cullen said. “I met him literally a half hour before filming the first scene in the movie. And it was easy in a sense that I didn’t feel constricted, or I wasn’t handcuffed by feeling self-conscious.”
In 2010, Cullen's drama, “Safe Home,” set in his hometown of Buffalo during the Korean Conflict, was produced Off-Broadway. Critic Anita Gates gave “Safe Home” a positive review in The New York Times.
This summer, Cullen will perform in the Berkshire Theatre Group’s production of Robert E. Sherwood’s “The Petrified Forest,” directed by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner David Auburn.
Though every role has been different, Cullen noted that they have all been difficult to play, and that sometimes the pressure to be perfect every time becomes discouraging.
“Sometimes I remind myself that even though I managed to accomplish these things, I still had to really often times make my own way and really hustle and do the extra thing,” he said.
And, he added, “The road is not always paved with gold.”
Sign Up for E-News to get top stories delivered daily to your inbox.