As a kid, Abigail Culwell was hooked on Batman, specifically the cheesy, yet addictive Adam West TV series, and grew up surrounded by creative types at her family’s Santa Monica art store.
By age 10, she felt a pull toward telling stories and creating rich characters who felt real. After acting in a play, Abigail followed the director’s advice, found a manager, and booked her first gig, a Savage Garden music video, which blossomed into a career packed with indie and horror films, awards for acting and directing, and an appearance on “Law & Order: LA.”
The mother of two little future superheroes, Abigail doesn’t just play a badass, she is one in real life, at least when it comes to fandoms, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (don’t get her started on Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations), Star Wars, Monty Python, anime, and “Doctor Who.”
Below, she reveals what her experiences have taught her about the #metoo and #timesup movements and what needs to change in Hollywood, how her views on representation have evolved, and how “The Last Jedi” impressed her with its female-forward perspective. (Also, she really needs more time to play video games.)
Oh, and one more thing: DC, if you’re looking for someone to star in that inevitable Catwoman reboot, she’s right here.
You’re a professional actor. What sparked your interest in that line of work?
Making people feel. I love watching stories that pull me into the world which they are a part of, with characters that experience life in different ways or go on adventures. I want to be used to make others feel the way those stories make me feel. I find I really enjoy creating a person, a “real” person with feelings and desires behind them that serve a purpose in the story (be it a large or small part, they all help support the story.) This started when I was around 10 years old, even though I’d had the pull toward acting through imaginative play before that.
When did you know it was something you really wanted to pursue?
When I was 15 years old, a director of a play I was in told me I should be doing this professionally. So, I got a manager and booked my first gig a few months later (the Lead Girl in Savage Garden’s music video “Crash and Burn”). I LOVED the experience and was hooked.
Did you receive any professional training or mentorship, or are you self-taught?
A little of both. I’ve had some formal training with a few acting teachers along the way, but I’ve never felt the need to subscribe to a particular technique. For the most part, it’s been pretty intuitive for me and I like letting the script and relationship with the director and other actors form my performance.
Throughout your acting career, you also worked at your family’s art store in Santa Monica/Venice. Did being surrounded by artists influence you in any way?
It has in some ways. I found that I love serving people. I actually love retail in that manner. Having someone, be it a prestigious artist or a complete novice, come to me with a problem and then work out a creative solution that gets their vision across has definitely helped me communicate with directors and that then helps me be a more truthful person in the parts I play.
What is your favorite role that you’ve played so far?
Hard one. There’s a few I really enjoyed, but I did love the role I played in a short film called “Affliction.” I played a mentally unbalanced girl that acquires superpowers and struggles between her need for the powers and the unintended harm they cause. It was a lot to pack into a short, but I really like how it turned out.
Please explain this role to me:
Hahaha. I’m Six. A henchman for a bad guy in a short film. I think I had like one line but it was sooo much fun to dress up like this and I ended up with some awesome pics.
Someone I know described you as a “badass.” You certainly look like one in the photo above. What are your bad-ass credentials, acting-wise or in life in general?
Honestly, I think that’s always a better question to be answered by someone other than yourself. But I guess a few things that make me feel badass are that I survived two swift labors with no meds that produced two amazing kiddos (Can’t take much credit for them though. That was God’s work!), that I’ve been able to travel to Japan, Sweden, Belgium and Italy, the fun fact that I used to nurse my baby while on an exercise ball playing video games, that I turned down a couple guys to give my first (off-screen) kiss to the man I ended up marrying.
I’ve also caught and chased after multiple shoplifters (one through a mall, yelling at him till he dropped the bag) and once stood up to a very large man that was giving a gas station worker a hard time … I don’t think some of those were the wisest choice in retrospect.
Before I had my kids I didn’t mind putting myself in the middle of a conflict if I felt I could make a difference. In life I tend to run toward danger. But now I need to remember there’re crazy, unpredictable people out there and I have people depending on me to come home. I guess I have to cool the jets a bit and find another way to deal with my instincts and injustice when it crosses my path.
You won an award for acting for “Affliction,” in which you played a girl with superpowers. That’s basically every geek’s dream. Tell me about that.
This was a fun part. “Affliction” is about a mentally unbalanced girl that acquires superpowers so it’s got emotional torment, an intriguing red costume, and I got to kill instead of be killed (a few of my past death scenarios include a samurai sword through the neck and a vampire pity killing), so it was a bit of a dream to play out! But I totally didn’t see it that way when I read the script.
The producer had seen me in a feature length film called “Fugue” (another story about a tormented girl). She really liked my performance, and called me in to the audition. It was such an odd story and I really wasn’t feeling it. But then I met the director and, after he offered me the part, we had a meeting where we talked through some of the more abstract details. I accepted the part and ended up winning an award for my performance!
Another fun thing was they shot on 16 mm film stock, so we couldn’t do take after take like when shooting digital. I was having such a fun time on set that the director told me later it made him nervous. But he began to trust me as the shoot went on and realized I didn’t need to be dark and moody to play dark and moody. We ended up having a lot of fun with a pretty messed up story.
You once appeared on “Law & Order: LA.” People are crazy about those shows! What insights can you give us into the ubiquitous world of “Law & Order”?
They have GREAT FOOD on set. I never really watched the L&Os, so I can’t speak into the story much, but on set they are a well-oiled machine. The crew could set up and tear down with amazing swiftness. And, it was an honor to meet Alfred Molina. He was quite the gentleman and kept offering me a seat in the shade.
You also directed a short film that won an award at the Santa Monica International Film Festival. Are you interested in directing more?
Yes, I am. But I would like to learn more about editing and story structure before I do. It takes a lot to try and see it all as a cohesive piece. I found there’s great power in editing a performance. I was lucky enough to have a friend that’s an American Film Institute grad edit my short and work on it alongside him.
There’s a saying in the industry that goes something like: Every movie is made three times. In the Script, on Set, and in Editing. So far, I’ve found this to be pretty accurate.
Your husband, Grant Culwell, is a camera operator. What’s it like to be married to someone who’s also in the industry?
For the most part, it’s great! We sort of get that side of each other and can engage with each other about the work. I have had to grow a lot as a person in both trust and patience though the years. You have long days when you work in this industry, so he can be gone 12 to 16 hours a day for five days straight when he’s on a job. It’s definitely not for everyone. There’s little predictability or stability. But when you have a partner that’s committed to you in this life and you have realistic expectations on each other, you can work through it all.
I know this interview is about you, but Grant worked on “A Wrinkle in Time”!!!! Do you have any insider info you can give us?
Haha. Nope. Sorry. A few of his steadicam shots made it into the trailer but that’s kinda all I got. I’m excited to see it though!
With the #metoo and #timesup movements raging, it bears asking: What has your experience as a woman in Hollywood been like?
There’s a ton of sexism, of course. Some things I didn’t quite view as wrong, even though they made me feel weird in the moment. You can let a lot slide. It can be hard to use your voice and be able to articulate why you don’t want to do something or have something done to/around you.
One time, I was meeting with potential agents and I informed them I would not do nudity, but I was still willing to audition for parts that “require” it. If the production wanted me for the part there would need to be discussions and revisions. The male agent ended up arguing with me to the point that the female agent in the room had to step in and move the conversation along. I had just met the guy, but he had a type of ownership over my body and what I would be comfortable doing with it. There’s so much I now wish I had said, but I didn’t want to ruffle feathers, even though I was being belittled and bullied over how I use my own body.
This type of ownership over a person by some happens not just in the entertainment industry. People using people for their own desires, goals or gain. This corrodes the heart and removes empathy. Everyone is only in this world for YOU and life becomes only about you. This is not what I believe we were made for.
Is there anything you’d like to see change in that regard?
Of course. I wish that people would stop treating other people like objects! To quote my husband, of whom I am exceedingly proud, “no film is worth a person”. He’s packed up his gear and walked off set when he’s seen abuse from a higher up and challenged it. People are fearful of standing up to bigwigs as they need the work and are afraid of getting blackballed out of the next job. But if you just sit and do nothing, you are just helping the abuse. Be a voice when others can’t find theirs.
I’m also curious how all this will help change the lens through which we tell stories. As females start having stronger and more confident voices what changes will happen to the type of stories we see on our screens, and comedians we hear, and books we read? And on what we, as the audience, will want to see and how we see it. Not that it’s related to the movement alone, but I saw a lot of interesting shifts in the way “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” was told. But that’s for another time.
Let’s talk about your many, many fandoms, starting with The Lord of the Rings. How did you discover J.R.R. Tolkien’s series?
My mom. We would watch the 1977 “The Hobbit” cartoon growing up and then one day she said, “There’s more to the story,” and around that time we heard they were going to be making movies of them. So I jumped in and just kept going! It’s a marvelous world Tolkien created and he had such a poetic way of telling it that I really ate it up.
You said not to get you started on why you’re not a fan of Peter Jackson’s films. Consider this me getting you started … .
I say, tell the tale that Tolkien told, not the tale you like to tell. Peter Jackson took the material and, I feel, poorly executed key intentions of Tolkien and just was sloppy in the storytelling of most of the characters. I understand you need to adapt stories for the screen, but I feel overall he let Tolkien and his fans down.
He had said in an interview once, before “Return of the King” came out, that the second movie would be the furthest from the books, and I held on to that! And then seeing the third film just crushed me. It was trash compared to the book and it felt like he just let his head grow too big and started pandering to Orlando Bloom fans more than the fans of the books. If you enjoy the films, that’s fine. I just don’t have the time.
One of the main sub-stories that I thought was an unfortunate deletion from the films was the Scouring of the Shire. It’s at the end of “ROTK” and, in brief and without spoilers in case anyone wants to read the books, it shows how evil touches down in even the most wholesome and secure areas of our lives. Even happy little hobbits have to find within themselves a willingness to put off the old ways and rise against oppression. Also, Merry and Pippin get to shine a bit more.
Now, the “Hobbit” films. Tolkien served in World War I and thought of the first line of “The Hobbit” while in the trenches. Even though it is considered a young readers book, it carries a weight to it that touches down with all ages. A comfortable, country hole dweller gets thrown into a mission against an oppressive evil. There really isn’t anything he needs out of it, just a pull to save something that’s beautiful. Many lost their lives in World War I. Many countries had to wake up and fight an evil, including America.
So, I ask you, is there truly any heart, wonder or a sense of perseverance in any of the “Hobbit” movies? Did it truly capture the type of bonding and respect that comes from going through painful hardship and close camaraderie? It could have. But it didn’t. Where was the “Dark” in Riddles in the Dark (the scene with Gollum)? It all was so unnecessarily dull. Which is such a pity as Martin Freeman had all the makings of a great Bilbo (even if a bit too skinny for a Hobbit.)
What does it say about your film when a cartoon from the ’70s is more moving and relatable? Like I said … don’t get me started.
You’re deep into Tolkien, including “The Silmarillion” and works published after the author’s death. Why do you enjoy immersing yourself so deeply in that world?
It came into my life at a very beautiful age. I was about 15. Just stepping into acting. Feeling mature and a touch romantic and found this deep storytelling style refreshing. I remember coming off of reading LOTR and “Silmarillion” and then starting in on Harry Potter and hardly making it through the second book because it felt dull, silly and unimaginative.
I was a total snob, that’s for sure! My little brother kept telling me to keep reading and I’m really happy I did! I’m not as attached to J.K. Rowling’s world, but it was still fun. And if you like the type of fantasy worlds they create, I really recommend Christopher Paolini’s “Inheritance Cycle” (“Eragon”). It’s really quite wonderful.
Batman is also one of your obsessions. You started watching the Adam West series when you were 5. What about that cheesy but addictive series appealed to you?
I’m a fan of the punny, hokey, camp and silly! It makes me smile. It’s also what started my love of Catwoman.
I heard you were pretty upset at West’s recent passing.
I don’t know if I’d say upset, just saddened. It’s always a hard thing to know that your childhood heroes are gone but the truth is, no one lives forever. I guess I always hoped I’d meet him again or work with him, so it can be sad when that person is gone. I feel honored that I was able to meet him while he visited my family’s art store when I was 14 years old. I remember being a bit starstruck and noting how tall he was and he had the largest hands I’ve ever shook!
How do you feel about Batfleck?
Another of your interests is anime. How did you discover this art form? What are some of your favorite series, movies, or manga?
Adult Swim on Cartoon Network! That introduced me to shows like Tenchi Muyo!, Cowboy Bebop, DBZ and Outlaw Star. The only manga I’ve delved into is Battle Angel: Alita! I’m excited about the movie and kinda happy it’s been years since I’ve read it so I can hopefully enjoy it a bit more than it being fresh in my mind. Hayao Miyazaki is great as well.
Are you interested in Japanese culture in general? I understand that you speak and read some Japanese and have visited the country. Tell me about that.
Alongside anime, I saw a movie called “Shall We Dance?” (1996) and together they started my hunger to know more about the culture and language of Japan. I tried teaching myself, but it wasn’t until I took a summer course at Santa Monica College that I really started learning it. Being dyslexic, in some ways I actually found it easier to pick up than English. It’s memorizing characters and the sounds don’t change on you constantly. I didn’t learn to read English with phonics or sounding out words, but by memorizing how words look instead. I don’t practice much anymore, but I do use some phrases with my kids.
And as for my trip to Japan, it was fabulous! I was 22 years old and stayed in Kawasaki with a family that had sent their son to the U.S. a few years earlier and had stayed with my family for a bit. When I was there I got to go to a baseball game, eat sushi for the first time, sing karaoke for the first time, visit a beach, rode the world’s smallest escalator and I was extremely fortunate to be there the week the cherry blossoms started to bloom. SO FABULOUS!
And then, one fine morning I looked out my window and saw Fuji San (Mount Fuji)! It was a dream trip of only nine days, but I hope to take my family there one day and get more time.
I was told I should ask you about your beloved “Cowboy Bebop” shirt.
Haha. Yep. They are super hard to find in a female cut, so I hardly ever wear it. One of my treasured tees!
When it comes to video gaming, you’re a Legend of Zelda girl. What do you enjoy about that?
I love adventure games. Games with some puzzles or mystery to them. I just wish I had time to play! The Switch by Nintendo has been great post-kids but still, I need more time! Uncharted and the newer Tomb Raider games have expanded my gaming now. But I did have to stop playing Last Of Us while I was pregnant as it was too stressful for me and after I ran into a glitch, I thought it best I stop. That’s gonna make an awesome film! I now have a long list of games I want to play and it’s just been getting longer. I so am in need of a Mom Cave!
And just because my husband recently became obsessed with it, I must ask, what is the deal with “King’s Quest”?
They are old school PC adventure games that first came out in 1983. Each one was innovative and pushed the boundaries of gaming at the time of its release. I love them because they are full of classic fairytale storylines and puzzle solving, and puns. They are fun, and even though a bit silly now, can still be challenging.
You’re the first professing Monty Python fan I’ve interviewed. What’s your favorite sketch and why?
There’s sooooo many good ones but I always love Hell’s Grannies from Season One, Episode 8. “Make Tea, Not Love!”
Who introduced you to the Pythons?
My cousins. But when I first saw “Holy Grail,” it really wasn’t love at first watch. It took catching a few “Flying Circus” episodes and then we (my siblings and I) were all over it! British humor is addictive. Also, if you want to check out a young and funny Hugh Laurie, check out “Black Adder”! It’s ruddy brilliant! Our family cat is even named after one of the characters, Baldrick.
And, of course, you’re very into Star Wars. Tell me your personal Star Wars saga.
Bahhhhh? Not sure what you mean by my “saga,” but I have had some interesting thoughts pop up around “The Last Jedi.” I really enjoyed it even though it was obviously flawed in story and character development. I found myself crying at random points as I let myself feel excited that my daughter will grow up in a time where there will be strong female characters that aren’t just a prop to a main male character.
I grew up pretending to be a female version of Peter Pan or a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and its looking like she won’t have to as much. I used to think it didn’t matter having diverse representation on screen. That we are all supposed to use our imaginations anyway, so go ahead and use it. I feel very differently now. I hope we see more films like “Wonder Woman” and “Black Panther” (haven’t seen it yet, but I’m excited to) and others with new characters that won’t feel labeled by their race or gender but are just people with good stories to tell.
What did you think of the recent trailers for the “Solo” movie?
Cheesy, and I’m gonna love it!
What are some of your other fandoms?
“Firefly,” “Doctor Who,” “The Goonies,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Mel Brooks films, “The Princess
Bride,” Frost and Pegg films and many others that I enjoy but I guess don’t consider “fandoms.” Oh! And spy/detective stories. My first on-screen crush was Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes.
Do you feel like being an actor gives you any unique insights into the world of fandoms?
If anything, it can sometimes hinder my enjoyment of them. I look at the technical side a bit too much sometimes — the acting, lighting, makeup, effects — and I start picking it apart. But I think that’s one reason why I love the shows I do. They invite you into a heightened reality that, while based in the human experience and emotion, can be so different, you have to let go and enter into that world.
You’ve taken a break from acting to be a mother. Does your family share your geeky interests? If so, what are some of your shared fandoms and activities?
My husband and I actually connect on a bunch of fandoms and geeky things. He’s the one who really introduced me to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly,” “X-Files” and some great fantasy book series. He also has a great working knowledge on the Marvel and DC comics, so I just fact check with him after we see one of the films. It’s been wonderful to be with someone who I can talk about everything from
Biblical theology to “Doctor Who” theory. And you may be surprised how often those cross paths.
As for my kids, I have one that’s only 8 months old but our 2-1/2 year old has seen some of the Batman movie (with Adam West) and loves to put on his mask and cape and zoom around with the toys he got at the baby shower my mom and sisters threw for him. It was Superman/Batman-themed.
My husband and I have always said we want to let our kids find their own thing and not force our childhood likes on them … but if my kid likes robots, and I happen to buy him an R2-D2 Bop It … that’s ok too, right?!
Is acting something you plan to go back to eventually?
God willing, yes. It’s part of who I am and how I look out at the world. There’s many stories I feel
I can add to or be a part of in some way. Not sure when I will try to get back to it cause right now
I’m very happy with where I am, but I’m always willing to jump back in if the right thing came along.
What’s your geek dream acting role (in an existing franchise or series)?
The feline femme fatale. CATWOMAN!
What’s your geek dream acting role (in a franchise or series that hasn’t been made yet)?
Something like Jessica Jones mixed with Zoé from “Firefly” or a part like Geena Davis in “The Long Kiss Goodnight.” Or Catwoman … I like Catwoman.