Nice Work if You Can Get It

Local actor Cullen Moss has a full-fledged film career in our small pond

By Nicholas Gray

“How do I know that face?” It’s a question that may come up with some frequency in our hamlet. Star sightings have unfortunately slumped from our filmic heyday since the 2014 shifts in our North Carolina film incentive packages, but a familiar face you might recognize on our seaside beaches or late-night haunts is the One Tree Hill regular Cullen Moss.

But that’s not the only place. Most recently seen as Mission Control counting down the rocket launch in the Academy Award-nominated film for Best Picture Hidden Figures, Moss’s small town address doesn’t hinder his big screen success.

You’ve also seen him literally explode in the blockbuster Iron Man 3, offer a great dramatic turn in award-heavyweight Birth of a Nation, and glimpsed him through your tears in Nicholas Sparks’ Safe Haven, Dear John and The Notebook. In roles like these, and his at least 60 others, Moss will always deliver: “There may be a lot of moments when I don’t even have a line in a certain scene, but I’ll always be in the moment, I’ll always pretend my damnedest, and I’m thankful it doesn’t go unnoticed by the directors and producers.”

A stage actor, it was booking that One Tree Hill gig that snowballed into a career for Moss, a Winston-Salem native.

Over the nine seasons that One Tree Hill ran the teen scene, Moss appeared in over 40 episodes as the unambitious but relatable Junk Moretti, one of the only characters to show face in every season, including the first and final episodes.

While you may have found a certain ease about the friendly face on OTH, you certainly wouldn’t after Moss’s breakthrough one-off as the uber-creepster Officer Gorman in season five of AMC’s The Walking Dead, in which he gave us all a whole new perspective on lollipops. Moss frequents fan conventions around the country to fanatic response at the zombie-cons.

Even five years after OTH has ceased to air, we continue to be a destination spot for fangirls (and boys) hoping to catch a glimpse at oft-seen set locations. And even as sidewalk shrieking has occurred for years, should Moss’s oldest son, Dixon, be on the scene, he will habitually ask, “Why do they even care?”

But care they should.

If you’ve ever been privy to one of many of Cullen’s powerhouse theatrical performances on our local stages over the last 20-plus years, you too will fangirl (or boy). Moss was an asset to City Stage and the sketch comedy troupe Changing Channels. His guest performance as Roy Cohn in UNCW’s Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches was simply spell-binding, and no doubt a tremendous learning experience for the students that flanked his performance. And, though it’s tricky to get him on stage in recent years due to his demanding booking schedule for film and TV, he recently stole the show in TheatreNOW’s production of Greater Tuna, which earned him the 2017 StarNews Theater Award for Best Actor in a Play.

As to what will get Cullen onstage in the present moment, he admits it is a tough sell. Remaining available for potential film roles is a certain must, and in case you didn’t know, it kinda pays out the wazoo, so as any family man would understand, “You can’t say ‘No’ to a real job.”

But even as husband to his wife, Madison, whom he met during City Stage’s production of Debbie Does Dallas – The Musical, and his three boys, there’s always a chance. “With a great show and people, I’m going to have a great time through the process,” says Moss of longtime theater peers Justin Smith and Don Baker. Like many actors, Moss would always choose theater over film if the catch-22 of money weren’t in the picture. “It’s a tremendous escape, I miss the shit out of it, and it’s always a rare opportunity to create a full character.”

While Moss’s resume is longer and stronger than nearly all New York or Los Angeles acting hopefuls, he doesn’t always show his chops on film as much as he’d like. “As a Southeastern actor, there’s a ceiling we hit; regionally, we are getting a shot at the leftovers,” often simply one or two lines here or there, and most optimally, one killer scene. Like Moss’s scene in HBO’s Eastbound and Down when he went toe-to-toe with creator/star Danny McBride, playing McBride’s double-diamond-stud wearing boss at the car rental agency chiding him for smushing all the doughnuts.

Including Officer Gorman, Cullen has played a cop at least eight times, making law enforcement his unspoken “type.” Locals who remember his theatrical performance in the Red Barn’s production of Lobby Hero can attest to why; he’s everything you want in an everyman.

As for what the future holds for Moss, it’s family first. That’s what will luckily keep him in our sights, as well as local independent filmmakers that provide those leading roles to dig into the work he truly merits. Most recently, Finding Home, an independent film starring Moss as a flawed and lovable father-figure, is making the festival rounds to warm response. Although his jaunts to Los Angeles have been fruitful in the past and another trip is on the horizon, we still want to see that familiar face.

(Full disclosure, Cullen is a dear friend of mine and a dang good poker player. I’ve no doubt anybody who can steal my money that fast has a well-earned future in showbiz ahead.)

Nicholas Gray is the former artistic director of City Stage Co.

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