story by Kathryn Vandenhouten photos by Miranda Osborn-Sutphen
Actors all over the world are drawn to Hollywood to get their big break, but for Pooler resident, William Mark McCullough, he prefers a more low key lifestyle. The local actor has appeared in numerous television series, including Mercy Street and Underground, and has also appeared on the big screen, starring alongside Nicholas Cage in “Arsenal” and Channing Tatum in “Logan Lucky.”
His most recent appearance on the big screen has him sitting in the cockpit with Tom Cruise in the biographical thriller, “American Made.” McCullough plays the part of Pete, co-pilot to Tom Cruise’s character, Barry Seal. The film has already grossed over 134 million dollars worldwide, and he was thrilled to be a part of it.
When he booked the film, he was only supposed to have a few scenes. Once on set, however, his role kept growing, and director Doug Liman started adding more scenes for McCullough. “By the time I finished that movie, I’d worked on it for eight weeks,” he says. “We shot twenty-two scenes. They just kept making my role bigger and bigger.”
Luckily, Cruise hit it off with McCullough, and when he came back home to Pooler after he’d finished shooting in Atlanta, he got a call that would make any actor proud. The assistant director told him he was not finished shooting after all. “He said ‘Cruise said if you’re not going to Colombia, he’s not going to Colombia.’ And so I jumped on a plane and flew to Colombia,” he says.
The whole experience was a whirlwind. There were initially no scenes for him in Colombia, so McCullough’s lines were written on set right before the scenes were shot. Having just minutes to memorize his lines kept him on his toes, but McCullough was grateful for the experience.
The actor is no stranger to working with A-list talent. He has worked with multiple Academy Award winners, including Steven Soderbergh and Mahershala Ali, and he continues to grow as an actor with each performance.
McCullough embraces each experience on set, and “American Made” was no exception. “I remember being in that plane– in a military jet– and it took off, and I look over, and I’m like, ‘Maverick is flying the plane,’” he recalls. “It was unbelievable.”
And McCullough’s life off screen has been as unbelievable as any Hollywood movie. Born and raised in Savannah, he is one of ten siblings who grew up poor by today’s standards. “Nine year old Mark was hungry and poor. But you know, even when I was nine and struggling, I knew I wasn’t going to always be struggling,” he explains.
McCullough graduated from Mercer University with a degree in political science and theater. In his theater class, he found his passion for acting, but he didn’t know how to turn that passion into a profession, so he went to law school and became a lawyer.
“I thought…maybe being in front of a jury could feed that acting thing… and it might feed that hunger inside, but it didn’t,” says McCullough. “I’d taken the safe approach, but it was leaving me empty inside. So I got better, quit my job, moved to L.A., and started my long ramen noodle years,” he says with a laugh.
Most starving artists haven’t passed the Bar exam, but then again, McCullough isn’t like most artists. He didn’t become an actor for fame or fortune; it is his calling. “If it’s your calling from God, how can you not do it?” he asks.
He still gets goose bumps remembering the exact moment he found that calling. In a college classroom performing the final monologue from Doctor Faustus, he says he just knew.
“I did that monologue, and when I finished, my whole body was on fire,” he recalls. “I didn’t know how to become an actor, but I knew I loved it. It was that exact moment doing that monologue that I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
Luckily, his friends and family encouraged him to follow his dream, even if the jump from lawyer to actor may have raised some eyebrows: “[For] most people, if you were to call your family and say I’m going to quit being a lawyer and become an actor, they’d lose their mind. My family was very supportive.”
Now he is encouraging others to follow their dreams as well. In between acting gigs, he teaches classes at Savannah Actors Studio. If acting is his first passion, teaching is a close second.
But make no mistake. He doesn’t teach acting theory or the same lessons that have played out in every college theater for decades; he teaches actors how to get jobs, dream bigger and gain confidence.
Every class is an opportunity to motivate his students to set goals and achieve them. “I just finished a class called No More Excuses. What I taught them was how to make powerful goals,” he says. “If people don’t think your goals are crazy, you need bigger goals.”
McCullough’s intense energy is infectious. He brings this same positive energy into the classroom to motivate his students. “The mind is constantly filled with talk, and it’s usually negative talk, so I teach them to talk to themselves constantly, positively.”
He often plays the villain on screen (his character in horror flick, “Patient Seven,” is particularly disturbing), but that couldn’t be further from McCullough’s personality in real life.
He loves inspiring people to follow their dreams. Giving motivational speeches at middle schools and high schools is one his is favorite things to do. “I talk to them about goal setting and positivity,” he says. “That, to me, is the most fun. I love to see their eyes light up when they get it.”
In fact, when asked about his proudest accomplishment, he talks about the thrill of seeing his students get the roles they never thought they could. One student tried acting for the first time in her fifties after taking his class, and she was cast in a Tom Hanks film. He gets just as excited when his students get parts as he does for himself.
“So many people want to become actors and they have no idea where to start,” he says. “I was one of those people, so I work really hard to help people take the right path and study the right thing. It just gives me so much joy when I see people pursuing their dreams and it starts to happen.”
McCullough has been an inspiration to his students, but he found his own inspiration in the most unexpected place: his father’s funeral. When person after person spoke about the kind things his father had done for others, it inspired McCullough to do more. “I sat there just really feeling ashamed because I spent so many years just focusing on me,” he recalls. “And so the following week, I started going around the neighborhood looking for people to help out, like my dad.”
Now he helps his community by teaching and motivating others. In the future, he’d like to start a non-profit organization to motivate youth and teach the power of a positive mindset. “The right mindset is required for any type of success in this world,” he reiterates. Even though his professional acting career is taking off, teaching and mentoring will always be important to him.
Though he moves out to L.A. each pilot season to audition for roles, he loves Pooler and the Savannah area. “There are a lot of things I like about his area,” he says. “People are nicer– more down to Earth. I told my managers I’m never moving to L.A. I’ll go there for work, but this is home.”
William Mark McCullough is not just an actor. He is an artist, teacher and mentor. With “American Made” coming out on DVD in January, McCullough’s star is sure to keep rising. And as he gains popularity in Hollywood, the continued support from the community he loves will surely grow as well.
For more information on William Mark McCullough or Savannah Actors Studio, visit www.savannahactorstudio.com.