You gotta love a woman who keeps her Harley-Davidson and wine collection side by side in the cool confines of her garage; who looks better without makeup than with it; who's as comfortable on the basketball court as she is on the set of her hit TV show. And judging by the success of Molly Culver's character, the multi-faceted Tasha Dexter on the wildly popular syndicated show V.I.P., many people do indeed love this woman.
I met the statuesque brunette at her comfy 1930s home in Los Angeles. She'd just come from a vigorous workout, so all cameras were confiscated at the front door. (Like she could look bad!) On the way to her backyard we grabbed a glass and a bottle of wine. Culver, who stars with blonde bombshell Pamela Anderson Lee as one of a team of "elite bodyguards," is clearly comfortable in her own skin... all 5' 11" of it. Among her many passions, the former model is a big wine fan. And while she knows what she likes, Culver's also open and eager to learn and explore all things cultural and viticultural.
Katherine Turman: Is this a typical night for you? Come home, sit in the backyard, have a glass of wine?
Molly Culver: If I'm alone, yeah, I'll have a glass. Unless I have a 5:30 a.m. call the next morning. One glass will affect me the next day, so I don't drink when I have early calls. But on Fridays, there's nothing I enjoy more than splitting a bottle of wine with Kenny [boy friend] out here by the fire.
KT: Is this a habit you picked up from your parents?
MC: My dad doesn't drink at all. But my mom likes wine. I remember growing up that my mom liked really good wine at dinner with people. But by herself, she was a self-admitted cheap-stuff girl. There were always boxes of wine in the fridge.
Molly sips the zin.
MC: In the summertime as kids, we'd raft in the rivers. She'd save the foil pouches from the inside of the wine boxes, and we'd blow 'em up, tape 'em together and make big rafts. A wine raft! How resourceful is that? Every so often we'd let some of the air out just to smell the wine! I'd be like, 'that smells pretty good.' And she'd let us have sips, so...
KT: You play a pretty tough character on V.I.P.
MC: Tasha Dexter is very dry... like this wine! She's a basic girl. When I auditioned for the role, she was all business. The only thing that's happened in the last couple years is that I've layered her. She seduces men for information. She's been married seven times. She's MIA but she's CIA, FBI, KGB. She flies small planes, performs minor surgery... You name it, she's done it. And it's a lot of fun playing an expert at everything! But I find myself studying the day before we do stuff. For example, today I'm a Samurai and Aikido expert. On the set I got a blood blister putting my sword back in the sheath over and over! I mean, they tell me it takes years to master a sword, so I guess it's okay if I don't have it down in five minutes just as long as I make it look good.
KT: Most people don't understand just how hard it is to make things look easy.
MC: Well, I was really thrown into the mix. I've done a lot of commercials, and this is my first real big job. I did a guest starring role on 'Pacific Blue' and have done plays in New York, and tons of commercials - like 50 of them - in the four years before getting this job. And TV's a progression. But I really had no idea what I was in for!
KT: Being athletic must help.
MC: It's a grueling schedule. We work 70 hours a week in five days. We wrap at five on Friday night and start again at five Monday morning. So for the first couple years, even though I'm athletic, there was no free time to work out 'cause I was still learning my job. But now that I'm more settled in this year... Working out gets me Zen-like on the set. It's great both mentally and physically.
KT: You've lived in San Francisco, New York, and L.A. If you had to pick a city to wine and dine in, which one would it be?
MC: I think New York is superior in terms of dining. My boyfriend, Kenny, owns a bar/restaurant called Prohibition there. It's a speakeasy - music every night. And there's a place downtown [Manhattan], Il Buco, that has a great wine selection. It used to be an antique store by day, restaurant by night. Very romantic! The cool thing about New York is that you can walk out your door and be at a decent restaurant in no time; really good food and wine is everywhere.
KT: Any particular favorites?
MC: Gramercy Park Tavern is one of my favorite places ever, because they have a tasting plate where you can try five different mini meals, each with a different wine. Kenny and I like to go out and try new wines, so we'll go to a restaurant and, even though we know we liked a certain wine last time, try something different.
KT: L.A. favorites?
MC: In L.A. I frequent Farfalla, because I can walk to it, and Mexico City, because I love it. I'll go to Prizzi's near Beachwood Canyon; their salads are great. We should've had dinner there!
KT: But you sound like a New Yorker at heart.
MC: I guess I'm truly bi-coastal. I go home to New York on three-day weekends. I drive back there on our hiatus every year. I take three and half, four weeks, put my golf clubs in the back seat, my bike on the back and drive my Jeep across the country.
KT: Well, you either stop along the way or drive incredibly slow.
MC: No, I love the Southwest. It feels like home to me. From Arizona to New Mexico... Sedona, Taos, Santa Fe, all those places. When I walk into Santa Fe I never want to leave. It feels so good.
KT: Because of your Native American heritage?
MC: It's funny, my dad's a pretty amazing guy. He grew up in Oklahoma pretty dirt poor, in a house on an Osage reservation. He joined the Navy, flew jets, married my mom, went back to school and then programmed computers at IBM. Then he went back to school again and became a dentist. So he's had like five careers. So he didn't really expose us to our Native American heritage.
KT: So what do you think it is that draws you to the Southwest?
MC: The multi-cultural aspect. I feel very comfortable with people who like to walk after dinner, or sit around and drink lemonade on their porches. I mean, my mother's from Palo Alto, has fire-red hair, green eyes and light skin, and my dad's way dark. We grew up in San Francisco, in Daly City, where it's multi-cultural, so I never thought about my heritage or looks. It's just about feeling comfortable. That's why I live in Los Feliz [an area of Los Angeles], in fact - it's the multi-cultural thing.
KT: You don't strike me as an "L.A." type of person. Awards shows, parties, you know...
MC: I don't think I'm ever going to feel at home doing stuff like that. It's not a bad thing. I don't mind it. But I modeled in the '90s in New York City and went out and did my share in my early 20s and had a blast. But I like what we're doing here [gestures around her backyard]. That's why I built the fireplace out here. I like my Harley and have a great boyfriend and we make dinner and sit out here and just have a good time. It's awesome. I go out occasionally; I'm not a hermit. But it's not like it used to be.
KT: Do you think it has to do with your success?
MC: My definition of success is choosing any bottle of wine off the wine list whenever I want.
KT: What do you generally spend on wine?
MC: I'll spend $20, $25 a bottle. That's my standard. I know, having taken a wine class in New York, that there are great bottles out there for $10. I just don't know what they are! So I stick to my $22 standby.
KT: Do you have a house favorite?
Molly jumps up, runs to the garage and returns with a bottle.
MC: I can't believe I forgot to tell you that I made my own wine. I did two cases. There were like 20 of us from V.I.P. who made our own wine. Our sound department [on V.I.P.] has a wine store where you can make and bottle your own wines. So I made a Barolo.
KT: Any particular reason?
MC: When I was in Italy during my modeling days, I bought four bottles of '79 Barolo. And I just really, really liked it. It's that simple.
KT: We tend to gravitate toward familiarity. Especially with wine.
MC: Yeah. I mean whether it was the wine or the environment or the total experience, I'll always remember that Barolo.
KT: Are you a food first or wine first person?
MC: I often choose the bottle first and work the food around it. However, if it's a restaurant or chef that I'm familiar with, then maybe I'll choose the food first. But I'll have whatever I want with it. If I decide on chicken and want red, it doesn't matter to me, as long as both are good.
KT: Have anything stashed away for the future?
MC: I so wish I did! If I knew what to do, I would. I just don't know where to start. I should, though. It would be very cool to tell my children some day, '20 years ago, when I was just a young girl on V.I.P., I bought this.'
KT: Do you watch your own show?
MC: I do. You know why? Because I like to! I think it's a fun show. I like to remember that day and what happened. And I like watching V.I.P. kick butt. I like TV. I used to be a big fan of Thursday night, now I'm into West Wing, and I love Sex in the City.
KT: Plans for the future? Other than your new wine cellar, of course.
MC: I don't think I have a definitive idea of what I want. I'd like to work on features. It'd be nice to corner a niche in action because it's a great vehicle for me, use all this experience on V.I.P., then step onto a feature film and not need much training, but... I do know that I sort of want everything. But I'm willing to make it easier on myself before I make it harder.
KT: You know, there's this great magazine called Wine X...
MC: Well from now on... I try to read a little bit [about wine], but mostly rely on experience and advice from wine merchants.
MC: There's a great wine store on the west side of Manhattan, Nancy's Wines [on Columbus, between 74th and 75th]. I used to live right around the corner. I'd walk in, tell her what I was having for dinner, and she'd pick something out for me. She probably doesn't even remember me, but I'd be like, '$15 bucks, chicken.' And if I said 'buttery chardonnay,' she'd be 'ewwww.' Just say price, occasion, food. She's good.
WX: Do you favor white or red?
MC: I drink reds, mostly; I like red a lot. But I like all wine. White when it's appropriate. But I'll normally have red in the evening. I like that mellow, romantic vibe.