by Mary Cochrane-McIvor

A free-spirited, unconventional Dad who wears a pink shirt; a smooth, conniving, mysterious, sometimes charming, sometimes violent, bartender who may have a dark secret; an Ex-Marine, with a dysfunctional family, who just happens to be the President. Who could stand to have these 3 characters in their head all at once?  The gifted, charismatic, hard-working Bill Pullman. With those 3 characters inhabiting his imagination, Pullman finds himself at a curious cross-roads of the worlds of film, theater and television.

Pullman and I had breakfast together recently in Hollywood and his characters were all there along with the very real Bill Pullman, fruit farmer.

When we met that morning he was wearing black, his hair was dyed black, combed Elvis style, and a graphic, scary ‘temporary’ tattoo of a snake! covered his entire forearm: this is Bill Pullman styled to play bartender Fred Weber in the world premiere of Beth Henley’s “The Jacksonian”. (Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles , February 15- March 25, 2012 )  Not the pink-shirted Dad, not the ex-Marine President—Fred is the sinister, mysterious bartender in “The Jacksonian”. The relaxed, smiling Pullman seems very much at odds with his dark clothes, Elvis hair and wicked tattoo.

Since I hadn’t yet seen the play, Pullman was concerned about my seeing the tattoo ahead of time, but stills of the play and some reviewers had revealed the tattoo. Seeing it up close in person was quite intense. The questions remaining are just who would want to have that huge, threatening image on their arm and why?

Pullman has been connected to “The Jacksonian” since its beginnings some three years ago. He is one of a group of actors, friends of Beth Henley, who meet at her LA home to do readings of her new works. Pullman has also been part of a reading at the Powerhouse Readings Festival 2  in July 2009 at Vassar College .

Bill Pullman, Glenne Headley in "The Jacksonian" Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles 2012

Hair-cuts, costumes, objects, hair-styles, colors, jewelry, make-up, tattoos:  all can assist an actor in bringing a character to life.  “The Jacksonian” costume designer is responsible for Pullman ’s appearance.  Along with the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ Elvis hair, Pullman is sporting sideburns, sideburns he says were especially helpful to him for “getting in the zone’ with his character.

Performing onstage in LA is a huge departure for Broadway vet Pullman , star of “The Goat”, “Peter and Jerry” (At Home at the Zoo) and “Oleanna”. I asked him if it’s harder to gear up for 8  live performances a week while  at home in LA.  He  agreed that it’s more challenging in LA where he has a lot going on but finds that being able  to “put the day’s events away and drive over  to the theater is a nice blending of worlds.”

An important and beloved part of Pullman ’s LA world is the huge, bountiful hillside orchard he has built up behind his house. Over 100 varieties of trees and shrubs there produce an incredible array of fruits.  Pullman is devoted to and passionate about every detail of his orchard’s care and welfare.  Fruit-trees are a life-long love of his. He planted his first orchard at 14.

Pullman and his wife, Tamara and their neighbors have joined together to create the Hollywood Orchard project.  Working together, they harvest fruit from local trees. The fruit is harvested, prepared, some is used in baked goods and the fruit and baked goods   are donated to local food banks.  (www.hollywoodorchard.org)

The group’s long term plan is to purchase a recently available tract of land where they   would plant a community orchard with fruit for the community and fruit to supply local food banks  The project is already a success in terms of fruit picked and distributed and a strong sense of community.  Pullman took a break from breakfast the day we met to take an important call about orchard business—there’s a lot going on.

On June 8 “Lola Versus” will be released in the USA by Fox Searchlight Pictures.  Pullman plays Lola’s pink-shirted Dad in this comedy about a young woman whose fiancé bails just weeks before the wedding.  He describes Lola’s parents (Debra Winger plays Lola’s mother) as  more free-spirited and unconventional than Lola and her friends.

Debra Winger, Greta Gerwig, Bill Pullman in "Lola Versus", a Fox Searchlight Picture.

After Pullman ’s phone call, we return to the “The Jacksonian”.  How does he go from a free-spirited character in a light-hearted comedy like “Lola Versus” to the dark world of “The  Jacksonian”?  Quite simply, Bill Pullman says he loves Beth Henley’s work. In 1993 he starred in her “Control Freaks” in Los Angeles .  He feels a “particular connection to [her] dialogue,sense of theatricality . . . characterization . . .heightened sense of language.”  He has referred to Henley as “that Southern madam of murder and mayhem” and explains “that impulse [to murder] comes  from a heightened, surprise sense of what frustrations are and that’s a good zone for writing.” He describes her work as “lyrical”. All the same, he says there is nothing “urbane” or “witty” about “Jacksonian”.   He describes  it as a “feral” version of events.

And what about Fred the bartender and his horrific tattoo?  Pullman remains open and still discovering things about his role as Fred. Creating the character has been “a big journey” and his openness  allows him to  respond to the dynamics of the other actors very precisely and fine  tune his performance each time the play is done.  Pullman   also says  that during rehearsal  his understanding of Fred changed and he came  to  realize more about Fred’s “level  of his internal conviction about whether  he’s good or bad.”

"The Jacksonian”  has a very ‘jumbled chronology’.  This inherent difficulty in following and processing the events of the play made the play difficult and the rehearsal period  a very productive  time for the actors.

Bill Pullman, Amy Madigan in "The Jacksonian", Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles 2012.

I did get to see “The Jacksonian” and discovered that in addition to sporting those sideburns, Pullman spoke with a very natural, smooth, credible Southern accent in his performance as Fred.  Here’s hoping he gets to bring that accent, the black Elvis hair, those sideburns and his incredible performance to Broadway. A link to my review follows. ("The Jacksonian" by Beth Henley is dazzling, perverse and poignant, Examiner.com)

Pullman ’s love of orchards and fruit has found a  way into his film career. He is part of “The Fruit Hunters” a documentary by Jung Chang that examines obsession with growing and obtaining certain fruits. Pullman notes that while there is “a very powerful creative component to obsession . . . there can be a destructive component.”  Working on the documentary has raised his awareness helping him with “looking at my own place” as a fruit grower.  When we spoke “Fruit Hunters” was still shooting in Borneo and may make one more stop on Los Angeles . A  premiere for “The Fruit Hunters” at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2012 is planned.

That last character residing in Pullman ’s imagination is the US President.  Pullman has recently signed on to play the President for the second time.  His turn in “Independence Day” as President Thomas J. Whitmore, a former fighter pilot, who leads  the battle to save Earth from alien invaders, is a revered pop culture icon. His second turn as President finds him in “1600 Penn” a television one-camera comedy pilot where he would be President Dale Gilchrist, an ex-Marine, who finds himself responsible not only for the welfare of the USA but his own dysfunctional family as well.  NBC has given the go-ahead to shoot the pilot.  Josh Gad, Jason Winer and Jon Lovett are the creators and producers of “1600 Penn”. 

Pullman found the “1600 Penn” script “articulate . . . funny . . . [with] all the right tones.” He says a one-camera comedy “feels more like film . . .the level of nuance is a little easier than multi-camera [comedy].”  At this point, the table-read of “1600 Penn” has been done.  The pilot is shooting---or already completed.  There is a very strong possibility that NBC will pick up “1600 Penn”.

In the meantime, which Bill Pullman do we watch for—the sinister, tattoed bartender with Elvis hair; the free-spirited Dad in a pink shirt; or the square-shouldered, ex-Marine we should address as ‘Mr. President’? One thing is for sure, Bill Pullman himself can be found regularly in several orchards in the Hollywood Hills and with pilot week approaching, we’ll know soon enough if we should be calling him ‘Mr. President’ again.

Upcoming Projects: Film "Lola Versus" June 8, "The Fruit Hunters" September, "Bringing Up Bobby" October

Television "1600 Penn" (Watch this site for news.) Dance/Multimedia "Healing Wars" 2013

© 2012 Mary Cochrane-McIvor   All quotes: Bill Pullman.