by Mary Cochrane-McIvor

In another world, in another time, Bill Pullman might have been Captain Jack in “Torchwood”.  As the seriously talented and wildly versatile Pullman joins the cast of “Torchwood: Miracle Day” as Oswald Danes, a consideration of Pullman ’s career thus far brings up some curious parallels.

'TORCHWOOD: Miracle Day' premieres July 8, 2011 on the STARZ network. Check local listings for times.
Bill Pullman as Oswald Danes in "Torchwood: Miracle Day"

Captain Jack: the tall, handsome, brash, supremely confident, heroic leader of Torchwood, who is willing to work outside the law for a good cause, able to make the tough decisions yet remain vulnerable, has a checkered past as a con-man or worse, and is a time-traveling immortal who wears a legendary killer blue coat. Captain Jack bears a strong resemblance to two Pullman film characters: Dennis Alan in “The Serpent and the Rainbow” and Lone Star in “Spaceballs”. Both Dennis Alan and Lone Star are also tall, handsome, wildly confident risk-takers, willing to step outside the system for a worthy cause, tough and heroic yet vulnerable; ready to make the hard decisions. Lone Star has a killer leather jacket and Dennis Alan survives being buried alive. It’s not much of a stretch to see Pullman as Captain Jack in a slightly different universe—no kidding.

But, seriously, Pullman has been cast in “Torchwood: Miracle Day” as Oswald Danes, ostensibly the villain of Season 4. Who is Oswald Danes? And just what does it mean to be the villain in “Miracle Day”?

When I spoke with Pullman on the phone recently, he had finished work on “Torchwood: Miracle Day” and the production, shot on location in Wales and the USA and on the Warner Bros. lot had wrapped.

Pullman told me that the offer to do “Torchwood: Miracle Day” came “out of the blue” just before Christmas 2010.  While he had heard of “Torchwood”, he really knew nothing about it.  A former professor of his is a big fan and he found that intriguing.  The more Pullman learned about “Torchwood” the more he became aware of the “religious fervor” of the fans. Pullman has a friendly connection with several NASA astronauts whom he got to know through their interest in Pullman ’s play “Expedition 6” .  It seems that quite a few NASA people are huge fans of "Torchwood".

With a set of the dvds for “Torchwood: Children of Earth” (Season 3) to watch and 3 scripts for the new series to read, Pullman set out to discover “Torchwood”.  After seeing “Children of Earth” and reading  some script material, Pullman says he “ got attracted to it and said yes without a meeting or anything.” Without a meeting!  Unheard of, especially for an actor of Pullman ’s  stature. Why did he do such a thing? What did he see that made him respond so quickly and definitively?

An actor of Bill Pullman’s experience and  repute does not audition for parts (i.e. read lines for the casting director). He is given a script(s) and there are meetings. A script looks like this:

FRASIER

Daphne, this is my brother Niles .

NILES

You’re Daphne?

DAPHNE

Why, yes I am.

NILES

You’re Daphne?

DAPHNE

Right again.

NILES

When Frasier mentioned he’d hired an English woman, I pictured

someone a little more . . .not quite so . . .You’re Daphne?

Words on a page—in the format of a script.  The actor, reading alone, has to decide how good these words on a page would be with the life of a full-fledged production breathed into them.  The example scene above is from the legendary, award-winning television comedy “Frasier”.  David Hyde Pierce and Jane Leeves brought those lines gloriously to life in Episode 3, Dinner at Eight of “Frasier”.

The “Torchwood” scripts that Bill Pullman saw had a potent, even electrifying effect on him.  He says that there’s something “mysterious (about) what makes good dialogue and what doesn’t.”  In science fiction he says “there’s always a lot of plot required” (in the dialogue, i.e. ‘How did humans and Vulcans first meet?’ ‘What does ‘warp’ speed mean?’ ‘How does the transporter work?’ ‘What is Torchwood?’ etc. etc.).

To Pullman ’s surprise, the “Torchwood: Miracle Day” scripts he saw were “very minimal about what needed to be said, but there was a great sense of surprise. At moments, characters could say things that came from places that felt really three-dimensional.”

Great writing and dialogue aside, if you’ve never seen or heard of “Torchwood”, will you be able to just jump in on Season 4?  The answer is yes.   As Season 4 “Miracle Day” starts, Torchwood, the secret institution, outside the government, outside the police that was founded during the reign of Queen Victoria to deal with extra-terrestrial events, threats or incursions is in ruins with its remaining members hiding or in exile.  When people stop dying--the ‘miracle day’ phenomenon---agents investigating it find the name Torchwood and the legend attached to it popping up repeatedly.  They are on a journey discovering just what Torchwood is, just as first time viewers will be.

Oswald Danes, Pullman ’s character, has been described as the villain of Season 4.  A pedophile, the convicted murderer of a child, Danes is unrepentant and about to be executed as Season 4 opens.  Events take yet another twist when Danes survives his own execution.

Yet Pullman is reluctant to put the label ‘villain’ on Danes.  To Pullman , how he views a role “depends on the voice of the character.”  He says that while Oswald Danes has been “advertised and promoted as the dark character . . . . he’s  given this chance to be re-born, so it’s a chance to explore whether he can overcome his baggage . . . . or whether he’s trying to or not . . .he’s not continuing to act overtly as advertised so you’re seeing a man on a journey".

Of course, Oswald Danes journey will include an encounter or two with Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman).  Pullman describes Barrowman as “ebullient” and “fun to have on-set.”  Although Barrowman is known for playing practical jokes on co-stars, he was more “subdued” with Pullman because the scenes between Oswald Danes and Captain Jack call for a “dramatic relationship (that) isn’t all fun and games.” Pullman ’s status and character place him “in a category where he’s (Barrowman) more interested in and focused on work.”

As always with “Torchwood”, the characters and story are multi-faceted.  Pullman says that one of the "other great sides, dimensions to Oswald (Danes) is that he has a very special connection to Captain Jack. Oswald operates in his own path for quite awhile . . . what’s happening to him is . . . of interest to the world, then it becomes of interest to Captain Jack---this relationship that’s built on a sense of them being  two sides of the same coin.”  Pullman says Oswald Danes and Captain Jack are “very interesting characters in how they relate to each other and I think there’s some side of each other which allows them to be very direct with each other.  They become very intrigued by . . . the times where they can interact and I think that’s some of my favorite writing of Russell’s (Davies) because it’s like one side of one self talking to the other side of one self . . . It’s almost . . . as if you’d known each other before . . . . no need to have a lot of superficial conversation.”

On a working set, actors spend most of their time waiting and relatively few intense minutes in front of the camera acting.  The final cut of a movie or television show is actually many of those few intense minutes skillfully and carefully put together to tell the story.

A three-minute action sequence can take half a day to a whole day to film because so many shots and filming angles are required.  In the face of this, how does an actor stay focused and in character to be ready and at their best for those few precious minutes in front of the camera?  Pullman approaches it this way “ . . . part of what makes some people more interested in being an actor is that they enjoy the time they spend focused on being  some other version of  themselves . . . so . . if you’re working on a piece with a character,  if you’re trained and you’re interested, then you have a thousand things that are drawing you to stay inside that zone, even when you're not shooting in front of the cameras, you’re thinking about it and you’re focused on it even as you’re going to get coffee".

So, a focused, committed actor could get lost inside the character they’re playing.  It’s significant to note here that Pullman has a reputation among his co-stars for being great to work with.  Focused, intense and dedicated to his art, he still manages to balance everything and remain approachable and connected to others on the set while still being “focused on that clear thought in front of you.”

With “Torchwood: Miracle Day” wrapped, Pullman has moved on to the world of “Lola Versus”, an independent film that is a comedy---with a touch of drama---currently shooting in New York City .  When Pullman and I spoke on the phone recently a second time, he was heading for a costume fitting a day or two before he was due on the set.

“Lola Versus” tells the story of Lola whose fiancé gets cold feet just before their wedding.

She suddenly finds herself dealing with this major “derailment”.  Pullman plays Lola’s father. He describes the film as one with “very well-observed writing” and something of a twist in that the “adults are free-speaking and embarrass the kids” who are more conventional.  Debra Winger plays Lola’s mother.  Lola’s free-spirited parents work hard to help her deal with the “repercussions” of her wedding falling apart.  After five months of playing a murderer/pedophile in “Torchwood”, Pullman finds “Lola Versus” a “nice tone” to go to.

Some questions remain about “Torchwood”.  As always, we have to wonder if Oswald Danes is an alien.  On that subject, Pullman has this to offer: “that’s one of the questions that you are asked because why do the events of ‘miracle day’ seem to pivot on his situation. He was going to die and he lives----is that just coincidence or is that some buried secret to be unearthed?”

Pullman describes “Torchwood” creator/writer/producer Russell Davies as “one of the great story-tellers”.  From their first exchanges of e-mails and texts to their first meeting, Pullman has found Davies to be polite, energetic, passionate, talking quickly---always with lots of things going on.  Theirs is a comfortable, productive, energized, mutually appreciative creative connection.

That leads us back to the question of exactly why Russell Davies and producer Julie Gardner sought out Bill Pullman to play the reviled Oswald Danes.  Pullman’s incredible talent as an actor was the first, most obvious reason to choose him but what else was at work?  Davies and Gardner were aware of Pullman ’s huge successes as the handsome, charming Jack Callaghan in “While You Were Sleeping” and the heroic President Whitmore  in “Independence Day”.  It turns out that they thought it would be ‘awfully mischievous’ to cast ' America ’s sweetheart’ as the despicable, bottom of the barrel Oswald Danes.  Intriguing reversal.

Finally, in the post, post-modern world of “Torchwood: Miracle Day”, how do you define a hero? Bill Pullman had this to say: “the ability to accept the title of hero, some want it, some don’t -----maybe the ones that don’t are the best heroes”.

Oswald Danes, villain or hero?  The path he takes on his journey remains to be seen.

When we spoke, Pullman was very excited about “Torchwood” and his part in it.  He had a great experience shooting it and believes it offers a kind of story-telling that’s “very compelling . . . because it has a lot of philosophical underpinnings”.  And there’s plenty of action too, judging from the trailers and ‘behind the scenes’ features.

One last question.  Do Oswald Danes and Captain Jack share a kiss?  Take the “Torchwood: Miracle Day” journey and find out.

©2011  Mary Cochrane-McIvor and Bill Pullman.  All rights reserved.

TORCHWOOD: Miracle Day - Bill Pullman.org

UPCOMING WORK

Film: "Lola Versus", "Bringing Up Bobby", "Red Sky" (formerly 'Kerosene Cowboys')

Theater: 'The Jacksonian' by Beth Henley.Geffen Playhouse,Los Angeles.February 2012.