by Mary Cochrane-McIvor

Would you believe that Bill Pullman, star of “Independence Day” and “The Goat” on Broadway ever had to approach an auditions call-back list with trepidation?  Surely not, his stellar talent would have been obvious from the start?  Right?

Pullman not only made the same painful walk every theater student has made down the hallway to the board with the call-back list posted, he didn’t always get the part.  He even wondered what on earth he had gotten himself into when he transferred from SUNY Delphi to SUNY Oneonta to study theater.

As keynote speaker for the ACTF ( American College Theater Festival) at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, Pennsylvania on January 14, 2010, Pullman shared the vicissitudes, triumphs and set-backs of his student days, starting out as a professional actor, and  his current position as a respected and revered actor and artist. This is part of what he had to say.

Pullman began by wondering just where he was and giving a thumbs up to Indiana , Pennsylvania , hometown of film icon Jimmy Stewart, for having the “chutzpah” to “call a major city [by] the name of another state.”  He also noted that his ACTF gift bag was loaded with ‘Punxsutawney Phil’ groundhog  items but only a brochure about the Jimmy Stewart Museum making him wonder if  the groundhog  “is getting’ bigger than Jimmy Stewart.”  But Pullman went on to say that “actors, no matter where they are in their careers, have to be humbled every once in awhile, often by small children and animals.”

Noting that he has sometimes been associated with Jimmy Stewart, Pullman reminded his audience that he played George Bailey in a theater production of a live radio show, “Merry Christmas, George Bailey” that aired on PBS.

The night before Pullman gave this address, someone assured him that they were coming to see his “dress” tomorrow, his “keyno dress”.  Pullman was perplexed by this but said that he does have a ‘ Reno dress’ which he left at home.  Undaunted, he spotted a dark fuchsia, ruched cloth boa at a party he had been dragged into.  He asked the student wearing the boa if he could borrow it and she graciously agreed. At this point, Pullman scooped the boa out of this bag and donned it to wild applause and cheering, wearing it for most of his talk.

Pullman began the ‘serious’ part of his talk by showing slides from “my illustrious career” beginning with a distorted picture of himself: “I was trying to make a new headshot of myself”.  Moving on to a picture of Edward Albee he described the inspiration and satisfaction of finding “plays that fit”. Albee and Sam Shepard are 2 playwrights whose work Pullman is very comfortable with.  He has recently appeared in Albee’s “Peter and Jerry” (now titled “At Home at the Zoo”) and“The Goat”.  Albee, whom Pullman playfully described as “15 times smarter than me” has said: “Life is hard; theater is harder.”  Pullman added: “College theater is really hard.”  To illustrate, he quoted “Peter and Jerry”:  “Sometimes you have to go a long way out of your way to go a short distance.”

When Pullman made the big leap to SUNY Oneonta, he went to his first audition full of confident determination, thinking: “let me at it.”  The play was “The Lion in Winter” and, of course, many of the parts were already cast.  The director had a reputation for being an aloof “battleax”.  The determined Pullman decided to go for the not yet cast role of King Henry II.  His competition was a more mature actor, Ron Miller, the only guy in the department over 22, with a bald spot, a full beard and an impressive voice.  But Pullman was tall—like the already cast Queen Eleanor and sons and fiercely set on getting that part.   After his first audition and that painful, anxious walk to the wall with the call-back list, Pullman found he was indeed “called back”.   Relieved and even more fiercely resolved to get the part, he retreated to an abandoned building on campus for 2 hours the night before call-backs: “ I realized I had to transform all the molecules in my body . . . into being the King . . .I’m amazed that I had that courage, but I did it because I wanted that part.  I found it to become everything I could be for that part.”

When call-backs happened and the play was cast, Ron Miller got King Henry---to Pullman's utter amazement: after all, Ron Miller was “short”.  Pullman did get cast in the next play, “Our Town” as Doc Gibbs.  He has no idea how good he was in the part but he “got some encouragement . . . .and kept learning and learning and learning” from 8 great teachers along the way and great directors.

After Pullman had become a successful movie star, the opportunity to play the lead in Albee’s “The Goat” came along.  Pullman had long since reached that point in the film world when you don’t have to audition.  But for “The Goat”-----an audition: “every line the guy had to say, one day, all day long with Edward (Albee) and David (Esbjornson) the director.”

Back in LA, Pullman began to have dreams about the long walk down the hallway to that posted call-back sheet.

Pullman was, indeed, cast in the lead role of “The Goat”. However, during previews, he was stunned to feel an “incredible fury” coming from the audience.  The controversial subject matter of the play was overwhelming for some and audience members would even shout things out and leave the theater during performances.  Determined to find away to survive in the part, Pullman drew on his experience in theater, and decided he had to “have a kind of spiritual generosity, not to let them freak me out, accept them and their rejection of me . . .when you learn that from an audience . . . you’re really better off.”

“The Goat” did find an audience and went on to win the Tony award for Best New Play 2002.  Pullman received Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award nominations for Outstanding Actor in “The Goat”.

Pullman reminded his audience that college theater is: “the way you start . . . you learn and the learning is the biggest part:  the learning everything you need to know for when you thought you had everything you need to know . . . . And that learning gives you freedom, that feeling you have when you can really step on stage . . . . and you’ve got a shot at it.”

A life in the theater is not an obvious or practical choice to most.  But Pullman describes his passion for theater this way: “ . . . you are given this gift and there’s gonna be people who say: ‘ Are you crazy?  Don’t you want to have a car?’ . . . . No, no, I want this thing. It’s been given to me and I want it.”

Pullman closed with a favorite quote from Sam Shepard: “ I consider theater and writing to be a home, where I bring the adventures of my life and sort them out, making sense of nonsense out of the serious and precious.  Language is a veil hiding demons and angels which the characters are always out of touch with.  Their quest in the play is the same as ours in life---to find those forces, to meet them face to face and end the mystery.”

© 2010 Mary Cochrane-McIvor and Bill Pullman

     All quotes: Bill Pullman, except for the Sam Shepard quote at the end.

    Printed with the permission of  www.BillPullman.org

For more information on Bill Pullman and his career in film, theater and television:  www.billpullman.org  &  IMDb: Bill Pullman