|Movie stars are one of a kind. On a hot day on July, we sat down to talk with the one and only Bill Pullman.|
|by Mary Cochrane McIvor and Diana Sanderson|
Prologue: Accidental Tourists in Baltimore
So, it’s about 13 minutes before
and I figure I have just enough time to do my final equipment check and take one last look at my questions before I meet Bill Pullman for an interview. I am just about to buy a bottle of water and sit down at a café near the restaurant we are meeting at, when my phone rings. It’s Bill. There’s been a change in his plans. He hasn’t done anything in
Now we begin to work out a rendezvous. He asks me where I am. I tell him I am on
Once inside, the others go off to see the galleries. Bill and I sit down together on a wrought iron bench near a spiral staircase. A huge, graceful silver and gold angel twirls gently in the stairwell and Pachelbel’s Canon in D is playing in the background. And it is here we will sit and talk. About half way through the interview, a lady walks by and stops and looks cautiously at us, as though she recognizes Bill. She lingers a little but, for now, this warm, gracious, intelligent, independent, tall, square-shouldered, handsome man with a beard, is talking to me.
© 2006 Mary Cochrane McIvor
Interview with Bill Pullman
Mary Cochrane McIvor:
Bill Pullman: I think that is a legitimate question. The movie has it’s own logic, but trying to look cool can often be a little ridiculous.
Funny - I was just doing press for “Expedition 6” for a public radio station where they played an excerpt from “Spaceballs”. I have not heard that dialogue in the longest time. And it was the conversation with Daphne Zuniga. We were having a discussion about the luggage…(Laughs)
MCI: One of my favorite scenes. It’s so good.
Pullman: I listened to it and I thought about the fact that it was the second movie I’d made. Working with Mel Brooks was an opportunity to encounter a sensibility that was both old and new. He had that vaudeville background and he also very much was trying to make movies for a popular audience of the time. His idea of spoofing has become a cinematic genre. (I arc-ed back into it with "Scary Movie 4").
I’ve always loved that I’ve had the opportunity to flip-flop drama and satirizing the drama. "Spaceballs" is almost like the satire for something like ID4.
MCI: You’ve been a film actor for 20 years and an actor for longer than that. When you did "Ruthless People" you’ve said your friends in the theater thought you sold out. Since then you’ve done “The Goat”, “The Subject Was Roses” and you’re working on “Expedition 6”. What would you say them now?
Pullman: Well, yes, they probably knew that once you start out in theater, it’s like having a good virus. It’s inside you and never goes away, you know.
One of the first professional productions I was cast in when I went to
Photograph: Bill Pullman outside the American Visionary Arts Museum. Copyright 2006 Mary Cochrane McIvor.
the ‘70’s where everyone would make great theater in the regions and that would be recognized as the national theater of America. You would build theater institutions that would become a significant part of the community. Jerry Whiddon did that. Jerry went to
He just retired last year, having brought the company into this huge new theater with a smaller second theater. He was the Artistic Director for 20 years. And he’s been involved with the company for 30 [years]. It’s so great to have him coming to the play tonight because you realize we still have this long arc in our careers, but theater has brought us back together.
MCI: I think that’s the point. You haven’t sold out.
Pullman: Selling out… For some people it means doing comedy rather than drama. Like doing "Ruthless People"
Just the idea of being in a commercial comedy like that was a reduction of your “intensity” status in some people’s eyes.
I enjoy both so much. It’s really hard to have to fill everybody’s expectations of what you should be doing. But I’ve kind of always done my own thing anyway.
MCI: That’s true about you. But you were known as a dramatic actor. And when you got into film, Mel Brooks and a lot of other people noticed you had a comic streak. You also started out in films as the leading man. You were the tall, square-shouldered leading man. In "Brain Dead" they put you in a badly fitting suit, dumbed you down to play the nerdy scientisttook away your leading man appearance. After that, there seems to have been a realization that not only were you funny but that you could also do great character work. Then, you ended up doing a whole wider range of roles.
You’ve been in films for 20 years. If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were starting out, what advice would you give yourself? Is there anything you would do differently?
Pullman: Hmm, yeah . . .That’s the land of regret. I don’t want to go there, especially.
MCI: Is there something that you would say to yourself was the absolute right thing to do? I don’t mean it in a negative way.
Pullman: Well, you know, I always really enjoyed working with good directors. That was the right thing. Once I finally directed a movie myself, I realized I enjoyed directing them more than I thought. And I wondered if I had talked to myself back when I was starting out as an actor if I would say - remember that you also trained as a theater director, don’t totally forget that. I really have loved that part of my life now - where I’m doing both. With acting in films… there’s such long periods between doing it. I love to stay obsessive about what I do. When you’re acting in a film you’re obsessive during the period when you’re shooting, which might only amount to about a half an hour in total for the day. Often there’s these periods of a few days where they’re shooting someone else. When you’re directing, it’s 24 hours for months.
MCI: It takes a year to get a film through the entire process.
Pullman: Yeah, and it takes a while to even start the process. The movie-making world is in a contractive mode. There are less and less productions, the studios are doing less and less. Independent films are in more and more trouble keeping their financing together. But in spite of all that, there are still great opportunities.
MCI: There’s definitely opportunity out there for you. I think respect for your work has grown even more recently. “Expedition 6”. What drew you to the story?
Islamic culture, which has the fastest growing religion in the world, has a component that is filled with anger, bitterness, antipathy toward the West. That they would see the failure of the international effort of putting the astronauts in space and the loss of them - their very innocent deaths - as an omen, as something to celebrate this was a shock to me. It was just the tip of an iceberg and I wanted to investigate what that iceberg was. And I wanted to do it through the eyes of these three astronauts marooned on the space station.
MCI: In your process of making the play,and working with the students, what has been the most satisfying aspect of it? What’s been the best part of it?
Some of these ideas about acting come from this production that I did of “Barrabas” with the Norwegian director, Stein Winge, in the late eighties.
He was the Artistic Director of the Norwegian National Theater at the time. Europeans sometimes use performance techniques that can carry big power in the theater - the stuff that excited Brecht in
MCI: I know what you mean. It’s the connection between the performers and the audience that makes theater a great way to tell the “Expedition 6” story.
Pullman: One example is the astronaut’s wife’s monologue. A wife is describing the process at a party when the spouses of soon-to-fly astronauts need to choose someone from the astronaut corps on the ground who would be the one to inform them of a catastrophe. It took a lot for the actress to evolve to the place she has with the speech. And really, I mean, I credit her, because she hung in there with finding what was held back. It couldn’t be crusted up with a lot of behavior. You can’t have a lot of ‘look at me - feel sorry for me - I’m the wife who’s left behind because my husband’s up in space’. Why indicate something that, really, you should leave the audience to find out for themselves. The truth is in what you don’t reveal.
MCI: There’s an aching pain in her when she does that speech. I think that’s definitely coming across to your audience. What’s hard about the process of creating this play? Because you’ve had to leave it alone a couple of times and go on to other things. Has that been difficult?
Pullman: Yeah, I guess, Over time we’ve done a lot of work to refine sections, and you record each stage of the game with video and written notes and stage directions. Even then you come back to it and it still takes quite awhile to re-gather the core thoughts that infuse everything. But the actors are so committed to it. Without that commitment I couldn’t have done it. I would have felt like I was one lone person dragging this dead thing up a mountain. Their energy has helped me and inspired me.
MCI: How does it feel to be the playwright? It’s your first time doing that.
Pullman: Well, you know, underneath it all you wonder whether people will look at it and think ‘whoever did this is insane’.
MCI: Everybody’s fear.
Pullman: What I wanted to do with devising the text, was to take the flood of data that we all have in our lives streaming past us, hour after hour, with news and internet, and TV and newsprint and see how certain fragments of them can become a symphony of who we are. It’s a poetic selection process that tries to achieve something that is beyond the literal. We think we are fulfilled by intellectually connecting to data, but it’s really rhythms that lead us to a fuller understanding.
(music piped into the museum lobby)
Like the fact that this music is playing right now while we’re talking. That’s kind of a lucky accident. It’s Pachebel’s Canon. (Pachelbel’s Canon in D ) Repeated rhythms. You listen and then you occasionally have these moments when you experience the larger patterns.
In the play I put moments together in ways that I think are going to be significantly juxtaposed. I don’t want to draw straight, bold lines to underline ideas. I like the magic of having two disparate things close together that have enough of an arc-ing that you experience them in a different way than if you just experienced them linearly.
MCI: Putting things in an artistic order, juxtaposing it in an interesting and meaningful way.
Pullman: Last night, I realized that after one of the sections dealing with the war in
MCI: It’s fascinating the way an artist can continue to see new relationships in their own work. What verb would you use to describe your authorship? You put the words together in an artful way.
Pullman: What I’m going with now is ‘conceived and devised by’. I’m trying to use a lot of first person narratives. And I tried to use a lot of comments not intended to be spoken. For instance, I used Thomas Friedman’s quote “ I really respect people who oppose the war; 49% of me opposed it too”. I saw it as a haiku about the position a lot of people were in. Fifty-one percent of their conscience said ‘ok, we’re gonna go do this’, forty-nine percent of their conscience said, ‘we shouldn’t do it’.
MCI: When you read history, it’s crystal clear what should have happened in regard to wars. But everyone forgets there has been opposition, even riots about the American Civil War, and opposition to all the wars we have fought in.
Pullman: While working on “The Subject Was Roses” I was reading about for how long most of
How are we supposed to decide these things, by the way, other than trust what we’re being told. The play is haunted by the fact that we’re so often passive participants. We are imprinted to rely on officials who are there in the moment, making decisions, and practically that’s the way things have to get done when we are in a crisis. That’s how the space mission is run. You have to either invest in a top-down hierarchy or have 240 million people fighting for consensus on which weather is best for a launch.
MCI: You have to put your trust in somebody. And we don’t always have the best people to put our trust in.
MCI: The last time you were in a wide-release summer blockbuster that was a hit was “Independence Day” (1996). Are you deliberately avoiding things like that by design? Or have things just gone in a different direction for you? Have you turned anything down lately that would have been a blockbuster type movie?
Pullman: The hard truth is many times you don’t get the offers you might want. I’ve always been lucky enough to get things going that I’m interested in. I feel fortunate about that because a lot of actors I know aren’t particularly happy with their work. I don’t worry that the project is going to have an important marketing campaign or be a blockbuster.
Age of the lead actor drives the casting of a lot of blockbusters. In many big movies these days the leads are in their twenties or thirties because of the nature of the genre-driven market and their audiences. The four main genres seem to be Horror, Comic Book Action, Family, and High-concept Comedy and the stories are centered on young characters.
Often in the blockbuster movies lately the secondary parts that are available sometimes are too one-dimensional for me to figure out what to do with them. For instance, you have to be highly objectionable as a character and then let the lead kill you hideously. Your character essence is to be the fodder for the greater glory of the lead actor. You are creepy to the lead actor and then your last scene is you get a couple dozen arrows in your head, the director waits until he gets his pathetically anguished reaction from you, and the audience cards at the test screening verify that in your final scene you got what you deserve.
I just can’t see giving months of my life towards something like that I would go into a waking sleep.
MCI: I know your fans would love to see you in a hit. We believe you are seriously underrated. Because you do so many independent films, quite a few people don’t know your work. But, on the summer films, what about “Batman Begins”? It had a great cast: Christian Bale, whom you worked with in “Newsies”,. Michael Caine, Gary Oldman. It has some real heft in terms of its script. It actually had a theme, which surprized me. I could have seen you as Inspector Gordon
Pullman: Well, I appreciate your support, for sure. Interestingly, on that one I was on the short list of actors they contacted. It was between the two of us (
Phone Interview: Bill Pullman & Diana Sanderson
Pullman: Diana, this is wild. The live link-up! I appreciate your work in setting up for the interview. This is a pretty good connection.
Diana Sanderson: Bill, it’s so great to talk to you. So where are you two?
Pullman: We’re actually in the
DLRS: What at great ideal to get away and so something fun. Well, I am so sorry I’m not there to be with you and Mary Anne, but my husband just had reconstructive surgery on his knee, and just wasn’t mobile enough to travel or to leave by himself with our kids, so at the last minute I had to bow out.
Pullman: Give him my best and we’ll hope for a speedy recovery. He’ll have to realize that he can’t be doing that World Wrestling Federation stuff that he does so much. It wrecks your knees.
DLRS: Ah, well. It wasn’t quite WWF style. But it was quite macho. He was lifting a heavy rock doing trail maintenance.
Pullman: Is that how he did it?
DLRS: Yeah. He’s the wilderness director in a small valley near where we live, and was trying to keep up with his 20-something boys. He loves doing trail work.
Pullman: Well, I’m a trail maintenance guy. Yes, I think some of my favorite times in life have been taking a chain saw to a thorn bush. Just keeping the trails open. I don’t know why it’s so satisfying.
I saw a human-interest piece that mentioned that George Bush and some of his
DLRS: Let’s get to some good stuff. Tell us about your upcoming film about a science fiction writer.
Pullman: It’s called “Panasonic” (later renamed “Your Name Here”), and it’s written and directed by Matthew Wilder - a very cool guy with a great ear for dialogue. We’ve been in a kind of pre-production for a couple months. We went through the script line by line, getting the work done that we didn’t want to leave until shooting.
I’m growing a beard. We’ll see how these pictures look from the “Expedition 6” publicity interviews…
DLRS: We’ve all seen the beard. It looks really great!
Pullman: Who would’ve guessed that the beard would come out looking like a porcupine , ,
DLRS: So when does filming start?
Pullman: We’re gonna be starting towards the end of August. When I go back we’re going to be building sets and things like that.
DLRS: Where are you shooting it?
DLRS: Are you interested in the science fiction genre?
Pullman: I’ve always been intrigued by the science fiction mind, you know, and the allegorical and philosophical side of its story telling.
Our story ("Your Name Here") kind of reminds me of “Brain Dead”. I did that movie in the eighties. It was written by Charles Beaumont - a great science fiction writer - who wrote many of the original “Twilight Zones”. Both movies deal with paranoid questions of dual identity, doubts about the nature of reality, etc.
There’s a lot of philosophical and psychological theories that science fiction can explore using creatively original environments. They often can posit some idea of what spirituality is or an ethical code, and they can do it through metaphors, etc. It’s melodramatic poetry.
DLRS: Speaking of spirituality and the fantastic, I have to tell you that I really enjoyed your work in “Revelations”. Now, before I ask this question, I need to set it up to explain why I’m asking it. When I was a graduate student in the history of American religion, I took a course in it at my large, state university. My professor told me she got all kinds of questions about her personal faith from some members of the class, as if they needed her to confirm that she believed the faith part of what she was teaching. Since you’ve done this role, the role of a doubter who explores the question and events of the end times, do you have people questioning you about your own belief in such things?
Pullman: Well, you know, many people were sensitive about whether parts of the Revelations story would be sensationalistic. The series referenced prophecies of the end of the world. Some members of various churches were afraid that their real, true beliefs about the end of the world would be marginalized and fictionalized.
As it turned out, some church groups even used the series as a discussion focus. There were Biblical quotes that would appear near the act breaks. Groups would use them as part of their Bible studies.
DLRS: Thanks so much for such a great answer. Let’s move to some fun questions. I have 10 fun things we want to know about you. What band are you currently really into?
Pullman: What band am I listening to? I’m listening to the Old Crow Medicine Show.
DLRS: What kind of music do they play?
Pullman: Yeah, It’s a bluegrass band. They are 20 something-year-old kids, which you would never expect from their range of playing skills. They do their own version of crazy-energy
DLRS: Fabulous. I’ll check them out. Ok, last book read . . .
Pullman: The last book I read is “Match to the Heart” by Gretel Erlich.
DLRS: Favorite film?
Pullman: Favorite film of life or this year?
DLRS: How about the one film you always watch year after year?
Pullman: Oh, my gosh, that’s a hard answer to commit to, because I go through a bunch of different ones, because I’m thinking about them for different reasons. I always loved "
DLRS: What shoes are you wearing today?
Pullman: Shoes that I’m wearing today? Well, I’m wearing these black Reebok sneakers which I guess I kind of selected because it makes me simpatico with the NASA personnel referred to in "Expedition 6".
DLRS: Best play you’ve seen lately?
Pullman: Play that I’ve seen which influenced me? I’ve been thinking a lot recently about a production of “
DLRS: Excellent. Favorite hot sauce. I’m really asking this for my husband ‘cause he’s always on the lookout for a great recommendation.
DLRS: What role or project would you kill for?
DLRS: Oh, fantastic! I reread “Mockingbird” earlier this summer, and you would be great as Atticus Finch. It’s one of my favorite books and films. Wonderful. Ok, I got one: what is the most annoying question the media asks frequently?
DLRS: Well, that’s pretty much all I have. It’s been so great to talk to you today.
Pullman: Oh, well, it’s great to talk to you, Diana, and thank you so much for hooking this up today. We wish you guys could have been here, but Mary Anne will give you the full account of the day and we’ll be in touch by e-mail.
MCI: Would you consider a remake of “
Pullman: Oh, that would be great. I would love that. I did that play a long time ago in summer stock. It’s one of the things I did early in my acting work that I got a lot of positive response to. It was a natural fit.
MCI: That is a very tough part to play but it is a natural fit for you. Consider this: when an actor is handsome, it seems everyone is reluctant to call him a ‘great actor’. Everyone seems more willing to call the ordinary looking guys, who you wouldn’t put on a magazine cover for their looks, ‘great actors”. What do you think?
Pullman: When a director casts a movie, he or she will try to make a palette of colors. And they will be looking for certain people, some blues and greens. if they have already got one strong color, then they’ll be looking for contrasts. It’s how you can make a strong composition.
MCI: It seems unreasonable, though, because you are a character actor in a leading man’s body. You do such a wide range of roles. People don’t recognize you sometimes because you become the character, and that’s what Gary Oldman does. I watched him in “Batman Begins” and I thought,
MCI: You have recently worked with Sir Ben Kingsley on “You Kill Me”. How was that?
Photograph: Bill Pullman at the entrance of the American Visionary Arts Museum. Copyright 2006 Mary Cochrane McIvor.
Pullman: Oh, yes, we had a great experience on that movie. He’s quite a guy. Very watchful, with clear, disciplined energy. I also really liked Tea Leoni and getting to know her. Unfortunately, she and I didn’t have scenes together. She’s got a lot of integrity and spirit, like a modern day Katherine Hepburn. She’s funny and she’s got a great look. She’s the one that said to me, ‘You know,
MCI: Well, that’s true. You have done some supporting parts that are real gems, like the father in “Igby Goes Down” where you’re onscreen less than 12 minutes but got lots of critical notice and
Last question. If you weren’t an actor, director, producer and playwright, what would you be?
Pullman: I think I have had too many answers to that question, and that’s why I enjoy acting because I can inhabit a lot of different jobs.
Now that my kids are looking at careers, I think how many different directions I wanted to go. I was certain I would be an architect at a certain point. I love agriculture. I am intrigued with the challenges of running our side of the ranching operation with my brother and his wife. I would love to get to another level of skills raising crops and cattle.
You know what I’d love to do is focus on developing a really productive orchard and making an original range of preserved foods from it. But to tell you the truth, I do that already. Tamara and I have concocted a few tasty preserves from what we’ve grown. We’ve made our own label and we've given jars of preserves away as Christmas gifts. It’s a very satisfying thing to do. And when it’s not your main source of income, you can stop when it is no longer fun to do.
MCI: Bill, thank you for your generosity of time and spirit in giving us this interview.
And here ended the interview. Bill returned to Theatre Project for a recording session and rehearsal that afternoon. "Expedition 6" sold out that night.
© 2006 Mary Cochrane McIvor, Diana Sanderson, Bill Pullman. All rights reserved.
"Expedition 6" excerpts reprinted with the permission of Bill Pullman. All rights reserved.