by Mary Cochrane McIvor
I arrive in New York early on the day I am to interview Bill Pullman, so I walk to a little café-deli I know. Think Café Nervosa“Frasier”--- but in Manhattan. I secure a table near the front and contact Pullman. He is nearby at the Second Stage Theater where he is starring in Edward Albee’s new play, Peter and Jerry. We agree to meet at the café and a few minutes later he arrives on foot. We’ve met before but I always forget just how incredibly tall and broad-shouldered he is. He’s wearing a blue sweater, jeans and brown boots. And his hair is back, thick and full, no more FBI agent buzz-cut. He tells me: “Yes, I made that decision [ to get a close hair-cut] just before going up to shoot Surveillance. I knew Jennifer Lynch, the director, would be shocked but pleased by the move---she was giddy with it.”
Pullman has a voice mail that needs tending to so I fetch us coffee, tea and cranberry scones. When I return to the table he spots a more secluded one for the interview and leads us there. We settle down to talk but a gnat is buzzing persistently around the table. Every time he vanquishes one, a replacement immediately appears. If our encounter were a movie, it would be “War of the Gnats” or “My Coffee with Bill”.
New York City is a place people travel to for entertainment or something they can’t do at home. For Pullman, New York is his workplace and he is the entertainment others travel to see. I ask him what he does here when he isn’t working. He likes the neighborhood where he is living while in the city and finds that being largely on foot allows him the scope and freedom to meet and keep up with friends and associates in a way that the cars and freeways of Los Angeles make impossible.
Since this great stage actor can also sing and dance (Newsies) I ask him if he would ever do a Broadway musical. He modestly defers, saying that he is not a trained singer or dancer. But he admits that he might be tempted to “do a big rock and roll review-type thing, playing guitar.”
Pullman is here to star in the new Albee play,” Peter and Jerry”, which adds something of a prequel in the shape of an Act I called ‘Homelife’ to Albee’s first play “The Zoo Story”. Albee, who turns 80 in March 2008 , has three major productions of his plays in the works. A new play, “Me, Myself and I” will be produced at the McCarter Theater in Princeton and possibly move on to New York. “Occupant” will have a production at the Signature Theater Co. in May. And Albee himself will direct a revival of “The American Dream” and” The Sandbox “. This is, indeed, the season of Albee who is being called the greatest living American playwright.
Pullman’s work has played a significant part in shoring up Albee’s recent successes. Pullman created the part of Martin in Albee’s “The Goator Who is Sylvia?” (Tony Award- Best Play 2002) Albee himself called Pullman to offer him the part of Peter in “Peter and Jerry”. Now Pullman is being called one of the great interpreters of Albee’s work. When he first auditioned for “The Goat”, Albee, who takes awhile to get comfortable with actors, was slow about offering Pullman the part. With other offers on the table, Pullman didn’t want to wait around. He pressed Albee and the producers to make a decision, knowing he risked losing the part by doing so. They “hired me anyway” he recounts with pride. The rest is history. And ,recently, rehearsals for “Peter and Jerry” were delayed a week because Pullman’s own play Expedition 6 had its world premiere in San Francisco on September 15 .
When I asked Pullman about Albee’s input during rehearsals for Peter and Jerry he had this to say: “It was a stunning rehearsal when he cut a page and a half from The Zoo Story it had been there for 45 years ! ! ! It came out of a discussion that seemed to be focused on the part of the script just before. I wondered whether it would be the right cut. Now, in the playing of the section of the script, I can see it was a brilliant cut.”
Peter, Pullman’s character in the play, is still, in one place---the sofa or the park benchfor significant amounts of time. I asked him how he approached that ‘stillness’ as an actor. His response: “I worked backwards, I guess. The moment when Jerry tickles Peter is truly unexpected (in a good way) but very crucial to why Peter lets Jerry on the bench at that point. I wanted Peter’s response to the tickling to be a chance to see Peter changed for a second ( in a probable way). Who gets totally undone by tickling? Someone who is physically ‘held’."
What is it that draws him to Albee’s plays? Pullman: “The texts (of Albee’s plays) invite a lot of investigation. The characters are usually very bright. And there are ways that fears have kind of filtered in and they’re compartmentalized, but they’re always there in some really tangible ways and they’re motivating different behaviors, so it’s not like the fears are often on the surface at all. So, you kind of have to locate them and then put them into place. And then operate as if they aren’t there and wait for them to come and find you.”
Having arrived in New York straight from the world premiere of “Expedition 6” which he created and directed, Pullman went from being a playwright/director/producer to being an actor. How does that feel? He says it was like “swimming with a sweatshirt on and then taking it off.” But keeping faith with “Expedition 6” through various workshops and open rehearsals for several years was “rewarding” and the end result was a full-length, well-received, world premiere production at the legendary Magic Theatre in San Francisco. The play is an on-going project with more productions planned for the future.
This past summer Pullman met Astronauts Don Pettit and Ken Bowersox, two of the Expedition 6 crew members. Parts of Pettit’s journals written on the International Space Station are used in “Expedition 6”. In a Soyuz simulator with Pettit and Bowersox, Pullman heard the story of their descent from the ISS in a Soyuz capsule. He describes it as “one of the great experiences of my life” and says: “I don’t think I’ve ever been in an environment so perfect to hear a story that was so well toldsuch scaleas when I sat with them in the Soyuz simulator in Houston, crammed with our knees up to our jaws in this tiny space and they talked me through their whole descent . . .imagine, going at 17,000 miles an hour and seeing all this molten metal going over the windows and feeling these g-forces. [An] incredible, painful experience but then coming through it and . . .all the technological sequences that have to work correctly even though many didn’t . . .on the Soyuz . . .then to land in this . . . .almost existential nothingness, Kazekestan. It’s quite possible that no human had ever walked on that . . area before . . .and then to wait for hours and hours to get rescued.” Pettit came to see “Expedition 6” and Pullman remains in contact with him. The production of “Expedition 6” forged a lot of good connections between astronauts and their families, and Pullman and others who worked on “Expedition 6”. Since theater in not “triangulated with money” and the making of it, like the movies, Pullman believes that contacts between people are more honest and direct. He sees the ultimate message of “Expedition 6” as: “the perspective you get from space and what it teaches you . . . . .Earth is home. And that’s a very simple thing but it’s an experiential thing . . .there’s something that always happens . . .the signature moment at the end when he says: [looking down at the Earth from the International Space Station] ‘I turned, I looked, I saw, I had to stop and see it, I had to stop and look. And it took my breath away and I forgot what I was doing.’ Just looking at the actual theater piece was, in a way, stopping and looking at something in a way that you’ve never seen it before.”
Some reviewers pointed out that there really aren’t a lot of plays about space. In that regard, “Expedition 6” has a unique creative perspective, one that has taken Pullman from the Denver Center for the Performing Arts workshop for this play to a world premiere. Sharing his artistic space mission is a journey he has brought passion, faith and determination to.
Since April 2007 Pullman has made 3 films: Surveillance, Phoebe in Wonderland, and Bottle Shock. Two others: Nobel Son and Your Name Here are ready to be released. Here is a glimpse of his upcoming films: Nobel Son (release: March 8, 2008-USA) Pullman enjoyed working with Alan Rickman and Mary Steenburgen. He describes his supporting part as a “buried surprise.” Pullman first met director/screenwriter Randall Miller on this project and worked with him again this past summer on Bottle Shock.
Your Name Here is about the last days of celebrated science fiction writer, Philip K. Dick. When Pullman describes the film as the “most outside movie I’ve made” I tell him that’s saying al lot from the man who starred in Lost Highway. We both laugh and he explains that he means “outside the system.” The financing for Your Name Here was very risky since the film industry is not putting lots of money into adventuresome stuff. He describes Your Name Here as “ . . .eccentric. It kind of reminds me of Brain Dead . (Pullman starred in the 1990 sci-fi thriller) A mind teaser . . .many different realities you’re morphing through . . . .you’re wondering what time frame you’re located in . . .It gives you this kind of hallucinogenic . .quality of trying to sort out stuff and by the end you have clarity about it.” Of director/screenwriter Matt Wilder he says: “It’s been a really good collaboration.”
In Surveillance Pullman stars as an FBI man sent to a small Midwestern town where “an awful series of murders have been committed along a desolate stretch of road.” Three survivors, one from each car involved in the murders, are brought back to the police station and, for purposes of the investigation, separated. Then, Pullman says: “ . . .they each tell a different story of what happened. . .Everybody that’s involved with the accident is somehow, curiously spinning a story . .that may not be true.” Even the relationship of Pullman FBI agent and his partner, played by Julia Ormond, may not be what it seems.
In Phoebe in Wonderland Pullman plays a father whose daughter has an autism-type disorder. He describes it like this: “She’s cast in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and her symptoms become more manifest to usthe parentsand then it’s the impact on our relationship with each other, and our relationship to our children . . .people who are capable of sorting through it but challenged by it all.” When the young girl gets “more immersed in her sense of reality the world reflects . . .’Alice in Wonderland’” where she sees her father (Pullman’s character) as the Queen of Hearts! This film will have its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, January 17-27, 2008 in Park City, Utah.
Bottle Shock was filmed in the wine country of northern California this past September and will be seen at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2008. In fact, Pullman missed 1-2 “Expedition 6” rehearsals to do the film. He describes it as “the story about the tasting that happened in 1976in Paris which was the first time California wines were represented and they won. And it shook the wine industry . . .the guy who made the Chardonnay, Jim Barrett, is the guy I play.”
(Check the IN THE WORKS section on Bill Pullman.org for the release dates and information on all these films.)
Since Pullman has played two real people recently, Philip K. Dick and Jim Barrett, both of them characters in 2 filmsor potential films(Your Name Here and an unnamed Philip K. Dick film and Bottle Shock and Judgement of Paris) , I ask him how the ‘true’ story plays into his creation of the character. His reply: “A lot of those issues are really focused on the writing [of the script] and the text and what it decided to include or not include. Those kinds of things are always interesting. It’s kind of like [an] exercise . . where you’re looking at what happened and what is actually portrayed and then you determine whether it’s distorted it or [you] have to amplify it and there’s a number of opinions on it, but, in terms of the acting, the character is born of the words and so, as much as you can, [you] bring a distinctive quality to it . . .there’s also something just about the texture of part of the [script], that makes whatever you’re doing different from another project with the same character. All that aside, there’s still the obligation to see where it is you interface with the real live person. Basically, I think you take from the real live person whatever you feel to make an effective portraitthat is telling to watch.” Would he copy the gestures of a real person? “I’ve done that . . .when I play a character, I’ll steal gestures from another person that I know and like.”
When Pullman researched Philip K. Dick on a visit to the library in Fullerton, California that holds his archives, he discovered that Dick had a “very monotone” speaking voice that was high-pitched. He wasn’t comfortable with the real voice since “the words and rhythms of the text weren’t fitting” it and made it difficult to “animate”. But hearing Dick’s ‘real’ voice did gain Pullman the insight that Dick was “a kind of direct but mischievous guy whose sense of invention was both really delusional and also kind of game playing. You don’t know where the game ends and the delusion begins or the delusion ends and the game begins.” We agree on the importance, for the actor, of always going back to the text of the script while creating the character. He says: “The rhythm inside the words is what is most important . . .the general rhythm of the sequence of words kind of inform a metabolism and inform what type of intelligence.”
The gnats continue their fierce assault on our table. I am useless as I watch over my sound equipment but they are driving Pullman crazy and he relentlessly slays them until there is relative calm. I suggest that maybe we should really be doing the interview on a park bench since Act II of “Peter and Jerry” takes place in a park with Pullman’s character sitting on a bench. I ask him what would happen if Dave, his character in You Kill Me showed up on that park bench to encounter Jerry instead of Peter? “It would come to blows pretty quick” is his reply This master of characters is also a charming and charismatic movie star. Director M. Night Shyamalan has said of movie stars: “they’re supremely gifted, and they’re charming peopleso charming, sometimes, that they get by on charm.” Pullman is an actor who does not rely on charm and charisma to carry his performances. I ask him how he avoids that and where he starts from when creating a character. His reply: “ I think it’s a blessing and a curse. You end up feeling sometimes that each one is a totally . . .new risk and adventure and that there’s a great chance you can fail. It’s kind of a moveable sense of self that can shift, whereas other people have a sense of self that is . . .located against one pole of who they are and really seek to always bring everything back to that same one pole. My sense of self has been just a little more slideable and that has been good for some things and maybe not so good for others. It’s always curious to see the lists for projects where I’m on the list and I’ll see I’m up against a diverse variety of people for leads.”
That ’ slideable’ sense of self has led Pullman to create some characters that show a playful, mischievous side, characters like Dave in You Kill Me, Daryl Zero in Zero Effect, Lakewood in Lucky Numbers, and Whitman in Mr. Wrong. I suggest to him that perhaps his playful, mischievous persona deserves an even wider exposure. He declares that a ‘good message’ and says he is “in perfect mental shape” for a character like that “after doing a play like this (‘Peter and Jerry’) that kind of tears you up a little bit.”
In spite of his apparent interest in space exploration and travel, Pullman never wanted to be an astronaut or pilot. But I put a question to him that all astronaut candidates are asked: if you were an animal, what animal would you be? His reply: “ I always think I should be a monkey. Just because there’s a sense of being very grave at times and very humorous at times. And they get to swing like they’re flying and I always . . . . have this ache in me that I don’t have as many levitation dreams as I used to and I think that’s common with people as they get older, you don’t have those flying dreams. Every once in awhile, I’ll have a swinging dream but that’s as close as I can get these days. I’d take monkey any day.”
Pullman has been a movie star since his 3 children, now high school and college age, were very young, and I ask him how they have handled his celebrity status as they grew up. He replies: “Always, they’ve grown up knowing there’s a dialogue that I maintain with people that I’m close to about the work that I’m doing, that work that I see, the work that they’re doing, the work that they see. They really kind of see it through . . .an artistic prism. These plays---I wrestle with them in a way . . . with a kind of divine dissatisfaction . . .something I see occurring with them in their own artistic pursuits. . . . All three are hooked by music---Maesa and Jack sing and play original compositions on piano, guitar. Lewis plays drums.” All three came to see Pullman in “Peter and Jerry”, with his sons seeing him on stage for the first time. It was, in his words: “a great experience” and all part of a continuing family dialogue on the arts. Dad’s ‘celebrity’---being recognized---is taken in stride as a sort of ‘illness’ that they can choose to tell people about or not or talk about a little bit or not too much.
Here we segued into a discussion of The Serpent and the Rainbow, Pullman’s 1988 film about a scientific researcher who encounters the exotic culture of Haiti. I mention that Pullman and Brent Jennings (Mozart in The Serpent and the Rainbow) were great together in that film and also in Nervous Ticks (filmed in the Phoenix, Arizona airport where I recently had a short stopover with lost luggage!) Pullman agrees about the chemistry between himself and Jennings and surprises me by saying he has just sent an e-mail to Jennings today and would like very much to work with him again.
Pullman has been ‘on the road’ since April, filming Surveillance, Phoebe in Wonderland, Bottle Shock, directing “Expedition 6”, and starring in “Peter and Jerry”. I ask him which is home: Los Angeles or his ranch in Montana? And when he gets there, what will mean he is home? Pullman: “Well, NYC is a kind of home: the home where I am connected to my professional history in an important way.” At home in Los Angeles, he will revel in time with his family, the family dog ‘Tony’ and his orchard.
He has a meeting to go to. He leaves as he arrived, on foot. From a distance on the street, you might mistake him for just any tall, handsome, broad-shouldered man. New York has a good share of them. But if you look Pullman in the eye, you will see a passion for all of his artistic pursuits, a warm appreciation of the people in his life, and that glint of playful mischief that informs some of the vast array of characters he has created and lost himself in on stage and film. When you look him in the eye, it’s impossible to mistake Bill Pullman for just any tall, handsome, broad-shouldered man.
© 2007 Mary Cochrane McIvor. All rights reserved.