by Mary Cochrane-McIvor
Persian mulberry bush
Like a tireless traveling salesman, Bill Pullman has been flying all over the place promoting his films at festivals from the Galway Film Fleadh in Ireland to the Cannes Film Festival to the Fantastic Fest in Austin , Texas .  In this regard, he is every producer and director’s dream.  Along the way, he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Riverrun Film Festival and an award for his performance in Your Name Here at the Cinevegas Film Festival.  On November 23, 2008 he was presented with the prestigious John Cassavetes Award at the Starz Denver Film Festival.  This award is given annually to "an individual who has made a significant contribution to the world of filmmaking and whose work reflects the spirit of the late John Cassavetes." (http://www.denverfilm.org, Festival News, Alley,11-05-08) In between, he has made the thriller Peacock and guest-starred at the request of  Marishka Hargitay as her character Olivia’s boyfriend on Law & Order: SVU.  He has just finished filming Gringos in Rio  in Rio de Janiero, Brazil where he put in an appearance at yet another film festival.
When we met in Los Angeles in mid-September, the first thing he told me was that the pomegranates in his orchard are ripe.  He’s hoping that they will have a  higher sugar content this year.  At home in Los Angeles , he has a huge terraced orchard with over 100 trees, including the hard-to-find-in-a-store Persian mulberry, loquats, and the Brazilian jaboticaba.
Pomegranate tree (right)
Brazilian jaboticaba (above)

On his home turf in LA, Pullman is very calm and mellow sitting back fielding my opening questions. When I ask him to name his favorite tree, he is electrified and tells me that growing up in western New York gave him a “fixation” on apple trees.  But the southern California climate does not favor apple trees, at least not the usual varieties.   The ones that grow here are the Beverly Hills apple and the Mutsu apple. Fruit trees, Pullman tells me, are classified according to the number of chill hours they require in winter.   Chill hours are the number of hour the temperature goes below 40 degrees F.  A fruit tree that requires 400 chill hours will usually bear fruit yearly in Southern California , but one that requires 700 chill hours probably won't.  He has recently had to “change out some plums” that were advertised as requiring only 500 chill hours but didn’t work out.  He is starting a second orchard at his ranch in Montana where he will be able to grow the usual apple trees because of the difference in climate.  Right now, he is working on building a deer fence around that orchard.  Suddenly, I am talking to a fruit farmer, not an international movie star.

And you have to wonder why the down-to-earth Pullman chooses to live in crazy Los Angeles where your value is based on the take of your last movie and everyone from the girl who sells you donuts to the kid sitting next to you on the plane to LA has a screenplay to sell.  As Pullman sees it: the “vicissitudes of fame” can make Los Angeles a place “that doesn’t feel like a community or a culturally life-enhancing place, but I find it to be so.  There’s a certain kind of artistic pursuit here that’s my primary reason to be here, that is not just industry related or driven or dictated.  There’s quite a bit that can be done because it has the freedom of the West. I get stimulated by seeing hybridized events like dance/theater and visual art/chamber poetry pieces which feel more natural here than say in New York City."

And then there’s that orchard to “wipe away all the chaos.”  Pullman says that “it forces me to do simple tasks with my hands which I find very relaxing.”  Washing the just-picked pomegranates “forces me to do something simple and not always be multi-tasking.”

Projects on the infrastructure of his L.A. home and Montana ranch give him a different focus between films and plays.  He finds that his collaboration with the workmen allows him to get a different perspective on life. Working closely with them, he does drawings or makes plans for the project.  And he can always look back with satisfaction at projects like a recently built bridge at his Montana ranch.

Our discussion of bridge building reminds me of a long-standing question I have for Pullman . In While You Were Sleeping Pullman ’s character Jack Callaghan is a furniture-maker.  Extensive re-writes were done on the script of   While You Were Sleeping while it was being shot to give Jack’s character more depth.  Pullman describes the re-writes as a good collaboration between himself and director Jon Turteltaub.  I have always wondered if the idea of  Jack as a furniture-maker was inspired by Pullman ’s real-life brother-in-law Michael Hurwitz, a furniture-maker in Philadelphia . And that is indeed the case.

Pullman wanted to use one of his brother-in-law’s signature pieces, a bentwood rocking chaise lounge, which he describes as “made out of incredibly thin slats of maple wood so it looks a little bit like a bird’s nest”, as the piece of his work that Jack shows Lucy in his truck.  A very generic rocking chair was ultimately used in the scene.  Pullman remains understandably disappointed about this. The following link reveals one of the versions of Michael Hurwitz's bentwood rocking chaise lounge--a breath-takingly beautiful piece made by the man who inspired the character, Jack Callaghan, furniture-maker.

  http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/lot_details.aspx?pos=4&intObjectID=5138435&sid

In a recent review of Bottle Shock, a critic described Pullman as quickly becoming “the most versatile actor in America ” and he has also been called “one of  the greatest living interpreters of  [Edward] Albee.”  Pullman smiles but seems almost embarrassed when I mention this high praise and quickly chalks up the most “versatile” comment to the fact that the critic had also seen  Surveillance.    The fact is that Pullman has the lead in wildly different films that are on the festival circuit, released, or about to be released.  They are: Bottle Shock: Pullman is the passionate, driven wine-maker Jim Barrett;  Surveillance: he plays Sam Hallaway, a tough, cool-headed FBI agent investigating a chilling

Pullman next to the "Your Name Here" poster.

murder case; and Your Name Here: he plays William K. Dick, a brilliant science-fiction writer trapped in his fertile, bizarre imagination.  Pullman won an award for this performance at the CineVegas Film Festival. Nobel Son arrived in theaters in December. Pullman plays detective Max Mariner. He is also the male lead in Phoebe in Wonderland which is being released in March 2009.

Just how does he accomplish his onscreen transformation into those 5 hugely disparate men? Because of his training and experience in the theater, he says: “My body teaches me as much about my characters as my brain . IN the movies, with their

Felicity Huffman, Elle Fanning, Bill Pullman in 'Phoebe in Wonderland'

restrained close-ups and turns, the physical life of the character is easy to dismiss as a full dimension.  For me it is probably most often the way that I'm learning about the character.”  Early in his career, he recalls an older actor advising him to: "Get out of the way of your body that’s going to teach you about this character.” Pullman’s onscreen characters all have an added physical dimension and expression that are rare and supremely done.

Last August Pullman agreed to teach an Acting Master Class for 15 students at the Palm Springs International Short Film Fest.  As the day for the class got closer, it was revealed to him that there would be an audience of 400 watching him teach the class!  The situation struck him as “totally designed not to work”.  When Pullman mentioned the class to Bottle Shock co-star Alan Rickman, he refused to entertain the idea that you could do anything in that situation.

Faced with his 415 students, Pullman says: “I started with something I’d never done and asked 400 people to do an exercise from their chairs . . . .they wouldn’t have come if they thought they had to do anything so I had to take them to that place . . .they most feared . .being involved in something where they had to interact with somebody next to them.”

Because “people think there’s tricks to acting” Pullman wanted to focus on “the most simple elements”.  He started with the idea that an actor should work at being neutral to the fact of being watched.  As he explains it: “It’s not a denial that you’re being observed; it’s just being free from the knowledge that you’re being observed.”  To that end, he asked his students “to not think of themselves as actors, but more like behaviorists looking and studying what’s happening to other people’s behavior and their own” rather  than being self-consciously wrapped up in their own performance.  He went on to observe that cognitive behavior is disrupted by the act of observation.  Allowing oneself to be watched and not seek control over it is very freeing.  

The 15 actors on stage were asked to walk around as though they were not being watched. Pullman stopped them and said: “The person closest to you is your new partner”.  Next, he told them to not look at their partner but stand next to them.  The actors all turned to face the audience----it’s hard to behave as though you are free of observation. ( The Movement for Actor’s Blog, Master Class with Bill Pullman, Paul Cuneo, 8-30-08 )

As a background for the next set of exercises, Pullman also threw out a controversial idea that there are only 3 types of good dialogue:

                 --dialogue in which someone is lying

                 --dialogue in which someone is fishing for something without revealing

                         her or his intentions

                 --dialogue in which someone briefly speaks poetically (i.e. using a metaphor)

                                                                       ( Cuneo 8-30-08 )

Click photo for larger version.

When I first mentioned this class to Pullman , he lamented the fact that he can’t focus on teaching the way he used to.  (He taught and was department head in the theater  department at the University of Montana and teaches the occasional Master Class.)  If he could focus on teaching, I wonder what the man who just taught an engaging, imaginative, involving class to 415 people would do?

Surveillance has been mentioned already. Pullman came to work with a surprize for director Jennifer Chambers Lynch: "I arrived on set with a buzz-cut, and got a lot of responses. Some saw it as a choice common to FBI agents and others said it looked like Timothy McVeigh--I liked the contradictions in the look."   He describes Surveillance as a “challenging” film that works on many levels and is “disturbing to watch”. His FBI agent character is investigating a series of murders along a desolate stretch of highway.  There is conflict between his character and “the local law enforcement agency—then they’re testing each other with a tension that threatens to erupt into something else.”

Although he can make strong choices for his characters, some areas of his opinions remain fluid for him. It took Pullman until he had a family of his own to decide what his favorite color is. His kids wanted to know.  His favorite is brick-red.

And there is a quality to Pullman that remains restless and searching and open to new ideas and observations and details and experiences. And then there is the sharp, clear, single-minded creative focus he brings as an actor to each distinct character he creates on film and the stage. Finally, there is the calm of  the hands-on fruit farmer washing pomegranates and building bridges and deer fences. Altogether  Bill Pullman.

Upcoming Films

Bottle Shock DVD release 2-3-09

Phoebe in Wonderland March 2009

Surveillance June 2009

Peacock ~ Gringos in Rio ~ The Killer Inside Me

Your Name Here

Click photo for larger version.

Interview and Photos Copyright 2008 Mary Cochrane McIvor. All rights reserved.