50 classy minutes with Bill Pullman
by Mary Cochrane McIvor

Bill Pullman is firing on all cylinders when we meet in a diner in New York City .  He is running late, has a press session to go to, and our interview becomes an intense 50 minute encounter---just the length of the standard college class.  Very apropos when Pullman is currently playing a college professor in a controversial Broadway production of David Mamet’s “Oleanna” directed by Doug Hughes, starring Pullman and Julia Stiles.

Pullman is wearing brown pinstripe pants, a black sweatshirt, tan jacket and well-worn cowboy boots.  He looks like the actor he is or the college professor he once was at Montana State University .  That work experience makes him uniquely qualified to play an Education professor in “Oleanna”.  Given that, I ask him if he thinks his character, John, does anything unwise that sets him up for trouble.  Pullman replies that because his character is plagued by a sense of his own past personal failure, he falls prey to a messianic complex in his misguided attempts to help his struggling student.  She, in turn, is insecure and emotionally vulnerable, and accuses him of sexual harassment and worse.  In short, these are the two worst people who could meet.  Pullman describes them both as “forced to the edge of their capabilities” about “what they can try to achieve” and views the events of the play as “the closest we have to tragedies.”

Some consider “Oleanna” outdated and political in subject matter and inspiration.  Director Doug Hughes has chosen a more personal and universal approach and asked Pullman and co-star Julia Stiles to search out the complexities of personality behind the rapid-fire exchanges between the professor and his student.  Pullman says that Hughes ascribes to the “belief that ‘Oleanna’ is a personal story and we’ve [Pullman & Stiles] developed a vocabulary with him for not thinking about the actions as motivated by politics but really looking at the base roots of two very specific people who meet each other on a Friday afternoon.  The two are probably, for many reasons, very similar and also the wrong ones to cross paths in their circumstances.”  He goes on to say that his collaboration with Hughes is “a great experience” and describes him as “a very good reader of the text” who is “constantly re-looking, re-figuring, and making emotionally challenging extrapolations from the text.” The two have known each other for a long time and had wanted to work together

The action of “Oleanna” is constantly interrupted by phone calls, much like the unceasing din of cell phones, i-pods, blackberries, i-phones etc. etc. that we live surrounded by. As Pullman and I talk we have trouble sorting out whether one of our cell phones is ringing or the phone belongs to someone else. The noise pollution of cell phones etc. did not exist when “Oleanna” was first produced.   Pullman believes that the current unrelenting background of electronic noise gives new resonance to the incessant phone interruptions in “Oleanna”.  He tells me there have been instances during performances when the audience thought that a cell phone ringing on stage was a cell phone in the audience. In the play, the phones ringing becomes yet another unnerving annoyance in a situation that becomes increasingly deadly.

Adding dimension and personality to the professor and his student in “Oleanna” involves some consideration of what the characters don’t say.  Carol particularly seems to be masking elements of her past Pullman says this is emotionally challenging territory to look into, but “without thinking about it you don’t get the whole story.”

Pullman ’s recent discovery of Declan Donnellan’s book, “The Actor and the Target” has led him to questions about how imagination relates to performance.  Donnellan talks about how the actor’s Imagination focuses life like a lens.  Life can be overwhelmingly vivid in all of its details and therefore blurred of meaning.  The imagination of the theater artists is the lens the audience looks through.  Suddenly all of life becomes something truly clear.”

At home between film-shoots and plays, Pullman measures his days in terms of what fruits are ripe in his orchards.  So I ask him how he handles 8 grueling live performances a week in an emotionally draining play, and handles living in Manhattan , away from his dog, orchards, ranch and horses?  He finds it hard to leave the things he loves “to tend and be the steward of” but says sometimes it’s necessary to compartmentalize your brain in order to handle such opposite drives.  For him, this is the time to “leave my farming/ranching side and be an artist.”

And his orchards are doing well in his absence.  In Montana , the apple orchard had its first “pretty good harvest” this year.  The apples grown there: Goodman, Hazen, Nordland and Whitney crabapples are especially good for making cider and for eating.  This year a lot of cider was pressed by his brother’s family on an apple press made by a craftsman who’s been making presses for 35 years.  When we met in early October, the melonberries and lingonberries in Bill’s Los Angeles orchard were ripe.

And future projects in both places are on his mind.  in Montana , a Quarter-horse on the ranch named ‘Bear’, a dapple-grey gelding, is ready and waiting. Pullman describes him as a problem horse, but “loves his problems.”

He is asked if his job as an actor could be a 9 to 5 job with 2 weeks vacation instead of the ebb and flow of an actor’s life with 8 performances a week and 1 day off or 12-18 hour days on a movie set with long stretches of time between jobs, would he prefer the routine and regularity of the 9 to 5?   He can’t even imagine such a thing.  He considers his job “a privilege” and “love(s) getting into harness.”  Of working on a film or rehearsing and performing in a play, he says: “It’s an intense period of time in which your focus is especially heightened.  Your surges of passion are all igniting in a way that requires intense focus.  It’s a risk-demanding time, and I don’t know whether you could maintain that in a 9 to 5 job.”

And on living day to day: “You’re always restless – I guess everybody gets restless - with moments, you could say, of quiet contentment.”

Class is over.  It’s time for him to leave for that press session.  But, as we are leaving, he asks me a question.  So, I walk down 9th Avenue with ‘the Virginian’ after class. It's an honor.

Currently: starriing in 'Oleanna', John Golden Theatre, New York. Performances through December 6. OLEANNA Website.

Upcoming Films: The Killer Inside Me, Peacock, Kerosene Cowboys

© 2009 Mary Cochrane McIvor

Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman in "Oleanna"
Pullman in his dressing room at the John Golden Theatre--the same dressing room he had for "The Goat".

Photo copyright 2009 Mary Cochrane McIvor. All rights reserved.