Bill Pullman interview: the
                Independence Day president
                on doing Arthur Miller in

                                                   He loved 1970s Finsbury Park so much he’s back — with a UK stage debut
                            in All My Sons

                                                      Jonathan Dean


 Hard to pigeonhole: Bill Pullman

The Sunday Times, April 14 2019, 12:01am

My first encounter with Bill Pullman was at the Cannes film festival in 2008, when I was sure he was hung-over. He was friendly, professional, but his eyes looked like extras from the Red Wedding. “That was a good time,” he recalls. “The Irish film commission was giving away Baileys, and I was awake until dawn, when I went for falafels.” Was that the day before we met? “Yeah,” the actor says, laughing loudly and sipping a more refined mint tea.

He is a great storyteller, interested in everything. He can say unlikely things like “I know a lot of Norwegians now”, simply because he once did a bilingual play in Bergen.

He has always been hard to pigeonhole. We met to discuss his lead role in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons at the Old Vic, but he is best known as the US president in Independence Day, giving the finest movie speech ever as aliens are killed by a computer virus. From the satire of Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs to the noir of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, via the romcoms Sleepless in Seattle and While You Were Sleeping, his charisma was all over screens in the 1990s. Then less so, or not in big films, at least. One article was headed: “Why Bill Pullman doesn’t get many movie offers anymore.”
“Well, you never know what’s coming at you,” he says, with no hint of regret, when I ask why he stopped being everywhere. “And I continued to do work that I felt I was in for me, not for it. Such roles are small adventures, and if they were the only thing I was doing, I’d get worried I’d gone into an eddy in the stream. But I’ve been lucky.” One theory is that the difficulty in pinning down exactly what is a Pullman film made him less marketable than others. “That’s the price you pay for interest in variety,” he says, shrugging.

He grins, and it fills his entire face. What warmth this man exudes. At certain angles, he looks one part Baldwin brother, another part Robin Williams, but with none of the cynicism or edge. His default mode is intrigued. “What is builder’s tea?” he asks in his purring, gravelly, quizzical voice, eyes squinting at my mug. “Would you give them a lesser-quality bag?”

We are in an office at the Old Vic during the weeks of rehearsals for his London stage debut as Joe in Miller’s play about family and lies, co-starring Sally Field. As Pullman looks around, he mentions the photos of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier dotted about the theatre, but doesn’t sound so much intimidated as inspired.

Besides, he has a history with British acting royalty, having been friends with Alan Rickman. They met in New York when the late actor was in Private Lives, and they would go for dinner. “I was honoured,” he remembers of the time Rickman came to see him perform. “He was an animal on stage.” Later, they were cast in a couple of films together and became close.

Pullman has been in All My Sons before, in Los Angeles, as Joe’s son Chris, alongside Philip Baker Hall as Joe. That is the useful thing about plays — you just take older parts. “I’ll have to go to Chekhov next,” he says, “and do an old guy in the corner.” Matthew Warchus, the Old Vic’s artistic director, had seen Pullman on Broadway and wanted him here, while the actor was drawn to All My Sons because of its setting, just after the Second World War in a neighbourhood as it once was, in Ohio. “It’s a curiously unwalled environment they had,” he says enviously.
Mostly, though, he wanted to work in London because he lived here once. “In 1973, I came over as a student,” he says, eyes widening. “It was a gift from the gods. I went to fringe stuff, leftist, politically inspired theatre like 7:84. I also came to a play at the Old Vic, but the 1970s was a different scene in London, and getting there was kind of gnarly.

“I lived in Finsbury Park,” he continues, “in a house owned by a plumber and his wife. In the morning, you got beans and toast, and there was a machine in the room where you chucked pence in for heat."

"Also, there was a spooky-ass occult book that had been left by someone.”
He was in London for 3½ months, and he is planning to visit Finsbury Park again on this work trip. Maybe the occult book is still in the house, but everybody who read it... “Disappeared?” Exactly.

There are a couple of reasons Pullman, 65, will make a good Joe. For one, the character is described as “a man among men”, which is Pullman — very casual and sympathetic company — to the letter. When not in LA, he has a ranch in Montana and, given a week of beard growth, is burly enough to pass for a lumberjack. This year he is even fronting a documentary, Epic Yellowstone. That is the manly stuff.

Yet when Lynch talked about why he picked him for a shifty role in Lost Highway, he said: “I cast Bill because he looks like a guy that could get himself into a lot of trouble.” And Joe, in All My Sons, is keeping a secret — it is good that he is being played by a man with devious eyes.
Pullman laughs. I ask what he thinks Lynch meant. He smiles. “I’ve heard about this phenomenon,” he begins, seemingly off topic. “I don’t have it, but every once in a while I understand. It’s when you’re at the edge of a cliff and have a compulsion to throw yourself off — there is something of that in lying, too. There are people with a secret who have an intoxication in coming close to exposure. There’s a heightened sense of living when you feel you’re going to be exposed.”

Bill Pullman in Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs (1987)

Then it gets really odd, as Pullman mentions fugue states. But this is how the actor’s brain works. It is packed with ideas he wants to share. Even more fun, he’s a gossip. For instance, when asked if, over a 30-year career, he came across the misogynistic bullying revealed after #MeToo, he starts cautiously, saying he was fortunate, so not really. But he can’t help himself, leaping into a story about how, on
Bright Angel in 1990 — I work out the title because he tells me every other detail — the actress Lili Taylor was told she was not good-looking enough, so Pullman and his co-star Dermot Mulroney went to see the producers to complain. If it did not feel totally off brand, I imagine Pullman would have “Honour” tattooed on his back.

In All My Sons, towards the end, Chris says to Joe: “I never saw you as a man. I saw you as my father.” It is moving, and was written at a time when men were more tamped down than they are today, and were seen as infallible.

“They weren’t as accessible,” agrees Pullman, whose father fought in the Second World War. “And the idea of them never making a mistake is idealistic. It is easy to have a little f***-up, and dealing with shame is...” He stops, finding another tangent. “It’s strange now, with this college-admissions scam. If you’re a child of a parent who didn’t tell you they’d done this, and you expected you were earning it yourself? What a betrayal. It’s hard not to look at that stuff now, because I did a film with Felicity [Huffman, one of those charged]. There were others where the children seemed to know they were entitled. That’s another thing, I guess.”

He shakes his head. His son Lewis is an actor now, starring in George Clooney’s Catch-22 later this year. “Sometimes, when I read his press, he says his favourite actors are Philip Seymour Hoffman and his dad,” Pullman says. He stops, humbled. “I don’t want to disappoint that. It’s a different kind of stake than I’ve ever had before.”

His wife, Tamara, has just landed in London and is waiting in the flat where he is staying, just down the road from the Old Vic, for the run of All My Sons. He is excited because they get to hang out; he says his children are coming, too. And friends from Montana and Poland. He really is pleased to be here.

Before he goes, I ask about one more theme from the play, the idea of what it means to have a life well led. Spend an hour with Pullman and you would imagine he would have the answer, too.

“Well,” he begins, “one ingredient is enthusiasm. People overuse the word passion, but it’s not the same thing. I think to be enthusiastic can be private, or something with the community. You know, to have a spark and a light in the eye that other people can take warmth from and share in. That’s it.”

All My Sons is at the Old Vic, London SE1, until June 8