Bill Pullman Goes into the Woods: Secrets and Insects and Heat, Oh My !!

July 30, 2018

by Mary Cochrane-McIvor

Bill Pullman is currently filming “The Sinner” Season 2 , Premiere: August 1 on USA.   I talked with him about returning to the role of Detective Ambrose in an entirely new story, shooting in the woods in the heat of summer, suddenly finding himself in freezing cold Warsaw, Poland to shoot a spy thriller, and returning to a role he created on stage.  Here's what he had to say:

Mary Cochrane-McIvor: When 'The Sinner' wraps and it's all done and you don't have to wear a sport coat and crawl around in the woods with the bugs and mud, what's the first thing you want to do?

Bill Pullman: Well, I think I'm going to go to western New York State to the family place and do some pruning of some trees.

MCI: Sounds good. Now, Detective Ambrose, at the end of Season 1, he has gone through a big journey with
Cora and seemed to have some insights about his own life and some realizations about himself. So, where do you think he was in terms of those insights and realizations about himself at that point?

BP: I think there was a big journey he went on with Cora. She grew to share his interest in pursuing clues about the mysteries lying inside of each of them. She was pushing away and unable to encounter certain memories. Ambrose, by watching and experiencing her attempts to control memories, began to really sense his own troubles. Certain traumas from his past he knows are preventing him from seeing everything that has made him who he is. By the end of the first season he gained an acceptance that something is inside him that he has to face. He is not freed from his demons but has a sense of trying to live in the world more; face it more. At the top of the second season we realize that he is now trying to stay on the rails, stick to his job. Ironically, the case that comes up - one that draws him to western New York State where he grew up - makes him face his own past.

MCI: In light of those insights Ambrose gained, was Cora's case a liberating victory for him or in terms of the new case which involves a child who murdered his parents, does it potentially make him even more vulnerable to certain things about himself and his past?

BP: Yes, while investigating the case about a child who murdered his parents, Ambrose begins to have flashes of memories of being the same age as the kid. Since the young boy is clearly under some stress, Ambrose has to re-experience what he went through as a young boy.

MCI: Will we gain some insight into and have some echoes of Ambrose's past experiences growing up in that town?

BP: That is a big part of the story. When you go back to your hometown, there's a sense of people having a lot in common, which binds them to each other in a way that can shut out the outside world. There’s also a community of people there that probably knows darker secrets than they're admitting. They are watching each other's backs and not talking about things from the past that might stir up the present. Ambrose encounters that and has to push back against it.

MCI: Is Det. Ambrose still married?

BP: No, his wife says he has to go on his own journey. He has no significant relationships except for the case that he's building. HE begins to develop strong relationships to the his best friend’s daughter, Heather (Natalie Paul), who is a young detective assigned to the case. Ambrose comes back to a relationship with his best friend (Traci Letts) who he temporarily stays with and realizes that they have a lot of issues that they have to deal with. Finally, he has a very strong relationship with a woman, Vera (Carrie Coon), who is connected to the boy because she's involved with the community of people where the boy had lived.

MCI: Ambrose says to Cora: “ We don't all start from the same place.” That ties in with everything we've just been talking about.

BP: That's a very good quote. I'm glad you picked that out. We all think of childhood as starting in innocence and it being a time in which you had freedom. You are protected by adults so the outside world doesn't intrude so much. That is not the case with everyone’s childhood. Sometimes children experience terrible traumas. We don't all start out from the same place of having an idealized upbringing.

MCI: Does Ambrose identify with a person or persons in Season 2 in the same way that he identified with Cora?

BP: Ambrose is not necessarily the best person equipped to get into intimate relationships with people. He has his own firewalls against that. Somehow, he builds a strong connection to the boy, Julian (Elisha Henig), and they go through a very interesting journey together. Ambrose also had a surprising connection with the leader of the spiritual community, Vera (Carrie Coon). She has a lot of strengths of character and they engage each other on a different level than he's had with any woman so far. She understands what it takes to be an integrated person. At the same time he's aware that she might not be exactly who she says she is.

MCI: Ambrose, as a character, is very different and more developed in 'The Sinner'  series than the original novel. So you and Derek Simonds (Writer,Producer, Developer) are essentially creating a new character? How does that feel?

BP: I've been thinking about that, that's a good question. In the context of being Ambrose in the second installment, I often think how fortunate I am to be given a role like this. It's probably one of the most developed roles I've ever had. He evolves over a longer period of time than I normally have.
Ambrose is someone at my stage of life and still trying to clarify his identity and explore the mysteries of who he is. Derek Simonds wrote the pilot with so many aspects of the character that were so close to me: Ambrose's botanical interests, his growing sense that our ecology is in turmoil, and his interest in the metaphors of the natural world. Those aspects are so much a part of who I am.  Also, I talked to Derek in the first season about qualities shared by people who have grown up a small town. When we were developing Ambrose for the first season, I had no idea that the second installment would have Ambrose going back to his own small town.  There are many aspects of what I talked about with the writers in the first year being manifested in the second season.

MCI: How does it impact the atmosphere on set with such dark, intense material in the story. There is a 13 year old child on set playing the alleged murderer? Is anyone watching out for how the young boy, Elisha Henig, is handling playing this part?

BP: Elisha is very capable and a surprisingly mature kid. He has an emotional intelligence that is surprisingly engaging. And he carries himself like an equal.  There's a demanding practical aspect of having a child play a central character in that the child actor’s working hours are more restricted than an adult actor. He is scheduled carefully so that we can use his time well while he's on the set.

MCI: Trailers for Season 2 show a very rural setting with woods, insects, muddy ground, lonely roads, low rent motels. You're shooting during the summer. Det. Ambrose always wears a sport coat and tie. What is shooting, doing repeated takes like in those conditions?

BP: There's a lot of things in our story that happen out in the woods. I'm always intrigued whenever we get to shoot scenes out in nature. There are a lot of challenges because we are shooting on uneven terrain. The crew is incredible with dealing with these issues. And I'm amazed by their ability to go such long days. Often they have the challenging task of building a dolly track on rocky ground or helping to do a steadi-cam shot on rocky ground. They're forever good-spirited. I think the sense that we've got something special makes everybody proud to be working on it.

MCI: Ambrose has to wear a sport coat, tie and his badge while investigating in the woods. What's that like in the summer heat?

BP: The sport jacket that he wears is woolen, yes. It is pretty much his ‘uniform’. That simplifies his life. It is a presentation that is acceptable as a detective. His tie is always usually some version of a paisley tie; it is his throwback quality, his comfort zone. In the humid weather, I always appreciate that I have a great wardrobe guy, Johnny Porto, who is my good companion. He’ll be the first one there after 'Cut' and he'll take the coat off and hang on to it for me. The mics and battery packs are moved out of the jacket that so I can get down to my shirt and dry out again. And ticks, and all of that are part of what it is to film out there. I had a tick, in my beard but we got it out before it had time to burrow in. I don't think it was a deer tick. (carrier of Lyme disease) We had a lot of speculation about it. Everybody was curious, some alarmed and many wanting to make sure I wasn't alarmed. It's something that people who live in the woods have to deal with. You have to adjust your sensibilities. You shake out your clothes at the end of the day because even if the ticks haven't gotten on you they might still be on your clothes and live in the clothes piles for days.

MCI: On July 19, you re-created your role of Fred the bartender in a reading of ''The Jacksonian'' by Beth Henley. What was it like to be back in the theater for an evening after coming directly from 'The Sinner' shoot?

BP: It's always nerve-wracking to try and fit some event in the off hours while you're shooting because the shooting schedule takes priority and it changes a lot. I thought I was going to be done shooting at 3pm but then we went until a little after 6 and I had to be down there at the theater a little after 7. But I made it.
I think it's enjoyable to have the simplicity of a reading. Audiences can maybe better hear the story. The Jacksonian was a play that I'd done before but it was very interesting to come back to it 5 years later. I heard things I didn’t remember. There were no sets or specific lighting. You just hear the story and the language.

MCI: Juliette Brett from the original cast was part of the reading.

BP: That's right. It was emotional for us that Glenne Headley has passed away and wouldn’t be reading the part she originally played. Her part was played by Carol Kane, who is a friend of Beth’s, and is very familiar with Beth's work. Carol, I, and Holly Hunter had done a play of Beth’s called “Control Freaks”.
We have been part of a core of actors who she calls upon when she first wants to listen to a play.

MCI: Last winter, you suddenly got called on to take over the lead in a film, 'The Coldest Game', a spy thriller set and filmed in Warsaw, Poland. What was it like to have this suddenly thrust on you out of nowhere?

BP: It was a little bit of art and life being so parallel. The story is about a character who gets pulled out of his normal life, brought to Warsaw and has to do something he isn't prepared for. I too was planning other things to do with my time over those months, and had made promises to participate in a lot of promotion of some other projects. Then, all of a sudden this job came up, and I said I would read the script. Within 3 days of having first heard about it, I was on a plane to Warsaw. I had to quickly adjust to a whole new climate, a new language. I'd never been to Poland. The director, who had been preparing for over a year with another actor, now had 3 days with me to prepare for the shooting. So, art and life paralleled each other.

MCI: Is there anything you miss from the time in Warsaw?

BP: The people. I really bonded with the people making the movie. The city itself has this great new vibrancy that's come about since they became part of the EU. It also has many tragic chapters in its past with the occupation of the Nazis, then the Soviets. During WWII it was razed and about 80% was destroyed. They had to reclaim their sense of pride. It's such a great country. It's also undergoing a challenge right now because they have a fairly new government that is dividing the people. It seems that their journey toward
democracy has been at least temporarily turned away.

MCI: Was there a moment when you knew things had fallen into place about the "The Coldest Game" and you felt good going forward?

BP: Actually, I have to say there was a lot I wrestled with all the way through. I was fortunate to have good relationships with the director and the producers. It's a challenge, largely because this was a Polish financed movie in English. English of course isn’t their first language so there was quite a lot of dialog that continued to be important to keep wrestling with.  At times when we had different approaches to the scenes, we would find a solution. Every time it seemed like it was going to be difficult to find a solution, but then we pulled together with the project being everybody's first priority. Maybe we never quite felt like we were cruising or coasting. But we were always engaged, and it's the victories that are inside the struggles that were very satisfying.

MCI:  Finally, in “The Sinner”, this season, are we going to have any surprises about Det. Ambrose? Is there anything we're going to see happen to him or find out about him?

BP: I think you're suddenly seeing his psychology operating in another context than in the first episode. You get a different perspective on it. His own struggles were always in a little bit of an eclipse from Cora's journey. This new season throws his own psychology into a different perspective since now there are many other characters. The conflicts are more layered which makes it compelling and driving faster forward.

MCI: Yes, it's a new world for Ambrose and I think everyone is fascinated to see where he will land in that world.

BP: Yes!

MCI: Thank you very much for your insider's perspective on Season 2 of “The Sinner” and catching everyone up on what you've been doing for the last 6 months.  On to August 1 in Keller, New York with Detective

    2018   Mary Cochrane-McIvor and Bill Pullman
    All rights reserved.

Bill Pullman  -  Upcoming Work

The Sinner  Season 2  August 1  USA network
The Equalizer 2   In theaters now
The Coldest Game  2019
Trouble  2018
Brain Dead   On Bluray  September 11
A Thousand Junkies  2018

Bill Pullman and Natalie Paul in "The Sinner" Season 2. ( USA Network).

Bill Pullman,  Traci Letts

Bill Pullman, Natalie Paul, Carrie Coons

Bill Pullman, Elisha Henig

"The Jacksonian"  Reading  July 19 in New York
 Photo:  Wilma Aponte

Bill Pullman and Glenne Headley in "The Jacksonian"  2013

Bill Pullman in "The Coldest Game"