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"I enjoy getting back to that same period that I started out in."
"Some of the funnest ones (are) when you're inside the character so completely that you're able to keep throwing new things in, without over-ornamenting."
"Working with the same cast. That kind of continuity. It's very much a part of that Cassavettes thing."
"They're offering me $13,000 a year. I could pay off the truck and I could have a little nest egg."
"Seeing these 7 guys walking along the horizon, I remember thinking, 'This is a loopy business!'"
"I really honor all the actors who have gone before me, who have made a lot of sacrifices for actors to enjoy now."
"The kind of movies I like to see are more and more threatened and minimalized and ghettoized, with no return."
"There was something about that part that I felt was iconographic. About what my challenge is in doing this work."
Bill Pullman  

Interviewed by Mark Sells
November 2008

If ever there was an actor who epitomized the "guy next door," it would be Bill Pullman. Wholesome, easy going, and downright friendly, Bill Pullman has found success, to a large extent, by playing honest characters. Characters as dependable, relatable, and close to the common man as depicted in "The Accidental Tourist," Sleepless in Seattle," and "While You Were Sleeping." Equally, characters as diverse, heroic, and conflicted as the President of the United States in "Independence Day," a convicted wife killer in "Lost Highway," and a schizophrenic father in "Igby Goes Down." Says Pullman, "It's not you asserting your 'you-ness.' It's you being available as a conduit for truth."

Born on December 17, 1953 in Hornell, New York, Bill Pullman's search for the truth began in college, while studying theater, acting, and directing at SUNY. A Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts followed. As did a temporary teaching assignment at Montana State University before he moved back to New York and slowly immersed himself back into acting and the art of theater. Says Pullman, "The most potent moments happen when you can see the process of it and celebrate the process of it in a way that is clear and not tainted or distorted with money or time or things like that."

Even today, says Pullman, "I enjoy getting back to that same period that I started out in." From big productions like "Spaceballs" and "A League of Their Own" to independent gems like "Bottle Shock" and "Nobel Son," he continues to celebrate the process and grow. Up next, he'll be starring in "Peacock," about a mystery train accident in rural Nebraska. And "Surveillance," about an FBI agent tracking down a serial killer. Both low budget productions with great story elements.

"I think it's always surprising how movies will pop up, just when you think all of the stories have been told." From student to teacher, from second lead to super star, from actor to director, Bill Pullman has plenty more stories to tell.

Reel Questions, Reel Answers

You're in Denver with the film, "Surveillance." And are receiving the John Cassavetes Award. Knowing John's body of work and those prior recipients of this award (Steven Soderbergh, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte) and their contributions to the world of cinema, what does something like this mean to you?

I'm glad you're asking me that because it forces me to think about a lot of different things. In particular, I was shooting a movie in Brazil and Kathleen (publicist) had emailed me. And I instantly thought about how much I'd love to come to Denver with the film ("Surveillance").

And the Cassavetes Award. I worked with Gena Rowlands on a movie and talked with her a lot about that period and all the movies like "Opening Night." Movies that I liked and watched a couple of times. And then meeting Ben Gazzara in the last bunch of years.

There's a true sense of independent film that I feel is in the level of reality achieved through this loose style. And I had some movies like that. To me, they are some of the funnest ones. When you're inside the character so completely that you're able to keep throwing new things in, without over-ornamenting. It's kind of treacherous ground. And it's not always the best way to go about things. But if the director really wants to use it, it's good.

And then there's the fact that he (John Cassavetes) worked with the same actors, which has always been one of my great satisfactions. Working with filmmakers more than once. Because it's not very common that you get to work with them more than once. Except if you're DeNiro and Scorsese. To get with somebody who really gets you and loves your thing.

In a way, "Surveillance," is a lot like that. Working with the Lynches. Jennifer (Lynch) had originally cast me in "Boxing Helena," but the financing fell apart and then I wasn't available. So, I feel like it's been a long time being part of that thing.

And John Dahl?

Right. John and I did a couple of movies because we had this Montana connection together.

As teacher and student?

Yeah. It started out that way (laughs). You know, I was just a couple years older than him. It's this weird differentiation that sometimes morphs away all together. But now, we've done a couple of movies together. We just did "You Kill Me" about a year or two ago. And we're always looking for something else.

So, working with the same cast. That kind of continuity. It's very much a part of that Cassavettes thing.

And now I'm doing it again with Randy Miller and Jody Savin. I did this "Bottle Shock" movie that came out this summer. And there's another one called "Nobel Son." They do it completely, with many of the same cast members in all of their movies. Myself, Alan Rickman, Eliza Dushku, Mary Steenburgen. All these people have worked a couple of times on movies with them. In fact, I just talked to them yesterday and Randy goes, "I got another movie, Bill. And I want you to be in it!"

So, that's kind of a rare thing. Especially in the high light studio thing where if you're hitting gold, that's fine. But if one movie doesn't go, they don't want you to pair up again.

What finally convinced you to pursue acting as a profession?

You know, I had done it all along in college. And then when I thought about graduate school, the idea of going for an MFA in acting just didn't seem to have the breadth because I was interested in theater in a lot more dimensions. In particular, directing. But I knew I could act all along. I was available. And when they made it part of the program, that I could act and direct, I felt that it was a natural thing to do.

Then, I was going to go to New York after graduating. But got offered this teaching job in Montana because I had been working there. And I thought, "Well, they're offering me $13,000 a year. So, come on! Follow the money!" (laughs). I could pay off the truck and I could have a little nest egg!

So, I did that for a year. I wanted to do it well and get a full time appointment. And I did. But after one year, I knew I couldn't stay in Bozeman (Montana), where it's so beautiful. People just don't do that for the rest of their lives. And I wasn't quite ready to do that. So, I went to New York.

What were those early experiences like?

Well, when you're starting out, it's such a critical period. I think that's why I returned. To work with actors in a limited way. Not as extensively as many actors do. But you get back into how that laboratory experience is. Because sometimes, the most potent moments happen when you can see the process of it and celebrate the process of it in a way that is clear and not tainted or distorted with money or time or things like that. And I enjoy getting back to that same period that I started out in.

One of your earliest and most recognizable roles was as Lone Starr in Mel Brooks' "Spaceballs." What do you remember most about the experience?

That was the second movie I ever did and it was the last MGM movie shot on the MGM lot before they sold it and everything. The makeup guy wore a blue blazer (laughs). And the scene where we go see Yogurt, where we come in, we turn...it's John Candy, Daphne, me and Joan Rivers. That scene was shot on the same sound stage as "The Wizard of Oz." The same scene in which we were parodying and doing our own version of "The Wizard of Oz." It was wild.

I also remember thinking how weird it is that Mel Brooks thinks small people are funny. And how there's this huge army of people out in the Sand Dunes along the border of California and Arizona going around in dune buggies, doing this crazy, wacky stuff. Just from what's funny. And having 'dink, dink...dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink' (Main Theme of "Bridge Over the River Kwai") going on. Seeing these 7 guys walking along the horizon, I remember thinking, "This is a loopy business!"

What are your thoughts on the potential for an actor's strike?

It's a real, gnarly thing, you know? I really honor all the actors who have gone before me, who have made a lot of sacrifices for actors to enjoy now, and who can oftentimes, take for granted. But for everything we've achieved, over time, there were a lot of sacrifices along the way. I believe in that process and I think it has had an admirable history (SAG). We've been able to do things. And when you work in other countries, you realize just how important it is. I've worked in Japan ("The Grudge") and I've had to have SAG rules there, but Japanese actors don't have them. And I'm really struck at how dangerous it is working 20 hour days with 6 hour turn arounds. All those things are there for a reason. Then, you see the residuals and that whole thing. And boy, people have an involvement in a certain part of their career that maybe ebbs away. That little money that comes in is an important acknowledgement for those people.

So, those are really important issues. The question is what level of substantial matters and blockages are happening because of personas? It's really been divisive, this particular period. I'm not sure. I know Peter Chernin did a great job with the writers. They kind of went in and just said, "We gotta knock this clear!" And I've kind of been waiting for that moment, where they can just come in and say, "Let's not have all the lawyers here. Let's just get it down to who we are. Let's find some good language and get this done." I just don't know what's keeping it from getting resolved.

I think SAG is looking at how the AMPTP is not dispensing the residuals as agreed upon with the WGA at the moment.

Yeah. You know, there's a lot of ways in which the timing of these things are happening. There was a lot of product out there. And the producers are probably thinking, "We could do with less movies. It wouldn't kill us." But the idea of a slow down or a strike or anything at this point with the credit so bad and everything, probably fits the agenda they might have. There are many reasons why this is not an advantageous time to be aggressive, but at the same time, you have to draw the line and you gotta figure out what that is. For me, it's upholding the legacy of all the actors that have gone before us.

You've done it all. You've played good guys, bad guys, comedic roles, romantic leads, etc. You've produced and directed. With all that you've accomplished, what are your current aspirations?

Finding another good movie! (laughs) And I'd like to direct again. I've been cooking up some things along those lines. This last experience in Brazil was really lively. And I love that interface with international actors and I feel I've done some of that, but I may look for another European or foreign film.

I think it's always surprising how movies will pop up, just when you think all of the stories have been told. Like this movie, "Peacock," which I did this year. I was part of an ensemble and it's a very interesting movie. I'm just curious that we can still be making these kinds of stories. Really good stories. And seeing whether we can find an audience. Because it's becoming harder and harder for independent movies. The kind of movies I like to see are more and more threatened and minimalized and ghettoized, with no return, etc.

But at the same time technology is changing that, in a way, by making it cheaper and quicker for the independent filmmaker?

Yeah. This model that we did in "Gringos of Rio" in Brazil is like that. They bought the HD cameras. You can buy them for $7,000. And they bought two because if one breaks, you gotta have another one. Instead of a rental package. And it's still way less than what a rental package was.

You're able to keep it rolling and get performances and things happening that you need as opposed to if you were shooting with film, you might have to be more stingy about. And it's affecting the stories and what stories are told.

Out of all the characters you've portrayed, from film to television to stage, which one do you most associate with and why?

Wow! I think you get into acting for a lot of different reasons. And I always thought I got into it because I was basically uncomfortable in my own skin and wanted to figure out how to get comfortable in my own skin.

When you first encounter acting, you realize it's not you asserting your 'you-ness.' It's you being available as a conduit for truth, more universal to yourself. That's really a life long process of trying to get to that. And that's why I keep flipping from theater to film, theater to film, theater to film.

I'll make a discovery in one direction and track it in my own little diary of what I'm doing. And then I'll think, 'I gotta test this out in the theater.' So, I think in that way, they all are challenges.

But there was something about Darryl Zero in "Zero Effect." Quintessentially, he's that guy who was uncomfortable in his own skin. Someone who was looking for a modality that would allow him to be more human. He's a private detective and former drug addict who makes his way out in disguise and then makes the mistake of becoming passionate, which for his mood and his code, were way outside. And there was something about that part that I felt was iconographic. About what my challenge is in doing this work.



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