Actor Bill Pullman has played a war hero-turned-President in Independence Day, a Han Solo stand-in in Spaceballs, an eccentric genius detective in Zero Effect, a concerned dad in Casper, and all manner of cowboy characters in a bunch of westerns. Dozens of other roles are mixed in between those — big and small, light and dark. He’s had an all seasons kind of career, but more recently, the focus has been on characters that are seemingly hiding from deeply buried pain in their lives.
We spoke with Pullman about that pattern and his work on The Sinner and in the new film, Trouble (which is now out in limited release). We also discussed his deep commitment to research for a role in Vice opposite Christian Bale, the chance that Spaceballs 2: The Search For More Money rumors will ever come true, his take on playing complex characters like Lefty Brown, and how he sometimes feels the need to wall himself off from other actors.
Theresa Rebeck (the writer/director of Trouble) has a background in theater. Obviously, you do as well. Was that part of the appeal of this project?
Bill Pullman: Theresa is somebody who, I enjoyed her writing, and she’s a singular talent in terms of finding… she finds a lot of stories she wants to tell. I knew the idea of directing it was important to her. She originally was saying there are two good men’s parts, and I preferred the brother in those early drafts. I thought it was intriguing. And sure enough, when they came around to doing it, I was available and was interested in that configuration. It was one of those things: a character-driven movie. It feels something like Local Hero, that Irish movie. Those kind of small-town stories of well-observed wackiness of people in a small environment.
You said the Ben role appealed to you over the role that David Morse wound up playing. What was it about that role that really spoke to you over the other one?
It’s a brother-sister rivalry that’s the tinder of the movie, and it creates the tension of injury that can happen within a family, that can last for decades. It can be difficult, usually, it’s connected to inheritance and money or something. And that was really more than the one who is the peacemaker. David was so good in that part. We got the right balance on that. But I think he [Ben] has a real cockiness, which is coming out of, I think, pushing down a lot of pain, and that character I think is… I don’t see that combination very much.
The character has some pain that he’s pushing down and there’s also some trauma at the heart of the character that you play in The Sinner. Why does that appeal to you?
I think some of it is that whoever’s casting it finds me… I appreciate the sense of some buried thing that’s either living in denial of, or actively trying to deny, I guess. I think those things are good engines for a character. It’s like my own life in some ways. I’m always surprised at the ways in which I think that I’m not being affected by some interior problem or something that’s just buried, and how it kind of erupts in surprising ways in the middle of thinking that you’re presenting another way. And suddenly you find yourself behaving in the exact opposite way. So I think The Sinner also has that quality.
I’ve never been part of something that is evolving over seasons before. It’s really intriguing to me to feel how my instincts are to kind of put things into play like you would in a film, where you’re really playing the sense of the crucible of it all, keeping it urgent and in the air. And there’s a lot that happens in the season of The Sinner, involving a lot of other stories, so it’s on a slow burn with Harry Ambrose. And then in a film, you really get to engage it, and you have to… in a much more condensed version of it. The teasing part of it is what I’m really finding so unique about doing The Sinner now.
When you do something heavy, like The Sinner, do you instinctively try to find something lighter to do next?
Yeah, I do, yeah. Or different mediums, sometimes. I’m gonna do a play in London in the spring, and that will be before getting to The Sinner again. And doing something light is always very good, and then [you] go do the heavy stuff. And Trouble was done a couple years ago now, so it was interesting to have it emerge right now. The spirit of that Ben character. When I watched the movie recently, it struck me, wow, what was I in the middle of then, that made that guy come out like that? [Laughs] It’s almost like I was watching a distant cousin behave or something. And Sinner, we’re shooting it and it starts to air as we’re shooting it, still shooting it. So that’s an odd thing, the opposite. So it’s good that they’re both living side by side right now.
On Trouble, you’re working with Anjelica Huston, who also produced this. She’s an undeniable legend. How did you two find that rhythm? You play off each other really well with that evolving brother-sister relationship.
We got to spend some time together, but there was also an interesting way where I found… someone like Anjelica, who is so interesting and there’s so much about her life that I wanted to ask questions about. Her memoir is two volumes, so she’s a great storyteller. All these things would make me want to spend a lot of time with her, but in fact, I was a little afraid of that. That I’d be seduced by something, you know? I wanted to keep my antagonism with her. [Laughs] I remember one dinner where everyone was coming together, and I just found an excuse to not go, because I really was inside this character [who was] pushing back. But then, as we were finishing the movie, it’s great to come together.
Is that a strategy you usually deploy when you’re on a project?
Yeah, yeah. I suppose if I were more confident that I could be professional and friendly, and then antagonistic a second later, I would. But I don’t trust myself. I do love actors a lot, and I enjoy their company. And there’s a lot of ways where I get a little infatuated with them. I get excited about working scenes with them. With The Sinner, I really enjoy having a range of people to deal with. I feel so lucky to have great actors to play against. Every time I have, in my past, I really celebrate it. But I can get seduced and want to defer to them always, so sometimes I have to keep my distance.
You taught for a while. I’m assuming that’s part of it also, the affinity that you have for actors. Do you still teach at all?
I had, at a certain point, done a few things teaching-wise, but I don’t anymore, no. I think I have so many other irons in the fire. I am intrigued by teachers, and I’m always asking about what people are teaching. I love looking online to see what other people are teaching and how they’re teaching. I was in the period of my life where I was really immersed in it. I put in to play a lot of things that I was interested in testing out, so I was teaching, but I was also testing out a lot of things about what it takes to be present in the moment.
I’m always intrigued by situations where you’re saying one thing and meaning an entirely different thing, and devising exercises to sharpen those skills and keep those skills really active. Because sometimes those are the ones that you don’t get asked to use. Because people think, “Oh, the script says this” and certain directors will talk to you about the obvious content of your lines, and it’s really hard in the run and gun of making a film to say you’re really in an opposite intention than what you’re saying. That’s why I’ve enjoyed teaching, to get to those workshop places where you can see behavior that is really, I think, most extraordinary. But now I just try to do it on my own, focusing on myself. And if I direct… I’ve been directing a little theater from time to time, little pet projects that I can fit in. I find that in those experiences. I’m able to explore in that way.
Is time part of the reason why you haven’t gone back to direct something for television or film? It’s been 18 years since you directed The Virginian.
Well, I always have a ton of stories, and I think I just allowed my acting work to take dominance. To direct a movie, you’ve really got to step aside for a year, at least. Independent movies are the ones I’m interested in and could possibly do — that’s a long arc and takes a lot of focus. So now I’ve been directing some small pieces of theater that I can fit in. I did a play, Expedition 6, they devised with actors. That was 2005 to 2008. We did a workshop at different times and then performed it. So I could fit the workshops in between. And now I’m playing around with a one-person show, which I’ve never done before, based on the painter Charlie Russell. There’s a theater in Denver that I can work out of to do workshops and things, and we’ve developed three things so far. Getting set to go back for one week in January where I know I’m free and workshop this one person play
The Virginian was one of my favorite professional experiences. I really do have it in me the want to do it, but we’ll see if I can. I have a couple things, scripts that I’m noodling on that I think I’ll see if I can make a window for eventually.
You’ve played plenty of characters who have these amazing minds — Zero Effect, Independence Day. What’s the challenge of playing a character, where wit isn’t their strong suit? Like Lefty Brown in The Ballad Of Lefty Brown or Ben in Trouble, who isn’t the sharpest tool in the box.
I’m always ready for that to be somebody’s final judgment — that those characters are not bright or something. But I never think of Lefty as being handicapped that way. I think there was some aspect of him that was really… he lived marginally as his own person, and he was entirely psychologically constructed to be an amplifier of somebody else. And when you remove your own abilities to make choices, and you’re constantly deferring to someone else’s choices, that does regress your development. And I think the whole thing of him being a 63-year-old man who had never been his own person… in those times there wasn’t media or a way for people to experience other people as constantly as we do now. I just thought that was such a great gift to see a very rare individual who has grown up that way. You see them in documentaries sometimes. Somebody who has lived in such a closeted environment that their whole behavior seems almost like they are simple or something because they haven’t been socialized.
With Ben, I think he has a lot of attitude, but he’s smoking a lot of pot too [Laughs]. Some of it is just trying to numb himself in a certain way but it also gives him a sense of permission to rail and rant in a way that he can… He holds the floor, he can definitely hold the floor. But he’s not always really drawing the same conclusions that everybody else is.
You’re playing Nelson Rockefeller in Vice, the Dick Cheney biopic. That’s a very interesting man who lived a very interesting life. When you play a real person, how much thought goes into their mannerisms?
Well, probably more than it should. It gets in your blood. There are a lot of characters in Vice. It’s a big story and basically about Cheney and Rumsfeld. I knew that Nelson was in there, but there’s a lot of other people in there. But I dug in really fully on it and really was intrigued. I think Adam McKay was really glad. He allowed me to do a lot of improv. I had heard that he will take certain moments of improv, so I knew I had to have a basket full of stuff that I could pull from if those circumstances presented themselves. I did the whole nine yards, and I might not be… I’ll just be a blip in the movie, you know? But there I go. I was fortunate enough to make contact with Mark Rockefeller, who is Nelson’s son. He was 12 when Nelson died, but has great memories of him, so I spent time with him.
I’m really drawn to the type of career that you’ve had, which is a career that’s really diverse. Constantly looking to take on different genres, different types of projects. I would imagine that’s something that helps to keep things from getting stale. Is there a genre that you prefer over others?
Well, with The Sinner. I’m really enjoying this. To me, this whole detective kind of story is noir. Within that category, there’s a lot of range, because you can have the most existential sense of despair. The betrayal that one person experiences with another person they thought they could rely on or trust. There’s something at the core of the shock. You know, it’s the closest we have to modern tragedies, in a way. Those kinds of big noir stories. But then there’s a lot of noir that actually has a sense of humor too. Characters and the irony of life. I think probably somewhere in there is where there are stories that are very compelling to me.
Zero Effect fits into that noir box. That was an enjoyable one.
I’m glad you liked that, that’s one of my favorites too. I really loved that project.
I actually went back and re-watched it last night. It had been a while. It still holds up. I read, at one point, they were talking about doing that as a TV show. Is that something you were involved in?
[The film’s writer/director] Jake Kasdan was developing it for a while, and I think they did a pilot that I wasn’t available for, or wasn’t asked to do. And then Monk came out, and Monk was, in a way, very much like that, an agoraphobic investigator. He was more anal, OCD I guess you’d say. Maybe it’s been long enough that it could be born again.
You never know. Everything makes its way back around. I know there has been talk, here and there, about more Spaceballs. Has there ever been real movement there?
Well, I have not been party to it. I’m sure in Mel’s [Brooks] world, he’s fielding that all the time. Because he’s the one who teased it out, you know? “The Search For More Money” [Laughs]. There’s something about that, which is really… I’ve never talked to him about it, but I bet you there have been times when he’s sat down with writers and noodled out some stuff. He did make an offhand comment about only doing it if Rick Moranis could do it. But Rick has not been interested in being in the limelight anymore, so I don’t know if that makes it a non-starter.
‘Trouble’ is now out in limited release.