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.