Bill Pullman on how to play the president and being the guy who doesn’t get the girl
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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Few actors embody the concept of the everyman quite so effectively as Bill Pullman. Having successfully portrayed a plastic surgeon (Singles), a private detective (Zero Effect), and a pedophile (Torchwood), Pullman—who may or may not have a thing about playing characters with occupations that start with a “P”—returns to the Oval Office 17 years after Independence Day to play the second U.S. president of his career in the new NBC series 1600 Penn.
1600 Penn (2012-present)—“President Dale Gilchrist”
Bill Pullman: Right off the top, the first thing that leaps to mind is that, in conjunction with the sneak peek of the show, we were on The Voice, sitting in the audience, and for 30 seconds or so they turned the camera to us and said, “They’re gonna run a sneak peek of 1600 Penn right after us!” I’ve gotten several pins and whatnot to wear on the show, and for some reason, when we went on The Voice, I wore a presidential pin on the inside of my coat, even though I was just there as myself. Not in character, in other words. And as I was sitting there, I found myself thinking, “This was a weird thing to do, I wonder why I wore this.” But I think it was something to do with feeling the security of the office while wearing it. You can see why people like it, I guess. [Laughs.]
The A.V. Club: When you were put in consideration for this gig, it seems impossible that someone didn’t say at some point, “Well, for starters, we already know he can play a president.”
BP: I had met the director [Jason Winer] about a year before, and at some point he must’ve been thinking about me for it, but he didn’t mention it. So when I heard about it… well, I later found out that they thought I was a long shot. It was a case where they didn’t know if I’d be up for it or not, but I was on their wish list, so they went for it. And I thought it was a long shot, too, frankly. When I heard about it, I thought, “Okay, I’ll read it, but I don’t know. It doesn’t seem likely that I’m going to be excited about playing the president again.” Largely because if it were to get traction, then that’d be my identity for a while. I’d already spent a whole career trying to diversify and stay away from being stuck with any one “type.” But this one really surprised me. I hadn’t done comedy in a while, I was interested in the writing and really charmed by it, and I just thought, “I’d better look into this more.” And I ended up doing it.
AVC: You’re certainly not afraid to do small-screen work, but had you been actively looking for a series?
BP: No. I hadn’t really. I get offers to do pilots and things, but I’ve never really felt like I was a good candidate for it. I guess I’ve always felt like I was outside the culture, be it the mainstream, the zeitgeist, or the media-driven. Because I don’t watch television, and I don’t follow the score cards in The Hollywood Reporter about whoever’s doing what. To tell you the truth, I feel a little left out in the cold! When I watch some of the comedies on television, some of the humor just escapes me. I should probably leave it at that.
AVC: What are some of the sitcoms that you do like?
BP: Well, when I say I’m out of it, I’m not joking! I watched Modern Family because Jason Winer had been involved with that, and I really enjoyed it. So I guess I would say I like that. But I don’t think it’s a really well-rounded opinion that’s grounded in deep knowledge of the medium.
Cagney & Lacey (1986)—“Dr. Giordano”
BP: Oh, my gosh. That is amazing that you’ve got that. [Laughs.] I was just starting out in my career, and I remember just really feeling lucky that I’d gotten the part. I’d never been on a set before, but I went down, and both Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless were really polite and welcomed me, and I was feeling like I was just a member of the family right away. We did a rehearsal, I was a doctor, and we did a walk-and-talk down a hallway, then they were chatting me up, and everything was very casual.
Then all of a sudden, we went to shoot, and they had put in all of these extras, and gurneys were going by, and people were stopping with clipboards, and I totally freaked in the first take. I thought, “I can’t remember my lines! It was all casual, and now all of a sudden there’s all this chaos!” But then Tyne just took me over to the side, and she said, “Hold up here,” because she could see that I really couldn’t get anything out, and we just went to a room and she ran the lines with me so patiently and said, “Don’t worry, it happens all the time.” And then I went out and did it, no problem. But I just kind of realized at that moment that TV was a very different ballgame.
AVC: How did you come to a career in acting in the first place?
BP: I was going to college on kind of a vocational program for carpentry, and it was largely an act of rebellion at the time. It was ’71, I didn’t want to go to an Ivy League college, and I was just looking to do something different. But then I went to an audition with a bunch of refrigeration students who were trying out for a play, and I got cast by a guy who became a lifelong friend. I said, “Okay, maybe I’ll do a couple of plays…” And he said, “No, you’re not going to do any of these things you thought you were gonna do. You’re going to the college that I went to and getting a degree in theater. It’s a good life. You’ll like it.” So I did that. [Laughs.]
Torchwood (2011)—“Oswald Danes”
BP: Yes! That was a great adventure. In a very bizarre way. I never stopped liking the premise of that. It was a parable that really had a lot of social and political references, with the whole idea that I’m about to be executed and then I don’t die, at which point they realize that no one else is dying any more. I play a convicted murderer and pedophile, the one person that everyone wants dead and everyone wants to see killed, but when they can’t kill me, I turn that around and begin to become a messiah. And I really, really loved working with the Welsh, including the main man himself, Russell T. Davies. He was great, as was Julie Gardner, the producer. They’re most excellent people, as was everyone working on it. The cast was great, too, from John [Barrowman] on down.
AVC: Not that you haven’t done dark material in the past, but you wouldn’t seem to be the first choice to play a pedophile murderer. How did you find your way into the mix for consideration? Did Davies approach you personally?
BP: Well, no, it was just an offer, but then I talked to him. I’d certainly done dark things before. I’d done a couple with the Lynches, including Surveillance with Jennifer and, of course, Lost Highway with David. But Russell actually said, “I just thought it’d be a lot of fun if you were playing the role because people don’t expect it.” So I think he just dialed it up that way.
Lost Highway (1997)—“Fred Madison”
Surveillance (2008)—“Sam Hallaway”
BP: Oh, my God, I remember shooting [Surveillance] in Canada, and when we went to shoot that… We were on a soundstage, and they’d built a set, so we were in a real contained area. And I came out the door after some of the first takes, and all the Canadian crew, who had been so friendly with me, suddenly seemed as though they didn’t so much as want to catch my eye.
AVC: What’s it like working with two different generations of Lynches? Are there decided similarities in their styles?
BP: I just love ’em. I feel like I’m as close to them as my own family, just with their charm and the joy I get from being in their company and everything. In that way they’re similar. Artistically, though, they’re opposites. David comes from an art-school background and never discusses psychology, and Jennifer comes from a place where everything is coming from a psychological basis. So they’re seriously diverse.
AVC: How was David to work with? He has the reputation of being the nicest guy in the world, yet his sensibilities are about as dark as they come.
BP: Yeah, I was always impressed by his ability to be smiling as he talked about heinous behavior by human beings. Some of it with him, I think, is just a sense that underneath the façade of it all is this turbulent dream world that drags us into modes of behavior that we don’t acknowledge in our public life.
Igby Goes Down (2002)—“Jason”
BP: Oh, yeah! You know, the people who mention that film… You really have to have a good sense for films to find those small movies that stand out as unique and interesting, and I think that qualifies. That one was quite potent for me. My mother had a lot of psychiatric troubles when I was growing up, from the time I was 7 on, so it was a really challenging thing at times for us. As it has been for anyone who’s had a mother or father with psychiatric troubles. At first, you’re thinking that all of this behavior is unique to just your family, because you have no context for it or anything, and it took me a long time to even talk about it. But playing somebody like that was really more cathartic than I thought it would be. I signed up for it thinking, “Oh, I know something about this,” but I didn’t realize quite what sort of place it would take me to, to the point that when I was doing that shower scene.
We were in New York City, and my family had come to visit New York, and I, in a thoughtless way, said, “Well, you’re gonna have to come to the set, at any point you want in the day.” And I’m in the shower, with blood down me and snot and everything else, and the assistant director comes in and goes, “Oh, Bill! Your family’s here!” I said, “Uh, okay, this is not gonna work. Tell ’em to go home.”
Casper (1995)—“Dr. James Harvey”
BP: Yes, well, that was one I really remember looking forward to taking, so that I could bring my kids to the set. They were right at the perfect age to enjoy all the magic of that, and it was right over here at Universal. So I just thought it’d be really fun to bring them over to someplace not too far from their house and go into the haunted house that was built on the Universal soundstage. It was really impressive and a great place to visit. And they watched the whole scene with me getting rolled up in the rug and all of those shenanigans. I was really glad that they could be part of that.
The Serpent And The Rainbow (1988)—“Dennis Alan”
BP: That was my third movie, and I thought, “Boy, movies are gonna be so exotic!” [Laughs.] Because we went to Haiti and then to the Dominican Republic, and then we had a riot on the set! That movie was such an experience. But I’ve remained friends with Wade Davis, who wrote the original book and who’s almost exactly my age, and I just found that whole world of ethnobotany and the anthropological work, the country, the music… It was all just mesmerizing to me. I still have a lot of artifacts from that set and from that experience in my house. It was a very iconic experience for me.
Zero Effect (1998)—“Daryl Zero”
BP: That was… man, these are all the crown jewels in my little treasure chest. [Laughs.] That one, I think, is one of my faves, because it was just such an experience. I had met Jake Kasdan when he was 13, on the set of The Accidental Tourist, and I really loved getting to know him. Then later, when I was on Wyatt Earp and he was doing a documentary about the film, I spent time with him there, and he said, “I want to be a writer, and someday I might want to write a script for you.” I said, “Oh, really?” Thinking, “That’ll never happen.” And gosh darn, when he was 21, all of a sudden I get an offer for Zero Effect. I just love his sensibility, and his whole approach. It was a great honor to work with him. That’s another case of working with the father and then the offspring. I feel very rich having been able to do that.
AVC: There had been an attempt to do a series based on Zero Effect, but has there ever been any talk of doing an actual sequel to the film?
BP: Not that I ever heard of, no. I think at the time when it came out, it was right around when Titanic came out, and people never know why movies don’t grab, but it didn’t really grab. And I remember hearing, “Oh, it’s because it’s two movies: It’s a buddy movie and it’s a romance. And people like simple. They want to know what they’re getting.” Something like that. So I think maybe that’s always been hovering in some money person’s mind ever since.
Spaceballs (1987)—“Lone Starr”
BP: Oh, man, yeah. That was… [Laughs.] I have just had the wildest experience, haven’t I? Actually, speaking of Lone Starr, when we were filming an episode of 1600 Penn… You know, you get these scripts about two seconds before you have to be up there shooting ’em, and I was just doing my work like normal. But in this episode, there’s a wedding, and—I don’t think this is too bad of a spoiler—I end up having to do vows, and they end up getting interrupted, so I say, “Okay, let’s do this fast.” And the justice of the peace says, “Do you…” And I say, “I do.” “And do you…?” “I do.” And then we kiss and run off. And at some point, I said, “Wow, these guys know their movies. I never talked to them about the fact that this was straight from Spaceballs.” And during a break, I went over by the monitors and said, “That’s so funny that you put in this thing from Spaceballs.” And they said, “We didn’t realize it!” [Laughs.] There are these weird circles that happen if they let you stay around long enough, these curious ways that things circle back.
AVC: What are your recollections about working with John Candy?
BP: I think about him every movie I do, because he was generous and selfless, and in a way that I really don’t run into very much in life. He was so good with the crews and just very generous, giving them things. And I’ve always tried to remember that with every movie and every project.
Malice (1993)—“Andy Safian”
AVC: You worked with Mel Brooks on Spaceballs, but you also had the opportunity to work with Mrs. Brooks—Anne Bancroft—a few years later.
BP: Yes! Oh, man, Anne. And that was another one of those that was very charged. I thought, “Here’s me, this guy from western New York state, working with a real thoroughbred.” But I’d felt very close to her already, because I’d come to L.A. to do a play and then got Ruthless People, but I continued to work in another play at the L.A. Theater Company, and it was this bizarre passion play called Barabbas, based on the Biblical character. And Mel brought Anne to see the play when he was thinking about casting me in Spaceballs, because they’re all theater people. So I’d met her in that context, but then to actually work in a scene with her was a real thrill.
Ruthless People (1986)—“Earl Mott”
AVC: Well, since you brought it up—
BP: You know, sometimes you get a chance to get a purchase on the slippery slope, to get out of the primordial muck of wannabe actors, where you’re trying hard to do your thing, but that movie role happened because the dye job that I had from the play was growing out, and I was unconscious of that. To me, it was just, like, I had to be blond to be this Russian tank commander, and now it’s changing. But the Zucker brothers… I was in for the audition, and they were laughing at weird places, and then they called me back and cast me as Earl. I asked, “What was that all about?” My agent said, “Well, I don’t know what it was, but they love you, and they want you to keep your hair exactly that way.” [Laughs.] Random.
Singles (1992)—“Dr. Jeffrey Jamison”
BP: Well, that was really a surprise all the way along. First I turned down the part, and Bridget Fonda and Cameron Crowe said, “No, you gotta! You really wanna be in this, Bill. It’ll be great!” And I said, “I don’t want to do it! I really don’t want to do it!” And they said, “Why?” And I told my agent, “Don’t tell them anything, just say, ‘No, thank you,’ because I don’t want to make them feel bad that I’m turning them down, but I just can’t.” But they kept asking, “Why?” So I finally explained that it’s because he was a plastic surgeon, and my father was a doctor, and he’d been a blood-and-guts doctor all his life, and he’d always talked about the “vanity surgery” and that it was people making a lot of money off of medicine in a way… He really deeply abhorred the kind of wealth that came to those doctors. So I said, “That’s why.” And I got on the phone with Cameron and explained it, and he said, “Well, everything you’ve said, I want to have in the movie.” So he wrote that into the movie. He ended up slicing [the part] way down, but there was still that thing about, “This is my last time, I’ve gotta get out of this business, I just don’t believe in it, my father was a doctor,” and all that. So it was a really personal thing.
And on that note, the other thing about Singles is that my part was quite a bit larger. It was this kind of full romance that we had, as an older guy with a younger girl, and then I’m going through all of this ambivalence about doing that because we’re such different cultures and everything. And then there was a break-up period where I come to the door, and Bridget had been instructed that, if you’re having trouble breaking up with someone or they’re breaking up with you, then just imagine them in a very compromising circumstance. So I did all these scenes where I came to up to the door, and suddenly I was in a clown outfit, or I’m talking to her earnestly about breaking up while I’m covered in slime and dirt. And we shot all these epic things, but then I get a call from him before it was screened, and he said, “Bill, I just want to tell you, I had to cut all that because I was following six characters. Bridget’s one thing, but you come in late, and it was just too much story, so we had to cut it down.” So of course I said, “No problem,” but in a way it actually made the part better. It was a real “less is more” learning moment for me. Because we never have the full-blown affair in the film, but in our behavior around each other in the film, there’s this connection and intimacy and joy of each other’s company that came about.
The Grudge (2004)—“Peter Kirk”
BP: Oh, you know, that was another thing that I thought, “Well, I don’t really need to do this part.” There weren’t really a lot of moments that leapt out at me as great or anything. It was mostly just thinking, “What a strange way to begin.” But then the idea of shooting it in Japan with Takashi Shimizu, who was the director, I just said, “Okay.”
It was a great adventure; we shot it at Toho Studios, where they had done all the original Godzilla movies, and it was right in that cherry-blossom time, and I had Toshirô Mifune’s dressing room. It was really a very exotic experience. Working with Japanese crews and their production style is so different from Americans. The most salient thing was that your shoes aren’t considered part of wardrobe. They’re considered props. I was like, “What?” I think it’s because they want to present them to you on the set. Like, they would give you your watch and that sort of thing and get you propped up, and then you’d go in regular shoes, you’d get in slippers to go from the door of the soundstage to the edge of the set, and then once you’re on the set, they give you your shoes and your watch, so you can walk like a Westerner. So those kinds of things really made it very memorable.
Also, working with Takashi… he really was like working with the Japanese version of David Lynch, in that he had a charming personality and a fascinating way of speaking, and he asked me to do interesting things. I had a moment in the script, right at the top, where I get up out of bed and go, “Honey? Honey?” And I start walking toward the balcony, and it says, “He turns back to her and has an expression that’s a half-smile,” and then, you know, he turns back and goes out and then just, boom, plunges over the balcony. And I said to him as we’re getting ready to do this take, “It’s written here that it’s a half-smile. What exactly is a half-smile?” And he thought about it for a long time. He had very heavy-lidded eyes, and he’d be staring at you to the point where you didn’t know if he was having trouble with the language or whatever, but he would always come out with the most poetic things. He said, “When you turn and smile, I want half the audience to think you’re smiling and I want half the audience to think you’re not.” And I thought, “That’s beautiful.” Some actors would say, “What? I don’t know what that means.” But I kind of knew exactly what he meant. I mean, he was basically saying, “Just go do it.” [Laughs.] But he said it in such a poetic way that I was like, “I got it.”
Sleepless In Seattle (1993)—“Walter”
The Last Seduction (1994)—“Clay Gregory”
While You Were Sleeping (1995)—“Jack”
AVC: So what was going on with your career in the mid-’90s where every character you played for a while got the shaft, romantically speaking, to the point where you actually got killed by your lover in The Last Seduction?
BP: Yeah, those were rough times. [Laughs.] But, you know, there were just a lot of stories at the time where the second male lead got the shaft. And I wasn’t in a position, box-office-wise, to take the first male lead, but I was always wanting a part and wanted to audition and be considered for things. I never really put it together at the time that you could define it that way, but as soon as I did—because it takes months for movies to actually come out—I was like, “Okay, this was not my intention.” I just like to be a journeyman actor and play a lot of different characters, from a Civil War guy in this to a dapper editor with a bowtie and a tux in this, and they’re very different characters. But the fact that they’re the second male lead getting turned down by the girl, that was a pattern that I hadn’t really seen. Thankfully, though, While You Were Sleeping came around. I finally got the girl!
Harper’s Island (2008)—“Uncle Marty” (unaired pilot)
AVC: Although it’s mentioned on your Wikipedia page, not many people outside of the TV critic community have actually seen your work in the original pilot pitch reel for CBS’ Harper’s Island.
BP: Oh, my gosh. Have you seen that?
AVC: I have, actually. CBS sent it out as a teaser before the first proper episode was completed, and when someone asked about it during the panel for the show at the Television Critics Association press tour, executive producer Jon Turteltaub referred to your appearance as “a While You Were Sleeping favor.”
BP: Well, that’s true. [Laughs.] But he’s a great guy to work with, and I had a good time. I don’t know whether he had somebody else or what it was, but it was kind of at the last minute. Or maybe it’s because that’s the way those things happen. Maybe the money only came together at the last minute, TV being what it is. But he knew he wanted to get somebody, and he said, “Listen, there is no obligation to do anything with the series afterward, but I just need something for now. If you do it, fine, if you don’t do it, fine, too.” But I loved the chance to go up there [to British Columbia], and it was kind of a whacked character. I had a good time, and the actors who were there were good. I really liked Elaine Cassidy.
Brain Dead (1990)—“Rex Martin”
BP: Oh, you know, I just went for a long trip down memory lane with Catherine Hardwicke. She’s a great director now and everything, but back then she was a production designer, and I was just at a party two nights ago, and we said, “Hey, remember that whole thing of shooting at the lumber yard on Lincoln that Roger Corman had?” Just some amazing memories of how movies were made in that Corman style. Brain Dead has had, I think, a kind of life that a lot of those movies didn’t get. It seemed to be picked up as a cult favorite by some champions. I also remember it was one of the first movies I was in that was made into a DVD and not just VHS. I was struck by that. Because of that, it didn’t seem to just fade away. And it was also a chance to work with Bill Paxton!
AVC: We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that.
BP: Yeah! I’d always loved him, and we’ve gotten together since then and gotten to know each other and kept in touch. Maybe infrequently, but we’ve stayed in touch. And every once in a while, I’ll get a script with his name on it and he’ll get something with my name on it. [Laughs.]
AVC: But Brain Dead is still the only film where, if someone asks, “Is that the one with Bill Pullman or Bill Paxton?” the answer is simply, “Yes.”
BP: [Laughs.] Exactly. It’s that whole B.P. thing, you know? It’s curious. But, you know, I think it’s also a good litmus test for whether people are really paying attention or not when they watch movies.
AVC: There’s actually a “Paxton or Pullman” quiz online, where people have to identify which of you was in which film.
BP: Is there? Well, I could see that that could be a challenge, actually. Between the two of us, it’s a hell of an oeuvre. [Laughs.]
Independence Day (1996)—“President Thomas J. Whitmore”
BP: Well, you know, that was one of those things that was, at first, kind of difficult to believe. I could play the president? In fact, the first thing I said to my agent was, “Is this a comedy?” Because I hadn’t really thought of myself as presidential material. I viewed myself as being more character-y or something than someone iconographic. But they said, “No, we want you as president.” And I think that might’ve stayed inside me, like a little germ, all the way through to 1600 Penn, because at the time I thought, “Well, this could be fun to play the president in a comedy.” That might’ve fed into my taking the part on the show. Plus, with Spaceballs, I did the parody version of Star Wars, and I’ve always loved films like Dr. Strangelove, films where there are wacky moments in the midst of global urgencies. I’ve always loved that sense of wackiness, where it’s almost like a weird dream. And there are definitely a lot of strange things happening in that film. But it was a great experience, and people are still saying it holds up. A lot of films from that era, they say the special effects don’t hold up, but with that one it seems like they hit kind of a classic tone, so it didn’t get relegated to the trash bin.
AVC: Do you think there’ll ever be a sequel to Independence Day, given how long they’ve been talking about it?
BP: Well, you know, this year was the first year where I felt like it’s really… where they’ve got a plan. I think they’re actually hoping to shoot it next year. I got a text from Dean Devlin in the summer, saying, “Let’s get Roland [Emmerich], you, and I, and let’s have dinner together. Let’s get the band back together.” [Laughs.] So I’m hoping that it all keeps marching toward that. And I said, “Well, if this TV show goes, is that gonna be a problem?” And they said, “No, we’ll work around it.” So we’ll see what happens.