Meet Bill Pullman
Prior to the release of Independence Day, Martha Frankel asks Bill Pullman why none of her friends know who he is. Up to that point, Pullman had appeared in memorable movies like Ruthless People, Spaceballs and While You Were Sleeping. But somehow, he always seemed to get lost in the shuffle. Pullman seems genuinely worried when Frankel suggests his time as a leading man might be limited. He also worries that his family guy image makes him seem boring. In this article from the July 1996 issue of Movieline magazine, Pullman gamely endures Frankel’s antics.
After the fifth or sixth person looks at me blankly when I tell them who I’m going to interview and says, “Who?” I find myself shouting. ”Bill Pullman!!”
How is it possible that most of my movie-maven friends can’t place the name “Bill Pullman,” but my six- and seven-year-old godchildren know exactly who he is? “Casper’s dad,” they yell in unison when they see his photo on the coffee table. While that’s not completely correct (he was Christina Ricci’s father in Casper), they also know him from Spaceballs. “May the Schwartz be with you,” they shriek with laughter, quoting one of Mel Brooks’s zanier lines.
My sister, on the other hand, tells me she loved Pullman in Sommersby, but even more so in The Butcher’s Wife. She’s half-right–Pullman was in Sommersby, but that was Jeff Daniels in The Butcher’s Wife. And when a friend mentions how terrific he was in Unlawful Entry, I realize she has him confused with Kurt Russell.
For the record: Bill Pullman started his movie career as Earl Mott (“perhaps the stupidest person on the face of the earth”) in Ruthless People, with blond hair and black roots and an attitude matched only by his naivete. He played William Hurt’s publisher in The Accidental Tourist, Jodie Foster’s spurned boyfriend in Sommersby, the mild-mannered academic duped by his beautiful wife (Nicole Kidman) in Malice, Meg Ryan‘s allergic boyfriend in Sleepless in Seattle, Linda Fiorentino‘s ill-fated husband in The Last Seduction and the absolutely wrong man in Mr. Wrong. He’s also done a million other roles in small films of head-spinningly varying quality. But here’s the part that’ll place him for you, especially if you’re a woman. He was the guy who wooed and won Sandra Bullock in While You Were Sleeping.
This summer Bill Pullman will be hard to miss: He’s the President of the United States in Independence Day.
I go to meet Pullman in Toronto, where he’s filming HBO’s Mistrial. The plan is that I’ll arrive at the crack of dawn, which I do, and meet him on the set, which I don’t. There’s been a mix-up and he’s not going to be working till evening. By the time I reach the warehouse where Mistrial is being filmed, a freak spring snowstorm has blown in and it’s freezing cold. I’ve been up for over 36 hours, and. it turns out, so has Pullman.There’s no heat in the warehouse, and neither of us is dressed for the weather. We huddle by a small kerosene heater. The world of filmmaking sure is glamorous.
“There’s a lot of confusion about who you are,” I begin, turning on the tape.
Pullman nods, “I know. I’m often confused with other actors. But the people who know my work don’t have that problem.”
“That’s true. There are legions of kids who loved you in Spaceballs, and now in Casper.”
“I can’t go anywhere without little kids saying ‘hi’ to me. They love those two films. With Spaceballs, it’s weird because most of those kids don’t even get the Star Wars references. And Casper, that’s a film my kids can watch, even though they don’t. I mean, it doesn’t hurt my feelings or anything, but when they look through the videos at home, I notice that Davy Crockett gets a lot more play than Casper.”
I glance at the papers I’ve collected on Pullman. “Wife, three kids,” I say, “And half-a-dozen films in the last two years. Are you a workaholic or what?”
“I know it seems that way. I do take lots of time off between projects, but when the right thing comes along, I don’t like to turn it down, I’ve been doing this for a decade, and I remember what it was like when I started. You spend maybe five percent of your time actually doing it, and the rest of the time, you’re trying to get that five percent. I just wasn’t built for that, the waiting-to-work business. And now, suddenly, I am fully employed. Things are going great. The Last Seduction, Sleepless in Seattle and While You Were Sleeping did a lot to get me noticed for bigger roles. Is this the time for me to take a sabbatical? I think not.”
“I agree,” I tell him. “Things could all fall apart after this.”
“Thanks for the vote of support,” Pullman says with a tight smile. “You really think it’ll never get better for me?” He has a slightly worried look.
“All I’m saying is that you were a supporting actor for years, and you were great, and now they see you as a leading man. But what happens if you don’t have that wonderful chemistry that you had with Sandra Bullock ever again? What happens if you never get another role that good?”
“Jesus.” he mutters. “Well, I guess I should enjoy it while it lasts. There are all these little things that change when you’re the quote-unquote star of the film. I think people expect you to have more attitude now.”
“It hardly matters if I have the attitude, it’s all about perception. You get a driver to pick you up and take you home. And that is a big deal, especially when you’re working weird hours and you’re far from home. And the driver is this guy who’s been hired by the union, he’s got a great job, and he loves being available to you. They call you Mr. Pullman and they jump out of the car when you walk outside, and I honor that because this is the guy’s job. But then I realize that the doorman at the hotel picks up on all this, and the concierge is catching on, and they’re all treating Mr. Pullman like he’s the boss. And then it just breeds itself, like a little virus. I’ve seen a lot of actors in a lot of different stages of their careers, and I’ve seen it come and go. People get a sense of entitlement from it. And that’s when it starts getting you in trouble. When it’s not there, some people get berserk. The most self-effacing people, I don’t think I’m in danger of that. I have a pretty good grip on who I am. I see now that it also keeps some people at a distance, which is OK in a way, because you suddenly realize that there’s a lot more people who want to talk to you, and sometimes you don’t want to be put in that position. I see both sides of it. If it all flies away in the morning, I won’t regret anything.”
“Bill, I didn’t mean to imply…”
He waves me off, and then goes off to shoot a scene. Which turns into another scene and then another and another. By the time he returns, I’m almost asleep.
“Do women find you attractive?” I ask, barely able to lift my head off the table. Dead silence, when I look up. Pullman is staring at me.
“Well,” he points out, “you’re a woman.”
“I’m not a real woman,” I say. Now he’s laughing.
“I mean. I’m a journalist.”
Pullman shrugs and makes a stab at answering my original question. “When I was in Japan to promoteWhile You Were Sleeping, I went to this screening where they had a thousand Japanese women who’d won tickets in a radio contest. I’ve been around a lot of very successful actors, sex symbols–Brad Pitt, Richard Gere, Alec Baldwin, some others–and I always had a quiet little profile through all that. I’ve seen women go berserk over some of these guys. But I’ll tell you, I never experienced anything like what happened in that Japanese theater. I felt like I was Elvis. They were screaming, the classic thing that you see on documentaries of the Beatles. And I’m standing there and my body feels so strange and I am so embarrassed. And a girl asks a question and the translator talks to her and then the translator turns to me and says, ‘She thinks you’re a very sexy man.’ It’s not even a question! And everyone just starts roaring with laughter. It was not a comfortable situation. I’ll tell you that.”
“My theory on you is that you’re not the kind of guy a girl wants to throw up against a wall and fuck, you’re the kind of guy a girl wants her best friend to marry.”
Pullman looks thunderstruck. “Martha…that’s a theory?”
“Well, I watched all your movies with some of my girlfriends, and that’s what we came up with. You’re a very nonthreatening guy. People root for you. Now, there are actors that you would not want to sit down and have a chat with, not want to bring home to your mother. They’re dangerous. I think people look at you and know you’d be nice to them, treat their mothers kindly. You know what I’m saying?”
“Haven’t got a clue,” Pullman says, and lays his head down on the table.
“We wanted you to end up with Sandra Bullock. But the character played by Peter Gallagher is the kind of guy who usually does wind up with the girl.”
“It’s very curious when you’re an actor and suddenly you’re in the right role, with the right match,” Pullman says, perking up. “Truthfully, I almost avoided While You Were Sleeping, because I find those romantic comedies kind of precious, and they’re full of lines that leave you feeling a little bewildered when you say them. It’s all about first looks and little giggles, and part of me is always thinking, ‘Isn’t there anything else we could be doing with our time right now? Something a little more important?’ But when I was doing it, I really enjoyed it. It was like the air was charged between me and Sandy. From the minute I met her we just clicked. We were totally in tune with each other. Lots of the movie was about us just talking and talking, and I’ll tell you the truth, most actors don’t listen very well, they don’t give it 100 percent. But Sandy and I, we just lived in that rarified air of the movie, and it worked really, really well.”
“So now you want to do all those goofy romantic comedies, huh?”
“Actually, no, I feel like there was something so Cinderella-ish about being with Sandy that to do another one would seem like shtick. So I’m doing things that are totally different.”
“Another thing we thought…”
“I can hardly wait to hear this.”
“No, this you might like. We watched Sommersby, and we decided that the reason they gave you the limp and made you wear shirts and pants that were two inches too short…”
“I looked like Ichabod Crane, for chrissakes.”
“I know. And we decided that if they left you alone, let you act with all your assets, so to speak, you would have blown Richard Gere off the screen.”
Pullman leans over and kisses my forehead, but won’t say a word on the subject.
“Did you see Liebestraum?” he asks.
“I know this is one of your favorite performances, because your publicist reminded me to watch it. I can watch anything, but i gotta tell you, Bill. I couldn’t get through the first hour…”
“That’s too bad, because I really think it’s great. Mike Figgis directed it–he also did Internal Affairs and Leaving Las Vegas.”
“He did the score for Leaving Las Vegas, too, and took a separate credit for it. I thought that was the height of self-importance, for the director to give himself a pat on the back like that.”
“Well, for me, Liebestraum was a great experience, a great time, and I have such fond memories about it… ”
“I feel the same way about sleep-away camp.”
Pullman slaps my hand. “It was wild working with Figgis, because he’s very much in possession of himself. Some would say a narcissist, but I think there’s a power in that. I have to admit that I was just dazzled by his absorption with his own instincts and his own ability to pursue things…”
“Because you’re not like that?”
“Well, I think of myself as an actor, and I can get absorbed in myself and I can get overbearing and everything like that, but it’s not in that totally toxic way, where if anybody says anything that disparages your work, it just rolls off your back because you’re thinking, ‘How dare they…?'”
“I’ll tell ya, Internal Affairs has some of the sickest things in it. When Richard Gere comes into the elevator and butts heads with Andy Garcia while he’s holding Andy Garcia’s wife’s underpants in his hands…”
We both get hysterical. “I know,” says Pullman. “There’s a scene in Liebestraum that’s quintessential Figgis. Kevin Anderson has come into town, and I know he’s attracted to my wife and she’s attracted to him. I’m telling him about my relationship to my wife, and I say, ‘Yeah, we’ve had some tough times. She found a pair of black lace panties in the back of my pickup truck and then she shaved her head.’ Those are the kind of things that happen in a Figgis movie! In that same scene, Kevin Anderson and I are drinking, and I put my arm around him, and I go, ‘I’m gonna give you the keys to this building.’ And I sort of put his head in a headlock, and I say, ‘You can come and go as you want, but just don’t come in my wife.'”
Pullman and I both turn red. “I think I’m speechless,” I say.
“Not likely,” Pullman retorts.
“How come we never read about you in the tabloids? Don’t you know in order to be really successful in Hollywood you have to know how to make an asshole of yourself in public?”
Pullman smacks his head. “Now you tell me! No, I live a fairly normal life, and I guess it’s not that interesting to the tabloids. I’ll tell you. I read things about myself, and usually I can take it. But one time, somebody printed this story, and they wrote about my wife and kids, and they printed my kids’ names in the piece. My kids deserve their own privacy. But the other part of it was that the way they said it, that I was a married guy with kids, it just felt like I was boring, that I was like white bread. That was the tone of the whole piece, to show how flat a personality I had.”
“We want our movie stars to be more than we are, and maybe being married with children makes them realize that you’re just like them.”
“I’m not sure I’m really a guy for the ’90s. Not that I know what a ’90s guy is…”
‘I read that Roseanne said there isn’t any New Man. The New Man is the Old Man only he whines more.”
“Oooohh, she’s harsh. And who knows what a ’90s woman is? Sometimes it just feels like the whole world’s holding its breath, waiting for the millennium. But there are things that are so out of style now. I’m not sure you should get points just for doing what’s right. And that’s not to say that I can’t be disrespectful and ungracious. But I think you have to know in your soul what you’re doing.”
“Look at it this way: when good manners come back in, which they will, you’ll be well ahead of the curve.”
Pullman rolls his eyes at me and goes off to shoot another scene. When he comes back, he looks almost as beat as I feel. It’s near midnight now, and we both have our heads cradled in our hands.
“Independence Day…” I finally mutter.
“Big movie,” he says, “Lots of fun for me. I play the President of the United States, and the world is being attacked by aliens on the Fourth of July. I used to be a fighter pilot…”
“You were?” I ask, sitting up in amazement.
“No, silly, in the movie.”
“So it’s basically your boy-meets-aliens, boy-saves-the-world kinda movie?”
Pullman starts to laugh. “Exactly, When I was a kid and I’d go to a matinee on Saturdays with my friends, we’d come out and run all the way home pretending to be shooting each other. You’d hide behind a telephone pole or a tree, and pretend that your arm was a gun. Well, that’s what Independence Day felt like. In order to save the world, I have to get back in a fighter plane. I mean, this is any boy’s dream come true. I’m galvanizing the troops before dawn, making a speech, saying, ‘The Fourth of July is no longer an American holiday, it’s the day the world declared in one voice: “We will not go quietly into the night, we will not vanish without a fight.'” I mean, c’mon, this was the speech I was saying in my head when I was 12. I saw recently that they’ve made a doll of my character, which is hysterical. The doll’s forearms are three times the size of my actual wrist.”
“And the Lynch film?” Pullman just finished starring in the first movie David Lynch has directed in eons, Lost Highway.
“I was brought up in a very small town in upstate New York. We lived on Main Street, and my dad was a doctor. And this idyllic setting held some very dark corners. Working with David Lynch, getting to know his psyche, and getting inside the character in Lost Highway felt so connected up to my past. Benign on the exterior, seething on the interior. My dad was also the town coroner, so we saw all these dead bodies …”
“When you were a kid?”
“A teenager. My father would bring us along. I remember that when my mother had colon cancer, my father took us down to the basement of the hospital and pulled out a tumor in a jar to show us. And he’s holding it up, he’s kinda laughing, like a scientist. He said, ‘See, it’s kinda like congealed hamburger.’ I mean, that’s like David Lynch, that combination of strange, funny, macabre, all in one. So working with Lynch felt very much like going home.” I see.
They call Pullman back to shoot a scene, and this time I do fall asleep. I wake to Pullman shaking my shoulder. “Come with me,” he says. I’m not capable of arguing. He leads me downstairs, to a cream-colored Cadillac, and when the driver jumps out, he says, “Please take my friend back to her hotel.”
When the driver drops me off, he turns and says, “He’s quite a guy, that Mr. Pullman, He’s the nicest guy I ever drove around.”
Martha Frankel interviewed Richard LaCravenese for the April ’96 issue of Movieline.