Bill Pullman: The Great Life
It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Bill Pullman could have been a movie star. On paper, Pullman is a good looking guy with at least as much talent as any number of Hollywood leading men. Pullman delivered memorable performances in hit movies, but even when he held your attention, he never grabbed audiences as a movie star. In the April 1992 issue of Movieline magazine, a very busy Pullman talked about ditching an audition for Big and being recruited for supporting roles by A-list actresses.
I’m telling Bill Pullman about a funny upcoming movie Dale Launer wrote, because I know Bill knows Dale–he played the hilariously crazed extortionist in Launer’s Ruthless People. “I think he must have been waiting to use the central plot point for years,” I say, “because I’ve been in his house and he has Road & Track all over the place.” Pullman looks at me blankly. I start to explain, “You do know that he’s really into cars…”
Pullman breaks out laughing. “Oh, Road & Track! I thought you said ‘rodent traps’! Like, yeah Dale, what a wild thing you suddenly did in your high- tech condo place!”
It’s part of Bill Pullman’s affable intelligence that he’s willing to entertain for a fleeting moment the notion that one of his colleagues might have gotten creative in an unexpected way. He knows there’s no figuring Hollywood, and seems to have given up outguessing the town. “My first year in L.A. I read Big, and I thought, this is a terrible ‘After School Special,’ and there were all these other movies on the same topic. So I decided, I’m not going to go in. They won’t miss me. Two years later Penny Marshall shows up at a play I’m doing and she goes, ‘Bill Pullman–the guy who wouldn’t come in for Big.’ Of course, she wouldn’t have cast me.”
She did cast him in A League of Their Own. But, Pullman says, it was actually Geena Davis who wanted him to play her husband. Actresses seem to like working with him. Bridget Fonda specifically requested that he be brought in to play the plastic surgeon she goes to for breast implants and falls for in Singles (“I’m the old guy she has a fling with”). Holly Hunter especially wanted him to play opposite her in Crazy in Love, yet another of the half-dozen films he has in the can. “In a way,” Pullman kids, “it’s been weird lately because I feel like I’ve been stud for hire for these women.”
But despite Pullman’s leading-man good looks, one suspects it is not his studliness the women are after. And it’s more than mere acting skill, which he certainly has–he’s been invariably interesting in quite variable kinds of roles in films of extremely variable quality over the last few years (Spaceballs, The Serpent and the Rainbow, The Accidental Tourist, Cold Feet, Sibling Rivalry, Bright Angel, Liebestraum, for example). It’s more likely that, when he’s not playing a psychotic, which he does rather well, he radiates a benevolent charm that hits many different notes depending on the material. That may also be what Jeffrey Katzenberg wanted when he went after Pullman for a role in his pet project, the kid musical Newsies. Pullman, who’s had a few exchanges with Disney in the past (“They test the shit out of you. I’ve had frustrating experiences with those people”) couldn’t talk himself out of this role: “I told them I’d never sung, and they said, ‘We have the best coaches in the world–if you can’t sing after that, we’ll dub you.’ It was like, ‘We are actor-proof with you, buddy.’ ”
Pullman is still waiting for the big role: “None of these roles are the big thing,” he says of his current crush of projects. “These are all fragments. My friend Tom Waits has been on my case. ‘What are you doin’, Pullman, taking bit parts in A movies and big parts in B movies?’ He’s right. Of course, he’s doing Renfield in Dracula!” In any case, says Pullman, “I’m not worried. I’m having a great life.”