Thank goodness barn construction isn't more in vogue these days. If it were, we might never have seen Bill Pullman on a movie screen. Intent on pursuing a career in carpentry post-high school, Pullman enrolled in State University of New York Delhi, nestled in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. "They had given away all the [vocational education] places in their little journeyman program, so I had to go into a two-year program for building construction," remembers Pullman. "I started in and I wanted to build barns—but the sad truth is, nobody's building barns anymore. It was all romance and impracticality that led me on."
Maybe so, but Pullman discovered what must have initially seemed an even more impractical career path: acting. "I met this great drama coach," he says. "They didn't even have a faculty for theatre, I think, but they had kind of a student union theatre-activities guy, and he was brilliant—really great character and really interesting choices of material, and his name was Bill. He kind of put me in stuff and said, 'You could do this if you want to. Keep following this.'"
As with many of his anecdotes, Pullman makes it all sound simple and straightforward: The coach "put him in stuff," and here he is, an accomplished actor with an astonishingly eclectic résumé that doesn't always seem to mesh with his genial good looks. Listening to his laconic gravelly voice, you might initially mistake him for one of those doormatlike nice guys he was known for playing in the early 1990s. But there's something a little off-kilter about Pullman. He's got a wicked, rascally gleam in his eyes—an air of the unpredictable that instantly explains his attraction to oddball material such as cult classic Zero Effect and low-key indie Igby Goes Down. Perhaps then–New York Times film critic Janet Maslin put it best when she singled out Pullman's "wild-eyed foxiness" in Zero Effect: He's a distinctive character actor blessed with leading-man charisma.
Pullman has achieved romantic lead status and played the president of the United States, yet he still finds time for smaller supporting roles in far-from-mainstream projects such as Dear Wendy, opening in limited release Sept. 23. Written by Lars von Trier (Manderlay) and directed by Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration), the movie is a thought-provoking look at a group of pacifist young adults obsessed with firearms. Pullman mostly stays in the background as Officer Krugsby, an easygoing Southerner who tries to keep the peace in the film's rural town. "[The assistant in my agent's office] wasn't even going to show it to me, because they thought the role was too small," says Pullman. "So I thought, 'That's a good time to say, "Listen. There's something great about this configuration of people involved, and I'd love to go do it."' I'm a little eccentric and maybe difficult to track and everything, but I've had the same agent [J.J. Harris with One Entertainment] for 20 years."
It's tough to pin down exactly what attracts Pullman to various projects, but he doesn't speak of how certain career choices are designed to boost his profile or make the world perceive him as a bigger star. Often, he says, he'll just have a certainty about a project once he's determined there's something in the material that excites him. Other times, he knows he'll have an interesting experience or learn something new. "[With] Dear Wendy, I really was interested in seeing about Lars von Trier because I was so intrigued," he explains. "His movies are so interesting—Breaking the Waves and Dogville, I thought the acting was great. I like the way actors get revealed in his material."
One aspect of this particular role that interested Pullman was the accent: He felt he had to settle on one because the film is vaguely set in the South. "There's always a certain kind of homework you have to do when there's an accent involved," he says. "[You] try to see what the production has put together in terms of what the palette of sounds [is] going to be and then try to feel out how you're going to work within that. I got there, and they had a dialect coach, but they had also made the determination that it didn't really matter that there was a great variation in the accents. They were saying, 'It's just like in life: You come from different parts of the South, you don't all have the same accent, and maybe some people come from the North.' In some ways Krugsby is the kind of comfortable Southern thing. And I didn't want to make it too clichéd or anything, but I thought, 'Well, I'll stick with something that feels like I can speak in it really easily,' because we ended up doing a lot of improvs. I was glad I had something that I could flow with and not be worried or have some dialect coach tell me it's all bad."
An Unpredictable Path
Eschewing a career in construction, Pullman earned a B.A. in theatre from the State University of New York College at Oneonta and an M.F.A. in directing from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He worked as a professor at Montana State University, where one of his students was aspiring filmmaker John Dahl, who would later direct him as Linda Fiorentino's sleazy husband in The Last Seduction. The actor eventually moved to New York City and pursued theatre work. "I thought that was where I was gonna be," he remembers. "I had done Curse of the Starving Class, a Sam Shepard play, with Kathy Bates, and it really did well. They said, 'Well, we should move the production,' but they hadn't found a place yet or they didn't have any money, so I was kicking around, and a chance to do a play by [William] Mastrosimone [Nanawatai] in L.A. came up, and I thought, 'This would be interesting.'"
There's that phrase again: The idea that something would or could be interesting seems to direct many of Pullman's career moves. The actor had been talking with the William Morris Agency in New York; when he arrived in California, he met Harris, who was with the company's L.A. office at the time. They clicked immediately. "That's good fortune, to run into somebody who you always like talking to about material," he says. Pullman signed with the agency, and Harris sent him out on a few film auditions. One of those auditions was for Ruthless People, the wildly over-the-top Bette Midler–Danny DeVito comedy directed by Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker. "I had dyed my hair blond to be this Russian tank commander [in the play], and then I started to go around on films and I wasn't paying attention to all that," recalls Pullman. "And they thought it was funny, because I had roots and I didn't know it. I think that's what got me the part."
Uh, the fact that he had roots? "Yeah," he says, chuckling, as if he can hardly believe it himself. Retaining his bleached-with-roots look, the actor stole many a scene as dead-eyed Earl Mott, aptly described in the film as "the stupidest person on the face of the earth." He went on to play Han Solo-esque Lone Starr in Mel Brooks' spoof Spaceballs and had supporting roles in such films as Singles, Newsies, and The Accidental Tourist.
In 1993 a trio of films came out that cemented Pullman in the minds of moviegoers as the well-meaning, inevitably rejected nice guy. Though the projects were wildly different—a tense period piece, a sweet-souled romantic comedy, and a nail-biting thriller—the public noticed a recurring theme. "I took all these different roles in Sommersby and Sleepless in Seattle and [Malice], they all seemed like very different roles to me, but they were second leads," says Pullman. "And the thing about second leads is, you don't usually end up with the best end of the stick; otherwise you'd be the first lead. It seemed like an odd constellation alignment that wasn't [indicative] of who I was or anything, but [was] something to be recognized and avoided in the future."
But Pullman ascended to leading man—well, he notes, "eccentric leading man"—in 1995's romantic comedy While You Were Sleeping, in which he played a nice guy who—at last—gets the girl (Sandra Bullock). "I think the reason Bill played a lot of supporting boyfriends [previously] is that the part of the leading man was already taken," says Jon Turteltaub, who directed While You Were Sleeping. "He hadn't become a big star yet, so big stars got the leading-man part, leaving the next-biggest part for the best actor to audition. Fortunately While You Were Sleeping was kind of a low-budget movie, so the studio didn't ask us to cast big stars—just great actors. Sandra Bullock wasn't a big star then, either. We were allowed to get the people we thought were perfect for their roles…. Bill is such a leading man; it was just a matter of timing."
Pullman is thankful the role came along when it did, saving him from being pigeonholed as the gracious loser. "I don't know how long I could have sat in that kind of boggy terrain of somebody saying, 'Oh, here's his handle, this is who he is,' which can be so joyous with journalists; they can just kind of do a war dance around [it]. 'Yes, now it's clear. Isn't this interesting? This is a good talking point about him.' [It's] fodder for their lives, but it's terrible for an actor," Pullman notes. "It would be one thing if [those parts] were the best parts of the movie or something, but they weren't. They were parts I was lucky to get at the time. Somebody had to do them. I was glad to do them; they weren't who I thought I was as a person. I was glad to step away from that and define myself away from that, because [continuing in that vein] probably would have meant long, quiet periods in my career."
And if this were a regular old Hollywood story, he might have followed While You Were Sleeping with a few more heartthrob-type roles and morphed into one of the industry's go-to guys for the perky likes of Meg Ryan to meet cute with on a regular basis. Instead he detoured into a wide variety of lead- and supporting characters in projects ranging from the unabashedly mainstream (Independence Day) to the unapologetically subversive (Wim Wenders' The End of Violence). There was his folk-singing, antisocial detective in Zero Effect, his delightfully deranged suitor in the Ellen DeGeneres vehicle Mr. Wrong, his mysterious jazz musician in David Lynch's Lost Highway. Pullman is still proud that Lynch wanted him for the role. "It was only later, in the junket period, that I realized why he had picked me. [He said], 'You know, I like Bill in this story because he looks like a guy who can get himself into a lot of trouble,'" he remembers, laughing. "Which is different than, 'He can make a lot of trouble.'"
Pullman seems to get noticed by high-profile directors often: Acclaimed Japanese helmer Takashi Shimizu specifically wanted him for the American version of The Grudge, for example. What is it that attracts these filmmakers to Pullman's work? "I don't know," Pullman answers. "Usually it's some version of the truth-telling, I guess. I'd like to think it was that, maybe—that there's some element of how you believe meaning is made that they find simpatico for some reason. Also, people work from what they remember. I've done a lot of different kinds of things, so different people remember me for different things. As a student, [Shimizu] really loved Malice. He thought it was a really well-told tale."
In stark contrast to U.S. audiences, most of Japan was pulling for Pullman in Malice. "American audiences and European and Asian audiences are so different," he says. "For Japan I was the hero of that movie. When you see the one-sheet, my picture is the strong one. In the States, it's the noir side of Alec Baldwin, and I wasn't even on the poster. They didn't care about a guy who gets tweaked around. In Japan they saw it as a guy who got tricked by his wife and realizes something about her and then creates this mousetrap that catches her. In the States, because they were looking to put me into a formula, they see it as a guy who didn't get the girl." Pullman pauses, then grins mischievously. "But I put her in prison—got her good, you know?"
Man of Many Faces
Pullman has directed for theatre, as well as helming the TV movie The Virginian, but he's looking to use his directing degree more. "I do [want to do more directing]," he says. "I've got to come to terms with that pretty darn quick, or I'll be in my wheelchair going, 'I want to direct! I really always wanted to direct!' I love filmmaking from that side of things. I bring things along, and then I get diverted so easily—it's terrible. But I just created a stage piece called Expedition 6 that I started at the [National Theatre Conservatory, part of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts], and then next year, we're slated to do it in Telluride—kind of put it all together and then see what we can do with it in New York."
Pullman greatly enjoyed working on the piece, which was inspired by the events surrounding the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003. "That was so satisfying to me, to write it and direct it in theatre, where I trained to be a director," he says. "It's kind of like going back to what I [know] pretty well and [I] had a bit of a toy box of things to play with. It made me think, 'I gotta do more of that.'"
When it comes to acting, Pullman seems pleased with the range of parts he's been able to play: Even after his bout of nice-guy roles, he's managed to avoid being shoehorned into a type in a town that loves to label and categorize. "It's a relief when somebody says, 'Oh, I want you to do this part,' because you think, 'Wow, how did they pick out who I am or what I am?' I can't keep it straight myself," he says. "And then you'd hate to think they hired you because they want you to repeat something exactly. Usually that's not the case. I always love challenges and doing something that I can't quite figure out. I keep waiting for those [parts]."
That's not to say he doesn't notice trends in the projects that cross his desk. "A lot of times, there are scripts that will come to me because it's a character that's very dislikeable, but they think me being in there will find a way to make [it] tolerable. But it's still dislikeable," he says. "That's interesting, you know? Sometimes they're the most hopeless characters."
Hopeless or not, Pullman's characters always grab our attention, even when his screen time is limited. The actor says he doesn't approach parts with the intention of making them stand out. Rather it seems he's able to distinguish exactly what is especially fascinating or human about the character. "I remember [in] Igby Goes Down, there were a lot of actors in that movie, but there was something really compelling about [my] part that I just saw right away," he says. "When people started to see the movie, I remember, [co-star] Amanda Peet said, 'You know, I didn't remember that part, practically, in reading the movie.' I don't think anybody really quite saw how important to the story that character was in terms of defining Kieran Culkin's part; who he was is so much predicated by my character and my separateness from that world."
In approaching the material once he picks out these essential qualities, Pullman notes that one thing is key: being in sync with the director of the project. "You always hope that you share the same sensibility as the director. You can do any kind of work, and if they don't really get it, you're never gonna get it in the film," he says. "There have been a lot of times where…every time [the director] calls for a second take, it's away from what I was [working] toward, and it's something else, and I hope I can find that…. So much of what really intrigues me is sometimes not necessarily the overt things but the secondary level, tertiary level of things, which is behavior and moments that can be unpredictable."
Despite these thoughtful words, Pullman is stumped when it comes to offering advice to aspiring actors. "I never really listen to any advice, so I'd hate to become part of this 'blah blah blah' of advice that no one really should listen to anyway," he says, eyes twinkling devilishly. "Whenever anybody tried to make me learn something, I never learned it. When someone tells you something that you should always remember, I never remember it. It's like a lost cause, it must be my brain or something. It goes, 'Oh, they're telling me something that's supposed to be important to me? F*** them, I'll do my own thing. I'm gonna decide what it is that I'm gonna be doing'…. Really, you should just be doing your work, you should be focused on connecting to parts and trusting your own instincts and owning what you do and not making it in the shadow of somebody else." BSW