Back Stage spoke with him the morning after his first preview in Oleanna, David Mamet's two-hander, about to open at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, directed by Doug Hughes and co-starring Julia Stiles. The play is a series of conversations between a college professor and his female student—a study in power and behavior, the results of which are left deliberately ambiguous.
Back Stage: Tell us about finally coming back to Los Angeles to do theater.
Bill Pullman: I had worked with this producer before, Jeffrey Finn. We did a production of The Subject Was Roses at the Kennedy Center a couple of years ago. And there had been some talk about doing it in New York, but it was a very busy season when he first approached us about it—all the theaters were taken. And then all of a sudden this came up. Julia had been really the motor of the play. She had done it in London, and she had brought it to Jeffrey. They all talked about different actors, I'm sure. But at some point they came to me, and I thought it had been a long time since I had done a play in L.A., so it would be great to do it. I had done a lot of theater here. I came here to do theater, to do a play by Bill Mastrosimone, Nanawatai, which was about Russians in Afghanistan in 1985, and that was a really adventurous time for the [Los Angeles Theater Center]. And I did four productions with them, over the bunch of years while I was starting into movies, and I felt a strong allegiance to that operation. And there was a period in the '90s when the MET Theatre was doing plays that I had been part of, where there was a core of actors who all worked together a lot—Holly Hunter, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Carol Kane, Bud Cort—and so we did a couple of plays there. I did a play with Holly, Control Freaks, in '93 I guess. And that may have been the last play I did in L.A.
Back Stage: You've written things, too.
Pullman: I wrote a play called Expedition 6. We workshopped it at New York Stage and Film, and then we did it in Baltimore and at the Kennedy Center, and we did the last production at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. It had eight actors in low-flying trapezes. It was a docudrama. On Feb. 1, 2003—I see this period as really the bottleneck of history for America—everything that was before that was one thing, and for years after that it changed. On Feb. 1 is when the [space shuttle] Columbia blew up. The next day, in the paper, there were reports that 600,000 people were celebrating its loss, in the Mideast, because they said it was a sign from Allah that God did not favor America. The next day I read that there were three astronauts on the space station that were stranded because they grounded the shuttle which they had planned to use to service it and then had to come up with a plan to get them down. And they were up there on March 20 when we entered Iraq. I wondered what it would be like to be three people so far away, looking down on Earth and watching it tear apart. It was a very interesting project. There's kind of a new dimension of choreography in the air, aerial work, so I used a lot of that. It wasn't like a normal drama. I really enjoyed it, but I'm on to other things right now.
Back Stage: You've always been so busy. Aside from being a nice person, why do you think you've had such a rich career?
Pullman: Nice of you to say, but everybody has a different idea what a rich career is. For me it's been very diverse, satisfying, in my own peculiar ways.
Back Stage: Which are?
Pullman: I have a little phobia of television. I don't know what it is. So I haven't—I like the frequency of, the diversity of things in the course of a year. So I try to look for a changeup. I flirt with [working in television], and I almost just did a thing, but the schedule didn't work out—a season-long thing. But I just can't do more than one year. I am obviously looking around at it, but I just haven't found the right thing. I'm developing a TV series. I don't know what will come of it.
Back Stage: Can you reveal anything about it?
Pullman: It's hard to define it. It's probably another out-of-the-box thing that will have difficulty. There's a lot of very experienced people on television who come up with very great ideas. One idea is about—I have a friend who was a commodities trader in Switzerland. There's a strange phenomenon of a suburb outside of Zurich where most of these people—quite a few Americans—are able to trade in ways they wouldn't be [able to] in the New York stock [market]. These are combat traders, these are people who go into dangerous countries with less-than-desirable political situations, and they make deals with them. So anyway, it's basically this guy brought down by the crunch of things, and he's allowed back in the States with the proviso that he doesn't make more than poverty level, $22,000. He's the guy who has been able to provide for incredible amounts of things for incredible people, and now…. That's the kind of thing I'm interested in.
Back Stage: Last night you had your first preview for Oleanna. What sorts of things will you be working on today?
Pullman: It has a three-act structure, with no real intermission, just small breaks. It's factoring in all the dynamics of being in front of an audience—just the technical things of incredibly fast costume changes, in 45 seconds.
Back Stage: Velcro or good dresser?
Pullman: Great dresser. A guy named Paige. My pants—every night, he helps me back in, and slamming my boots on. I have these boots that have to have a shoehorn. He's down there doing all that, while I'm up doing the shirts and suit coat and belt. We haven't got it down. I went out in the second act, and one of the things we had joked about was this is the one play you didn't want to have your fly down. I realized my fly was down in the second act.
Back Stage: And you're on a thrust stage, nowhere to turn.
Pullman: Yeah. Nowhere to turn. Nobody else talking for a long time, people looking at me. And so we'll get that fixed.
Back Stage: So creating this character, you….
Pullman: You know, Mamet is its own language. I think most of what is really interesting about that funnest period that we've just gone through, which is rehearsal period, is really encountering this text. The great thing for me is that I realize, the more I work on it, the more I respect it. So I'm very glad that's happened, because sometimes that doesn't happen; sometimes you think you have something, and then it kind of, ugh, this text just isn't quite there. And then seeing it through our prism of our choices and looking to make them as specific as possible, so that we can have a real authentic, organic presence on the stage that's in tune with David's writing. His style, he captures this self-editing people do. There's lots of times when you hear people talk, they talk in sentence fragments. Mamet captures this quality that people have, they start into a sentence and shift three or four times before they actually arrive at the point. It's really fascinating, and sometimes people can sound mannered. I've seen productions that have felt very self-conscious about that. So for me the real challenge is to make that a phenomenon that you aren't aware of but that feels true to life. It means making it really specific. I'm feeling like this is a play that will require a constant vigilance toward refining and defining and making choices better and better. The characters are ready to move around what is being said and what isn't being said but is being negotiated with each other. A lot of David's plays have that quality. But this one, because of the delicacy of the environment of academia….
Back Stage: And the fear.
Pullman: Yeah. And the stakes. Sometimes people talk about theater—all the great things about theater—and then there is the fact that theater is the place where you get the most pain for the least amount of money. It can be torturous. And academia can be like that. There's a lot of people who are really looking to be comfortable, oftentimes with not a lot of money being paid out to faculty members. At the same time, colleges have incredible competition to keep students. And that means the students are being wooed more and more as the dollar gets tighter. And looking to boost the quality of the school, which boosts the endowment, which boosts the development. My hometown is in western New York State, and I'm on the board of Alfred University. It's been a year and a half, two years. But I get to see a lot of how the colleges, as an institutional machine, work. It's very sophisticated people, very dedicated people. But, you know, there is a practicality about it all that puts a lot of stress on different people who aren't making, really, a lot of money. And then the students having more and more, their interests are more closely monitored by the university so they can attract them. This is a rural area, so to get people from the metropolitan areas, you have to provide quite a bit of services.
And having been a teacher, and having two kids in college, I'm very aware, as I meet our kids' friends from college, I'm reminded once again how much of their identity is in flux. There is an incredible amount of insecurity at that age. They sequester themselves away in a little bubble in which the rules are all being written according to that bubble. They have a vague awareness that the bad world is out there; they're being told that the world is getting harsher and meaner out there—all the levels of insecurity are there. And how do you find your voice? For many of them, they haven't developed as a full person yet, and sometimes academia can arrest that development.
Back Stage: Do you have a routine you like the day of shows or the night of shows?
Pullman: I have a regime of stuff I go through. I always have to keep physical, because sometimes you can forget that you normally would be doing things like exercising, and then you stop because the time requirements are so huge to learn the lines, show up for eight hours of rehearsal—all that stuff can kind of start…. And what little time you have left, you aren't thinking about working out. But I just don't function well unless I maintain the physical thing. So I usually am jogging with the dog.
Back Stage: And then you get to the theater. Do you like getting there extra early?
Pullman: At this stage of the game I like to get there early, and I have music I use that I've selected for each project. I do that for movies, too…for things that have meaning.
Back Stage: Do you mind talking about your memorization process?
Pullman: Well, this one I really worked on the lines before the play started, because it was a big chunk of words. I had never done that—learned a script before I had started rehearsal. I've always liked to have the physicality of the space, and I just had a process of working all these years, of kind of organizing the action around having the script in my hand. But I didn't feel like that was going to be a good idea this time. So I worked. And it has interesting residue. I realize that there are some chunks of things that I learned as a kind of out-of-body experience. I didn't have physical presence; I was just learning words. So you first start in with it, and you feel like you're the worst actor ever, because all you're doing is saying the words you've learned. And it's kind of dispiriting for a certain period. I thought, "Sheesus, I think I totally am not going to penetrate a membrane that I put in there that's keeping me from what I wanted to find." But in the course of rehearsal, that wore off. So it wasn't terrible at all, and I'm glad I did get the lines before I started [rehearsing].
Back Stage: What did you notice about Julia's work process?
Pullman: She's a very poised person. She's very professional about showing up on time, being prepared, being thoughtful, spending time away from the play and bringing in ideas. She is very watchful; she doesn't jump to knee-jerk reactions to things. She kind of moves very methodically through new ideas or new blocking. And Doug has done this process where he talks to her and then he talks to me, so a lot of what he says, we don't share. It makes it good to be able to see each other on the stage and know there's things happening that we have to watch for that are different from what they had been.
The [configuration of this theater], the forum idea, it reminds me of a lecture-hall arrangement in terms of being surrounded. And the lighting positions are very extreme overhead. They don't have a lot of positions that are low. So it's incumbent upon us to address those issues. For a naturalistic play, it's a challenge. I see a lot of actors who get locked on eyes, you miss a lot of their eyes. It's an artifice that you have to accept; you have to find a way to make that plausible.
Back Stage: I'd love to talk about your teaching.
Pullman: Now I'm not teaching anywhere. I have taught. I started in academic theater. When I first graduated with an MFA, I taught in Montana State University for a couple of years, I taught at [SUNY] Delhi. Then I have occasionally done a workshop or two, usually where I had taught or gone to school. They usually involve exercises that I've been thinking of. I'm always churning around; it's just trying to trick your mind into a sense of present tense that brings you into sharper focus.
Back Stage: What are the common mistakes you notice actors making?
Pullman: I guess it's that there is a failure of an imagination for the extraordinary moment. I think a lot of acting students look to define their work in a way that what they're looking for doesn't lead them to extraordinary things. The theater, naturalistic theater, looks for behavioralism and truth and all that, but then you don't get those kinds of moments where it's something you've never seen before but it is something you've seen before. And then it's a hard thing to reach for, because sometimes people's imaginations don't, you know—theoretically, directors are good at helping actors get there and encouraging them to do almost nonintuitive things or something that is shockingly disjointed, the way life is, the way that sometimes in the most severe accidents there's this period in which no one is screaming, no one is reacting, there's a kind of like almost a vacuum of emotion that happens for a period before all the other emotions start coming in. And then how to translate that into action. I think we're in short supply for that kind of moment. And we're in short supply for counterpoint, where you're saying one thing and you're doing another. A lot of times what you do is just illustrate what the words are already saying. And I think, how do you free yourself from that? I had a great guy I worked with in New York named Paul Austin—I don't think he teaches anymore—but the name of his theater was Image Theatre, and I took classes when I first was there, but I really always loved his dedication, and he was great with texts, but to really have an image and make it work on the stage is something that is not logical or might not be specifically demanded in the text but in a kind of a counterpoint becomes this thing that brings it all into focus, or something that is in the text but just interpreted in a way that is bold and might—you know, so much of theater happens with consensus, and sometimes consensus brings you into the lowest common denominator of the way people act. So it really is a sharing of directors and actors working to stretch themselves in places that are not comfortable but lead to kind of an exciting, extraordinary moment.
Something like that, maybe.
Back Stage: Exactly like that. Best of luck in the run.
Oleanna, presented by Center Theatre Group, runs June 5 through July 12 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Tickets: (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org.
The New York native earned his bachelor's from SUNY at Oneonta and master's from University of Massachusetts at Amherst
First noted on his massive list of screen credits is a 1986 episode of Cagney & Lacey followed by Ruthless People
Received two Drama Desk Award nominations for his work in Edward Albee plays