Interview date: 06/15/2009
Run date: 06/25/2009
There’s a tendency to think of Bill Pullman as the nice guy, the everyman, the sort of fellow who’s as nice a guy in person as he is in the movies. Based on the conversation Bullz-Eye had with him recently, it appears that this is indeed true…well, at least, if you pick the right movies. For instance, you definitely wouldn’t want him to be as nice as Sam Hallaway, the guy Pullman plays in director Jennifer Lynch’s new film, “Surveillance," which opens in theaters on June 26th as well as on Video On Demand. The guy is the antithesis of “nice.” But, man, Pullman turns up a heck of a performance. We spoke with him about his role in the film, how he enjoyed working with his young co-star, Ryan Simpkins, and if he got a “like father, like daughter” vibe when working with David Lynch’s daughter.
Bullz-Eye: Hey Bill, how’s it going?
Bill Pullman: Pretty good.
BE: Pleasure to talk to you.
BP: Thank you, Will.
BE: Well, there’s a certain amount of irony that my previous interview was with the latest victim from “Harper’s Island.”
BP: (Laughs) Oh, my gosh. And you knew that I did that version.
BE: Yeah, I don’t even know how many people outside of TV critics know that you played Uncle Marty in the original pitch reel for “Harper’s Island.” At the TCA panel for the show, Jon Turteltaub referred to your appearance as “a ‘While You Were Sleeping’ favor.”
BP: Oh, that’s true. Well, he is a great guy to work with, and I had a good time.
BE: So what’s the back story on that? I guess he just called you up and asked if you would mind stepping into that role for the pitch…?
BP: Well, yeah. 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 afterwards, 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, and, you know, 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.
BE: So on to “Surveillance.” You’ve worked with both David and Jennifer Lynch. I wouldn’t ask you to lay out the differences, but was there a “like father, like daughter” vibe for you at any point?
BP: Well, yeah, they’ve definitely been woven from similar cloth. My favorite are the smallest levels of just the way that they both love smoking cigarettes. You know, how they have characters smoking cigarettes joyfully or concentratedly or passionately. In “Lost Highway,” I remember how crazy David was just with joy at being able to get the soundtrack of the paper burning on a cigarette. And him loving it. (Starts into an eerily accurate David Lynch impression) “You’re smoking now, Bill, and it’s really tasting good.” Then they have another cigarette moment in “Surveillance,” where the character is so glad to be able to light up. It’s kind of not very P.C. (Laughs)
BE: Well, I saw the film a couple of weeks ago, and about three quarters of the way through the film…um, I describe your performance as taking a turn into what can only be described as batshit crazy. Is that what you were going for?
BP: (Laughs) Well, it’s hard to just do that, generally. I think I had been able to keep in check, thanks to the vigilance of my girlfriend, Julia. It’s great to have a partner in those things, where you are appreciated for who you are.
BE: When you were working with her, was that kind of how you approached it? That you just tried to play the character as in-check as possible whenever she was around?
BP: Well yeah, she knew that I had a wild streak, which she probably loved but knew had to be…you know, my enthusiasm for being there and everything probably needed to appear less so. She was very good at that. She had a less transparent demeanor and encouraged me to do the same.
BE: How was it working with Ryan Simpkins? She seemed to really have – as a child should have – the innocence down, but she managed to see both horrified and fascinated by what was going on.
BP: Yeah, I think Jennifer has kind of an unusual instinct as a director, not to over amp kid actors in those situations. The cliché, I guess, or the normal, easiest road is that you see something horrible and your face responds, and it’s, “Let’s get that on camera.” And Jennifer knows that human nature isn’t often that way. Sometimes we’re so stunned that there is like a non-response that’s horrifying to watch as an audience. You know, that kind of failure to compute is even more amazing. And then with Ryan, it’s a failure to judge, to just see the world as the way it is. In a way, I think that’s the ultimate surveillance that Jennifer Lynch is trying to pick up on.
BE: I talked to Jennifer a couple of weeks ago, and I applauded her use of Cheri Oteri and French Stewart in the movie, having them play against type.
BP: Yeah, and they gave good performances too.
BE: Definitely. French in particular had some very darkly humorous moments in the film. Was that hard to play, a film that was both violent and funny, if not necessarily ha-ha funny sometimes?
BP: Well, you know, I was really glad when I finally saw the movie and I saw everybody’s performances. I didn’t get to see a lot of stuff until it was edited. I really felt like everybody shared the same thing, it was like ensemble acting in that way. I think I really attribute it to Jen and how she was really encouraging to everybody to find that bravura or whatever. You know, being most purely you and not holding back. Jen really gave everybody permission to do that.
BE: Did the violence in the film cause you to hesitate at any point?
BP: Well, you know, I don’t know what it would have been like had I been around a lot of it. The kind of cheat that I got to do was I didn’t really need to be there for some of the most violent stuff. It allowed me to live in this kind of way that kept me from feeling like I was sitting in a sewer for months at a time.
BP: Yeah, that period where imagine that you could make a discovery that your child isn’t functioning the way you wish every kid could be functioning, it’s kind of traumatic.
BE: How did you fall into that particular film? Because your performance was really great, particularly that reaction shot where you spoke to Phoebe harshly and suddenly realized what you had done.
BP: Well, when I read it, I went, “Oh, this is interesting material,” but then I wasn’t even sure if I liked the part that much, because…I don’t know, I felt like he was ancillary to the women a little bit. But in talking to Ben Barnz and Daniel (Barnz), particularly, but the both of them, I kind of realized it was really interesting. And then we did do some changes to the script and everything, where I felt it was a little bit more…where he was more active as a character. And then I was really glad I was part of it.
BE: And you worked with Campbell in “Singles” as well.
BP: Yes. And Campbell is so brilliant in “Phoebe in Wonderland.” Have you ever seen any more complicated character than that principal?
BE: I forget the exact phrase that I used when I was describing it to him, but it was something like, “He’s the guy everyone loves to hate by way of the clueless authority figure. “
BP: Yes, yes. (Laughs) And quite devious. Amazingly devious.
BE: Oh, definitely. So with “Singles,” I feel like it’s kind of an underrated movie.
BP: Yeah, yeah, and Campbell’s great in that, too. I definitely appreciate it when people respect that movie and his performance in it. It was a fun thing. And, you know, for me, it was a little different than those guys, because it was a strange case of less is more.
BE: You just worked with Bridget Fonda, really.
BP: Yeah, but there was a whole plot of her and I, and we shot a whole story, but then Cameron (Crowe) came back and said, “You know, Bill, there are so many characters in this movie I’ve written. You’re the last one to come aboard, and we really just realized once we edited all together, it was hard to tell yet begin in the middle of the movie with a whole yet another character. So we ended up cutting it down.” He said, “ I feel terrible.” But when I watched it, there is so much kind of unsaid things between Dr. Jamison and Bridget’s character. We were playing it like we would go on and have an affair…which, as we filmed it, we did. We shot scenes with us in a bathtub together with a thousand candles around us. We went through the whole arc of me being an older guy and having to come back to her and say, “Look, I was just recently divorced. I don’t know this Soundgarden stuff.” (Laughs) And then it ended up being just an edited thing of a spark, one that just never got fulfilled. In a way, it was better.
BE: In ’97, you managed to work with both Wim Wenders and David Lynch, making you a king of indie cinema, and yet you were coming off the back of one of the biggest grossing films of all time in “Independence Day.” Do you have a crisis of identity, or are you just an actor who likes to keep acting?
BP: (Laughs) Well, I mean, gosh, when you think about the privilege of working with David or Wim, you would be stupid to turn it down.
BE: How serious were the “Independence Day” sequel talks? Did they ever reach a point where you really felt like it was going to happen?
BP: Well, you know, I never really got intimate with it all. You realize that, especially nowadays where sequels are so lucrative, there must have been a lot of deep creative problems that kept it from happening.
BE: My daughter has just discovered “Casper,” so she’ll be thrilled that I talked to you.
BP: Oh, now that’s a good classic to be a part of.
BE: And “Zero Effect” is a film that I actually only discovered because the soundtrack is so awesome, but once I finally saw it, I loved it.
BP: Oh, how did you hear about the soundtrack?
BE: Because Elvis Costello was on there, as well as a great band called the Candy Butchers. Do you feel like “Zero Effect” is one of those films that, one of these days, will be rediscovered and praised as a lost classic?
BP: Yeah, I do. You know, a couple of months ago…the L.A. Times has a thing now where once every other week or so they have a column called “Second Watch.” I think that’s what it’s called. But they found “Zero Effect” and trumpeted it. So I’m hoping that it stays alive that way. I think that Jake (Kasdan) did a great, unique script. That’s the kind of thing that’s hard to market. They would say, “Oh, it’s two stories. It’s a buddy film and it’s a romance, and those are hard to sell,” and all that stuff. It came out right after “Titanic,” so…I don’t know. It just didn’t get that immediate thing. But, then, there have been a lot of people that have found it later.
BE: Would you say that’s one of the films that you’ve done that didn’t get the love it deserved? Were there any others that immediately leap to mind?
BP: Yeah, well, that one, and I also thought “Mr. Wrong” was funny. I wished that had done better. You know, some of the comedies have been fun that didn’t get found out. But that’s the way it goes.
BE: Did you feel like your NBC miniseries, “Revelations,” was underrated? Because I really enjoyed it.
BP: Oh, good! You know, it was a really great, exotic thing to shoot. Now, my phone is beeping like it’s going to cut off, like the battery’s low or something, but…you know, I think Natascha (McElhone) was an interesting character, and the fact that, with “Angels and Demons” and all those movies, you know there’s an audience for it. It’s just that television is kind of tricky.
BE: You did the remake of “The Virginian” for TNT, where you starred and directed. Were you on the fence about doing it and then they pitched you the idea of directing?
BP: No, I love that story and I just really wanted to direct it. It was a great, great experience. It was something I really cared a lot about so I was glad to get the chance to do it. I kind of have looked for something like that since, but I haven’t found it.
BE: Were you happy with the way it turned out?
BP: Yeah, yeah, I was. I’m really glad Diane Lane was able to be a part of it, and
John Savage. It was at a time where doing it was kind of like a Bergman-esque Western in some ways. I really felt lucky to be able to do that.
BE: Last one, and I’ll tie it back to “Surveillance”: how do you think your performance is going to effect Greil Marcus’ essay about you, "American Berserk: Bill Pullman's Face”?
(Writer’s note: if you’ve never read it, Marcus has said of his essay, “I was fascinated by the way he played this person who seemed to embody a kind of resentment, and disgust and anger, but also had the face of someone who has given up — and it was the face of the country having given up on itself.”)
BP: Oh gosh, I think he’s finally going to say, “See, I was right.” He was on to me. I tried to keep it a secret, but it’s out now.
BE: It sure is. Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you Bill.BP: Oh, great. Good to talk to you!