Wednesday, June 3, 2009

New Interview with Bill Pullman

Bill Pullman will open Friday, June 5 in David Mamet's Oleanna at the Mark Taper Forum. He has championed the common man in a variety of film roles over the last couple of decades, including Meg Ryan's unappealing finance in Sleepless in Seattle, and other memorable characters in classics like The Accidental Tourist, A League of Their Own and Sommersby. He's even played the Commander in Chief of the United States, but a very human one in the midst of peril, in the mega-grossing film Independence Day. No stranger to the theatre, on Broadway Pullman created the straying husband in Edward Albee's brilliant The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? An actor's actor, Pullman recently earned an honorary doctorate from my alma mater the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In our talk, he discusses Mamet's play, and his favorite roles on stage and screen.
Q: Why is Oleanna relevant to today's world?
BP: The play stands on its own as a very interesting document of two very personal responses to an issue that gets emtionalized in a very extreme way. But then also there are the issues of higher education and... sexual politics... and how they are functioning... It's a curious thing. The play was written in 1992 and a lot of the federal laws came into effect in '95 and a few years after. It seems like a lot of these issues about how you conduct yourself are almost more hyper-managed than they were at the time. So it has an interesting ramification in a world where maybe the magazine thing isn't talking about it as much but within corporations, institutions, a lot of internal politics are evolving...
(He cites the recent case of West Indies poet laureate and Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott who withdrew his candidacy for Oxford professor of poetry due to a smear campaign of allegations of sexual harassment that actually occurred over 25 years ago. The opposing candidate who made the accusations Ruth Padel, after attaining the position, stepped down after only 9 days and offered an apology.)
Q: It's just a very powerful drama - in one-act, is that correct?
BP: It's got 3 acts and sometimes people take an intermission. When Julia (Stiles) did it before in London, they had an intermission. But we've chosen to play all 3 acts together.
Q: What is your favorite film role so far?
BP: I've had quite a few, and I've really liked them all for different reasons. I've been lucky to be a part of many blockbuster which it's hard to get to that level of being memorable, but I still have fond memories of Independence Day, to be sure. There are also many small ones I've had that give me many fond memories.
Q: What's your favorite film of all time?
BP: For different reasons there are many...Lawrence of Arabia...and then there are those that have been very influential and informative to me as an actor, like Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage...
Q: Any favorite actors?
BP: I've always been a fan of George C. Scott, who was working in movies when I was in college...films like Patton and Hospital. I was really impressed by him, and I had seen him onstage as well in Uncle Vanya. He was a champ to me.
Q: I saw him do the comedy Sly Fox on Broadway.
BP: Oh, yeah...
Q: He was so irascible...
BP: (laughs)
Q: Is there one play that stands apart from all the others for you?
BP: I really enjoyed doing Albee's The Goat. It's a powerful piece and a really exciting play to do...I did it originally on Broadway with the wonderful Mercedes one had ever seen it before and audiences didn't know what to make of it. There were a lot of disagreements about it. There were a lot of people vocally disturbed, audibly groaning and complaining and other people hushing them up...
Q: I heard people laughing. I think..out of nervousness, not really understanding the
BP: Yeah...It really uncorked a lot of feelings, and then when the reviews came out, things started to even out. That period of my life is about as rock and roll as I've ever lived through and Oleanna is reminding me of that. It does feel like the audiences are being tweaked into a different level of engagement.
Q: Do you long to play any role...any Shakesperean role like King Lear?
BP: I did a lot of Shakespeare touring when I was in college in Montana..there are some great comical moments as in Measure for Measure, the duke. I've always liked Shepard's (Sam) plays too. I love his language, his word choice. One of the first things I did in New York that was a real breakout for me was The Curse of the Starving Class ... I'm ready to play the older guy.
Q: Let's get back to Oleanna. What are the greatest challenges for an actor performing Mamet?
BP: I think you have to find where you're emotionalized personally and then make sure you don't make it become Talking Heads...and it's a bear too because the language is fractured and ...there's no hiding. During rehearsal...I have these 2 fast changes in the second act and my fly was down. And this is the kind of play where that can be dangerous. There's no place to hide and I turned upstage...and I just couldn't get it. (laughs)
...The play is very much a living organism. Rehearsals...explorations to find the execution ...and I'm looking forward to the run of it too. Theatre is such a privilege, for those of us who get the chance to do it. With an audience you learn so much and the challenges just get deeper.
Be sure to catch Oleanna starring Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles at the Mark Taper Forum from June 5-July 12. For tix call (213) 628-2772 or go online at

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