Known for his roles in Hollywood movies such as Independence Day and Lost Highway, Bill Pullman has maintained a varied stage career and is currently starring in All My Sons at London’s Old Vic. He tells Kaleem Aftab how he nearly went into academia before pursuing acting and why theatre retains an irresistible allure
Bill Pullman is mulling over what makes Arthur Miller such a popular playwright of the moment. “A play like this is so dependent on shame and the horror of being caught, and being shamed to your community and the disgrace,” he says of All My Sons, currently playing at the Old Vic. But then comes the kicker: “Disgrace and shame… they seem to be old-fashioned concepts.”
Pullman, whose more than three-decade career runs from 33-seat theatres to Hollywood blockbusters, plays Joe Keller, a businessman whose partner took the rap for issuing defective cylinder heads to combat planes during the Second World War. The war now over, Joe likes to read the newspaper, but not the news pages. He indulges his wife Kate – played in this production by Sally Field – in her belief that their missing-in-action son Larry will return home safe and sound. Joe sees himself as the bedrock holding his family together.
“You listen to All My Sons, and you get a sense of what truth was, what it was to be honourable. That has an ironic context now, I think,” Pullman says in the conservatory of his temporary London home a few minutes walk from the theatre he is performing in until mid-June.
The 1947 play was Miller’s first Broadway hit, yet it seems to be a play for our times. It deals with fake news, alternative facts and what happens when consumerism is placed above community. “There’s a lot of things that are similar and human about the play, about covering our mistakes, looking to justify materialism in a lot of different ways,” says Pullman. “But the allegiance of humanity was very strong at the time and we’re kind of missing that now.”
Miller is currently hot property on the London stage. On the back of the huge success of A View from the Bridge, five Miller plays are being performed this year: The American Clock, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, The Price, and All My Sons. “They are all good plays,” Pullman says. “The Brits are up for some tragedy.”
It’s easy to see why Pullman is attracted to Miller. The actor is into big ideas, the concept of a greater good and looking at the past to see how we can understand the present. He is also intrigued about how people see the world, and it’s his ability to absorb these viewpoints and give expression to them that have made him such a fine actor.
He discovered acting at college. The sixth of seven children of a physician father and nurse mother, he was studying building construction at the State University of New York at Delhi, in the Catskill Mountains. He was cast in a play, and after experiencing the rush of performing, he was smitten, transferring to State University of New York College at Oneonta so he could major in theatre directing. A voracious student, he took all acting workshops and saw as many plays as he could.
‘In the UK, you see young people valuing EU participation, then you ride around in a taxi and the driver doesn’t want to be part of it’
It was theatre that first brought Pullman to the British capital, though he says: “Boy, the difference between London in 1973 and now.” This time around, Pullman arrived in the UK with the media awash with stories about meaningful votes and indicative votes to establish Britain’s future relationship with the European Union. “It’s very confusing here for me,” says Pullman. “There’s a great sense of divide, and conversations not being had because you don’t know who you are talking to. You see young people protesting and valuing European Union participation and then you ride around in a taxi and the driver doesn’t want to be part of the union.”
More than four decades ago, he spent a semester in the capital, living in Finsbury Park, where he indulged in radical political plays. A production that has stuck in his mind was one performed by a Manchester municipal theatre company about a train coming through town. “They found first-hand accounts, and made it dramatic with lots of theatre techniques. And I thought: ‘Wow, you can make theatre happen from so many different things other than just waiting for a playwright to write a story.’”
Pullman admired agitprop groups such as Red Ladder Theatre Company and Scotland’s 7:84. Another favourite was American Charles Marowitz’s Open Space Theatre. “Marowitz was doing plays, kind of collage and things, interpretations of Hamlet and so on. Also there was the Fun Art Bus, a double-decker bus that they made into theatre, and you would be at a spot and you would get on for 20 minutes and get a little piece of theatre. It was so diverse.”
The actor used some of these techniques himself in 2007, when he put on a space-exploration play, Expedition 6, at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, about the efforts to save astronauts on the space station left in limbo following the loss of the Columbia Space Shuttle. He clipped articles from the LA Times and searched out first-hand accounts, and then met with eight actors trained in low trapeze and developed the show.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working for the Anchor Bank as a new accounts officer. You had a card table in the lobby where you signed up people to new accounts – and you could give them a toaster if they put in $500 or more.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Aphra Behn’s play The Rover, at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC. She was the first professional female playwright in English and she was also a spy.
What is your next job?
The Sinner (TV series) – third season coming up this autumn.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
The importance of finding your own voice. I went to New York to find work as an actor, and I realised you really want to look for those things that are extraordinary, not expected. That’s what made me more interested in the work, and made the work maybe more interesting to others.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Paul Austin. He had no national profile, but had this little space, the 33-seat Image Theatre, at the top of a five-floor walk-up. I’d done analysis and character work and college classes, but something about his approach built a foundation – or was the glue that held it all together for me eventually.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
I trained as a theatre director and there was a period where I thought I would run a regional theatre company or something like that. I started out in a vocational school for building construction so that was something I was thinking maybe I could do: build houses and barns. I was really interested in barns.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
My own usually starts one hour before curtain. It involves music and movement and certain things I put myself through to get my focus and connect to some key emotional moments in the play, especially this one. You know that some days if you don’t prep for it, you’re not going to get there in an evening show.
Pullman’s own life has been one of professional exploration and endeavour, and he discovered he was happier acting than he was directing. “I wouldn’t have said that I was a natural as a director. I was quite shy doing it,” Pullman says. “One of the first plays I directed was a one-act play by Tom Stoppard, called Albert’s Bridge. I remember casting it was so traumatic for me, because I hated the process of picking one actor and disappointing another.”
In fact, at one stage, he looked like he may have forged a career in academia. “I think the first time I started teaching was in graduate school. The guy who cast me in the first play that I was in at the vocational school said: ‘I’m going to take a leave of absence and I want you to come and take this job and hold it for me.’ ”
Pullman did such a good job that when he finished graduate school at the University of Massachusetts Amherst he was offered a teaching job at Montana State University. “I thought maybe this is a bird in the hand. My salary was $13,000, which was big money for me then. I did it for two years and I realised if I stayed any longer, I might never try to…” He tails off, lost in thought at what that life would have been like had he stayed. The performances he would have missed, the movie career he would never have had.
If he had become an academic, the biggest legacy of his stage life would have been when, aged 21, rehearsing for an Ibsen show he fell 15ft, waking up from a coma a few days later with no sense of smell. As fate would have it, one of the jobs that Pullman took after he quit his teaching gig and moved to New York to pursue an acting career was at an Upper West Side wine shop. “So I would have to memorise how the wines tasted and then tell customers the different experiences they would have with drinking it, even though I had never done it myself.”
He left the job because the shop owner’s desire to earn a quick buck was greater than their honesty: “They had a little red dot on some bins, that was meant to be the good price, but it was really the biggest mark-up. I wasn’t ready to do that, but I did a lot of desperate things. The New York Times used to hire people to do their polls and that’s a traitorous business, bothering people, trying to keep them on the phone.”
Doing these jobs to get by, Pullman lived in East Village and was struggling to get acting jobs in the city: “There is a phenomenon that happens when you go to New York, when you first start taking classes and everything, you realise that the real paying jobs that are available to an actor are to go to the regions and do regional theatre, or go to Rochester, New York, which is one of the places I went.”
So he travelled to get gigs. He performed Eugene O’Neill’s comedy Ah, Wilderness! in Rochester, Aphra Behn’s The Rover in Washington DC and appeared in a William Mastrosimone play called The Woolgatherer in New Jersey. “There was a catch,” he says. “You could get paid, but then no one would see you. You couldn’t get an agent. It was just really important to nourish your soul – to feel the climate of what it was like to be a working actor.”
‘The 1980s glorification of hyper-greed felt repulsive. I constantly had to recalibrate my sense of money as a shallowness of character’
Wanting to make it in New York, he decided to turn down regional jobs. He had become friendly with Paul Austin, who ran the 33-seat Image Theatre, and it was there that Pullman acted in his first play reviewed by the New York Times: Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, in which Kathy Bates played Pullman’s mother.
It was now the early 1980s and America was changing. “That was something that I remember being astounded and disappointed by. The whole Wall Street phenomenon and the glorification of hyper-greed felt repulsive in some ways. At the same time, I was in New York and meeting more wealthy people than I had ever met before and I realised that there were so many great people out there. I constantly had to recalibrate my sense of money as a shallowness of character.”
The attitude of the government to the arts also changed. “There were many programmes that helped sustain non-profit theatres via the government. Then Reagan came and killed all that. At that point, there was such great promise about the regional theatre in America, with groups such as Steppenwolf Theatre appearing, that regional theatre would become kind of a big network of vibrancy that wasn’t dependent on New York. But theatre turned in a direction that I didn’t admire anymore.”
Pullman’s disillusionment with theatre becoming commercialised and a chance role on stage in Los Angeles led him to the movies. “Because I had done The Woolgatherer, the playwright William Mastrosimone had a play Nanawatai that was going to be done in this new theatre centre in Los Angeles. I had never thought about going to LA or the movies or anything else like that then.” Pullman also appeared in a production of All My Sons there in 1986.
He went to LA at the onset of a movement that attempted to start a theatre scene there in the late 1980s. “There was a little blip in LA theatre history,” says Pullman. “There was this guy Bill Bushnell who had a vision to take over an old bank building in the downtown area of LA, which was bleak in those days: desolate, lots of homeless people, lots of drugs and things. And he called it the miracle on Spring Street because he said it [Los Angeles Theatre Center] was going to help gentrify the whole area.”
The Los Angeles Theatre Center lasted from 1989 until 1995. “Bushnell got a lot of money for it and he had a four-theatre complex, so it was like [New York’s] Public Theater on the West Coast. They brought over international directors and new playwrights to work there – it was like we were at the beginning of a theatre that was going to be important. But after three years, you could feel that the whole financial structure it was built on had tapered down.”
Once in Los Angeles, Pullman was encouraged to audition for films and quickly landed a part in Ruthless People, alongside Danny DeVito and Bette Midler. Then Hollywood really began to woo him away from the stage: “A couple of people were giving me the real smoke up my butt. I remember riding in a cab with a guy who was high on cocaine and he was like: ‘You have no idea what is going to happen to you.’ ”
They were right. Pullman appeared in several iconic movies – Spaceballs, Lost Highway, While You Were Sleeping and Independence Day – becoming recognisable throughout the world.
For the first time, theatre would take a backseat in Pullman’s career. That was until the new century. “Out of the blue I got this offer to do this Edward Albee play on Broadway. It was a really challenging play and I had to work hard to get it.”
The play was The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia?, and at first he turned it down. “I thought: ‘I can’t do this part, it’s horrible.’ He falls in love with a goat and it’s so strange. And my agent was really not for it. But two or three days it just came back to my body and I got up from the kitchen table and thought: ‘Wow, I am this character.’ ”
It was a different New York experience from his days broke in East Village. “They found me an apartment on 71st Street and I had a car take me to the theatre. It was a very problematic play and was going to have its premiere on Broadway, which is rare. I had a young family at the time, and I remember telling my wife Tamara: ‘I would say for you all to come move here but I don’t think the play is going to last, we can’t really be sure.’ ”
His kids have now grown up – his youngest, Lewis, is an actor, his daughter Maesa is a singer-songwriter and Jack makes puppets – and the Broadway experience was such a good one that he decided to work plays into his schedule at least once every two or three years.
That was the way it worked until four years ago, when he spent a year on stage, which completely wore him out. “I did The Healing Wars in Washington, Sticks and Bones in New York, and then Othello in Norway. That was the last thing. It was a big, brutal piece of theatre. In some ways, I thought it may be enough, it was really hard.”
Norwegian director Stein Winge, whom Pullman first met at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, came up with the idea of Pullman playing Othello arriving in Norway and unable to speak the language. Pullman had lines in both English and Norwegian, which he had to learn phonetically.
“It took a lot of focus, because I would learn by the sounds that they were saying. But the actor playing Iago in the production was starting to change the words that he was using. They have a big thing about which words to choose – bokmal or nynorsk [standard written Norwegian or new Norwegian] – so he started changing it. That’s when I felt: ‘We’ve got to get the director back and see if we can stabilise this thing.’ ”
The experience marked Pullman like no other play had done. “That whole thing was so scary. I dropped about 20 pounds doing it, and just became so fit, I was really the fittest I’ve ever been in my life, before or after.” It was never likely to be his curtain call on stage, for while Pullman is widely recognised for iconic movie roles, theatre remains his first love.
Born: 1953, Hornell, New York
Training: Stat University of New York; University of Massachusetts Amherst
• The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia?, John Golden Theatre (2002)
• Oleanna, John Golden Theatre (2009)
• The Other Place, Samuel J Friedman Theatre (2012)
• Ruthless People (1986)
• Spaceballs (1987)
• Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
• While You Were Sleeping (1995)
• Independence Day (1996)
• Lost Highway (1997)
• The End of Violence (1997)
• John Cassavetes Award, Denver International Film Festival (2008)
• Master of Cinema, RiverRun International Film Festival (2008)
• Excellence Award, Locarno Film Festival (2016)
• Excellence in Film award, Woodstock Film Festival (2017)
All My Sons runs at London’s Old Vic until June 8