Bill Pullman is a familiar face that’s hard to define. The eighties found the actor taking a comedic direction with “Ruthless People” and “Spaceballs”; by early the next decade, he was heading into romantic territory in a string of studio romcoms that culminated with “While You Were Sleeping.” The late nineties epitomized the versatility of Pullman’s career, when his roles ranged from the disoriented center of a Kafkaesque nightmare in David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” to the committed U.S. president in the midst of alien invasion in “Independence Day.”
While that film and its rousing speech remain Pullman’s best-known achievement, they hardly begin to epitomize the sheer range of performances in the actor’s roster. Even as Pullman returned this year to play that character for “Independence Day: Resurgence,” he remains nimble as ever, preparing to star in the independent western “The Ballad of Lefty Brown” while developing a play. In the midst of this packed schedule, Pullman found some time to drop by the Locarno Film Festival, where he received the Swiss festival’s Moët & Chandon Excellence Award. Shortly before a public discussion of his career highlights, the actor sat down with IndieWire at his hotel to discuss his career philosophy, why he’s wary of television projects and social media, as well as his gloomy assessment of the current election season.
For years, you’ve been seen as the rare actor who can move between blockbusters and independents. How do you relate to that perception?
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A lot of people just ask me about how I can do small budgets and big budgets, but many actors do both. I think the more self-destructive impulse I have is doing so many different characters. Sometimes you fall into the niche of being the confidant guy, or the good-looking guy, or being too charactery, or not charactery enough.
People say that about you?
Oh yeah, because I haven’t been able to contain myself. I’ve always wrestled against being typified in one way or another.
So how could you justify going back to your role in “Independence Day”?
It was such a different part. There may have been an expectation that I’d be the same guy, but I knew the premise for many years, that we’d pick up the story and Whitmore would be a very changed man. His psyche’s become fragmented. So I was always very interested in seeing what could happen with this guy.
Given that it took 20 years for this movie to be made, do you think it turned out well?
Roland [Emmerich] said he’d been waiting for years to get a script he believed in, but sometimes you can hide behind a statement like that. It was masking his real fear that it would be a lesser movie and diminish the great pride of what “Independence Day” was for him. It’s a unique movie in his oeuvre. He didn’t want to tarnish that. But the eventuality happened. We made it.
You’re following up “Independence Day: Resurgence” with a very different project: “The Ballad of Lefty Brown,” the second western from “Dead Man’s Burden” director Jarod Moshe. How did that come to you?
Jared came to me like a year ago through [talent agency] ICM. Because of his experience being a producer, I always felt like it was going to happen. A lot of times the agents say that a filmmaker wants to talk to me, but they don’t have the financing, so let’s not waste any time. With him, it was different. I really felt there was confidence — and confidence from the people around him that he would pull it off.
So what appeals to you about it?
It’s about someone who’s been a sidekick for 40 years until the legendary cowboy gets shot. Lefty says, “I’m going to avenge his death.” Everyone around him says, “You’re not the guy for this.” So there’s this insecurity: Here’s a guy who’s never been a leader, being born again at 62 years old, and trying to define himself as a man. That’s the kind of character who’s not a President of the United States.
How do you assess the different roles offered to you?
There are different things for different kinds of media. There are film projects and TV projects; they’re all equally important to me. Television tends to be a more difficult medium for me to get my head around sometimes when it comes to certain things I get offered. I didn’t watch much television as a child and I don’t now. I’m a little bit under-researched.
What’s the hardest thing for you to figure out when you get offered TV projects?
I guess it’s trust. You’re given the description of a character with maybe one or two scripts, then you have to sign on to something that could go on and on. My trust of that is so low. I’m so used to just having one script. With “1600 Penn,” which was my only real venture into anything that got made — it was a miracle to me that we were able to make 13 episodes. I was probably the only one in the whole cast who went, “That’s kind of enough.” Everybody else was disappointed when it got canceled. It felt like an arc to me. I don’t see it as a defeat that we weren’t picked up for another season.
But I’m also amazed at how television has changed. There’s great awareness of social media presence. It sounded like a sinister plot when NBC’s social media person didn’t just want to talk to me; we had to schedule a very important discussion about their expectations. They don’t want to say “expectations,” but they’re asking, “How many followers you have?” I don’t hear it discussed as much in film. But in TV, it’s an ongoing thing. There have been enough precedents where shows in jeopardy get to stay around longer because the cast appeals to their social media followers. You’re having a dialogue with your fans both as your character and as yourself. I remember being with some actors at a party and they asked to take a picture for their Twitter. Suddenly, you’re brought into this thing. There’s a weird dissonance to it: We’re just at this party, and now we’re going to invite our fans to know what we’re doing here?
Sounds very Kafkaesque. Like that Philip K. Dick adaptation you did, “Your Name Here”…
It never got released! That was an interesting movie. I thought it was such an interesting approach to make a seventies-style exploitation version of Philip K. Dick. It was a quite disappointment that it didn’t come out. You feel bad your whole life when you pour yourself into a project and expect it to go somewhere. That was the only one that didn’t get released just because of a terrible producer and the director getting caught in those issues. I wish there was a forum to get that movie out. It didn’t get released because of political problems, not because it wasn’t good enough. It was clouded by legal and rights issues.
You’re still writing plays. How do you manage to exist in that world while keeping your film career going?
My interest in writing for the theater is a small thing. In the film world, people are sometimes disappointed when they don’t do something big, but with theater, why waste your time expecting that? And you can quickly put together a play, far faster than you can do a movie.
So you must see a lot of filmmakers suffer to get their work out there.
It’s very punishing for directors. They get a certain wind in their sail and all of a sudden it’s gone. Sometimes you can feel it. But I think there’s always this sense of reinvention. I wrote a play about astronauts called “Expedition 6.” Those are guys in their forties who experience the most extraordinary thing, going to space, and they get to talk about what they saw — and then they don’t get to go again. For the rest of their lives they will never experience something that great. I think that happens sometimes in our business, too. There are those directors who make incredible movies, then the next one isn’t so great, and then they don’t get another shot for a lifetime. I always thought Elia Kazan did it right. He made a great movie, “America America,” after his rise. Kazan was on a lifeline that was diminishing and then it was extinguished, so he wrote novels. If you have to switch horses, you still keep riding, whether people give you credit for it or not.
As someone who has played a president on more than one occasion, you must have a strong opinion on this election season.
American politics are being reflected globally, and we’re seeing this thing that’s benignly called populism — a simple name for a complex condition. The world is changing so fast. In many ways, it comes down to great stories of our cultural identity, and how that is being threatened. That’s not just felt in certain segments of the American population but all around the world. I’m not sure how long this period of insecurity is going to last, but sometimes insecurity can consume you. You might think it’s just normal that we’re insecure and we’ll overcome it by making the best decisions. But maybe not, maybe not.
Is this something you’re looking to explore in your own work?
Actually, the play that I’m working on now is called “The Wild Hunt.” [Pullman wrote and starred in the project, which premiered in January in Denver.] It’s about the folklore of winter solstice, going back to the times when winter solstice was considered a sign that the darkest days were upon us and we didn’t know if the light would return. It’s set in a modern time, but it also harkens back to Norse mythology. It has these double realities going on. But it’s really about this dark impulse of man to self-destruct.
And how do you see that relating to modern times?
When you see something like the Brexit vote, the kind of thing where you assume people would make the right decision — that Darwin was right — there’s also Darwin’s ghost, this self-destructive side. The stakes are high. Brexit could be very punishing to that nation’s cultural history. So what can happen if that same impulse expands elsewhere? Petulance gets to win the day. All of a sudden, we’re making bad choices.