Now He’s the One Who Has the Edge : From ‘Sleepless’ to ‘Sleeping,’ Bill Pullman Wakes Up in a Lead Role
You remember Bill Pullman. He’s the sweet guy with the allergies Meg Ryan dumps for Tom Hanks in “Sleepless in Seattle.” Although he has had his share of nervier roles, the 41-year-old actor is most closely identified with his also-ran parts in films like “Seattle,” “The Accidental Tourist” and “Sommersby.” Always amiable and somewhat befuddled, any edge his characters possessed was usually blunted in deference to the films’ protagonists. This was a man in serious danger of becoming the Ralph Bellamy of the ‘90s.
So when “While You Were Sleeping” director Jon Turtletaub proposed Pullman for the film’s romantic lead opposite Sandra Bullock, the reaction was predictable. “The five geniuses in this business,” Turtletaub says, were skeptical.
In “While You Were Sleeping,” which opens Friday, Pullman is again affable and charming, but this time he has an edge. And this time it’s he, and not co-star Peter Gallagher, who wins the hand of the fair maiden. Based on preview reaction, “Sleeping” will add spit and shine to Bullock’s rising star. But it’s Pullman who’s being talked of as the film’s real surprise, subverting audience preconceptions by being downright romantic in the classic Jimmy Stewart-esque manner. He has one gallant gesture toward the end of the movie that has elicited sighs and tears from women in preview audiences.
Next month, audiences will see him as an eccentric therapist (shades of Fred MacMurray) in the special-effects-laden “Casper"--a role that may not win Oscars, but for his three children, ages 2, 5 and 7, is the definition of cool.
Pullman is early for an interview, nestled in a dark corner of A Votre Sante on the ever noisily-under-construction La Brea Avenue--sipping coffee and carrot juice, furiously jotting notes on a yellow pad about a script he is developing as part of his production deal with Castle Rock Entertainment.
Close up, he doesn’t have a movie star demeanor. He hasn’t cultivated what one friend calls the “peacock preen"--head always titled at a flattering angle, life as photo opportunity. With an easy, slightly diagonal smile and just the right touch of scruffiness, he reminds you of a better-than-average-looking building contractor, teacher or director of the local theater troupe. Not surprisingly, he has been all three. Like many a small-town guy, he is wary of strangers.
Pullman hails from Hornell, N.Y., which he later paints in the palate of Frank Capra overlaid with David Lynch. “When your father’s a doctor, you know everything that happens,” he says. “You’re aware of the people who work very hard and the ones who are hurting each other.”
It’s only when he’s hit with adjectives like “nice” and “normal” that he opens up and goes on the offensive. You’re reminded of Turtletaub’s comment: “Bill is very kind and a very fun guy. But he’s always ready for a fight. You need that or you’re a Graham cracker.” Pullman is no bland cookie.
“This whole thing about nice guys (finishing last) is a modern phenomenon,” he says. “It’s the climate of the stories right now. But I’ll tell you, I run into World War II-generation guys in airports and they say things to me like, ‘Win one for the nice guys.’ There’s a certain audience that wants to see nice guys win. It just takes a certain kind of story, a certain kind of director, a certain kind of truth. And it needs edge.”
Besides, he points out, anyone who thinks of Bill Pullman as a normal Joe shows “a shallowness of perception.” “If you say somebody’s a normal person, that’s just somebody you don’t know very well.”
To know Bill Pullman very well, you have to study his circuitous, four-decade route from Hornell to Hollywood, which took him through years of theater work in Montana, New York and with the now-defunct Los Angeles Theatre Center. You have to recall Pullman as the dumbest blackmailer alive in “Ruthless People” or the goofy sci-fi hero in Mel Brooks’ “Spaceballs” or the sociopathic charmer in “The Last Seduction.”
“I’ve gone through a lot of permutations,” he says. “I spent a lot of time working on having chops, to be able to successfully pull off a range of roles.”
His first stroke of good fortune was being the youngest of six children. Otherwise, he might have followed his father into the medical profession, as many of his siblings did.
“Lots of children of physicians have trouble doing anything else and feeling worthy. My older brothers had that,” he says. “I got to do anything I wanted. I had a sense of spontaneity they weren’t afforded. When I didn’t go to Wesleyan, my dad didn’t threaten to never let me in the house like he did with my brothers.” (Pullman has a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.)
But it also meant that it took him longer to define himself. “I’ve shed a lot of skins in my time,” he says, recapping his careers in construction, then in theater as a director and drama teacher, and finally as an actor. “It all kind of makes sense now, looking back.”
The years of “chops” gathering have paid off in the strangest ways, such as during the filming of “Casper,” when he was balanced precariously at the top of a 65-foot staircase sword-fighting with three ghosts--actually empty spaces awaiting computer graphic images. “When you see me fighting with (emptiness), I look insane. But it has to be incredibly precise. It’s really all in your imagination.”
He links the development of that imagination to his early days as an actor trekking through Montana in the ‘70s with an outdoor summer theater group. “We did the classics all over the state, outdoors, in summer. Very adventurous productions. When I finished graduate school they offered me a teaching job--$13,000, a lot of money. So I stayed.”
After that skin had been shed, there was the obligatory stint in New York, living in a scruffy walk-up on 9th Street and Avenue C, then a stint with LATC, “a terrific place for me--I did four plays in five years and movie roles. It was very European to be able to do both.”
But the theater company folded, and except for an occasional opportunity like the 1993 production of Beth Henley’s “Control Freaks” with Holly Hunter, and staged readings such as Michael Weller’s new play “Lake No Bottom,” he has moved from pigeonhole to pigeonhole as a film actor--now he’s dumb, now he’s nice--not always happily.
“Film is a collaboration and you can’t have tantrums,” he says. “You have to find a non-destructive way to assert yourself. I went through a phase where I was afraid of my own anger. I was hugely frustrated.”
He is speaking in particular of his roles in “Sommersby” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” where he says he was promised more than he got. In particular, “Sleepless,” which was presented to him as a “Philadelphia Story” kind of movie in which he would be Stewart to Tom Hanks’ Cary Grant and Meg Ryan’s Katharine Hepburn. “I had specific ideas on how to make that happen. It just was never really integrated into the movie.”
But that’s what happens when you’re playing “third” roles, he says with a shrug. “Third roles are usually people who end up going down, getting dumped, getting shot.”
He always had a begrudging admiration for the kind of actor who has a “vibe” on a movie set--"an arrogance that’s useful for getting your breakfast burrito. People really respond to no fear.” It just wasn’t him. Then, a metamorphosis occurred--not during any shooting but rather amid discussions about “Stranger Things,” a never-produced film that was scuttled by what are commonly called creative differences. “I finally learned how to vocalize my opinions in an instructive way. It was truly an enlightened moment.”
And when Turtletaub came knocking with the script for “While You Were Sleeping,” offering him the role of Jack, he once again pushed past the boundaries of his timidity. “Jack was an underwritten role. He was an a priori great guy. But there were no specifics. He sounded all whiny and unhappy.” During a cast reading, Pullman says his reservations about the script boiled over into a “huge hot flash.”
“It was a scary journey. I didn’t know how well they’d receive my forcefulness.” Turtletaub and producer Roger Birnbaum tried to salve him with all the traditional assurances--we’ll fix it, we promise it’ll get better. But, with a difference. “They actually did what they said they would do,” Pullman says.
Explains Turtletaub: “Bill brought a lot to the script from what was already there, and we saw he could clearly bring a lot more that wasn’t there. We didn’t want him to just be a handsome guy who ends up with the girl. We wanted him to be an interesting guy who ends up with the girl.”
Working with the writers and sometimes winging it during production--often long after the day’s shooting had wrapped--Pullman and Turtletaub hashed it out. “We worked hard during the shoot,” Pullman says. “It was not a country club movie.” It was worth it. The sum of “Sleeping,” he says, has turned out to be greater than its parts. “Turtletaub is a very satisfying director. And Sandra, a phenomenally wonderful non-mannered actress with an instinctive sense of finding funny without putting headlights on it.”
He also has kind words for “Sleeping’s” No. 3--Peter Gallagher: “Peter has great teeth.”
Having found his voice, what Pullman wants to do next is direct. Actually, produce and then maybe direct. Through an evolving relationship with Castle Rock for whom he starred in “Sibling Rivalry” and “Malice"--and almost “Stranger Things"--he now has found a home for his production company, Big Town, a first-look deal.
He’s developing a range of projects from more commercial properties to scripts by lesser-known playwrights. So far he has no plans to star in any of these projects, which he says frees him. “I’ve been working every day since I got back from Chicago (where “Sleeping” was filmed). I find it very satisfying. I have no trouble putting an endless amount of time into it.”
He is about to resubmerge for a new acting assignment, “Mr. Wrong.” “I’m packing my bags to cross the ocean,” he says somewhat cryptically. The comedy will actually be shot in L.A. But in order to become his character, Pullman says he has to mentally leave town. As the eponymous love interest of both Ellen DeGeneres and Joan Cusack, Pullman will take one step further from “nice” to a character “with a huge appetite--and no fear.”
But before he goes, he will hole up for a spell in his small town in the big city, his Hollywood Hills home complete with the children, his wife, dancer Tamara Hurwitz, and a newly planted orchard. “I always wanted to have fruit trees in my back yard. But I had to rebuild the house first.”