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20 Questions for Bill Pullman

A chat with the busy actor, now appearing in Beth Henley’s ‘The Jacksonian’ at the Geffen Playhouse.

Since Bill Pullman began his professional acting career on the New York stage in 1983, he has appeared in more than 60 films. On Broadway, he created the role of Martin in Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? and played opposite Julia Stiles in David Mamet’s Oleanna. Pullman is currently at L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse through March 18 in Beth Henley’s newest play, The Jacksonian, where he plays Fred, a bartender with a dark secret.

AMEIRICAN THEATRE: In your film career, you’ve been known to play upstanding people, but in theatre, the opposite seems to be the case. Is that intentional?

BILL PULLMAN: In theatre, the characters I have played have been on the outside, very anti-establishment, in a way—characters that underneath have this turbulent, feral side. And this year, I’ve done two things, the TV series “Torchwood,” where I played a murdering pedophile, and this movie Innocent, where I was a judge who may have killed his wife. I don’t know; maybe I’ve jumped past my upstanding-citizen side. Maybe that train went out of the station and I’m on another train.

Is it just the natural progression of a life as an actor?

I don’t know. I was attracted to the theatre because it’s a great environment for looking at all of humanity. And there’s an expansiveness to what it is to be human that doesn’t really have much to do with good guy, bad-guy. I think all actors fight against that, pushing against type.

What kind of exploration are you doing to wrap your mind around your character in Jacksonian?

I learn the most while I’m up there and physicalizing it, and the information just passes into my muscles. I think that’s one of the reasons I like Beth as a writer. She is extremely connected to the female perspective in the characters, but I think her men are incredibly important activators in the play, and they offer really strong contrasts of instincts.

My character has been typified as a sleazy bartender, and there’s nothing better than to be angry at what people call you. A lot of this play is about denial and pride, when you have no good right to it—about what’s going on in a culture of denial at this particular point, Mississippi 1964, and the ways in which you maintain the artifice while you’re being pulled into the swamps.

There’s a scene in Jacksonian where you swallow a butter knife. How do you do that?

[Laughs] In some ways that’s the easiest part of the play. As with all things these days, it starts with YouTube. I wanted to see if I could find somebody who could take 29 inches, because that’s what I profess to do in the play. Then I read about a guy who was very experienced at it, but then something went wrong and they had to flip him up upside down in order to pull the sword out! So as Rosie says in the play, “Why would you do that?” I think: “Glory!”

How many inches are you getting so far?

I’ll keep that to myself. It’s kind of a great metaphor, because you’re trying to relax muscles that are under involuntary control, which is the process of what a lot of theatre is for me. It’s shedding the reflex of fear and being accepting of what’s coming at you, even when it’s 29 inches of solid steel.

Have you seen anything funny recently on YouTube?

The Gregory Brothers are pretty funny—they do the autotuning stuff. It’s kind of like a miracle. And I’ve been on a jag of watching tap dancing because it’s like standing next to a waterfall; you just get a charge of ions. I’ve been watching Eleanor Powell.

Who’s your favorite playwright?

That would really keep me out of work if I answered that question! [Laughs] I don’t have a favorite. I like them all. It’s like when people ask me, “What’s your favorite movie that you did?” You’re picking one child over another child, and that kind of gets my goat.

How do you think President Whitmore from Independence Day would fare in today’s political climate?

There isn’t much room for self-doubt nowadays. And he’s a man who takes a while to realize when to take strong action. But when he does, he is committed. I imagine he would be a good president, but who knows whether anybody would like him? It’s a ruthless environment out there now. There’s a kind of shrill rejection, and that seems to be the only level of discourse going on. It’s not a world that Whitmore would have wanted to be in.

At least there are no aliens.

Are you sure about that? We’re early on. They don’t like to show their hand in these early debates.

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