Bill Pullman: ‘The term late bloomer sounds an awful lot like loser’

Bill Pullman was 32 years old when he starred in his first film, 1986’s Ruthless People. This is, he notes, at least a decade later than most movie stars get their big break. “The term ‘late bloomer’ sounds awfully like loser, but I guess it’s what I am,” he says. “It sounds to me like a politically correct term for: ‘You’re stupid. Why did you take so long?’”

The reason he took so long is theatre. Prior to Pullman’s Hollywood career, during which he has hopscotched from film noir (Lost Highway) and kids’ films (Casper) to horror (Lake Placid, The Grudge), romcoms (Sleepless in Seattle, While You Were Sleeping) and a triumphant blockbuster (Independence Day), he spent much of his time directing and acting in plays. Even a catastrophic fall during a student production of Ibsen’s Brand, which caused a brain haemorrhage and put him in a coma for two and a half days, didn’t put him off. He was 21 at the time and playing the titular pastor who, at one point, climbs up an ice church, which in this production was constructed out of the bodies of the other actors. “I was climbing up on people’s shoulders, someone moved and then: boom! Down I came,” he recalls. “I never did go back to Ibsen after that.”

Pullman, who is 68, is talking from New York where he is in rehearsals for Theresa Rebeck’s new play Mad House, a black comedy about familial dysfunction set in rural Pennsylvania. It is his first theatre role since the pandemic and the time away has made the process that much sweeter. As an actor, he says, “you want it to be lively, you want to hear ideas that you haven’t heard spoken communally in a while. You want to feel that charged energy of simple entrances and exits.”

Pullman talks in a low, laconic drawl but his eyes are bright and full of mischief. He has the air of a man quietly enjoying a joke that he’s not sharing with the class. When he’s not travelling for work, Pullman and his wife, the dancer Tamara Hurwitz, divide their time between Beachwood Canyon, Los Angeles, and a cattle ranch in Montana that he has co-owned with his brother for 30 years. Nowadays he is mostly in charge of infrastructure – fence mending, irrigation and so on – although when his three children were young they spent long summers there, during which Pullman would roll up his sleeves and muck in. “If you’re having to plug meds up the butt of some beast, a lot of other things seem very manageable,” he says.

Bill Pullman (centre) in Independence Day.
Oval officer … Bill Pullman (centre) in Independence Day. Photograph: Everett/Alamy

In Mad House, he plays patriarch Daniel, who has advanced emphysema and is being looked after by his son Michael, played by David Harbour (Stranger Things’ Jim Hopper). “Daniel is circling the drain,” Pullman says. “The one son who is available for care-giving is the son he feels the need to grind on the most. There are two other children who show up wanting to talk about what’s going to happen to the inheritance, though my character is cagey about it, choosing to torment them instead.” As the play progresses, Daniel becomes increasingly frail until he is confined to a hospital bed, though he continues his campaign of cruelty. “You can still wage war from a horizontal position,” says Pullman.

The scene of a family gathered round a bedside resonates with the actor. “My father died in my arms,” he says. “I wasn’t there when my mother died. But I have three brothers and three sisters and we’re all at that precarious age now where there are illnesses. A friend of mine calls this stage ‘shooter’s alley’.” Pullman, who grew up in Hornell in Steuben County, New York state, comes from a family of doctors. Both his parents and his grandfather worked in medicine, “so they had this ability to talk objectively about disease and death. Even when it was happening close to home, they were into the data and the miracles of medicine and the body.”

I always felt there was something useful about being a bit of a chameleon or a cipher

Pullman was never tempted to follow his parents into medicine, but it took him a while to find his passion. After high school, he studied construction, imagining he would end up restoring old houses for a living. But then he got involved with the college drama department where one of the professors encouraged him to act. Pullman went on to do a degree in theatre, followed by an MA in directing. In his 20s he took a teaching post at Montana State University. In the end it was money, or the lack of it, that lured him back into acting. “I loved Montana and had a good life there, but the pay was poor and there was this itch that hadn’t been scratched.”

So Pullman and Hurwitz moved to New York, where he appeared in assorted plays including Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, opposite Kathy Bates. In 1985 he moved to Los Angeles where parts in Ruthless People, with Bette Midler and Danny DeVito, and Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs set his film career in motion. Pullman found himself frequently cast as “the guy who loses the girl” (see While You Were Sleeping, A League of Their Own and Sleepless in Seattle, where he is dumped by Meg Ryan), but was able to show greater range in the late 1990s as the troubled sax player Fred Madison in David Lynch’s Lost Highway and as the US president in Independence Day. For years, strangers would come up to him and ask him to recite his famously defiant Independence Day speech – “We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight!” – although, he says with faux-menace: “I learned to beat them back.”

The last few years have been mostly taken up with The Sinner, the detective series in which he plays a grizzled cop grappling with past trauma. After the success of the first season, it was recommissioned as an anthology series, with Pullman’s character as the only constant. “I was really scared signing up for it,” he admits. “I admire actors who find joy in doing eight or nine seasons of the same thing, but my mind is too crazy. I thought I’d wither on the vine. But the showrunner Derek Simonds was great and we would talk before every season about where the story would go. So I never did get bored.”

For years, Pullman was in the odd position of being a household name who was forever mistaken for the late Bill Paxton, star of Apollo 13, Twister and A Simple Plan. Even now, Pullman’s Wikipedia page has a slightly impertinent note at the top: “Not to be confused with Bill Paxton.” Pullman blames the confusion on the plosives in their names, though I suspect it’s more to do with their everyman personas. In 1998, at the height of Pullman’s fame, the critic Greil Marcus was moved to write American Berserk: Bill Pullman’s Face, a lofty treatise plotting the evolution of America through the actor’s film roles, in which he decried his ordinariness and ubiquity. When I bring it up, Pullman exclaims: “My God, you read that?” but stops himself from saying more. When I ask what it was like to be scrutinised so closely, he replies: “I always felt there was something useful about being a bit of a chameleon or a cipher. And so I thought: ‘Wow, did I get that wrong! I thought that was meant to be the idea.’ But sure, it’s not always the money-maker. If you have a brand just being yourself as a star, it’s a little easier to build wealth.”

Pullman adds that he has always enjoyed the fact that when strangers approach him to say “I really like you in … ”, he can never predict what film they will say. “I have no idea whether they’re going to say Casper or Spaceballs or The Sinner. To have that variety in my work makes me feel lucky. I always wanted to be the vessel, where I could get possessed by something.”

In his article about Pullman, Marcus also quotes Lynch who, on researching Pullman’s back catalogue while casting for Lost Highway, said: “I always saw something in his eyes … I saw the possibility for rage, for insanity.” Does that ring true, I ask? “If you’re talking about rage then that lands me right back to this play,” Pullman replies, clearly pleased at the opportunity to bring our conversation full circle. “In the past I’ve had characters rage against conditions, and rage against injustices. But this guy, Daniel, needs to inflict rage, to incite rage. But, you know, I’d forgotten [Lynch] said that. I think he was probably on to something.”

Mad House is at the Ambassadors theatre, London, to 4 September.