Bill Pullman: "Acting . . It's Never a Done Deal"

by Mary Cochrane-McIvor

When I arrive in Manhattan to meet Bill Pullman for an interview, I find myself face to face with Detective Harry Ambrose of “The Sinner”. I'm quite taken aback until one of Pullman's trademark plaid shirts and familiar smile snap me back to reality. Pullman has just come from an abandoned prison on Staten Island where he was doing a location shoot for USA's “The Sinner”. He plays Det. Harry Ambrose in the limited run series premiering August 2. Maybe it was Pullman's longer hair perfectly done by the studio hairstylist, his stance and demeanor, the look in his eyes at first, but I did catch a glimpse of Det. Ambrose. That aura of intense, three-dimensional reality and humanity that Pullman brings to his characters is his hallmark.

In 2017, Pullman is a hot property. In addition to having a long, successful, durable career, he has five movies arriving this fall and is starring in “The Sinner”, the USA network's flagship summer series. He is the star of “The Ballad of Lefty Brown”, a western, a film close to his heart for many reasons. And he stars in “Trouble” as the pot-head brother of Anjelica Huston. But he takes a practical and philosophical view of this bounty of upcoming releases and premieres, describing it as like “the night before Christmas . . .which is a nicer feeling than halfway through Christmas when you're only looking at half the presents.”


Bill Pullman
copyright 2017 Mary Cochrane-McIvor All rights reserved.

While Pullman appreciates “the potential and variety” of his upcoming releases, he realizes that they each have to find an audience and hopefully some critical approval. Each one will have its own life in that respect. He notes that if you ask an actor what some of their own favorite movies they've been in are it is often “some of the least seen ones . . .like that child that nobody else quite realizes is as special as you do.”  Pullman often mentions the little known independent film “Liebestraum” as one of his favorite movies he has appeared in. Have you seen it? He plays a grasping, mercenary land developer, a real villain who wants to tear down a historic building.

In August 2016, Pullman was honored with the Locarno Excellence Award Moet and Chandon at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. “This prestigious award celebrates one or more internationally acclaimed actors or actresses, who, through their work and talent, have enriched the cinema with their unique contribution. “  ( www.pardo.ch )  Pullman is proud to have made “a connection to the audience [in Europe]” and believes that to be a sign of “global appreciation” of film. Other recent awards include one from the Cornerstone Theater, Los Angeles, for Pullman and
his wife, Tamara Hurwitz Pullman. Pullman was also recently honored by New York Stage and Film.

“The Sinner”. Why is it so eagerly anticipated? It was the USA network's first choice for its summer line-up. When it premieres August 2, filming will not be finished yet, something Pullman has not encountered before. The pilot was premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April.

Murder and detectives play a huge part in “The Sinner” but, strangely, there is no mystery about who the murderer is. A young woman with her family on the beach suddenly gets up, walks over to a man nearby and stabs him repeatedly. She has no idea why she has done this, but realizes she did do it.

The small town police are eager to wrap up something they see as “a shameful thing to have happen in a small town.” The young woman, Cora (Jessica Biel) admits her guilt and tells the police to ship her away. But Det. Ambrose (Pullman) feels compelled to “find out why” since Cora “killed someone in a very feral way that women her size aren't normally capable of” with emotion, passion and repeated stabs of the knife. Det. Ambrose's powerful compulsion is to find out “why she did what she did.”

Pullman says there is “no pat explanation for Ambrose's compulsion at the beginning” of the story, like a similar experience in his own life or previous cases.  According to Pullman, the director, and cast, there will be many things revealed as the story unfolds. Co-star Jessica Biel (Cora) has said that she found herself being continually surprised and caught off guard as she read the novel, “The Sinner” on which the series is based.  Biel became determined to not only produce
the series, but take on the role of Cora.

Det. Ambrose has, perhaps deliberately, some shameful things going on in his life. Pullman says:
“the journey he (Ambrose) takes to find out why he's doing it parallels finding out why she did what she did. . . the most classic center of noir is that the central character, detective or whatever
person is trying to find something out, ends up really discovering his own identity in that journey.”

Pullman likes the opportunity that Det. Ambrose's 8-episode journey affords him.  But, just how does an actor maintain the level of hard work, focus and commitment that journey demands, even an actor as creative, powerful and open as Pullman?  But, wait, they just have to get out there and say their lines, right?  Wrong.  Acting is about using your voice, body, mind, life experience and training to live a character's life in your performance.  Pullman compares it to a lab experiment: “it takes as long to to put the ingredients together as it does to run the experiment. You work to make sure you can bring the ingredients to your work every day.”  He realises his own “sense of playfulness when preparing for a scene sometimes wants to buzz off and add new aspects of his character.  But I try to discipline myself to first recover the aspects that I believe are the baseline for the character.  I tend to review physical conditions for the character, and occasionally listen to songs related to his attitudes  ”

For Pullman, there are two crucial things when he is acting: “being available to discoveries (about the scene and the character) on the day (of a shoot) . . . and staying open to discoveries from the other actors.” Add to that: " I have to be ready to adjust to the position of the camera and how that might put constraints on how I naturally would behave."

Director Antonio Campos recalls that Pullman wanted pictures from the crime scene spread across the floor, rather than doing a scene sitting at a desk looking at pictures. (Antonio Campos, Interview, USA network.com) Campos was happy to second Pullman's choice about the pictures. Jessica Biel has talked about Pullman's openness and fluidity during a scene: “ his pattern of speech is always a surprise. You never quite know where he's going to go. You have to be a really good listener.” (Jessica Biel, ' How “The Sinner” went from text to television',USAnetwork.com/the sinner ) For all interviews, trailers, clips, photos, articles about 'The Sinner', visit:

Where is Det. Ambrose's journey headed in “The Sinner”? Pullman says it is “the journey of someone who made choices that are not helping . . . (he finds himself) caught living the consequences of . . .the wrong choices.” As he looks for redemption and insights, Cora
becomes a surrogate for him since: “ You can't really save yourself unless you have some objective sense of what you've done.”

If “The Sinner” is well-received, it may become an anthology series with the Detective Ambrose character continuing. Pullman says he is definitely up for continuing as Ambrose if that happens.

Lewis Pullman, Bill's son, has become an actor. Lewis made his feature film debut in “Aftermath” and has just finished shooting “The Strangers 2”, his first film lead.  Bill's reaction to his son's career choice was: “It's never a done deal with success in acting, there can continue to be so much pain, so much rejection.”  He is, neverthless, proud of Lewis and supports his choice. Father and son are in “Battle of the Sexes” and Lewis has a role in “The Ballad of Lefty Brown”.

Pullman has been away from the theater for awhile. His play “The Wild Hunt” has been 'on hold' because he has so many other projects going on. Act Two of the two-act play “The Wild Hunt” is nearing completion and Pullman is hoping for a workshop of the whole play in late fall.

The upcoming film release closest to Pullman's heart is “The Ballad of Lefty Brown”, a western, his favorite genre. He plays the title character in a film he calls an “intimate western”. The part of Lefty was written by Jared Moshe for Pullman.  In what he calls 'the first miracle that happened', it was shot entirely in Montana, half of it was shot twenty minutes from the Pullman ranch. His wife, Tamara, and children Maesa, Jack and Lewis all appear in the film along with many of the Pullman's Montana friends. More about “The Ballad of Lefty Brown” in the next interview.  And, make no mistake, Pullman would absolutely love to do another western.

Although he won't admit it, Pullman looks tired.  A 5:30am call followed by nine hours of shooting on location, with some scenes repetitive and procedural (entering and exiting rooms in the prison) and other scenes requiring that openness to discovery in the moment, who wouldn't be exhausted after all that?

Acting truly is “never a done deal” when it is approached with the discipline, focus, physicality,
concentration, openness to discovery, playfulness and creativity that Bill Pullman brings to it.
Get ready for the journey and the discoveries. “The Sinner” premieres on the USA network
August 2.

Premiere: “The Sinner” August 2  USA network
Upcoming Films: Battle of the Sexes – September 22,  Walking Out -  October 22,
LBJ – November 10,  The Ballad of Lefty Brown  -  December 8  (available on DirecTV
one month earlier),  Trouble  TBD

© Mary Cochrane-McIvor 2017. All rights reserved.


Bill Pullman in "Liebestraum"

Bill Pullman at the Locarno Film Festival

Det. Ambrose interrogating Cora

Pullman as Det. Ambrose in 'The Sinner'

Pullman directing  'The Wild Hunt'

"The Ballad of Lefty Brown"

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Bill Pullman
copyright 2017  Mary Cochrane-McIvor   
All rights reserved.