by Mary Cochrane-McIvor  October 2015

What do President Thomas J. Whitmore and Othello have in common?  Both are career soldiers.  Both are strong, disciplined military commanders who have achieved great victories. Both lose their wives in tragic, violent circumstances. Oh, and Bill Pullman has played both of them.

Pullman created the character of President Whitmore in Independence Day (1996) and will return as Whitmore in Independence Day: Resurgence  shooting this summer In Albuquerque, New Mexico. Pullman portrayed Othello in a production at Den Nationale Scene, Bergen, Norway in early 2015.

On November 15, 2015 New York Stage and Film will honor Bill Pullman at its annual winter gala.
“Bill Pullman is that all-too-rare creature---a long-working actor equally adept at leading-man roles and character parts, large-scale motion pictures and intimate Broadway dramas”----artisitc director Johanna Pfaelzer.   And, I would add, equally gifted and adept at comedy and drama.

Bill Pullman
Photo:  Claudette Barius

After a long and deeply rewarding sojourn working in the theater starting with the revival of 'Sticks and Bones' at the New Group in New York, Fall 2014 ( Bill Pullman, Outstanding Lead Performer, Drama Desk nomination) and culminating in a passionate, complex, well-received portrayal of Othello in Norway, Pullman finds himself back in front of the camera shooting Independence Day: Resurgence, the long-awaited sequel to Independence Day. When Pullman and I first spoke, he had just begun work on the set and things were off to a good start.

Just how did Pullman land in Norway at the respected repertory company den Nationale Scene playing the iconic role of Othello? And what is he doing playing Othello in the first place?

Pullman describes his experience portraying Othello as “provocative, visceral, and re-juvenating”.  He has a history with Norwegian Stein Winge, an acclaimed director, sometimes seen as a formidable presence. Winge directed Pullman in a production of 'Barrabas' at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1986, a good experience for both. (Note: Mel Brooks saw 'Barrabas'. He was looking for “a leading man with comic timing” to play Lone Star in “Spaceballs”. After seeing Pullman as Barrabas in the play, he cast him in “Spaceballs”.)
Pullman and Winge had discussed re-uniting to do a project, a non-Shakespeare project. Then Winge put the idea out there of Pullman playing Othello in Norway in a production in English and Norwegian.

Siren Jorgensen (Desdemona) Bill Pullman (Othello) Den Nationale Scene,  Bergen, Norway.  Photo above.

To Pullman, and many others, this was a very provocative idea, sparking an immediate and intense conversation often starting with ' how dare you do this?' And, of course, yes, Othello is always played by a black man in the U.S. (or a white man in black face: Laurence Oliver, National Theater Company, London, England). In Norway, and other places in Europe, Othello is sometimes played by a white man. In fact, the story of Othello has at its core a view of Othello as the outsider, the great professional soldier brought in to get a job done for the Venetians, but still ultimately an outsider. Using English and Norwegian in the Pullman/Winge 'Othello' underscores the reality of Othello the outsider who might not always understand what's being said and done on several levels of language and culture.

Pullman and Winge put a lot of time into laying out and working on their concept of 'Othello' beginning their discussions even while Pullman was still appearing in 'Sticks and Bones' in New York City. Pullman had recently appeared in 'Healing Wars', a multimedia performance about the experiences of American soldiers, sailors and their doctors and nurses dealing with the realities of injury, recovery, healing and death in wars. Winge encouraged Pullman to explore his experience in 'Healing Wars' and use everything going on in him about that to bring to 'Othello'. Pullman says Winge was interested in “what war does to the human mind . . what it means to be a casualty who is healed means . . . you were cracked . . . sometimes that crack is still there and you live in denial . . of that”. Since Othello has been in wars on the battlefield since the age of 7 , taken a lot of hits and suffers from epileptic fits, his physical problems are concurrent with other events in his life. Pullman and Winge did not want the presence of Othello's physical problems to become the central focus for his motivations and actions.
As the play begins, Pullman describes Othello as “invincible . . . at the top of his game” but he has a psychological history based in the reality of his epilepsy, vulnerability and the fact that he has had so many physical injuries. These realities make the play “Othello” much more than just the idealized journey of the tragic hero prone to jealousy.

'Visceral' is the second word Pullman uses to describe his 'Othello' experience. He says that doing a Shakespeare play “can just be about style” but Stein Winge's vision, concept and practices as a director create a “visceral connection to what is happening that is totally unique”. Pullman describes it as an “Othello”: “about the darkness that lurks in human souls. Shakespeare got that in a visionary way in 'Othello' . . . . unique because it's a small, condensed nugget of what happens with 2-3 people at the core; doesn't sprawl into various subplots; it has incredible focus . . . this inevitable march toward a husband doing the worst as a result of his conditions”.

Bill Pullman as Othello. Den Nationale Scene.
Bergen, Norway

The question of what motivates Iago and why Othello is apparently easily taken in by his deceits and betrayals remains. Pullman says that he, Winge and Jan Saelid (Iago) “wrestled with what that relationship was”. Winge saw Othello and Iago as having a 'brother' relationship. In exploring that brother relationship Pullman and Saelid worked hard to make the relationship specific in their performances.
Ultimately, Pullman saw the situation between the two this way: “Once he (Iago) finds out he can be so successful with his little innuendos, they start to have a life of their own, then the tornado starts---all of that stuff precipitates the action (of the play)”.

Living in Bergen, Norway for over 3 months to rehearse and perform “Othello” was an intense and enthralling experience for Pullman. He loved being surrounded by the history and architecture of Bergen which dates from the time of the Vikings and was captured and used as an outpost by the Germans during World War II. Pullman says he woke up every morning thrilled to be surrounded by “this monolithic, fairy-tale castle”. The Norwegian people were very welcoming and Pullman's efforts to immerse himself in the Norwegian language made an even deeper and better connection possible.

Bill Pullman & Jan Saelid (Iago) in 'Othello'. Above.

Working with a repertory company where actors are permanent members of the company, used to performing together concurrently in several plays at once---alternating between lead and supporting roles----this was a new experience for Pullman. He found their sense of ego to be different in that they are more used to talking and working together on ideas. Also, they have training they rely on that can make them very conservative in their acting choices, sometimes getting caught and lost in the details.

Pullman brought a “sense of freedom” to this mix and “made strong choices” and found himself “stepping on toes lots of times”.

Norwegian theater critics, unaware of Pullman's solid training, grounding and experience in theater, were surprised but impressed to see that he could handle much more than American blockbusters---even Shakespeare, in his passionate, powerful, dazzling portrayal of Othello. Audiences found this 'Othello' so intense that it was a “scary” experience for them. Bill Pullman and Stein Winge plan to work together again in the near future.
When Pullman and I spoke, he was shooting Independence Day: Resurgence, the long-awaited
Independence Day sequel, returning in his iconic role as President Thomas J. Whitmore.
Sequels can be a dicey proposition, varying from wildly successful to utter disasters. Making Independence Day was a good experience for Pullman and the other cast members and a phenomonal success at the box office. Why risk a sequel?

Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin went back and forth for a long time over a possible Independence Day sequel----finally deciding they wanted no part of a sequel unless they had a good story to tell. When that good idea arose: the aliens attacking in 1996 sent a distress signal when confronted by resistance on Earth. Given the size of the Universe, the signal sent took a long time to reach their compatriots. But the distress signal was received and will be responded to in Independence Day: Resurgence.

Why did Bill Pullman decide to return for the sequel? He recalls the Indepndence Day shoot as a good and exciting time. Pullman was originally considered for both President Whitmore and David Levinson. However, Pullman said he would like a shot at playing the President and won the part----making it his own. Who can even imagine a 4th of July now when they don't watch Independence Day or see 'President Whitmore' give THE speech?

Bill Pullman as President Whitmore
in 'Independence Day'

Working on the ID4 set had the atmosphere of being in a family according to Pullman. The cast members were all interesting people to know and work with. Pullman says that same level of connected, inclusive humanity also pervades the set of Independence Day: Resurgence.

Photo, above: Cast of  INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE.  IDR Press session. 20th Century Fox.

The events of Independence Day are referred to as the War of 1996 in Independence Day: Resurgence. The children of that time are young adults now. The new actors playing them in IDR have been welcomed by the original ID4 cast. Pullman has that same sense of warm connection with the newcomers describing them as “mischievious . . . [and] ready to embrace the adventure” of being part of Independence Day: Resurgence.

A strong and abiding affinity for Roland Emmerich and an appreciation for his approach to writing and directing also brought Pullman back to the sequel. Pullman was surprized at how “collaborative” and “interested in getting input from the actors” Emmerich was. In fact, certain parts of the script remained fluid, open and dynamic right up to the shooting of the scenes. Pullman says that Emmerich often has an instinctive idea based on broad images for which the actors find the realities and details.

So, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on a sound stage Bill Pullman describes as a huge room filled with blue that “looks like a moon station”, is filled with jets and Humvees, is the largest sound stage in North America (48,000 square feet!) –-- on that sound stage Independence Day: Resurgence was shot during  summer 2015, wrapping principal photography on August 22.

With the incredible advances in CGI, 60% of Independence Day: Resurgence was shot with bluescreen. Those 1996 aliens did, after all, destroy all or most of the major cities on Earth.  Pullman says that the scale of Independence Day: Resurgence is far beyond that of Independence Day  and describes what is being put on the bluescreen as “extraordinary”.

Fighter jet.  INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE. 20th Century Fox Studio.

Twenty years after the War of 1996, what has become of President Whitmore? Where is he? What is he doing? The simple answer is living in Virginia. The US President revered as “a hero to the world” has, according to Pullman become “more and more isolated”. Using a cane (Roland Emmerich's idea) and physically disabled with brain-related problems, an inner-ear imbalance, even PTSD (Bill Pullman's idea), he is a far cry from the triumphant hero at the end of Independence Day.  His daughter Patricia works for the current President. Patricia's relationship with her father is complicated. She is caring for him and very protective of him as the story begins.

Bill Pullman as President Whitmore. IDR. 20th Century Fox.

Pullman considers the role of President Whitmore as it appears in Independence Day: Resurgence to be even more interesting than he was in Independence Day.

And what of President Whitmore and David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) ? There was an uneasy peace between them at the end of Independence Day : “Not too bad, David. Not too bad at all” ---President Whitmore.  During the IDR shoot, a very important scene between Whitmore and Levinson was delayed and discussed for some time----what would they say to each other in the scene?  After the scene was finally shot, Roland Emmerich said to Bill Pullman: “It's good to see how complicated your relationship has remained”.

Jeff Goldblum,  Bill Pullman on the set of 'Independence Day: Resurgence' for the June 2015 press session.  20th Century Fox.

Pullman brings a consummate passion with a drive to investigate and bring to life the most potent choices and telling details in creating his characters on stage and onscreen.

Returning 20 years later to Independence Day: Resurgence to play President Whitmore, that passion and drive informs and vitalizes his work shooting the film. That high standard poses challenges in shooting a film very different from the challenges of performing on stage in the theater. A film shoot requires multiple shots from different angles of the same scene. For instance, a conversation between 2 people requires 3 cameras from different angles and multiple takes. There is a long to mid-range shot of both characters and a mid-range shot of each character from opposite directions. Each shot may require multiple takes. As an actor in the shot, Pullman describes a need to achieve a balance for each take between “being present and quickly immersing yourself” but not “over-emoting”. He believes it is important to “surrender . . .do your best and hope everyone is investigating all the choices”.

Next up for Pullman after IDR is “LBJ”, a film about President Lyndon Johnson. Pullman will play
Senator Ralph Yarborough, rival to and conscience of LBJ.  It is a role Pullman is looking forward
to with great anticipation . He is already preparing for the part, reading a biography of LBJ while filming IDR . As always, working hard to bring his work to life and perfect the details.

Just why do people love Independence Day and anticipate the sequel so intensely?  Roland Emmerich called Independence Day a fairy tale, which is a story with supernatural or fantastic elements in which a character(s) are faced with a horrific problem or situation they have to deal with.  If they fail, there will be grave consequences. To survive, they will have to draw on every ounce of strength, resourcefulness, humor, intelligence, cunning, determination, courage, in short, everything they've got.  Independence Day, in addition to being a fairy tale, redefined the disaster movie in that the characters and their individual stories were at the heart of the tale.  Fire engines flew through the air, streams of fire from alien spaceships torched cities all over the world, the White House blew up, but the real story was about the people facing this catastrophe and how they dealt with it using everything they had to survive.

Bill Pullman's take on the draw and uniqueness of Independence Day is that the story's focus was that “all of us are under attack. Earth [is] saved by the connection of all of us, [we] have to figure out a way to overcome” [the threat to us all].

So, in Independence Day: Resurgence, will President Whitmore overcome his own demons and his crippling isolation in the face of the new threat posed to the people of Earth by the aliens' return?
Will he fly again?   Spread the word: Independence Day: Resurgence  arrives June 24, 2016.

© 2015 Mary Cochrane-McIvor.   All rights reserved.

Bill Pullman and Roland Emmerich at the IDR press session.  20th Century Fox.