Bill Pullman, Headed Back To '1600 Penn'

Oct 1, 2012
Originally published on October 2, 2012 1:10 pm

Bill Pullman enjoyed a star turn as the president of the United States in Independence Day. And in an upcoming NBC show, 1600 Penn, he's back in the White House. He's also starring in a new film, Bringing Up Bobby.

"This is an amazing time to be making a comedy about the White House," Pullman tells NPR's Neal Conan. "There's all these ... articles about the misspeaking that the presidents have done ... and I thought, boy, these are the lines I get to say, you know?"

And actors who play the president have an advantage over actual presidents and contenders, he says. "It's really kind of fun to have a little bit of freedom, you know, when you see how many constraints there are on the actual candidates."

Pullman has enjoyed a long career in Hollywood, and he's had a few favorite roles. Working with director David Lynch on Lost Highway, he says, was a great experience. "Everybody who, off that movie, all wanted to do something very creative afterward, because you're so aware that you got real creativity in the room."

In The Serpent and the Rainbow, Wes Craven's 1988 film, he played an anthropologist going into Haiti searching for new drugs for anesthesia. Though it was a horror film, he "thought the production design and the whole immersion into the Haitian culture was pretty successful."

Like so many actors, it's time on stage that Pullman truly treasures. He started as a theater actor and was in the first production of Edward Albee's play, The Goat, about a man who falls in love with a goat.

"It seems like an odd premise, but it ends up being kind of an amazingly tragic kind of thing," says Pullman. So when the play earned both a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize, "we all really felt like we had overcome a lot of resistance to it, an important play."

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A play running in Chicago, is based on the premise that we've all seen Bill Pullman but don't remember him. "Once Upon A Rom Com" casts him in the role of an everyman. And while he did enjoy a star turn as president of the United States, in "Independence Day" - that the 1990s found Pullman cast as the other guy in romantic comedies; think "Sleepless in Seattle." Which Bill Pullman part do you remember best - 800-989-8255 is the phone number; email You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at; click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Bill Pullman stars in the film "Raising Bobby," which opened in some cities over the weekend. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The name of Pullman's new film is "Bringing Up Bobby."] He gets another shot as the president, in a TV show called "1600 Penn," which starts in January, on NBC. And he joins us now from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, California. Nice to have you on the program, Bill.

BILL PULLMAN: Good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And I have to say, have you seen this play?

PULLMAN: No, I haven't. But I started to get some wind - from the Internet - about it, and I sent them flowers and...


PULLMAN: They were glad. And they posted it - I just watched this morning - they posted a YouTube link, thanking me for the flowers.

CONAN: Well, that's very nice of them. In fact, we did a little Internet search, and we can't find you cast in any other romantic comedy in the 1990s, except "Sleepless in Seattle."

PULLMAN: Well, "While You Were Sleeping"...

CONAN: Well, that's - yeah, that's - "While You Were Sleeping." Yes.

PULLMAN: Yeah, those were pretty popular.

CONAN: Yeah.

PULLMAN: But I think, you know, there was that period where I was second male lead; and second male lead, in a romantic comedy, usually doesn't get the girl. And I was glad to get the second male lead - it was a bump up from third male lead. But you do a string of them together, and then you've got a problem you've got overcome.

CONAN: And of course, "Independence Day" changed some things, too. But your wife died in that one.

PULLMAN: Yes. Yeah. And in the current series, my first wife died - it seems to be.

CONAN: It seems to be another recurring theme. So you still don't get the ...


CONAN: In a sense, though - I wonder, is it easier when you're not the megastar - the Tom Cruise, the Tom Hanks, the Brad Pitt?

PULLMAN: Well, you know, I've been a junkie for variety, in my career, you know; and I think I choose a lot of different kinds of things. And I - it feeds me. And it may not be everybody's idea of a good career, but it's - I'm really, pretty thankful, the opportunities I've had.

CONAN: Well, for example, this part in "Raising Bobby," it's a nice, meaty part. You're not the star.

PULLMAN: Yup, yup. That - because I don't have to worry about my box office thing. As Famke Janssen - who's been a friend of mine for over 10 years, and she just wanted to direct this project; put her heart and soul in it, and has been talking to me about it for four years. You know, of course you say yes, thinking it'll never happen.


CONAN: Then they say, all right, we want you to show up on the set. Yeah.

PULLMAN: Yeah. But - and - but I've - this year has been - I did a film in Jordan this summer with Cherien Dabis, who is a Palestinian-American; and with a Jordanian-based film crew. That's another one that, you know, is going to be a Sundance - kind of festival life. But as a life experience, it's amazingly - an amazing experience; which I probably wouldn't have taken if I had to worry about keeping my name on the front page of Variety.

CONAN: Yeah. And you don't have paparazzi following you?

PULLMAN: No, unless they want to ask me, you know, "Where are your friends?"


PULLMAN: But I mean, I - it's a very comfortable level of recognition. You know, people usually come up to me when they want to say something. And it's not just, you know, some kind of electric shock that sometimes, they go through when there's somebody that is, you know, really driving a lot of the box office on movies.

CONAN: But I assume you get some aspect of, "I know you from somewhere."

PULLMAN: Yeah, yeah. It's a - I think because of the different range of things that I've done; and, you know, the different actors that people have said, "oh, you're - " and I say, "no, that another guy. That's another guy."

CONAN: That's another guy, yeah.


PULLMAN: And it's great to have Google because now I just say, look it up.


CONAN: I have to say that Bill Pullman and I actually appeared on stage together - I guess, what, about eight years ago. And it was a tremendous experience.

PULLMAN: Yeah. That was really fun for me, too. I - part of the variety thing; I never would have thought I was going to get to perform with Neal. And it was for the Ensemble Galilei presentation...

CONAN: Right...

PULLMAN: The "First Person"...

CONAN: the "First Person: Stories From the Edge of the World." It was presented at National Geographic. And there's - you are in - on tour with them, again, doing a number of presentations on their follow-up, which is based on images from the Hubb - excuse me - images from the Museum of Modern Art, the photography collection there. And it's "First Person" - well, you tell me. Are you starring with Lily Knight in this?

PULLMAN: Well, you know, I think we can confide, Neal, that we both are junkies for this musical group - the Ensemble Galilei. They're a string ensemble or - and medieval instrument ensemble; six-member ensemble right now. And that music, and the playing, is just so sublime. You know, you say yes - and I said yes, probably like you did before. You think, a year from now, who knows what I'm going to be doing?

And it was a trick. I mean, right up until last week, I didn't know if I could do this run next week - because we didn't have the script for next week; we didn't know how I would be boarded, you know. And as it was, they had to kind of move a lot of things around. But I'm going to - on Wednesday, I drive to Santa Barbara. And then I drive back, to shoot the next day; and then - Santa Monica - and then work the next day; and fly to San Francisco. But it's all going to work out.

CONAN: Well, congratulations and good luck with it. It's a great show. Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. We're talking with the actor Bill Pullman. And which of his many roles do you remember best? And let's see if we can go with Michael; Michael, with us from Boulder.

MICHAEL: Good afternoon.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, Michael.

MICHAEL: Hey, Mr. Pullman, it's an honor to speak to you. I think you're an underappreciated actor of your generation. And thanks for having him as guest, Neal. As a Gen X'er, I remember Bill Pullman best from "Spaceballs."



MICHAEL: That was one of my first, sort of, adolescent films. I knew Mel Brooks, and it was his newest - he hadn't done a movie in quite some time, so this came out and you were starring with John Candy. My 12-year-old buddies and I all ran to the theater to see it. And I thought, who is this guy?

CONAN: Yeah. For those of you who haven't seen it, it's a Mel Brooks take on "Star Wars" as - and you get the Han Solo part.

PULLMAN: Yeah, yeah. And just last week, American Masterpieces is doing a thing on Mel, so we got together reminiscing about "Spaceballs," Michael.


MICHAEL: I think it's an art.

PULLMAN: I think you're right though. It didn't - it really was the first movie in a while that he made. And when it came out, people didn't - the critics really didn't go for it, but it's ended up being his most successful movie, he said.

CONAN: Really?

PULLMAN: Yeah, financially.

CONAN: Yeah.

PULLMAN: Yeah, financially.

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much.

MICHAEL: Thank you.

CONAN: Was that a fun set?

PULLMAN: Oh, my gosh, yeah. It's the second movie I'd ever made, and the first lead part. And we're - we went to the desert in Yuma and rode around in dune buggies with midgets. It's pretty fun, you know, all the dinks and things out there - as they were called dinks then. The - and, you know, being on the set, it was MGM. One of the last movies made on the MGM lots when it was still called MGM lot. And we were in the soundstage where "Wizard of Oz" is shot. And we did our kind of own homage to "Wizard of Oz" in the same soundstage that they had shot their scene. This is where we all go up trepidatiously(ph) to talk to Yogurt.


CONAN: Cheryl(ph) is on the line with us from Frankenmuth in Michigan.

CAROL: Well, actually it's Carol from Frankenmuth, but I'll take that.

CONAN: OK. Go ahead.


CAROL: I really like you in "Serpent and the Rainbow." That was a very interesting film, and where you were playing the doctor going into the - going to Haiti to find the new toxins for anesthesia. I thought that was a really interesting role.

PULLMAN: Yeah. That was based on a true story with some liberties that Wes Craven took. But that was based on Wade Davis' experiences as ethnobotanist going to Haiti. And definitely, you know, I thought the production design and the whole immersion into the Haitian culture was pretty successful. It turns out that it's one of Eddie Murphy's favorite movies too. He knows a lot of the lines from that movie.

CONAN: Hmm. Well, thanks very much for the call.


CONAN: Thanks. And let's go next to David, and David is with us from Piqua, Ohio. I'm hoping pronouncing his name and the town correctly this time.

DAVID: You are. Hey, Bill. Hey, Neal.

CONAN: Go ahead.

PULLMAN: Hi, David.

DAVID: My favorite Bill Pullman role and one of my favorite movies is "Bottle Shock" with Alan Rickman and Captain Kirk.


CONAN: You picked my favorite too. That is - Bill stars as the crusty winemaker and, of course, Alan Rickman is the insufferable snob who comes to recognize the quality of Bill Pullman's wine.

DAVID: And his scene where Alan has Kentucky Fried Chicken for the first time cracks me up every single time, but I thought Bill was actually outstanding in that. And the beauty of the film made me want to, you know, grow grapes. But a great role and a great movie.

PULLMAN: Also based on a true story, you know, based on...

DAVID: Exactly. Yeah.

PULLMAN: Judgment at Paris where - in 1976 when they had a blind-taste test for the French judges and the California wines won.

DAVID: Yep. And everyone at the end line of the ticket counter volunteering to take a bottle of wine because they couldn't take it all in one group, I guess. It's just a great story and a great role.

PULLMAN: Oh, thank you so much, David.

DAVID: You bet.

CONAN: Was it fun - we've had Alan on the program. Was it fun working with him?

PULLMAN: Well, yes. I've done two things with those same filmmakers. We did "Nobel Son" as well as "Bottle Shock," and he's also a great theater actor. And I met him first when he was doing "Blithe Spirit" on Broadway and I was doing "The Goat." And, you know, there's some kind of collegial thing that happens when you're on Broadway and you can - you spend a lot of time with people. And it was really, really a pleasure to not only do the movies, but we did the press together, which is really a great feast.

CONAN: You're also on the same schedule with you're all playing in theater. There's not that many people who go out to eat at 11 o'clock at night.


PULLMAN: That's right. Yeah. We've had this real high experience, and it takes a while to wear it off and it's good to do it with other people doing the same thing.

CONAN: Bill Pullman stars in a new release film "Bringing Up Bobby." He also will appear as the president of the United States in the upcoming NBC show "1600 Penn." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I have to ask you about the TV show. People say, another show based on the White House. What, is it going to be "West Wing 2"?


PULLMAN: Well, you know, I think in "West Wing," they talked fast and had a lot of intricate issues. We talk fast and have domestic issues, you know, family squabbles and things. So we get to say, I know, I've, you know, with this is an amazing time to be making a comedy about the White House because there's all these like the articles about the misspeaking that the presidents have done. It was just in the last week (unintelligible), I think it was. And I thought, boy, these are all the lines I get to say, you know? It's really kind of fun to have a little bit of freedom, you know, when you see how many constraints there are on the actual candidates.

CONAN: Renee in Flagstaff, Arizona emails: I'm a big Bill fan. He was a teacher at Montana State University when I was a student there. Years later, all my MSU alumni girlfriends are still bitter that we didn't get to woo him when he was there. My favorite role of his "The Last Seduction." Funny, dark and compelling, Bill Pullman is a national treasure. P.S., are you collecting my phone number so he can call me?


PULLMAN: That's very good. I was - taught for a couple of years in Montana State University, and that was a real - I was teaching way too young. I got out of there and went to New York, and I realized I had to get some real life experience. And I - but Montana's remained a big part of my life. I have a ranch there with my brother for 20 years.

CONAN: Hmm. Let's get Russ on the line. Russ with us from Park City in Utah.

RUSS: Yes. I think that my favorite role and the favorite bit of humor ever was when he was wooing Ellen DeGeneres in "Mr. Wrong" and showed his love by dislocating or breaking, I don't know. I was crying so hard through my laughing that I couldn't tell which.

PULLMAN: I break my own finger, yes.

RUSS: Yeah.


PULLMAN: How much do you think I love you? Enough to break my own finger? There, I did it.


RUSS: Good stuff. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Russ. Let's go to - this is Taylor. Taylor with us from Augusta, Georgia.

TAYLOR: Yes. Hi. I was just - first off, I just like to say I'm a big fan of yours, and I think you're very a very underrated actor and better than a lot of the guys that I know you get confused with. I will say, though, one of my favorite roles of yours was the "Lost Highway," the David Lynch movie. It's different than your normal stuff, and I just wanted to say that it was a really good movie. Confusing, but you did an excellent job. And what was it like working with David Lynch?

PULLMAN: Oh, you know, as you can imagine, you know, for anybody in film to get a chance to work with somebody like that is - it was a great experience. And I've remained friends with him. And then I've done a movie with his daughter, Jennifer Lynch that David produced called "Surveillance." So, you know, it's a - he has so much just kind of natural charisma and some kind of demented Jimmy Stewart persona that he has that's really intoxicating.

And one thing that I know is everybody who came off that movie all wanted to do something very creative afterwards because you're so aware that you got real creativity in the room.

TAYLOR: Thank you.

CONAN: Thank you very much for the call, Taylor. And let's see if we go to Stephanie, and Stephanie with us from Phoenix.

STEPHANIE: Hello. I agree with every other caller who has said you are an underappreciated actor. My children know you as the nice guy from "While You Were Sleeping."


STEPHANIE: And I have to say every other romantic comedy I've ever seen paled in comparison. And we always go back to that to see and (unintelligible) you said Jimmy Stewart persona because that what's you had in that film and what we love about it.

PULLMAN: Oh, thank you. Yeah, I was - we were really surprised by that movie. It was, you know, Sandra hadn't burst out into the scene in the way she eventually did. But - and the director, Jon Turteltaub, who was, I think, really responsible for making the kind of sensibility, you know, his gentle humor that just felt like it touched a very particular funny bone.

CONAN: What of your roles do you think is your favorite?

PULLMAN: Well, you know, I really feel like some of my stage work is - you know, I started as an actor in the theater. And when I was able to - you know, I did the first production of one Edward Albee's plays - and Edward Albee being one of the most important American dramatists still writing, and he had a play called "The Goat," which had never been done before. And it was going to be done on Broadway, and it was very controversial because it was about a man who falls in love with a goat.

CONAN: Yeah.

PULLMAN: It seems like an odd premise, but it ends up being kind of an amazingly tragic kind of thing. So - and when that play won the Tony Award and got the Pulitzer Prize, and we all really felt like we had overcome a lot of resistance to it, an important play.

CONAN: Bill, thanks very much for being with us today. Good luck with the Ensemble Galilei.

PULLMAN: Ah, thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Tomorrow, David Greene's here with another actor: Arnold Schwarzenegger. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.