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Bill Pullman, hyphenated

With 'Expedition 6,' the film performer adds stage writing and directing to his résumé. 'I get restless just being an actor,' he says.

September 02, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco

Bill PULLMAN is looking especially hungry these days for that special fix of live performance. But this go-to Hollywood Everyman isn't just interested in treading the boards again -- he's also eager to stretch himself as a theater director and, if the occasion calls for it, even a pinch-hit writer. Sitting in an office at the Magic Theatre, where he's currently in rehearsal with a young company of actors for "Expedition 6," a documentary movement-theater piece that he has "conceived and devised" and is now directing, he acknowledges that the time is ripe for him to get back to his roots.

"I don't think I've done my theater thing as much as I would have liked," Pullman says. "I had worked onstage in New York early on. And then later in L.A. -- Holly Hunter and I did a Beth Henley play together at the Met Theatre and I did a number of productions at the Los Angeles Theatre Center." But he'd like to do more. And now that his kids are older, he says, it's a little easier for him to split his time between L.A., where he lives in Hollywood with his wife, two sons and a daughter, and New York. In short, he's once again hearing the siren's call of Broadway and off-Broadway

Balancing a high-profile career in theater and film is hardly easy in a country this vast and prone to pigeonholing. Actors who want to enjoy the best of both worlds can be forgiven if, in the madness of their quest, they start unconsciously humming a few bars of Peter Allen's "Bi-Coastal," with its melancholy lyrics ("Fool, don't you even know who you are?") chipping away at the upbeat melody.

What interrupted Pullman's theatrical résumé wasn't logistical madness but -- enviable situation -- a steady stream of film roles. Supporting roles, mostly, and ones whose character names might escape you, but still a lot of them. In fact, he may be the most famous unfamous actor in America, thanks to appearances in such hits as "Sleepless in Seattle," "While You Were Sleeping" and "Independence Day."

Something you might not know about this utility screen presence -- a figure who stirs the same pleasant feelings as an anonymously attractive neighbor -- is that his understanding of acting has been informed by some of the most daring theatrical sources out there. Not your garden-variety Stanislavskian, Pullman, who has a graduate degree in directing from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and is more likely to bring up Brecht than Spielberg in conversation, was dazzled by the heightened purity of Joseph Chaikin and the Open Theatre and still glows when he talks about what he learned from the avant-garde Norwegian theater director Stein Winge, with whom he worked at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in the mid-'80s.

His appetite for risk-taking has only grown since he did Edward Albee's "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" on Broadway in 2002. For his portrayal of the married architect who falls helplessly in love with his four-legged barnyard mistress, he earned a Drama Desk nomination and respect within the theater community for making an outrageous scenario seem not half as far-fetched as it sounds. In the fall, Pullman will be doing Albee's "Peter and Jerry" at off-Broadway's Second Stage Theatre. This work adds a first act to Albee's 1958 two-hander, "The Zoo Story."

"I think that there's a certain corps of actors who are going back to New York to see if they can stay afloat and be potent in that arena," he says. "It may be in front of a very small audience, but they want to test themselves. I'm thinking of Alfred Molina doing 'Howard Katz' or Jeff Daniels doing 'Blackbird' off-Broadway. I admire these guys for putting themselves in the frying pan. It's a lot more challenging than taking another part in another movie, especially since at our age that other part might be just stabilizing background for a 20-year-old."

Don't get Pullman wrong: He wants to keep acting on screen. In fact, he's been shooting in Northern California while starting "Expedition 6" at the Magic. The new film is called "Bottle Shock," a historically inspired drama about a fateful wine taste-off involving French and California labels, with much national pride riding on the outcome. British actor Alan Rickman, another theater stalwart, is also in the cast.

"The other day on the set Alan was asking me about 'Peter and Jerry' and how I was feeling about it," Pullman says. "I said I felt lucky, because I had done some reading with Dallas Roberts and Johanna Day. I didn't really know them, and to me that's the hardest thing about entering a situation like this -- working on so much material, month after month, with actors that you don't have a lot of experience with. But now that I've gotten to know them, I'm feeling easier about it all. I guess you've got to trust Edward's decades of casting wisdom."

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