Bill Pullman Saved the World. Now He’s Saving Himself.

·16 min read
Taylor Jewell/AP
Taylor Jewell/AP

Bill Pullman was always perfectly fine with being a one-term president.

Reviving his President Whitmore 20 years later in the Independence Day sequel, Resurgence, was perhaps a no-brainer, given the pay that accompanies such tentpole blockbusters. He’s been more hesitant to revive and repurpose the original film’s iconic speech—“We will not go quietly into the night…”—which he’s been asked to recreate countless times over the years. He’s always resisted—until this summer, when the globe was facing another dooming threat to its entire existence: Not aliens, but COVID-19.

But then there’s the “working actor” part of it, too. Pullman, who’s made at least one—and often four or five—movies a year since his 1986 debut in Ruthless People, had never been a series regular on a TV show until he returned to the Oval Office as a president with a dysfunctional family in the 2012 NBC sitcom 1600 Penn. The network and the show’s creators and cast had high hopes for the comedy’s longevity, but it was canceled after its initial 13-episode order.

“I thought that was good for me,” Pullman says. “I liked that. I felt like, ‘Wasn’t that enough?’ And then I realized I was the only one. Everyone else was like”—he erupts into a grieving wail—“‘Oh, it’s so sad!

So over breakfast in the West Village in one of those outdoor barn structures that have taken over New York City, it is with puzzlement—but also an epiphany that it might be, at this moment for him, profound—that Pullman is discussing the fourth season of the USA series The Sinner, which premiered Wednesday.

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He plays Detective Harry Ambrose, who, in the first season, is brought in to investigate what caused a single mother, played by executive producer Jessica Biel, to seemingly snap and commit a shocking act of violence, killing a stranger. It was intended, at first, as a one-and-done limited series, and considered by most a star vehicle for Biel. So it was a surprise when creator Derek Simonds decided to move ahead with new seasons centered around Ambrose—and Pullman.

“I was ready for whatever happened to be fine,” Pullman says. “I wasn’t thinking, ‘I really hope it becomes about me!’ I just thought that it had been good for a season. Maybe I’ve just gotten to a place where I’m more accepting of that kind of thing.”

In fact, he wonders about acceptance and what that means at this point in his life—age 67, three grown children (all artists), and 35 years into a Hollywood career—several times during our conversation.

When the world shut down in March, he had been shooting the Halston limited series for Ryan Murphy and Netflix. He was sick with something when the plug was pulled on production, but he was able to knock it out with an antibiotic, so he’s not sure that it was COVID. Either way, he was forced to remain in Los Angeles in the production’s COVID bubble, which he didn’t mind because that’s where his three kids live.

After Halston wrapped, he would drive back and forth between Montana, where he has a ranch, and L.A., road-tripping over two days with his wife and their dog. He’s been trying to renovate and open a live-and-work space for his children, with room for a recording studio, a puppeteer workshop, a theater, and apartments. The permits, especially since the pandemic began, have been a nightmare. It remains his white whale.

It goes without saying that these have been strange times to weather, especially for an actor being whisked away to TV sets with all of their intense COVID safety protocols. It’s all made him weary, a heaviness he reveals on his face when he talks about it. On his ranch and in his business making hard cider with his siblings, the practical, everyday effects of climate change are becoming more and more apparent. The politicization of masks and vaccines has him exasperated.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Bill Pullman in <em>The Sinner</em></p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">USA Network</div>

Bill Pullman in The Sinner

USA Network

By circumstance, he finds himself straddling two sides of the country. He was raised in rural upstate New York and spends much of his time in Montana, but has spent three decades working in Hollywood and on Broadway, where liberals reign.

“Montana used to be kind of a purple state, but in the last election we got a Republican governor. Now [COVID] numbers are way up because people are not encouraged to get the vaccination. It’s one of those states now where they can’t mandate somebody wear a mask in your store. It feels like a bad dream,” he says.

“But in rural communities around America all over—in upstate New York, where I’m from—it’s politicized. I just don’t get into the discussions with them.” He pauses and sighs, shaking his head. “And I forget. I was going to say… with all those people.’ But I take it for granted that anybody’s going to agree with me.”

Filming The Sinner in Nova Scotia was a bit of a relief. Where he had an apartment, in the town of Lunenburg, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s a small population of locals. It’s a fishing town. There was a web of hiking and walking trails taking you everywhere from the wilderness to the fresh fish shop a block away.

But, in ways that he both never expected and put into motion, filming the show has allowed him to reinvestigate his past and the impact it’s had on his life and his family—something he never would have done before in his career but, for some reason, he’s ready to do now.

Pullman is the kind of actor who became a symbol. The swoon-inducing lead in While You Were Sleeping, the warm father/ghost-therapist in Casper, the guy so heroic-looking that he’s cast as a Han Solo spoof in Spaceballs, the stalwart president in Independence Day, the calming lead in so many action movies after: He became the face of the Everyman.

Now, that Everyman and that face is at a new phase of his life—not just showing cracks, but welcoming them.

About his career, he says, “I feel strangely awash, like I don’t know this new beach that I’ve landed on. We’ve made the voyage here and it’s a brave new world out there. Whose stories are we telling? Is it really anything that they need an old white guy for, you know? What would that be? I’m kind of nauseated by culture, our culture. I feel awash in that.”

Playing Ambrose in The Sinner, however, has given him meaning—meaning that he’s not sure what to do with yet. Here is a character grappling with how the shame of his past may have shaped everything about who he is, and it’s only after an unexpected work assignment came into his life that he was able to truly reconcile that.

Pullman’s gone on that journey, and now he wants to talk about it. “Maybe I was available to it, and that’s why [The Sinner] came to me now. It has been kind of a mystery to me over the last few years that why, when you get older, you’re not delivered wisdom as part of the mileage plan or something. ‘You’ve done enough miles. Now the perks come in, like wisdom.’ It doesn’t work that way.”

The gruff, familiar laugh comes: “I don’t even know if the real mileage plans work that way.”

At one point during season one of The Sinner, Pullman went to the writers’ room. Creator and showrunner Derek Simonds thought that talking with the actor could help lend more authenticity to Ambrose and maybe crack some backstory about what led to his inclinations as a detective and some of the psychological ticks he seems to be suffering from.

It wasn’t necessarily meant to become actual material written into the story. Just conversation that might be useful.

But when Simonds figured out a second season that would center around Ambrose, he reached out to Pullman and warned him: That stuff that you gave us for subtext? I think we’re actually going to use it.

The season began with Ambrose traveling to western New York, where he encounters a mother suffering from a psychiatric illness. “This is all of the stuff I had told them,” Pullman says. “I don’t know how often that happens with TV shows…”

At first it made him uneasy. But then he realized how much more invested he was in the series now that material derived from his own story. “As I’ve heard from other people who also had a parent with mental illness, you grow up and you hide it. That sense of shame was something that Ambrose wrestled with. So I thought, maybe it’s time to be more open about it. Maybe it’s time for me and my siblings to stop not talking about it.”

His mother, Johanna, was diagnosed as schizoaffective, a type of bipolar disorder. When her first break happened, she was put on strong medications, like thorazine. There eventually seemed to be a cycle of about 18 months to two years where she’d seem normal and then manic behavior would start again. His father, James, was a physician, and hoped to be able to handle things from home; anytime she was committed, she’d come back a shell of herself. But once she stopped sleeping, the household would go “bananas.”

He has a strong memory from when he was 7. The family would drive the hour and a half to Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital, where his mother was, on Sundays. He was too young to go into the psych ward, so he would stand on the sidewalk with his younger sister and one of their older siblings. At a certain point, his mother would come to the window on the fourth floor and look down and wave at them.

During that season 1 sharing session in the writers’ room, he told this story. Then, filming season 2, he found himself on set at a weathered brick building where his character had gone to do a deposition. He was on one of the upper floors and looked down a staircase. “I see a boy that was walking and coming up the steps, looking up at me. It’s myself at 7, looking up at me. Those kinds of things were wild to think about.”

These eerie moments have continued past that second season, which was more directly inspired by Pullman’s past.

In season 3, he began participating in dream workshops with fellow cast members that Simonds thought would be useful given the darkness of the material. (Biel did this in the first season, and it was offered to Pullman then, too, with the caveat that he didn’t have to do it. His response: “OK, good.”)

<div class="inline-image__credit">20th Century Fox</div>
20th Century Fox

He was reticent. He didn’t really have dreams anymore, at least not ones he remembered—something he learned is typical as people get older. But the coach encouraged him to be open to the idea of dreaming when he went to bed that night. “I woke up with a humdinger.”

It took place in a house his character, Ambrose, was living in. Richard Gere was there. So was a little girl with a tiara on. They walked to a pond where ducks were swimming, and the ducks started coming toward them.

The coach prodded him: When he saw Gere, the girl, the ducks, what did he really see, in detail? Now, imagine that you are Gere looking at you. What does he see? What about the girl? What is she thinking about you?

“I built this really three-dimensional world around it that is very revelatory about the ache of Ambrose,” Pullman says. “Getting in touch with this innocence that is long lost.”

Now in season 4, Ambrose has had to confront those demons, that lost innocence.

He’s retired, and has been put on medication by his therapist to help him deal with the pain and trauma. But he’s gone rogue and stopped taking the meds. As a result he’s stopped sleeping, resulting in late-night walks outside. On one of those, he witnesses what he believes is a woman jumping off a cliff to her death. When her body isn’t recovered and his account doesn’t exactly add up, people start to doubt his sanity.

“Now it’s almost like I had become my mother in the second season,” he says. “Which is really weird. That’d be like in a dream. I was seeing my mother and describing her. Now it’s my mother looking back at me.”

It’s helped him to understand her better, especially the insecurity and paranoia that would emerge as she tried to balance motherhood with her illness. “My mother used to understand that there’d be a phase of it where she wanted to still be a mother and hold up and not disappoint people.” Ambrose is doing that too with his partner, Sonya (Jessica Hecht). “It’s an important part of his life that he wants to honor, but then the monkeys are clamoring at the cage.”

Looking back, Pullman can see that, for most of his life, he was looking to escape into as many characters as he could; play as many different types of men as he could. If someone tries to put you in a box, resist it. Now he sees it as his way of running from himself.

“I’m sure I was saying I was getting closer to myself,” he says. “That’s what you want to think. Then, I wanted new, I wanted different. Whereas this is going back and just being uncomfortable in your own skin.”

President Whitmore returned, but Bill Pullman didn’t want to.

Pullman can’t count the number of times he’s been asked to redo the inspirational speech his character delivers at the climax of Independence Day, hyping a ragtag group of civilians to hop into their fighter jets to zap all the aliens using the greatest motivator of all: patriotism.

“I don’t want to dishonor it if I was just going to do it on Saturday Night Live or Funny or Die,” he says, then laughing: “Every writer goes, ‘We can get Bill Pullman, and then make him say this shit…’" (Referring to the spoof material, not the original speech.)

In fact, he’s only agreed to it once before, for a Super Bowl commercial ahead of the 2016 sequel, Independence Day Resurgence—on the condition that director Roland Emmerich and screenwriter Dean Devlin gave their blessings, and $100,000 was donated to charity. When Budweiser approached over the summer, when he was off shooting The Sinner, his answer was a quick no.

They wanted to create a commercial celebrating the July 4th “reopening” of America after over a year of pandemic lockdowns and gathering restrictions. To him, it felt wrong, like the message was: COVID’s gone, so grab a beer and let’s party. Numbers in India and Brazil were spiking. In America, we were hardly in the clear. The idea seemed tone-deaf.

But, perhaps channeling President Whitmore himself, Pullman wondered if there was a way to make it about that: This is the time to come together as Americans, settle the differences that have so violently divided us, and find ways to help those around the globe.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Alexander Koerner/Getty</div>
Alexander Koerner/Getty

He told them that, in order to do it, he’d have to rewrite the speech with that message, and they’d have to accept every word. In some respects, he thought that absolved him from having to do the commercial at all: “[Budweiser] is red state juice. That’s what they drink. They’re not going to threaten their market like this.”

To his surprise, they agreed. Pullman pushed back again. It had to be an advocacy piece, not a commercial. Everyone would have to have skin in the game. They’d need to donate money to an organization that helps distribute COVID vaccines internationally.

That became a headache. Finding an organization that could accept money from an alcohol company was more complicated than he bargained for. Then, arguing time constraints, they started to cut some of the nuance from the speech. “From the beginning, I had this weird stomach ache about it,” he says.

As you saw over the summer, he did eventually agree to it. The charity donations were worked out. “It was hard to have them keep thinking of it as an advocacy piece, but in the end it was darn close,” he says. He cringes that one of the last shots has him raising a Budweiser to the camera like a cheers. It was cheesier, more “rah-rah” than he wanted. “In the end, I think it was good,” he says, adding, “Though many people don’t recognize the message.”

His reluctance to shoot the commercial shouldn’t be construed as annoyance over being at a point in his career when people are eager to revisit his greatest hits. It was about preserving the integrity of the original material, and making sure the speech’s revival counted for something.

But it is interesting for him to now see the ways people see him because of his body of work. This “Everyman.” This hero. This good guy, now across generations.

In his mind, he’s done a wide variety of projects, tones, and roles—including the bad guys. When people ask him what his favorite is, he tends to bring up The Last Seduction, the 1994 neo-noir/erotic thriller in which he plays the husband of a femme fatale who convinces him to sell cocaine and then runs away with the money. There’s a strange, dark humor to noir that he likes.

“At the heart of it is the untrustworthiness of the world and people,” he says. “There’s betrayal in the most intimate relationships. A kind of weariness about what human nature is. It’s not like, ‘We’re all good. We need to pull together to save the world.’ It’s, ‘Everything that you can count on and rely upon is untrustworthy’—and then you can actually have a sense of belief, clarity, and vicious humor about it.”

The way he describes it, it almost seems healthier than any sort of “we can do it,” rallying attitude about the world and its problems—almost as if acting that way is harboring a delusion.

He smiles. “No one really sees me as a dark person, or a bleak person, or a cynical person. They see me as someone who’s optimistic and hopeful.” The smirk grows until one eye creases into a wink. “So now I’ve become the most untrustworthy person.”

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