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Sleepless in New York

A nip in the air flushes the cheeks of the men hauling equipment through the outdoor atrium shared by three Broadway theaters. I’m led up a flight of creaky wooden steps into the warmth of a hallway in one of them, the Golden. At the landing, turning back, I see Bill Pullman bounding up the steps behind me, and we settle into his dressing room for an interview.

Pullman is making his Broadway debut this week, starring with Mercedes Ruehl in Edward Albee‘s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? This particular opening harks back to Broadway’s golden age, when the Great White Way was populated by challenging new plays, in addition to the dance extravaganzas, musicals and revivals that currently crowd out the docket. The novelty of a new play on Broadway conjures such nostalgia that members of New York‘s press corps are said to be rooting for it, if only to honor the producers’ bravery for taking such a financial risk.

Though Pullman is best known for his roles in films, from The Accidental Tourist to Independence Day to Zero Effect, he‘s a man of the theater. After growing up in western New York and studying theater at SUNY and Amherst, he left a position teaching drama at Montana State University to try his luck with the professional stage in the early ’80s -- in New York‘s East Village, working as a bartender, bank teller, liquor-store clerk and proofreader between auditions. He took classes on West 42nd Street, in a 33-seat hall called the Image Theater, where he, Kathy Bates and Eddie Jones put on a new play called Curse of the Starving Class, which helped establish its playwright, Sam Shepard, as a national voice.

Pullman’s also no stranger to L.A.‘s theater scene; he was a staple with the Los Angeles Theater Center, whose producers lured him out in 1985 for a three-month salaried run in William Mastrosimone’s drama Nanawatai. (He stayed, and lives in Los Angeles still with his wife and children.) Even a burgeoning film career couldn‘t keep him off the boards, at least until 1993, when he appeared in Beth Henley’s Control Freaks at the MET Theater. The Goat marks his first stage appearance since then.

Pullman seems a strange fit for an Albee play; by his own admission, he sees himself as more of a Shepard kind of actor. He speaks in a gruff voice with a buoyant, boyish passion, responding to questions in blurts that go where they want -- not from some strategic evasiveness on his part, but because his reflections are intuitive, and have little to do with linguistic precision. I had originally suggested that we meet together with Albee so that actor and playwright might share some ideas . . .

BILL PULLMAN: I‘m still not at all that sure about hanging around with playwrights while you’re doing their plays. I find myself much more interested in listening to him than offering things for him to think about. We talk every day. He said at the outset, ”I don‘t rewrite a lot,“ and I thought, fine. And now he’s changing things. I say, I‘d like to have this back here, and he says fine, fine, and there’s a couple of cuts I suggested and, bam, they‘re out. He’s very tricky with repetitions. You think something said three times can go, and then you realize that‘s the point.

How did you get into this play?

They sent the script, I read it, I thought I wouldn’t do it, it seemed so, it seemed kind of extreme. All of it overwhelmed me -- what it would take to do it, to move my family or for them to be able to be here, and the play itself was of a nature . . . A couple of days later, I was still thinking about it, and people I know, they all thought it was a brilliant play. Then I came to New York and talked to Edward and [director] David [Esbjornson], and they could see I had some previous theater experience . . .

What do you mean, the play itself was of a nature?

It‘s about a man who has a great relationship with his wife and family but then develops another relationship, a passionate relationship, and he wants to maintain them both, and being caught in any kind of betrayal in a marital situation is a very punishing situation to be in. You’re on the losing end for a while, with other people, other characters.

So you were worried about other characters, and what they would think?

Yeah, yeah. There‘s so much that can’t be said [about the infidelity] for such a long time, and to hear them and feel their pain -- that‘s hard to do.

Were you concerned about your heroic Hollywood image? You were, after all, the highly moral president of the United States for a while. And now you’re playing a comparatively seamy character.

He‘s not a seamy character, he’s a challenged character. At the same time, there‘s intelligence about Albee’s world. I never did an Albee play before. In Shepard‘s plays, there’s an immediate connection to his language, whereas this language is so urbane. One of the challenges is being able to calibrate my own emotional outbursts. The language is difficult to learn. I still have a guy who‘s doing little corrections for every time I say ”the“ instead of ”that.“ Then there’s these revelations about syntax, the difference between ”No, it isn‘t about fucking“ and ”No, and it isn’t about fucking.“ In Albee‘s universe, that’s a world of difference, the difference between two issues instead of one.

I hear your family‘s in town.

Yeah, but the kids aren’t going to get to see the play.

Because of seeing their dad as an adulterer?

No, no, it‘s not because of Dad in this role, it’s that they‘re not ready. They’re 14, 12 and 9. They wanted to see it, but my wife came to the show, and she said no, don‘t go there. It’s sad, because it‘s an important thing of who I am, and I think of it as daring, and even if it fails, they’ll see how much I‘m committed to it. But there’s a reason you don‘t study Oedipus Rex when you’re 14, and there are a lot of issues in this play that aren‘t adolescent issues.

Such as?

I’d rather not say, until it opens. I‘d rather you not say.

So how does it feel to arrive on Broadway?

This is my first time here. I was a long time thinking about doing theater again. When I was originally in New York, I was thinking Broadway was what it was all about, trying to get an understudy part with the real thing. Then I went to L.A., and I was doing both [theater and film] for a while, but since then it’s been hard to schedule. There‘s a certain tyranny of the theater, especially if you’re in a flawed thing and you have to keep doing it over and over. It kills you. But this play is an anomaly on Broadway. The risk of failure is obvious to everyone. It‘s also different from working in small theaters. It’s like being in a big church, and what that does to you, versus being in a small church. It‘s quite an exciting time, the previews. But I’m sure the whole process will change once the critics come.