Bill Pullman started acting professionally in the New York theater in 1983 and shortly after began his film career which currently spans over 60 features including Independence Day, Lost Highway and Bottle Shock. In D.C., he has performed at the Kennedy Center (Helen Hayes nomination) and the Folger Theatre. Recently he was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for his performance in NYC last fall in Beth Henley’s play The Jacksonian. His full bio can be read online. We caught up with Bill during rehearsals for Healing Wars to discuss the show, the Civil War, and even the current affairs surrounding the VA. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
How did you got involved in Healing Wars?
My wife, Tamara, is a dancer and had become an adjunct in Liz’s company. She worked on some projects including The Matter of Origins, which was this piece with physicists about the origin of the universe. I saw that in a couple of different places and have always had a dialogue with Liz and found her fascinating. She decided to step away from Dance Exchange and start her own things and Healing Wars is one of the first things she wanted to do. She invited us to come to Harvard when she had her residency there two-and-a-half years ago, and that’s where we did a lot of initial research about certain stories. It was great to know that Tamara and I were going to be doing this together. Liz’s philosophy is that it matters who is doing the performing, so she invites people from all different experiences of the world — not just dance — to be part of her pieces. There are people who’ve been touched by trauma and how it is clear now that sometimes it can pass from war through generations. I had my own experience with my father and his World War II experiences; things I hadn’t thought about that I could allow myself to think about doing this project.
How would you describe Healing Wars and what should audiences expect?
The experience is a little bit like a devised piece. The theatricality of the pieces inviting the audience to move through spaces at the beginning is like walking through a side show in a circus or tableaux vivants in the 1800s. Those kinds of things are more common in less conventional settings than a normal theater, but we're trying to use this space in a similar way. For audiences, I would say this is going to be a chance to have an original experience that you’re going to want to tell other people about it because you know that they’ve never experienced anything like it.
Has this project changed how you see the Civil War?
Oh, yeah. We’re doing this now at the sesquicentennial — 150 years later — there’s a lot of new research out there that we didn’t have in the past, things that we are all trying to understand like what it is to have traumatic brain injury and PTSD now? We forget that there was the same kind of thing after the Civil War. Now we’ve got some great research; one is this book called Shook Over Hell by Eric T. Dean, Jr., about looking at the Civil War and the Vietnam War. He has amazing research and evidence that he’s gathered about different types of traumatic injuries that happened to people and how it changed their lives. Those kinds of things are what we’re basing Healing Wars on. In a way it’s a mash-up between the present and the past. It's really interesting to see the parallels based on research.
Healing Wars incorporates text, movement and video. What was the collaboration like incorporating those elements?
There is an incredible amount of authority that Liz shares with her collaborators. It takes a certain kind of person to be able to do that effectively and she has been doing it for a long time. There’s a level of respect for everybody that gets fed into Liz at the center. Her way of sharing ideas is uniquely personal, but effective.
Does art provide certain access to these topics that historical or academic research doesn’t?
There is a way in which, emotionally, you access things with art. Watching a play is, in a way, how you rehearse your life — you are actually moving in some conjunction with what’s emotionally going on. It’s touching things that are similar within you, and that kind of experience is part of what art gives that other kinds of media don't quite access. I was thinking about this because of the controversy that became part of the news cycle about the VA and the questions about the effectiveness of the whole bureaucracy and whether Shinseki should be removed or not, and you’re processing that as you watch those news reports in a certain way. Then there’s another way you would process some of those similar questions when you’re watching Healing Wars.
What creature comforts do you take with you when you’re working out of town?
I have a small amp now that I bring with me that I can plug into my computer. I also have a little travel guitar. It’s really cool. I just rescued it from New York City and brought it back yesterday so I’ll get a chance to plunk around on that. It’s good to have those kinds of things. I’ve learned to carry in my bag all the little extra things like instant coffee, so if the coffee’s bad, I can add a little packet and bump it up and get to the octane that I want and need; and then chamomile tea, too.
One of my first professional jobs was at the Folger Theatre in 1981, I think it was. I came down on the train and lived here through the fall. It’s wild to be back in D.C. —- a big circle.