I've had a soft spot in my heart and liver for Bill Pullman since 1996, when we indulged in tequila and karaoke at a Universal Studios party celebrating the release of Casper (not one of his career highlights).
I hadn't planned to stay long. My wife and I were heading toward the exit when Pullman approached.
"Steve, where're you goin'?" he said, surprising me with the familiarity.
"Just checking out the Beetlejuice show, then leaving," I replied.
Pullman slung an arm around my shoulder. "Listen, I turned down Beetlejuice to do The Serpent and the Rainbow," he said. "Now, who made the better choice: me or Alec Baldwin?"
"I guess you did, big Bill," and with that we spun around and headed back to the bar.
We laughed about that fuzzy evening later during interviews for Independence Day, and again recently during a telephone chat about Pullman's latest film, the just-released Bottle Shock. The movie is based on the true story of a 1976 wine-tasting competition that put Napa Valley's vineyards on the map, destroying the myth of French vine superiority.
Pullman plays Jim Barrett, who swapped a law career for vintnering, with his rebellious hippie son (Chris Pine) getting in the way sometimes. The role faintly parallels Pullman's second career as a Montana cattle rancher and California terrace farmer, with two sons and a daughter who don't always share his work ethic.
It is Pullman's best movie role in years, utilizing his everyman vibe that inspired author Greil Marcus' 1998 essay, "Bill Pullman's Face.'' Marcus suggested America's mood at the end of the 20th century was reflected in the actor's countenance: "squinting, sighting some prize on the horizon. But what you're seeing is pure pressure, the weight coming down, the muscles in the face straining to hold it up."
In reality, Pullman isn't so uptight. We got around to Marcus during this round of Five Questions, starting with his recent honorary doctorate from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst:
Not bad for someone who attended the school but didn't graduate. Should we address you as "Dr. Pullman" now?
No, no, that was Richard Gere. He attended (Amherst) but didn't graduated, and I did graduated. (Pullman laughs at his grammar gaffes.) Oh my God, I can't use English anymore, just shoot me. Now they'll take back the degree.
And it really isn't "doctor," it's (in an Italian accent) "doctore." The whole outfit you wear is out of some kind of comedia scene with the shawl and the puffy hat, like some medieval alchemist.
Did you know much about vintnering before Bottle Shock came along?
Well, I wasn't like: "Oh, I've been dying to do a wine movie." I was very intrigued by the agriculture. To me, it's an "ag" story, where good stewardship of the land is the capper, plus the father-son relationship, the time period, the struggle trying to get something to grow. I really loved that part of it.
So, farming and ranching gave you something to draw upon?
Yeah. It's very challenging, and you have a lot of frustrations when you do anything with the variables of Mother Nature. You struggle to get everything going, and then to have people not pulling their weight can be a problem. The people I most feared watching this movie, because I exposed myself so much, was my kids, who at times have thought I was just berserk, just wondering: "Why are you so desperate right now?" It's because in the time I have off, I can't determine if it's going to be rainy, and I have to get things done whether it is or not. I give them a sense that I want more hours in the day. I'm not going fast enough, I don't want to stop for lunch. I've had my times when they thought I was insane.
What do you think about Marcus' essay on your face?
That is wild, isn't it? I guess you could say I had moments of feeling flattered. Then you read it and realize he's on this certain trip.
I guess what I admire about him — because I really don't understand the whole thing — is the fact that he picked these odd and eccentric people that no one else would necessarily think, "Oh, that's conventional wisdom." Anyone who speaks against conventional wisdom is kind of brave.
Remember that Casper party?
Oh my gosh, yes. You saw me when, you know, you have to call a halt. I started to frighten my wife. There was every reason to feel like that (event) was a commercial construct for fun that doesn't necessarily make for fun. But it was. Maybe it was the fact that we were all kind of stranded there. Anyway, it's good to hear you're still married.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.