The guest cabin on Bill Pullman’s Montana ranch has been violated. A winter windstorm, common here in the Boulder Valley, blew open the door, packrats entered, and now we’re surveying the damage: a nest of cactus leaves, shredded futon foam, an upended rack of drying herbs, feces in the sink. The vermin are over a foot long, notoriously bizarre, and seem to take glee in wreaking chaos. Pullman shakes his head sadly. He loves this ranch, though maintenance presents a challenge. Already he’s removed two trash bags full of packrat refuse. “They’re really fierce,” he says, adding, of the feces, “I was trying to determine if this was recent or not.”
It’s a tough determination for him to make—Pullman lost his sense of smell when he was 21. “I fell and had a brain hemorrhage,” he explains. “So I lost that then.” The accident was a stage fall as an undergrad, in one of his first plays. It put him in a coma for two days. He nearly died.
But that accident didn’t stop him from going on to an extraordinarily prolific film career. In addition to rodents, Pullman, 67, has faced alien invasions, outlaw cowboys, countless murderers, a friendly ghost, and Dark Helmet, Rick Moranis’s Darth Vader parody in Spaceballs. He’s made at least one movie per year since his debut in 1986, achieving, by the mid-’90s, a kind of everpresence. In 1998, at the height of Pullman’s fame, the critic Greil Marcus wrote an essay titled “American Berserk: Bill Pullman’s Face,” using the actor’s ubiquity as a metaphor for our whole fallen culture. In his features Marcus saw “the Old West landscape upended and cracked by earthquakes and drought,” a face at the same time “so ordinary, so forgettable…that if anything it has stood for a country that has no need to recognize itself.”
That essay came on the heels of Pullman’s portrayal of President Whitmore in 1996’s Independence Day, a role that offered a vision of leadership and decency and a certain kind of earnest male heroism, emblematic of the booming, blinkered decade. But a quarter century later, the berserk qualities Marcus observed are on display in a very different kind of hero. As Detective Harry Ambrose in USA’s The Sinner, the fourth season of which is slated to premiere this year, Pullman plays a traumatized, sadomasochistic police detective racing to untangle the ways past sins have led to acts of explosive violence, while at the same time reckoning with his own dark history. A man shot through with fragility and shame, he’s a fitting protagonist for our fractured moment—and a character who’s shown new dimensions of Pullman’s range.
To play Ambrose, Pullman has been exploring his dreams, attending memory-recovery and dream workshops to unpack what he calls “the incredible fears that come up” when a people lose their shared sense of purpose and values. “We live in an age of no truth,” he says. As he speaks, his eyes, small and blue, set deep beneath his brow, question rather than ascertain. He’s an actor of the West, but it’s a new West. This is Clint Eastwood with the air let out.
He’s playing another emblematic American character this spring in Halston, Netflix’s limited series about the enigmatic designer, which premieres May 14th. Pullman stars as the legendary CEO David Mahoney, whose corporation acquired Halston’s eponymous label, enabling the creation of a fashion empire, and whose complex friendship with the designer spanned decades. “They had a brilliant ride together,” says Pullman. “Mahoney was a corporate guy, but he was unusual. He loved being around artists and tried to nurture them.” Playing Mahoney reminded Pullman of fatherhood—the actor’s three children are all artists—and he portrays the CEO with restrained grace. “He allowed Halston his range,” he says, and gave him a “safe zone” to work from, rather than dictating terms to him. Mahoney also struggled with depression, and dedicated the later years of his life to the study of the human mind. When I ask Pullman about the challenge of such a diversity of roles, he laughs. “You have to make sure you aren’t being lazy and dragging one thing into another,” he says. “You put in the time to keep them separated.”
With that, Pullman makes his way out of the plundered cabin into the January morning’s bitter cold, and his dog bounds down from the cow pasture to join us. To the west, the Bull Mountains are dusted with snow below the gunmetal sky. The dog catches a scent and dives off the side of the deck, thrusting her snout under the wood. We both watch her, riveted. She sniffs along the entire edge of the deck. Are the packrats right under our feet? “Might just be rabbits,” Pullman says, smiling.
It’s been an overwhelming year—the isolation, the stalled shoots, the erosion of our democracy—but he finds that here in central Montana simpler conflicts abide. Pullman points back to a packrat-gnawed spot on the doorframe, near electrical wiring. “Things can burn down pretty quick if they get chewing.”
I’d met Pullman a few hours earlier in Whitehall—the nearest town to his ranch, where he’d gone to buy a deadbolt to packrat-proof the guest cabin. My first impression of him, emerging from his battered Subaru and struggling to put on his mask in the wind, was a kindly high school history teacher, slightly overwhelmed by the modern world. He’s larger than I expected, 6’2”, with a forward tilt, and solid, his hands moving as he talks. And Pullman talks a great deal, a steady stream about the town and the people and the land, never letting the conversation lag.
The role he plays in Whitehall is gregarious, mayoral, and Pullman knows everyone by name. He calls the theater’s operator, a young bearded man whose wife just gave birth to their second child, “the town’s great hope.” He refers to two separate acquaintances as “a force of nature.” “Oh no!” he says to the girl taking down the Christmas decorations in the hardware store window. “It’s all coming down.”
Whitehall isn’t like Livingston, 80 miles to the east, where Jeff Bridges, Michael Keaton, and Tom McGuane are longtime fixtures, and gourmet restaurants and art galleries have taken over the historic buildings. It’s a place teetering between the oblivion of an abandoned railroad town and the growing radius of wealth spreading outward from Bozeman. The main street is a strip of deserted storefronts punctuated by a deli and an old opera house, the Star Theater, which the Pullmans have spearheaded fundraisers to restore. “To sit in a live audience is really important,” Pullman says. “To all be inside the emotion. Getting back to theater as religion, as shared spirit.”
Despite his familiarity with the townspeople, Pullman has managed to maintain a degree of anonymity. “Everyone recognizes him but no one knows who he is,” a friend of mine who grew up in the Boulder Valley says. People assume he’s an acquaintance, or a cousin’s cousin; he’s often mistaken for other actors—Bill Paxton, Michael Douglas. His features have something of the uncanny valley in them, an elasticity allowing him to be cast as the hero, the parody of the hero, and the hero gone mad.
But in person I find no aura of menace, only a humorous, childlike curiosity at the world. At times our conversation sparks bursts of excitement that cause him to hunch forward and squint. He wears a green button-up shirt and green vest, a canvas coat, and jeans. The only hint of fame is his hair, swept up away from his forehead and back in silver waves that stay in place even in the day’s strong wind.
More than an actor, Pullman seems like a man who builds barns, tends orchards, and takes pleasure in running a ranch. A worker, a mover. Someone for whom stillness and quiet provoke both desire and fear. It was this quality, a wrestling with the need for what he calls “the great silence,” that led him to write a play about Charlie Russell, Montana’s most famous painter, whose statue rides the steps of the state capitol in Helena. Russell was a naturally gregarious man—he had a string through the door of his studio so it could be opened without knocking—but he went into periods of seclusion to work. The string would disappear and he’d be gone for days.
It’s a creative intensity Pullman knows well. “You have to give yourself permission to get away,” he says. “It’s the hardest thing to do because I try to make myself available to people, family.” But that’s not always possible, he notes. “A lot of what it is to read a script is to go as slow as possible and allow those tentacles of thought to connect with memories of dreams.”
Pullman’s play, titled Seeking Charlie Russell, which he workshopped in Denver and New York and hopes to tour after the pandemic, allows him to explore this process. It opens with his own obsession with the painter, which began when Pullman was 23 and part of a Shakespeare company touring ranch towns across Montana. Many of the towns were too small for a motel and the actors stayed with families in their homes. “There’d be dishes to pass,” Pullman says. “We’d eat together and then have the play. It was wild to look out and see Native Americans and cowboys and mennonites…and they were really listening. It wasn’t just entertainment.”
Most of the rooms he stayed in had a print on the wall, “Either a scene of roping some steer that was ornery and causing calamity, or Plains Indians moving toward a glowing sunset. And when I asked, I’d be told, ‘It’s a Russell. That’s a Charlie Russell.’”
The tour, and his love of Montana, changed the course of Pullman’s life. He remembers his wife, Tamara, taking the Greyhound from Boston to visit him when she was still an undergrad at UMass. After she graduated, they lived together in Cottonwood Canyon outside Bozeman, at the base of the mountain Robert Persig and his son hike in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The young couple thought of settling there permanently. “It was all looking good until somebody said we should buy a sofa,” Pullman recalls, laughing. “We had never owned a sofa. So bourgeois. That’s when we packed up.”
A decade later, he and Tamara returned and bought their first ranch in Montana, a foreclosure three miles down the road from this one. Their house sits on a ridge overlooking the Boulder River. It’s dry land of golden hills populated by juniper, with cottonwoods and brush willow down along the water. They’ve spent thirty years here, which feels appropriate: Russell was himself painting from memory of a thirty-year period. 1880 to 1910 was a tipping point in the tragic history of the American West, when two million bison were eradicated and Native American tribes were forced onto reservations.
Channelling that harrowing history, Pullman says, is an intense process. “You can’t build on falseness or half-truth,” he says. “You have to wait for it. It’s like a dream, you go down to supper and you’re half there, half somewhere else, then suddenly there it is. You stand up from a chair and you’re in it.”
After starring as President Whitmore in Independence Day, Pullman was offered a series of leading roles in the disaster movies that then ruled the box office. But he’s always been skeptical of heroes, he tells me as we walk along the Boulder River, chunks of ice clinging to the shore. “Hero is [a word] that’s become an object of manipulation, part of some need to turn a person into a blunt instrument,” Pullman says. “To weaponize righteousness is to say this person is a hero. Now they’re using the word for frontline workers. ‘They’re heroes,’ but they haven’t increased the wages for nurses.”
As Pullman prepares to reenter the character of Harry Ambrose in The Sinner (the show has been renewed for a fourth season, though there’s no official release date yet), he’s been searching for historical parallels to our time. Specifically, what it means “to live in a time of no truth and how it can render human behavior,” he explains. This search has led him to study acedia, a condition of listless anxiety identified by the ancient Greeks and common to Christian monks in the dark ages. “It wasn’t sloth, it wasn’t going to sleep or lazy,” he says. “It had that inability to act but also with anxiety and a sense that they had lost the horizon.”
We pause on the riverbank, looking up at the Bull Mountains. The snow-capped peaks form a towering, jagged horizon of their own. Pullman’s hands go still, some part of him leaving his body and taking on the character of a monk in the dark ages. I realize I’m seeing him work: Tentacles of thought are connecting to memories of dreams. He slips into a narration of these monk’s lives: “Watching, being aware in their cells as they’re trying to hold on to some sense of culture as the wolf gets closer and closer to the door and they’re isolated more and more, it had a little bit of COVID about it, and that sense of losing track of where we’re going as a country.”
He pauses. “There used to be a sense of generosity of humanity that was considered exemplary. To be a humanist, that was the horizon line. To be compassionate, understanding, to walk in the shoes of someone else.” He thinks back to his mother, Johanna, a nurse. “We can always draw the circle a little larger to include everyone,” she would say. “There’s no one you vilify.”
Now he recalls an encounter that’s been troubling him, something that happened on a recent visit to his hometown in western New York. “I stopped in the store to get some new chainsaw chains, and I talked to the owner,” he says. “He’s a gun rights guy. He understands I’m not into that kind of thing. I just said it’s great to be back. Then later my brother went by and the owner said to him, ‘Let Bill know, he’ll be safe here.’” Pullman stops and looks at me, truly wondering. “What did that mean? Was there some target?”
I’m touched by the openness with which he poses the question. Pullman exists in two worlds—the leftist sphere of Hollywood and rural right-wing communities like his hometown and Whitehall—and even as the gap between them widens he strives to be accepted in both, trusting in his mother’s advice to draw the circle a little wider. The rioters storming the Capitol in Washington D.C. a week later showed how tenuous that balance is, and reminded me of Pullman’s final words about his choice of roles: “You can always do a character a lot like you,” he says, “but what is it to do a character that breaks through that membrane? Someone who can say or do the most terrible things? To climb into the soul of someone you’re afraid of or feel danger from and genuinely try to live inside that.”
We spend the rest of the afternoon in his small ranch house, talking across the dining room table. The room is sparsely decorated with western rugs and wooden furniture, a light fixture Pullman made from juniper branches above the doorway. He tells me about the gold mine at the valley’s southern entrance, which he’s watched eat away a mountain, and the long legal battle he and Tamara waged with a utility company over a proposed merchant line through the valley and down along the Ruby. This story has a happy ending: the project was nixed after a law change. “We slowed them down just enough,” he says.
The Pullmans’ windows look out over pasture to the willow bushes along the Boulder River and the more heavily forested Doherty Mountain above. Pullman and his brother own much of the southern end of this valley—they have permits from the Bureau of Land Management to graze four tracts of land in the mountains. The 140 head of cattle they share graze to the east. The herd is newly halved: calves shipped the month before. Happy calves, he reports, though some of them were born during a brutal cold snap in the spring of 2019 and lost their ears.
Sometimes Pullman reflects on all the layers of history there are to the land. Native American sentries once kept watch over the valley from the ridge where Pullman’s house sits. William Clark led the first party of white men here on the return trip of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. An old trail leads from Pullman’s property over the Bull Mountains to Butte. “I went up there with an archeologist and sure enough he’s identifying chert with the conchoidal fractures,” he says. “Imagine Blackfeet and Salish up here making tools.” I try, but what I see is the romantic version from a Charlie Russell print. A sunset dream with long, dark shadows.
Five years ago, the Pullmans sold their original ranch, not needing the space now that their three kids are grown, and moved here, to land they’d previously rented. Pullman was surprised by how painless the move was. “That was a learning lesson,” he says, “because you think, God, you spend twenty-five years making this, it’s going to hurt to get rid of it. But it didn’t. It felt like we were here to make things a little better and then let it go.”
Earlier in the day, he’d said something similar about his work: “You put stuff out there and then you move on.”
It’s an easy lesson that’s sometimes hard to come by in our results-obsessed world, where value has become synonymous with accumulation. “We just are starting,” Pullman says as I head back to my car in the day’s last light. “We’re going to be comparing notes for a long time.”