LOCARNO — He may have played one of the most beloved fictitious Commanders-in-Chief in recent cinematic history, but back in the real world, Bill Pullman is hoping to let Hillary Clinton get on with the job.
“In this day and age, I do support Hillary Clinton very strongly,” he stated during a Q&A session at Switzerland’s lakeside Locarno Film Festival, where the 62-year-old “Independence Day” star was honored with the Moët & Chandon Excellence Award in recognition of his 30-year film career.
In explaining his support, he referred to this summer’s blockbuster sequel “Independence Day: Resurgence”: “The message of the [film] is that we can put aside our petty differences and come together as one to overcome serious challenges. And when you think of the challenges we face now — climate change and other issues of extremism — there’s no more important time to have a capable leader. And it’s human nature than when we need our strongest leaders is when we’re most divided over who should lead.”
Tacitly calling out the far-right politics of Donald Trump, Pullman continued: “There’s a great frustration about national identity … Globalisation is happening so fast it’s confusing for people, and tolerance is threatened. All the things we relied on are now adrift. These are as dangerous times as we’ve had, and the possibility of making wrong choices isn’t a joke. We’ve seen with Brexit and other things that there’s a dark impulse to be petulant and frustrated with complicated solutions.” Pressed by an audience member for a further comparison drawn from his own filmography, he quipped, “I’d like to think it’s a Mel Brooks movie, but I’m afraid it’s a David Lynch one.”
This sober political digression came late in an otherwise light-hearted overview of a acting career that has bounced from breezy romantic comedy to dark-edged auteur cinema, including collaborations with the likes of Wim Wenders (“The End of Violence”), Thomas Vinterberg (“Dear Wendy”) and Michael Winterbottom (“The Killer Inside Me”), not to mention the aforementioned Lynch (“Lost Highway”) and Brooks (“Spaceballs”).
“The chaos of my life has a lot to do with my hair,” he joked, explaining how a bad blonde dye job — initially done for an audition to play a Lithuanian tank commander — caught the eye of producers on “Ruthless People,” the madcap 1986 farce in which he made an auspicious debut as the dim-witted, dodgily coiffed blackmailer Earl. Pullman was used to eccentric arrivals by this point: As he explained, his introduction to acting was a role in a legit production of one of absurdist icon Eugene Ionesco’s works.
Pullman, who trained as a theater director and taught acting before Hollywood came calling, still holds his stage experience dear. His face (currently bearded for the lead in upcoming western “The Ballad of Lefty Brown” — “I’m not just trying to look like Hemingway,” he laughed) lights up when one audience member recalls his leading turn in Edward Albee’s Tony-winning provocation “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” in 2002. “I try to fit in theater when I can,” he said, before revealing that he’s currently workshopping a stage piece with family members. “I enjoy that with theater, you can just go into a room with a paper bag lunch: there’re no cables, no electricity. It’s the purest experience.”
As a widely recognizable, well-regarded actor who nonetheless never became a megastar, Pullman relishes his in-between status. “I was the second male lead through the ’90s,” he admitted with a wry grin. “The guy who didn’t get the girl. I got the part, but I didn’t get the girl.” Indeed, playing the thwarted romantic suitor twice in 1993 — first in “Sommersby,” where he came up short against Richard Gere, and again in “Sleepless in Seattle,” where Meg Ryan ditched him for Tom Hanks — cemented him in audiences’ minds as the quintessential nice guy who never quite comes first.
He’d finally get the girl — Sandra Bullock, namely — in the 1995 hit “While You Were Sleeping” (“Fortunately, the other guy was in a coma”), but it was his firm-but-fair President Whitmore in the following year’s “Independence Day” that proved his defining multiplex role, even if it wasn’t a clear lead. “It felt very much like an ensemble picture, with all the actors at the same level at that point, which was kind of a wonderful moment in time,” he recalled. “Things weren’t driven by trying to feed the star vehicle. I don’t feel good inside those movies.”
Though he remembers the alien-invasion spectacular with affection (“It’s genetics weren’t in making money, they were in trying to make the best film we could”), he was happy to leave blockbuster terrain behind — the very next year, “Lost Highway” took his career on an independent track that, the “ID4” sequel notwithstanding, he maintains to this day. (Working with Lynch, he said, inspired him to make his own directorial debut with 2000’s made-for-television western “The Virginian”: “I wanted to make it as intensely personal as I could, and a lot of that inspiration came from David.”)
He could have taken a very different path. Pullman recalled a post-“Independence Day” “saturation point,” during which big-studio offers came thick and fast, yet to this day, the actor has no regrets about turning many of them down. “They were just disaster movies. I didn’t need to defeat volcanoes or earthquakes or other things.”
After all, he’d rather leave the world-saving responsibilities in another President’s hands.