As the star of writer-director Jared Moshe’s western The Ballad of Lefty Brown, Bill Pullman plays a sidekick turned leading man after his boss (played by Peter Fonda) is murdered and he sets out to find the killer. Pullman said he based Lefty partly on a friend from Montana who was “a third wheel” to the actor and his then-girlfriend, and now wife, Tamara when they were all in their 20s—although his pal, he added with typically self-deprecating humor, didn’t look up to him the way Lefty looks up to his friend and mentor. In an interview at his publicist’s Manhattan office, the affable Pullman talked about playing a self-doubting beta male, stood up for Jack Kramer, his character in The Battle of the Sexes, and joked about the awards he doesn’t have.
You’ve played comic roles and straight roles. Lefty seems to me to be a little of each. How did you think of it when you were playing it?
It was more the perception of characters around him, that he was a fool.
But he was also a little self-doubting and comically inept, especially at first.
Yeah. Which I think is human. It wasn’t really played as comedy.
You reminded me a little of Andy Devine, mostly because of the way you talked, and a little of Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou.
Ah, yeah! Have you seen Cat Ballou? It’s pretty wacky, isn’t it? I watched it just because Jared said, “You gotta watch Cat Ballou!”
Lee Marvin is pretty amazing in it.
Really amazing. He got nominated for an Oscar, didn’t he?
You usually play white male authority figures—including a lot of presidents. Was it kind of fun or liberating to play a beta male for a change?
Yeah. [laughs] It was really nice. I admire people who can do the straight action roles, but I get a little restless. This kind of thing allows for so much more nuance, the ambivalences and his lack of assurance about who he is as a man. Lefty, he’s been a kind of taken-care-of guy. He’s been a third wheel to [the couple played by Peter] Fonda and Kathy Baker. When we were in our 20s, my girlfriend at the time, who became and still is my wife, we had a third-wheel guy. His name’s Tom Morris. When I came to New York, he came with me as an actor. The three of us lived together, and then when I got into movies and I could have an assistant, he would become my assistant—but he never did any assisting. He would sit in the trailer, go to craft services. I said, “Your only job is to watch movies and then when I have breaks I’ll come and you tell me what I’ve missed.” [laughs]
So you kind of modeled Lefty on him?
Yeah. And then, Tom got a part in While You Were Sleeping. [Director] Jon Turtletaub loved him. He was Man With Sandwich. [laughs] He was in the bed next to my brother, [played by] Peter Gallagher, when he was in a coma, and when I came to visit, he was the guy eating a sandwich. Turtletaub used him a few more times in other movies. But he was never good with urban situations, so he’s back in Montana—still a good friend. I’d think of him often with this, because he was a kind of taken-care-of guy, but he was his own man too. But he had a different personality from Lefty, in that he never gave me a lot of compliments. [laughs] He was always like: “You coulda done more of that.”
I was a little surprised that we’re not hearing more about The Battle of the Sexes in awards season, since I thought it was well done and it hooks straight into the misogyny that’s getting so much attention all of a sudden.
I’m glad to hear you say that. I’m not really tracking stuff, but I got the feeling, just in the past week, that it’s not really getting the respect, and I couldn’t figure out why. I saw that both Steve and Emma were nominated for Golden Globes, but there hasn’t been a big campaign for the movie. The directors were so nuanced with every character. I thought that made the film so human. You know that extraordinary thing they have in there of when her husband, Larry, realizes she’s been stepping out in her marriage? They’ve been in the hotel room together and he says he’s going to get another room. And then the story has him go out and you follow him and he goes to the elevator and stands there, puts his bags down and waits for the elevator. That was so beautiful and so touching. I think they treated all the characters really fairly.
Your Jack Kramer [in Battle of the Sexes] was an interesting character. He was another ur-white male, like so many you have played—but he was the villain, not the hero or a voice of reason. Do you see that as a direction you might be exploring more, as people start getting more tuned into the misogyny that lurks inside so many male authority figures?
Yeah, yeah. I’m up for it. [laughs] Well, you know, I’m never comfortable in a black-and-white kind of thing. I thought we did as much as we could to make him not a mustache-twirling villain. He was a man of his time, and you read anything about him, he was a fantastic guy. People say, boy, the room lit up when Jack Kramer came in. Just that year, in ’73, he had led a strike of U.S. tennis players at Wimbledon that forced the association to negotiate individually with the players, so tennis became a professional sport in America. Because up until then, nobody could make any money and the best players got the same as the other players. He didn’t approve of Billie Jean King’s role-model style, because she would forfeit matches if she got the sense that she didn’t want to play anymore, and that was not kosher at that time, but something about her personality snagged him. I thought that was intriguing. He did have his own women’s league, and hers was in competition with it. So there’s a lot that wasn’t pure misogyny.
He may have had a women’s league, but he was paying the women way less than the men, which is why Billie Jean started her own. He was treating women as second-class citizens.
Yeah, but it’s a business decision. They wouldn’t give the Ethiopian tennis players the same either, if they couldn’t get an audience. And he thought they couldn’t get an audience. The thing that I really couldn’t believe was when he went on camera and said, “I am withdrawing from being the commentator [for the King-Riggs match] and it’s my choice,” when it wasn’t his choice. When I talked to Billie Jean King, I said, “What did you think when he lied?” She said, “I didn’t think anything of it, because I thought, every chance you get, you let somebody save face.” I thought, what a generous thing that was. Which is so much not part of our times now, which is all about, if somebody’s aggrieved you, you bring them down as much as you can.
You got a BA in theater, and then you were teaching until one of your students, John Dahl, cast you in a movie he was directing. If that hadn’t happened, do you think you’d have just made a career out of teaching?
I got an MFA too! I don’t have a Golden Globe award or an Academy Award, but I do have an MFA. [laughs]
So was your plan at the time to teach?
I was thinking I would direct theater. At that time, in the ’70s, there was a great sense that regional theaters were going to be the American theater, so I thought I would direct regional theater. When I graduated, I was in Montana doing Shakespeare. I was running a company, so I was directing mostly, but I also acted some. And then I got offered a teaching job. I didn’t have any money, so I thought, well, okay, I’ll take that job. You learn so much when you’re first starting to teach, so I was learning a lot, and then they said, “We’d like to hire you full time,” and I was, like, all right. But then I just got this squirrel in my brain that I had to go and do professional work. It was Bozeman, Montana, a place where faculty members would take docks in pay just to be there—so beautiful, such a great place. I thought, if I don’t leave now I don’t know if I’ll ever get out of here. So I drove away.