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Bill Pullman Isn’t Really the President. But His Kids Have His “Fire”

Is he worried about his son starring in the new 'Top Gun?' Not really!

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Bill Pullman plays villains and heroes, average Joes and presidents, as well as good men and troubled souls, seamlessly pivoting between these roles in projects like Spaceballs, While You Were Sleeping, Independence Day, Lost Highway, The Goat, 1600 Penn, The Sinner, and All My Sons. He also, after decades of usually being the star of projects, still occasionally tackles supporting roles. That’s the case with Halston, the Ryan Murphy-produced limited series – available now on Netflix — about the iconic fashion designer, who reigned in the 1970s. Ewan McGregor stars as Halston, joined by Krysta Rodriguez as his muse and most famous client, Liza Minnelli, and Pullman as David Mahoney, the businessman who backed Halston, helped him create the Halston empire, and served as something of a father figure to the brilliant and flamboyant, but deeply troubled designer. Fatherly caught up with the amiable, easygoing Pullman in Nova Scotia, where he’s shooting season four of The Sinner, to chat about Halston, The Sinner, his long career, and his thoughts about his son, Lewis, following him into acting.

You lived and worked in Manhattan in the 1980s. How aware of Halston were you? Did you ever cross paths?

I got there in ’81. At some point I lived on Avenue A, so I was up the street from Andy Warhol’s little pad at about A and Seventh, I think it was. We’d see parties, but I was basically living on dollar pizza slices and trying to find my way. So, we weren’t mixing it up at that time, but I’d heard about him. I knew about the pillbox hat for Jackie Kennedy. My mother had that (Halston perfume) bottle on her dresser. I can remember being haunted by seeing the shape. She never used the perfume. It was like it was there as an object. But to learn a lot about him and learn about David Mahoney was so interesting, to see that mixture of commerce and creativity the two of them had. Mahoney himself, there’s quite a bit on him. He wrote a book and was quite successful and iconic, as a guy who was a CEO and was interested in culture and wanted to be with people who were leading the edge in culture.

How much of a father figure do you feel Mahoney was to Halston?

He did have this very genuine, I think, a compulsion to protect Halston. There was creativity he saw, and he thought, “I can do this. This is what I know how to do. I am a CEO, a big conglomerate, and I don’t think of myself as the captain of the ship that needs attention all the time. I think of myself as here to get those people that I’ve chosen to work with to function the best they can.” So, it reminded me of Psychology Today Magazine. It was all about what motivates people. It was the first time I can remember it in a mass, cultural way. How does the human mind work? How do we work to have people self-actualize all those terms? He was really, I think, doing that. I don’t know how well he did it for his own children, but he certainly did it for Halston.

What impressed you most about McGregor’s performance as Halston?

I don’t think this whole thing would work if people don’t relate to Halston. Somehow, through all that wild extravagant behavior, there’s a soul in there that you empathize with. That’s all Ewan. You can see why people wanted to be around Halston. He made people want to live a little larger. I think Ewan did a great job with that, too.

You’ve played the lead in dozens of shows and movies. This is called Halston, not Mahoney. How easy or difficult, especially at this stage in your career, is it to not have the focus on you and not have your character as fully developed?

You get offered these things before the scripts are there, and I felt like it was a default thinking to make Mahoney the bad guy. Whether he’s supporting or main, I didn’t want to do that. They came back and said, “Well, we don’t want that, either. So, we’ll work with you.” So, I had to say to my agent, “Look, I know this isn’t called Halston and Mahoney, but I’d like to know that there’s going to be something interesting in the arc.” Eventually, I talked with Ryan Murphy, who was very good about making sense of where he was at that point with Halston, and that this wasn’t going to be just selling Mahoney down the river, but actually find what it was between them. And for Ryan, his own father was a corporate head. Talk about a paradigm. Ryan’s father and Halston and Mahoney. I was so glad I said yes to this because I really enjoyed working with everybody, Ewan particularly. Most of my stuff is with him, so we really could dig in and get something accomplished.

Let’s switch to The Sinner. It was meant to be a one-off limited series, right?

Yeah. Even after it aired, we didn’t know if there was going to be a second season, or what the season would be. Is it going to be all new actors? All the same actors, or just Pullman and few others? It evolved into that. In my bizarre thinking, I thought, “Well, I don’t like to hang around til the fish start rotting.” But it worked out and I’m so glad it has.

What can you say about season four?

We’re in Nova Scotia now, working on this very interesting fourth season, where (police detective Ambrose) is retired and it’s about a year after, and he’s on an island in Maine. That’s our story point and then things ensue. It’s great to have a whole other environment and yet be in the world of The Sinner.

When you started out, did you have a game plan, or were you winging it?

I never had a game plan. That was a common thing in those days because it was so strange to aspire to be an actor. That was ancient times. Now everything’s about fame and everybody wants to perform. But in my small town in western New York state, people would say, “So, do you have a five-year plan?” My oldest brother said, “You’ll do this for a little while and then you’ll get out of it.” I didn’t have that feeling. I didn’t see that I was going to leave it. I’m either stupid or committed. I don’t know which it was.

You’ve got three kids. How proud are you of them? And what are your thoughts on Lewis, who’ll be in Top Gun: Maverick with Tom Cruise, following you into the acting game?

All three have evolved into these people that are making their way in the world, doing what they love. How great is that, to feel like they’ve got a fire for something and are committed? My oldest daughter is a singer, musician, songwriter. She’s a teacher. She leads an alternative community choir kind of thing, and she’s amazing. The middle son makes puppets and masks, and even that ended up being something he can make his way with, and he’s so creative. He’s a little bit like Halston to me on the things he makes and his thinking processes. It’s been pretty impressive. Then, of course, young Lewis. When he was in fourth grade, I was raking leaves with him out in the driveway and a neighbor came by and said, “Are you going to be an actor like your dad?” I was a little ways away, but I saw him look up and he then looked back at me. He said, “I don’t know, but I got a fortune cookie that said I was.” I really never pushed it. He has his own game. I remember Rita Wilson played his mom in a short movie, and I worked with her shortly after and she said, “Wow, your son.” I go, “I hope he behaved himself.” She said, “No, no, Bill, he’s an actor.” Whoa, here we go.

Halston is streaming now on Netflix.