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Space Case

Film and stage star Bill Pullman explores outer space in the Magic Theatre's Expedition 6. logo
Bill Pullman
Unlike lots of little boys, Bill Pullman wasn't particularly interested in becoming President of the United States or being an astronaut. But life has a funny way of working out. He gained major film fame playing the leader of the free world in the megahit Independence Day. And now, while he isn't literally shooting into that stratosphere, Pullman is exploring the ins and outs of outer space as the writer-director of Expedition 6, which debuts on September 8 at San Francisco's Magic Theatre.

This movement-heavy docudrama looks at the lives of the courageous men and women who go into space. "I was never into the space stuff; I didn't even see Apollo 13 until I began work on this project," says Pullman. "It all came about for me starting when the Columbia space shuttle blew up and I realized that 600,000 people in the Middle East were celebrating. Then, right after that I read about our astronauts and the Russian cosmonauts who were stranded in the space station. All of a sudden, I thought 'what is the world like up there?'"

Pullman has spoken with a number of actual astronauts in preparing the piece and says they've been very supportive. "I asked one astronaut why he wanted to go back up there, and he said there were two reasons: bonding with the crew and the aesthetic. There's something that can only be seen from up there that gives a different perspective. I don't think I would go even if they let me; it's a huge dedication of time and effort. But I like imagining it."

Although Pullman has gotten his hands on NASA reports, the government agency has yet to officially cooperate. "I sent them the play, and I'm sure someone went cross-eyed just looking at it," he notes. "They still might cooperate, though. I know they've taken a lot of hits for being too careful or not careful enough. But I want to stress I think the space program should continue. In fact, I see it as a team effort for a lot of different arenas."

Nora El Samahy, John Behlmann, and Justin Walvoord
in Expediton 6
Expedition 6 is a team effort as well, relying on top-flight creative collaborators, including trapeze choreographer Gary Rundel; a cast of eight, featuring local actors and graduates of the Denver Theatre Center's National Theatre Conservatory (where the piece originated); and especially Magic's artistic director, Chris Smith.

"Not everyone can get their head around this piece, but Chris can," says Pullman. "I thought one day I would be the artistic director of a regional theater, and now being here at Magic, I see what the challenges are. And I have to say I'm continually impressed by the quality of people this kind of theater attracts, especially since the money isn't good and people pound on you no matter what you do."

Pullman says he isn't sure what future life there will be for the project after the end of the Magic run, but he clearly hopes this isn't the end of the road. "I'm banging my head trying to get people I know, both from New York and elsewhere, to come out here and see it and tell me what to do with it. I know it's expensive to travel with eight actors, but I think it would look interesting in Europe."

No matter the reception, Pullman can't just hop on a plane across the ocean. In mid-September, he heads to New York to begin rehearsals for the Second Stage Theatre's season opener, Edward Albee's Peter and Jerry, opposite Dallas Roberts and Johanna Day. Having starred in the Broadway production of Albee's The Goat, Pullman was clearly a logical choice to play Peter in this two-part piece, which consists of Albee's seminal one-act The Zoo Story and a newly-written prequel examining what happens to Peter before he sits on that park bench. But the gig almost didn't happen because of Expedition 6.

"When Edward first offered me the role -- and I have to say I wouldn't have been surprised if he asked me to audition for it -- I told him I couldn't change my schedule and I would totally understand if he walked away from giving it to me," he says. "But I'm really glad they were able to change their schedule for me. It's a much smaller play than The Goat, but it's fascinating. In The Zoo Story, Peter is kind of the quiet one, and now suddenly you have all this other knowledge about him that informs what's going on. And I've really missed being in New York."

One big reason for his absence from the Big Apple, in addition to preparing Expedition 6, has been Pullman's steady bout of film work. Right now, he's still in the midst of filming Bottle Shock, in which he plays a California vintner in the 1970s. "We're shooting in Sonoma, so I only had to miss a few rehearsals. I play this guy, Jim Barrett, who helped popularize California chardonnay," says Pullman.

"The funny thing is the first job I had in New York was at this major wine shop, Acker-Merrill. I wasn't really very useful because I had lost my sense of smell in this accident and so I couldn't really taste the refinements in the wine. Instead, I just memorized all the little pitches about the wines. But the store was really nice to actors; they always used to let people off work to audition."

He's also working on getting additional financing for Matthew Wilder's Your Name Here, in which he plays science-fiction author William K. Frick, so it can be ready in time for next year's Sundance Film Festival. "We're calling in every favor we can, because we need money to do the special effects," he says. "Matthew has such a clever conceit for this film. It really feels like a 1970s B-picture, which is appropriate because Frick was so much from that period. It's really a unique movie."

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