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Bill Pullman's Double Life

The star of Mamet's "Oleanna" on Broadway also is a Montana cattle rancher.

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Bill Pullman

Bill Pullman

Photo By Thomas Iannaccone

Bill Pullman might be from Hornell, N.Y., but he’s really a Westerner at heart. The clues are in his wardrobe, if you look closely: underneath his jacket is a snap-front striped shirt from Rockmount Ranch Wear and he’s paired his jeans with distressed cowboy boots.

The duds are a nod to Montana, where the actor has shared a ranch with his brother for 20 years and his real role is raising hay for the cattle. At the moment, he’s a bit worried about the crop, since he’s locked into starring in David Mamet’s “Oleanna” opposite Julia Stiles on Broadway.

“I’m hoping it’s not all going to freeze,” he frets from his third-floor dressing room at the John Golden Theatre on West 45th Street. “Right now I would be draining everything.”

Instead, he is donning a rumpled suit to play a professor accused of sexual harassment by a female student (Stiles) in the famously polarizing “Oleanna.” The play, which first premiered in 1992 in the wake of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, is a power struggle between characters that provokes loud gasps and angry commentary from audiences even 17 years later.

“It’s a chance to look at the ways in which our society creates laws to protect each other from abuses and [how] they can be constantly perverted,” Pullman explains, though he and Stiles have refrained from taking a stance on the play’s outcome.

“We don’t really see it as, ‘Whose side are you on?’” he continues. “I think both of them have a lot at stake, so that makes for good drama.”

It was because it was such good drama that Pullman signed on for the run, which started in Los Angeles before coming to New York, turning down television and film roles in the meantime.

“After doing [Edward Albee’s] ‘The Goat,’ I realized I wanted to do more theater,’ says the 55-year-old, who was part of the 2002 Tony-award winning cast of that play. “This is one of those plays that are hard to find. It’s a good play.”

Theater is where Pullman always thought he would be, not in movies like “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Independence Day” and “The Grudge,” especially after earning his M.F.A. at University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“I never imagined myself in films. My benchmarks were performances I saw in the theater,” he says. “It’s astounding how challenging plays are….The scary part is that you get to encounter humanity in a way you don’t in films. The audience amplifies the experience.”

It’s that challenge he thinks is attracting so many celebrities to perform on Broadway (which has been controversial in theater circles but has driven ticket sales to record levels this season).

“That kind of nakedness is what it’s about,” he says. “I mean, Daniel Craig, James Gandolfini and the rest of them want to measure themselves against a litmus that doesn’t care if they’ve done well in film or not. And they are making sacrifices to make it happen.”

Just like he’s doing, taking time off from his ranch. “This is probably the worst year ever. We usually go [to the ranch] a couple times in the fall,” says Pullman, who indulges his green thumb with an orchard when he’s home in Los Angeles with his wife and three children. “The intoxicating thing is that you are out there in nature and having to accommodate something bigger than you. And then to come back [to L.A.] and people say, ‘Oh, I’m going to the gym, but do you want to meet afterwards?’ It all seems so meaningless.”

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