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Pullman brings human face to military drama

Actor tried to avoid making Navy officer a cliché in 'Tiger Cruise'
/ Source: The Associated Press

Bill Pullman makes an odd noise as he tries to approximate the “huge racket” that occurs on an aircraft carrier.

“You can’t shut down the ship and I was so unused to not having complete quiet on the set ... it took me a while to adapt to that,” Pullman says, explaining one of the challenges of filming “Tiger Cruise” on the USS John C. Stennis.

Pullman plays Cmdr. Gary Dolan in this Disney Channel original movie premiering Friday at 8 p.m. EDT. Hayden Panettiere portrays his teenage daughter Maddie, who’s unhappy that her dad’s career takes him away from home so much.

During the annual Tiger Operation cruise, when the crew’s families are invited aboard, she hopes to persuade him to give up his job. But while at sea, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occur. The crew goes on high alert and she witnesses first hand the importance of his military duty.

The characters are fictionalized, but the movie’s story line is inspired by the fact that the aircraft carrier USS Constellation had family members on board on Sept. 11. The Constellation, now decommissioned, was not available, but the Navy gave the production company permission to film on the Stennis in San Diego harbor, and to shoot second-unit footage on the USS Nimitz at sea.

The demands of playing a military character intrigued Pullman.

“There is something exciting when you see people who are very formal talking with each other and there is a sense that they have chosen to be that way,” he says. “There is something masked that is more interesting to me than just people who are intent on displaying their uniqueness or whatever ... there is a bearing which comes from having a little bit of something withheld. In acting classes they always say don’t reveal 100 percent, it’s much more interesting.”

Keeping clichés at bay
Producer Bill Borden says Pullman chose to play the commander, who must balance his feelings for his daughter and family with his obligations to his crew and country, in a manner not “syncopated” with the clichés of a military character.

“Instead of the military-salute-hard-rod-up-your-back type, he’s the boy from Montana ... he’s a little bit off, which is wonderful,” says Borden, making an oblique reference to Pullman once being head of the theater department at Montana State University.

Pullman grew up in rural New York, where his father was a doctor.

“They say everyone who’s the offspring of someone in medicine never feels adequate in what they do,” Pullman comments.

Notable for playing the U.S. president in the aliens-attack blockbuster “Independence Day,” Pullman, 50, recalls appearing in “The Devil and Daniel Webster” while in the eighth grade. But unlike many actors, he was not immediately hooked.

“I didn’t think it was the start of anything,” he says, reasoning that when he was young, the idea that you would or could grow up to be an actor was much less prevalent than it seems today.

Pullman still seems diffident about his choice, suggesting that he might agree with a fellow actor who had recently remarked to him, “You are not as comfortable in your own skin as you pretend to be.”

Possessed by the profession
He jokes being an actor may be “a protest against myself,” and notes that playing a character provides the chance to experience “a certainty that seldom presents itself in real life.”

He had initially worked in building construction and still has “a barn obsession.” He recently told his wife, Tamara, “I think I’m having fun, but I think more I am possessed by something.”

He refuses to say how many barns he has owned, restored or rebuilt — the most recent with the help of Amish using old-style equipment. “It would sound like a disease if I told you,” he laughs.

After completing “Tiger Cruise,” he worked in Japan for director Takashi Shimizu on the horror film “The Grudge.” In the upcoming limited NBC series “Revelations,” he’ll star as Richard Massey, an astrophysicist who teams with a nun in exploring the possibilities that Biblical prophecies will come true.

This fall, Pullman will be seen in the independent movie “Rick,” based on the opera “Rigoletto.” He plays the amoral title character who tries to prevent his teenage daughter from seeing what he does for a living.

He calls it “a nasty little tale” — about a character completely opposite Cmdr. Dolan.