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Actor Bill Pullman on what it takes to play the President

Bill Pullman played the president in the NBC series,
Bill Pullman played the president in the NBC series, "1600 Penn."

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When the annual State of the Union address is delivered before Congress on live television, in no other time are U.S. presidents so clearly asked to essentially “perform” the task of the president in front of an audience.

Television networks and radio stations across the country — including KPCC — will carry President Trump's speech live, and the pundits will no doubt scrutinize how he performs.

We don’t know how he’s preparing today, so we asked an actor who’s played the president to tell us how he got in the mood to play the orator-in-chief. Bill Pullman has actually played the president three times — in the short-lived TV comedy, "1600 Penn" (created by former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett), and, more dramatically, in the sci-fi movies “Independence Day” and “Independence Day 2.”

Interview Highlights

On preparing for the role of the president:

I, of course, didn't see myself as presidential. First thing I said [about “Independence Day”]: It's a comedy. No, it's not a comedy it's science fiction. But I thought to myself: Well, science fiction can be funny sometimes. I just didn't really [have] the gravitas of president. Little did I know that it didn't take a lot of gravitas. Eventually we all learned that. 

I got nervous, because then I thought, This is kind of like playing Hamlet. You know, every actor in the theater at some point has the capability of doing Hamlet. What is your Hamlet? You're gonna do the president, what is your president?

On the speakers and speeches that influenced his work:

[I got] "100 Great Speeches" on CD. And, it was really great for me to listen. I didn't really need to see other actors playing [the president] in movies, but to listen to good speeches was a really clarifying thing. And most of the important speeches are really not that well-delivered — like Mario Cuomo's speech at the Democratic Convention of a "city on a hill."

That and Robert Kennedy's [impromptu] speech when was informed that Martin Luther King had just been shot. And it was two minutes, I think, from when he had heard that and when he got in front of the microphone. You can feel it in the energy when you hear him announce to the crowd that King has just been killed, you hear the crowd gasp.

For him to be able to articulate what he did, which was basically: I know how people felt about him. And those that felt very strongly about him feel like they've lost a brother. And he said, All's I know is that I have lost a brother. Then you really know you're in the present moment and he's looking for words. He's not reading a text that he's orating. That was a good one to listen to for a science fiction movie.

On his on-set experience:  

It was great to not have to insist that I'm the president, [to] have everybody already deferential. I didn't want to be a guy who's making everybody in the room listen to him. I wanted them all to be listening to me.  

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