Bill Pullman, Julia Stiles discuss 'Oleanna'

When Doug Hughes, the director of the revival of David Mamet's "Oleanna," heard that his two stars, Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles, were sitting down with a writer for the Los Angeles Times, he freaked out. "He said, 'Ohmigod! Don't say anything to him or to each other!' " Pullman recalls with a laugh. " 'Just drink coffee,' " Stiles chimes in.

Even though the two were at a delicate stage in rehearsals for the production, which opens June 5 at the Mark Taper Forum, they were forthcoming at an early breakfast meeting in a midtown Manhattan hotel.

They spoke at length about many of the themes touched upon in Mamet's explosive 1992 drama about the confrontation between John, a middle-age professor, and Carol, a student who accuses him of sexual harassment.

Stiles is no stranger to Mamet's work. The actress ("The Bourne Identity") has been featured in two Mamet films -- "State and Main" and "Edmond" -- and starred in a West End production of "Oleanna" opposite Aaron Eckhart in 2004. Pullman, a veteran of both film ("Independence Day") and stage (Edward Albee's "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?"), is making his debut in a Mamet play.

In the course of the conversation, Pullman was voluble and erudite while Stiles was shy and thoughtful -- as might be expected from a young woman once described as "the thinking teenager's movie goddess."

-- Patrick Pacheco Bill Pullman: You know, we're in a play, and this is very curious -- and I don't know if it's just the audiences now for theater -- but some people say, "I don't like Mamet." And I'm really amazed by that. It's either, "Oh, great!" Or, "No, I don't go that way."

Julia Stiles: But that's better than "Mamet, hmmm." Lukewarm, kinda neutral feelings. The fact that he provokes people or his style provokes people like that is awesome.

BP: I think that, in some ways, people react politically to his plays. Some may feel that they're getting tricked into something. But the further you get away from the original productions, the more people are able to see that it's not just a manipulation by Mamet to make them agree with him. It's not just a slice of life but a higher level of tragedy. That's our particular challenge with this play. They know "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "American Buffalo." But they don't think of "Oleanna" as one of his important works.

JS: Or if they know of it, it's as, "Oh, it's the sexual harassment play. Or the he-said, she-said play." And that doesn't really do it justice because it shouldn't be about the politics.

BP: It's Friday afternoon on a college campus. He wants to go home. He's got things planned. A student arrives and they know each other, they talk to each other. And the play moves into a place where these two people have a particular way of igniting with each other and grappling with each other, which is as fierce as anything else in their life -- if not more so -- and they didn't know that until that Friday afternoon. This is the premise of the play, but the specifics of that is what our work is.

JS: I like that Mamet always writes characters that are very flawed. It becomes humorous at times, but it's also tragic. Playing Carol, I have to get away from judging her constantly: "This is where she's wrong, this is where she's flawed." Because we're in the thick of it, to her, she's right all the time.

BP: Doug says that so much of Mamet is about characters who are all wanting to get their hands on the Good Stuff. And I always love that, when he goes to that: It's the Good Stuff. What is that? In America? What is that for men? For women? For students? For teachers? For an actor, the Good Stuff can be different. It's different for film and theater. You know you were telling me in the elevator about walking down the street talking to yourself --

JS: Oh, God!

BP: -- and because I'm working with you, I'm remembering a lot of what I did when I first got into the theater. And my consciousness and total obsession with it was what was the deepest joy: To have this thing living in you, demanding your attention and concentration for hours and hours.

JS: Well, I was talking to myself, running my lines through my head and walking down a crowded street, and there were people who must've thought I was crazy. I know what you're talking about. I can go through my day-to-day life and still this play will be in my brain. But I think I've also learned to incorporate my outside experiences, which at first may feel disruptive, but which I can actually use toward Carol or whatever role I'm playing: "Today I'm feeling angry." Or I had an interaction in the street that upset me. I'm not going to ignore that it happened. I have to figure out a way to incorporate that. (Pauses) Oh, God. I feel like I sound like a lunatic!

BP: No, no. You're absolutely right. That's what so great about Mamet. He doesn't suggest emotional stage directions. You have all sorts of ways to approach a role, to organically reconfigure the character and the moment. I'm always interested in counterpoint. I don't like when actors "double-gesture" with scripts.

JS: Double-gesture?

BP: The line is "I'm angry with you" And the actor sounds angry. But it's the counterbalance of action and words that's the most interesting. This is an overstatement but somebody somewhere said that in good dialogue, you're either lying or fishing for something. Part of our frustration with living our lives is that it's very difficult to know yourself and know the world. So when we're talking, we're often not in touch with what we're saying.

JS: (Pause) I'm completely going over rehearsals in my mind and thinking how much I double-gesture! (Laughter) What you just said is so very eloquent. But in terms of back story, we bring our own, you know, years of life to the stage. There are moments in the play where references are made where it helps to be very specific about a memory that Carol is having or things that would trigger her. But you have to roll that into what is happening on stage in real time, those two people in the room on a Friday afternoon. (Pause) Just shut me up if I'm saying too much . . . (laughter) but when Carol talks about what she had to do to get into the school. There are vague references to, like, she worked really hard to get into this university. And what Doug encourages me to do is make it specific. Even at times when we're talking about bigger ideas, the most important thing is what's going on between the two of us in that room . . . the power struggle and the abuse of power.

BP: But even with power. There's a president of the United States, and we're citizens. But it doesn't mean that we're always angry about his power. And he doesn't need to dominate every citizen always, all the time. You have differences of authority all the time in life. It's just that this particular journey, between these two people. . . .

JS: I was just thinking: I don't think Carol would agree with that!

BP: I know that I wouldn't want to have Carol as a constituent if I were a politician!

JS: Hey, easy, easy, easy! (Laughter)

BP: This is good. Them's fighting words in every other sentence in Mamet.

JS: That's one of the reasons why I wanted to do this play. It may seem like it's a stacked deck [against Carol], but this feels really fresh to me. I'm going to self-edit because I don't want to reveal any secrets, but the play is great when your allegiance changes. Who wants to watch when it's obvious that one person's wrong and one person's right and is just angry about it?

BP: One of the things you're always aware of: Given enough rope, you can hang yourself pretty bad. Sort of like this interview (laughs). You can say this character has baggage and you're meant to feel some way about them. But you can also say, "They were given enough rope to hang themselves." It's kind of how you play it. And how the audience responds.

JS: I remember stories of when "Oleanna" was first done and people would have the strongest vocal reactions, despite themselves. There's just something about theater vs. film, there's no filter between you and the audience.

BP: I remember, during previews of the "The Goat," there was something potent about audience reactions. Sometimes it was like a sporting event, there'd be audience members who'd want to take the play away from you. "Aw, for Christ's sakes. Give me a . . . break!" And other people saying, "Shhh. Shhh! Quiet!" People hissed, groaned. As an actor, you can't shut it out, you can't be hermetically sealed off. You can use it.

JS: Well, you can't ignore it.

BP: You can't let it intimidate you.

JS: Or distract you. In London, we felt the audience reacting. It threw me at first. I was expecting it at certain points. But sometimes, it was totally unexpected where they vocalized disapproval over things Carol would say. A gasp or an "Ohmigod!" and you would hear, in your head, a jury saying, "You're wrong." And then it was liberating, because I couldn't care. I couldn't be up there for audience approval. What would frustrate me was that I might not be arguing Carol's case enough. But it was also exciting because it meant the audience was engaged, they cared about what was going on. They weren't bored.

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