Growing Young: Will Pullen on the Serious Art of Make Believe and Playing Jem on Broadway
Before we've even found chairs to sit down in and start talking, Will Pullen has offered to help.
"He can call me anytime," he says, throwing his hat in the ring to assist our son through the storm of being 13 years old. Indeed, he said the same thing in a handwritten note to Bailey, signed Uncle Will, left behind on our kitchen table after a recent visit. As my husband Daniel and I face the waning of our own parental influence, Will seems like an ideal candidate to call on. He's the second oldest of six siblings (he's seen the teenage thing a few times), and beyond that he embodies a sort of bridge. He is just as theater-obsessed and art-immersed as we are, but also way more cool in Bailey's worldview, especially when it comes to the joys of video games, pizza and BBQ, dumb jokes, and nonstop sportscasts.
When we do sit in the lobby of ART/NY theaters, Will is wise and careful in his words, focused on the truth, with a thoughtful reflection on his actions—digging into the earthy mulch of past and present from which his current life and work grows. Will is committed fiercely to his family, not one to posture or jockey for attention, eager to see the world new, and determined to keep engaging in the art of serious make believe—of play in its truest, most ancient, sense. All of this is serving him in remarkable ways in his portrayal of Scout's brother Jem in the current Broadway production of To Kill A Mockingbird, in which he and Celia Keenan-Bolger play the Finch siblings—adult actors embodying the children who are the storytelling narrators of the piece, speaking directly to the audience throughout. (He deflects my praise for his work in the show, claiming, "I just steal from Celia Keenan-Bolger. Whatever she does, I do. That's sort of my secret.")
Because he's playing a kid right now, and because I'm always interested in tracing an artist's line back to the start, I ask him how he found theater. He was, he tells me, a kid who lived in his head. He started acting at seven, when his mom (a former professional ballerina) told him he was too crazy for tennis, which he now guesses meant that he had a crazy large imagination that would be neither fulfilled—nor reigned in—by tennis. He went to Wendy Avon's rec center acting class in his town. "Not to sound cheesy," he confides, "but it was like the world sort of opened up. I just felt like I'd come home, and I was exactly where I was supposed to be."
From the outside, it might've seemed like a massive pivot for a kid who was obsessed with sports, and Chicago's teams in particular ("Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, and Cubs forever and always," he rattles off). Even growing up in the privilege and safety of the northern suburbs of Chicago, he was scared of the dark and afraid to be alone in it. He couldn't fall asleep without a nightlight and the late night sports commentary of Tommy Williams's 9 p.m. show. He wanted to be Michael Jordan. But as much as he loved imagining himself in every game with all of his favorite teams, actually doing it was another story. "The best way I can explain it is that when I was on the field I never wanted the ball hit to me or passed to me. I didn't want to mess anything up. I was just like 'I want you guys to do great, and I'm here,'" he tells me. "But whenever I was in acting class, I always wanted the ball. I always wanted to be up and doing the scene."
Now, seven years into a professional career that counts two Broadway runs; many Off-Broadway world-premiere plays, short films, and projects in development with his theater family; and recently spending months aboard a WWII-era naval ship for the filming of Greyhound (a historical drama with Tom Hanks coming out in 2020), Will seems to be doing it for the same reason he did at the rec center. Acting is a "place I've always felt safe." Having been a kid who lived in his head, he can now bring that into his work in a more intentional way. "Fantasies and projections can get the best of us sometimes," he says. "It's important to channel it into something you can give to other people."
I met Will when my husband Daniel Talbott directed him in his first job out of undergrad at Syracuse—Lucy Thurber's play Scarcity, remounted by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in 2013 as part of the five-play cycle The Hill Town Plays. There's a production still from that show that still takes my breath away. In the photo, Will has dropped to the kitchen floor next to his little sister (played by Izzy Hanson-Johnston), and their heads are gently touching. They are an island for each other, surrounded by upended furniture that Will's character, Billy, has hurled around the room in a justified rage. The picture brings me back to the moment—tender and raw as a split lip, unlike anything we usually see onstage. It demands that we feel—with these siblings, right where they are and as they are. We can't think our way through it. That's Thurber's work to me, and Daniel's, and Will seems ideally suited to bringing the people in plays like this to life.
I ask Will what he values most in a friendship, and he doesn't pause: "Loyalty." Then it's a moment before he adds, "People that stick around through the bad stuff. When you're not being the best version of yourself, and they're still there to pull you back toward the you that you want to be."
This kind of loyalty, I know, is life changing. Daniel describes what it looks like in action in a beautiful way. "Will's one of the most loyal, hardworking, and huge-hearted creatures walking this earth. He's my brother. He's taught me more about faith and trust than almost anyone," he tells me. "He leads with his heart. He's a total dude, which I love, but his heart is enormous, lion-loyal, and pure. It's that part of him that blows me away onstage, and for someone whose ability to trust is so shattered—his heart is a fucking lighthouse in the fog. You see it on stage and in life. I'm lucky and honored to call him my fam."
I think of Daniel's plays Gray and What Happened When, both shaped in productions that Will has been in. When I consider the entwined artistic, family, and soul collaboration that this kind of work entails, it makes me think of the word shelterbelt—a barrier of trees and shrubs that provides protection from wind and storm and halts erosion. Through work, Will has found his shelterbelt, and has become one himself—this protection from the storm, this holder on to the soil and the mud in which we all find ourselves, and from which we can only hope to grow and thrive.
I ask Will how he has changed in the last year, and he shares two things. First, he feels more focused on what he calls the "real prize." That is, not being pulled in the wrong direction by the "big fancy thing," whether that's Broadway, or movies, or whatever. The real prize, he says, is to be a kid who gets to go play pretend for a living. He doesn't say that to minimize it. It's important, even sacred. But in the end, the world can be a big bad place, and actors get to "play pretend and hope to put a little good into it." He sees more clearly now that all the other shit that comes with that is a sideshow.
The second thing he's learned this year, he tells me, came from a quote he saw in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona: "It takes a long time to grow young." Playing a kid right now, for him, feels like going back to the beginning. Not in the sense of being a student, but like playing wizard on the playground. Getting on the jungle gym, trying to learn, and depending on his teammates in life and onstage to keep the ball in play.
Mockingbird feels different than the last time Will was on Broadway. Two years ago, during the run of Lynn Nottage's Sweat playing a very dark character, he remembers thinking, "I'm gonna treat myself like shit and I'm gonna come in angry, and I'm going to bring that intensity to the stage," he tells me. "But I think what I've found is actually that positive energy trumps negative energy every time. Even if you need to go to that bad place, I think that coming from a positive place enables you to go deeper." Living in darkness, he found, only meant hitting a shallow bottom much more quickly. What has stayed the same on both shows is the collaboration—relying on the shelterbelt of incredible artists onstage and off. "There is no way to phone your way through a scene with Johanna Day," he says of his co-star in Sweat, who played his mother. "It's impossible. And believe me I've tried."
For Johanna Day, the feeling is mutual. "Will is a brilliant actor. He doesn't have a dishonest acting bone in his body. And if he does, he is a magician," she tells me. "Will broke my heart every single night. His deep sensitivity to the humans he's playing is like no other. It's written all over him. He can't help it. He's kind and hilarious and ferocious."
In email exchanges with his collaborators, I am struck by their similarity to Day's description of Will holding these opposite twinned qualities: ferocity and gentleness. Lila Neugebauer, who directed Will in The Wayside Motor Inn at Signature Theatre, says that his "depth of inner life, ferocity, playfulness, and his empathetic imagination make him endlessly fascinating to watch." Keenan-Bolger shares that "Will is one of those actors who is as bold as he is restrained, as gentle as he is fierce, and as kind as he is tough."
As we're wrapping up, I ask Will how he approaches a show day for Mockingbird. With any luck, he says, he will have gotten some sleep. He starts the day playing with his cat Tory (short for The Notorious C.A.T.). He maintains an athlete's respect and discipline to the work he's doing, spends time at the gym. And every day includes hours of reading. At the moment he's immersed in books that Jem might've read: Mark Twain, Jules Verne, The Three Musketeers. "Books that get you out of yourself and into someone else's head." There are some cigarettes. "I need one thing that I just know I'm not supposed to be doing and I do it anyway." It's on his list to quit this year, but 2019 is young.
Before we go, I ask him a question I've borrowed from a podcast I love—The Knowledge Project—which is basically, "What is the smallest thing you do on a daily basis that has the most impact?" Will surprises me: "Prayer." I ask him if there's any form that takes in particular, and he says that right now it's the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, which is about "doing more for others than you do for yourself. I rarely accomplish that. At least do one thing a day. That's a pretty good day."
Later, I look up the text, and in the first half of it three words ring out over and over again: let me bring. These words seem to express the deep desire and sense of service that Will brings to his work and to the relationships in his life. An offer to contribute, and a plea to be part of keeping the ball in play.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
And then it continues, in part:
…let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned…
A fitting prayer indeed.
WILL PULLEN can be seen currently in To Kill A Mockingbird at the Shubert Theater. For further info, visit https://tokillamockingbirdbroadway.com/
is an actor, producer, and artistic associate of Rising Phoenix Rep.