How Torchwood's Bill Pullman Learned to Play the World's Creepiest Motivational Speaker

Perhaps the greatest miracle in Torchwood: Miracle Day is Bill Pullman's performance. The fact that they got the President from Independence Day — and the star of tons of other great movies — to play an unnerving pedophile murderer who becomes a sort of televangelist is mind-boggling.

But what Pullman has done with the role of Oswald Danes is also astonishing. Danes' ascent from America's most hated man to rock-stardom seems bizarre and unlikely, but Pullman makes it work. His performance has been the most memorable thing about Miracle Day. We were lucky enough to get some time to talk to Pullman about embodying the loathsome Oswald Danes, and he gave us some great insights into his creative process.

We were able to get about five minutes one-on-one with Pullman at San Diego Comic-Con, and we also sat in on roundtable interviews with him later on. And one thing became clear pretty quickly: Pullman loves to talk about acting, and about his process in creating a character. A lot of actors hate to talk about this stuff, and when you ask them acting process questions, they change the subject. But Pullman, who seemed full of excitement about Torchwood, was more than happy to geek out about creating the character of Oswald Danes.

In our one-on-one interview, we asked Pullman about the way Oswald Danes holds himself — he has this tremendous dignity and keeps his neck and head totally straight, even when he's bawling his eyes out on live television. And Pullman said that he saw Danes as being terribly scarred by his years in prison, including all that time in solitary confinement. Oswald Danes has been beaten down again and again, and it's taught him to hold himself together as hard as he can. And of course, Oswald Danes is a former schoolteacher, so he still has all of those skills in the back of his mind.

We asked Pullman if he thought of his character as sort of like Freddy Krueger crossed with Jesus, and he liked the Jesus part:

I was going to say 'Jesus' too, but I'm glad you did... It's like the doppelganger of [Jesus] or something. It's like he's been out in the desert, and he comes back in, and there is a certain kind of way in which he still has pride. And I think that's what he wrestles with more than anything else. The pride. Because it can give him dignity, but it can also lead to an arrogance that can trap him. So he's dodging that bullet.

Here's what Pullman feels is going through Oswald's head, as he calculates what to say next:

I think he's not used to being with people. He's been in solitary or away from school teaching, where it's a very close thing. And there are a lot of moves being made, there are a lot of forces at play around him, so he's trying to keep afloat in a very shifty terrain.

Later, in press roundtables, Pullman was happy to talk more about the secrets of Oswald Danes, including how Oswald feels about having come back from the dead: "There are a lot of attendant feelings about that," said Pullman.
"As much as you can imagine, there is constantly a sense of thankfulness, a feeling of special purpose, at the same time a feeling of [being] undeserving maybe, and maybe these are operative things or these are subconscious things. There's a lot at play with the character, and that was what I think is a special connection between Oswald and Jack Harkness - that there is a great kind of Iago/Othello thing going on."

How Torchwood's Bill Pullman Learned to Play the World's Creepiest Motivational Speaker

And Pullman underscored that he doesn't set up to play a villain or make his character appear evil. "There is a way that it starts to clog the wheels to me." It's not as though his character is setting out to be sinister. "There's no kind of, 'Ah! I nailed it! I was sinister.'" Obviously, all of us have it in us to do terrible things, and we all have unpleasant appetites, and "sometimes people are scary." We have inhibitions that prevent us from "indulging in certain appetities, and developing certain appetites. But we all know appetites. And we all have appetites." He praised John Malkovich's performance as the villain in In The Line of Fire. "The story is only as good as the bad guy," he noted.

And Pullman still believes that Oswald Danes could be redeemed — and in fact, the character has been offered a chance at redemption.

He has incredible intelligence. He's self-effacing, so he also recognises his own baggage — things that he has been able to shed, things that he hasn't been able to shed — and he's not bound in fear. There's a great British director named Declan Donnellan who teaches acting, and his own approach is how to unschool your body and mind from fear. I've only stumbled on him recently, and I thought, 'If you can't do that in a training situation as an actor, then you never get to access certain parts of yourself'. You're always carrying something that's interfering. It's like static noise that doesn't need to be there, and you have to school yourself to clean that out. I think in some ways, playing a character like Oswald, you get to teach yourself what it is to shed fear as much as you can.

And Pullman said that when he first read the Torchwood scripts, he was blown away by how much "it knows itself," and what a strong voice the writing had for all the characters. "It's an ambitious motherfucker," he says. "It's got all this kind of, 'I want to be scary, I want to be gory, I want to be philosophical, I want to be funny, I want to be touching, and I'm going to risk things. I'm going to risk maybe exploding tension with the possibility that maybe by having a laugh here, it increases the tension when it sucks it back in.'"