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'1600 Penn': Bill Pullman On Returning To Comedy, Politics And Tips For Being Presidential

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BILL PULLMAN 1600 PENN
Bill Pullman talks returning to the presidency on "1600 Penn." | NBC

Bill Pullman is no stranger to the fictional presidency, having played the commander-in-chief in "Independence Day," but his latest role as President Dale Gilchrist on NBC's "1600 Penn" is pretty far removed from the 1996 blockbuster.

The comedy series aims to make the first family more relatable, dealing with problems like unplanned pregnancy, adult kids being forced to move back in with their parents, and the friction between a stepmother and her new children.

Created by star Josh Gad (who plays oldest son Skip Gilchrist), Jon Lovett and Jason Winer, the show also co-stars Jenna Elfman as First Lady Emily; Martha MacIsaac, Amara Miller and Benjamin Stockham as the other Gilchrist kids; and Andre Holland as press secretary Marshall Malloy.

Below, see what Pullman told HuffPost TV about returning to comedy, the complicated dynamics within the Gilchrist family and his top tips for playing the president.

What can you tell us about your character, President Dale Gilchrist, going into the series?
My first wife died when I was a congressman. I was going to almost leave politics and then I start working with Jenna’s character as a campaign manager, and through that, I run for governor of a Western State --we’re saying Nevada -- and win that, and then we get married and go on to the White House. So I’m trying to hold together a family that is a new construct in a way, with a stepmom and with very idiosyncratic children and at the same time running the country.

This obviously isn't your first experience with playing a presidential role, so what attracted you to the part in "1600 Penn"?
I had met Jason Winer like a year before we shot the pilot ... He didn’t mention anything, but later, I learned that he had been talking to Josh [Gad] about it, and so I had a chance to kind of get a sense of him. And I don’t watch television ... but I had to get up on the learning curve and I watched some of “Modern Family” after I met him. I realized that I was really impressed by that single camera comedy, and no laugh track.

I had done a pilot a couple of years ago that was multicamera, and I did not have the reaction that most people apparently have with it: “Oh, actors love that because it’s a lot like theater.” And I don’t find that. They’re like an audience on crack or something ... The audience will take things away from you. They’ll have those moments like if you say anything that’s not a funny line, something earnest or slightly earnest, they’ll go, “Aww" and that takes away from the moment. And it’s either laugh or "aww" -- it’s like two colors. So I find I wasn’t strong enough in that zone to really feel like I could maintain my own thing. I just hated it ... I do think with our series, I was actually surprised that it wasn’t as subtle in the first episodes the way I thought it was. And then I was glad to see ... the big faces and everything get less and less [as the season goes on].

With this series, there’s a different dynamic than others because Jason has quite a bit of power as a director, which is comforting to be me because it’s more like a film director. I can go to him and say, “Do you really only want that take saying it that way, or can we do another version?”

You've done comedic roles before, but anchoring a primetime comedy is obviously a different dynamic altogether. Was that part of the appeal?
Yeah, it was. The first movie part I had was a comedy and I had come from theater -- I came from New York, and I had done a lot of intense Sam Shepard parts, and things like that. My friends, when I first was in “Ruthless People,” thought, “It’s so weird. You’re doing a comedy.” [After that,] I just did comedy because I did “Spaceballs” and classic funny stuff, but I hadn’t done it recently. I’ve been wanting to do it ... But then there was a side of me that also said, “I haven’t gotten a lot of friends that are comics because I find them also a little over amped.” But this has been a happy medium.

Can you talk about President Gilchrest's relationship with Emily and her attempts to play a motherly role to the kids, when the kids don't really want to embrace her? Is he playing the middle-man?
There’s nobody really perfect at their given jobs with the family. She’s stepmom, but tries hard and maybe over-tries. Dale maybe should be trying harder sometimes, and he’ll be blunt about things that he probably shouldn’t be. So he makes my own faux pas ... He ends up saying hurtful things quite a bit too and then has to readjust. But it’s self-effacing, I think, and she’s helpful and I think in any kind of relationship, there’s times where you’re wishing that your partner didn’t say it exactly that way, and he's a little bit like that with her, and she’s the same with him. She’s looking at him and wishing he had said something the right way.

I think a lot of comedy in television I think is snarky -- it’s weak sarcasm, and I never laugh. That’s why I don’t watch television quite a bit because ... what I see is children saying snarky things about parents and everybody laughs; children being smarter than parents, everybody laughs. I don’t know where it started to become the groupthink about the way we should be with each other in order to be funny, and I think it's not so in our show. So there’s a kind of wholesomeness ... and not wanting to just say mean things about each other, which I think is good.

His bond with daughter Becca (Martha MacIsaac) and her unexpected pregnancy somewhat drives the story in the first few episodes. Can you talk about how their dynamic evolves?
She’s really kind of his favorite, because she was the closest one that he could talk to about things. She had this great strategy plan of what she wanted to do with her life and it all gets thrown out the window. And she’s not wanting to disappoint her dad, and at the same time, doesn’t want to be worried about that and maybe projects that he is making judgments about her, and then wonders if he's going to be accepting of all the changes that she’s going through and everything.

I love some of the scenes we’ve had together in the Oval Office where she has decided she’s now worried that she’s not validating her own existence and just being this sensational embarrassment to the family. So she strives to do things that then go wrong ... And he realizes that she’s lied, which is so outside her. When someone who is not typically a liar gets caught in a lie, you don’t want to step too hard, but at the same time, you want to have a conversation about it. And then you have these writers writing all these wisecracks ... The wisecracks are a way of kind of spinning something out, but maintaining this conversation that’s really going on underneath it. So I like that with her character. She and I had a bunch of that.

It seems like the show is trying to be bipartisan and not alienate anyone on the left or the right. Is that something you appreciate?
Oh yeah. You know, I have a ranch in Montana, and Montana is a western state like Nevada. Those Rocky Mountain States don’t really follow the same patterns that the two coasts or the center follow. There’s a lot about energy policy because a lot of the resources are in the Rocky Mountain States and so you can have a Democratic governor who is very pro energy and digging coal, and all of that, and you can have a Republican governor who is interested in raising the minimum wage -- there’s some surprises that happen outside the normal things. So to me, it fits that I’m like this. It’s not just because they want to keep as many viewers as possible.

It seems so distant that there was a nonpartisan thing that has no self-consciousness of not being partisan. Now, when you’re not a partisan, you’re always self-conscious. We shot a lot of episodes in the Nixon Library, which we made for our White House -- but it’s very interesting about Richard Nixon. In a way, he started the EPA ... There were so many ways in which the country was very different then, and [there was much more] fluidity between a policy and party.

As this is now your second experience with playing the president, what are your tips for getting into character and embodying that presidential presence?
I thought about that when I was trying to figure out, “What do I wear today?” And the last thing that I wanted to wear was another suit. So I started out wearing jeans, and a sport coat, and a weird shirt because I don’t like to even think about it, but it’s funny I didn’t feel at all like my character, which was kind of the point ... So I think clothing makes the man.

I remember ... I watched "Independence Day" sitting next to Bill Clinton. It was quite interesting, because I did not feel presidential sitting there, and at the same time, I was just kind of waiting for these moments to happen ... “What is he going to say? Is it ridiculous that I’m the president of the United States?” But I always was aware of just that generosity of spirit that you lead with, which I think even feisty guys like George W. -- there was incredible generosity of spirit, and some of it got confused with all his nicknames that he would give different people ... but underneath it, as he went in to foreign policy meetings, you realize every president has to lead with a generosity of spirit.

"1600 Penn" airs Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. EST on NBC.

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