Lewis Pullman Shares Advice From Dad Bill That Helped Him Nail His Nuanced "The Starling Girl" Role

Courtesy of Bleecker Street
Courtesy of Bleecker Street

"The Starling Girl" actor Lewis Pullman grew up with a front-row seat to what a steadfast and commendable career in front of the camera looks like. The actor is the son of beloved "Independence Day" and "While You Were Sleeping" actor Bill Pullman. "My dad has just a plethora of good advice, but one that he's adamant about is subverting expectations," Lewis tells POPSUGAR when asked about the best acting advice he's received throughout his career. Lewis takes that wisdom to heart with his latest role in "The Starling Girl."

In the film, Lewis plays Owen, a morally grey, 20-something youth pastor who feels more suffocated and misunderstood than ever upon returning home to his fundamentalist Christian community after an eye-opening trip to Puerto Rico. "He is so excited by all these new approaches to his faith and how he can further his transcendence into his belief in God," Lewis shares about his character. But, unfortunately, his father — the leader of their fundamentalist sect — is not as open-minded. "It's met with absolute rejection, and it's almost laughable. And so he feels he's just lost."

Owen finds an escape in a budding romance with Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen), a 17-year-old girl on the church's dance team who, like him, feels her wings have been clipped. They genuinely see each other, and their relationship makes them both feel closer to God than any of their hyper-religious community's onerous expectations and guidelines. And yet, when their affair is uncovered, Owen's resolve crumbles under the weight of his father's disapproval, and he betrays Jem in ways she was too naive to anticipate.

Owen goes along with his father's spin on their affair — that the much younger and far less experienced Jem "seduced" him — as she's forced to "confess" her sins in front of the entire church. Then, in a scene that plays like a gut punch, Owen approaches her in front of everyone and offers her "forgiveness" for her transgressions. Despite this ultimate betrayal and abuse of power, the movie never entirely paints Owen as a clear-cut bad guy, and Lewis thinks that is an essential aspect of the film.

"I think the strength in the film comes from its portrayal of each character in a way that doesn't villainize anybody. Because the moment you villainize any of these characters is the moment you're depriving the film of the opportunity of having it relate to certain audience members," he says.

Lewis struggled, but did manage to find a way to empathize with Owen. "Whenever Owen is around his father, he kind of reverts back to a boy," Lewis says of why his character may have buckled under pressure, adding, "Being surrounded by his father and being overpowered by that father-son dynamic where you feel like maybe [Owen] doubts everything that he ever thought, [where] any original thought that he might have had was wrong."

He continues, "I just kept going back to that feeling and thinking, 'What happens when you are not allowed to express your true feelings, and urges, and doubts?' It just basically rots inside of you, and it comes out in ugly ways."

Lewis is building his Hollywood career, starring in hit movies like the action blockbuster "Top Gun: Maverick" and time travel-infused romance, "Press Play." But his complicated role in "The Starling Girl" he counts among his most challenging. "I read the script, and at first, I was like, 'I don't know if I really have the tools and the capability to really pull this character off,'" Lewis admits about his first thoughts on the role.

Luckily, Lewis's slate of acting role models are far more upstanding than that of his onscreen character's father in "The Starling Girl." Lewis says his "Bad Times at the El Royale" castmate Jeff Bridges taught him to "make the mundane spectacular," adding, "Not getting complacent and not losing the opportunity to tell a shade of that story that you could have missed." And while Lewis admits his "Top Gun: Maverick" costar Tom Cruise's "work ethic is something that is not necessarily learnable," he took an equally important lesson away from working with him. "He's always keeping in mind the audience, right? And what he can do to make sure it's the best experience possible [for them]."

"Sometimes I'm like, 'I can't figure out how to justify it.' And he always has some really creative ways in, and that's been really helpful for me."

Lewis's dad Bill's advice about subverting expectations undoubtedly helped him bring nuance to his portrayal of Owen as well. "[My father] always thinks, 'What is the obvious way to do this [role]?' And then, 'What is the opposite way?' And then, 'How can I justify that?' And it always ends up being remarkably interesting," Lewis says about Bill's process of unpacking a character. "Sometimes I'm like, 'I can't figure out how to justify it.' And he always has some really creative ways in, and that's been really helpful for me."

Watch Lewis Pullman subvert expectations as Owen in "The Starling Girl," playing in theaters now.

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