A day after witnessing Bruce Willis unveiling a mural of his younger self, that hung on the wall of Stage 8 on the 20th Century Fox backlot, I have the chance to interview him. Frankly, I am slightly nervous about the encounter with the action star, because of his reputation for being temperamental in interviews. It’s not uncommon for him to snap, hence I had to be on my guard.
We meet at a conference room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. He saunters in, sits behind a desk and folds his hands before him as he cracks his familiar smile and looks forward in business readiness, as if he were there for a job interview. Soon, I realise that he has rehearsed what he wanted to say.
Willis is here to discuss his 5th portrayal of John McClane, the Die Hard character that catapulted him to superstardom in 1988, and became the backbone of his acting career. “I have a warm spot in my heart for Die Hard,” he reflects. “It’s just the sheer novelty of being able to play the same character over 25 years and still be asked back is fun. It’s much more challenging to have to do a film again and try to compete with myself, which is what I do in Die Hard. I try to improve my work every time. I get to do different things and look differently and it’s still accepted and people come out. It’s just an amazing thing.”
Nonetheless, the veteran actor is not impressed by the title of the new installment of the franchise, A Good Day to Die Hard. He glances at the film’s poster, which hangs on a stand next to him and smirks. “I don’t quite understand what A Good Day To Die Hard means,” he laughs.” Can you explain that to me? If you’re going to die, today’s a good day? I would think you would call it Not A Good To Die Hard.”
Of course, he never dies in Die Hard movies and certainly not in this new one, which takes him to Russia, where he helps his CIA-agent son (Jai Courtney) to beat some bad Russians who are up to no good. In the process, he ravishes Moscow, incinerates buildings, smashes hundreds of cars and guns down armies of bad guys and inadvertently some good ones. The thunderous action that we see in this sequel dwarfs what we have witnessed in its antecedents, suggesting an extensive use of CGI. But Willis disagrees. “I think very little of it was CGI,” he asserts. “John Moore [the director] was pretty insistent upon making it happen on the streets.”
Shot mostly in Budapest, Hungary, the film required the closure of several streets for some of the car chase scenes. “I just took advantage of it and just drove like a maniac through those streets,” he boasts. “I didn’t hit anyone; I didn’t hit anything but it turned out to be really exciting.”
But on the screen, he hits everything in his way, smashing 108 cars. “The auto industry are so excited for us to destroy their cars because really what they get is a commercial for their cars,” he chuckles. Ironically, in real life, Willis likes restoring old cars. “I like cars and I like that people treat cars with respect,” he nods.
Granted, there is nothing controversial about liking cars, but what about guns? exhibiting a wide array of killing machines, Willis incinerates more bodies than vehicles in this movies. The inevitable question is whether the glamorising of gun shooting in his movie inspires the killing spree in America’s schools? This is a testing moment in this interview: Will he snap?
“It’s just a conjecture. It’s never happened,” he says in a gruff but restrained voice. “I have never seen one example of anyone that has committed a crime and hurt someone based on an incident that they saw in a film. It doesn’t happen. It really does a disservice to the families of people who truly lost someone. It has nothing to do with with films or the violence in films. It has to do with someone having a broken mind.”
Willis insists that action movies are just like a roller-coaster ride that gives you the exhilarating feeling of closeness to death, and eventually brings you back safely to nice slow stop. “Die Hard is just a mimic of violence, a mimic of closeness to destruction or closeness to death as a way of entertainment. If you went to the films and saw it was more of a documentary with people really getting hurt or cars crashed or people walking away with real blood, you would stop going to the movies. Real life is one thing and entertainment is simply that. We try to make it exciting and entertaining.”
Indeed, the Die Hard movies have been one of the most successful action franchises in the last 25 years, drawing over $1 billion at the box office and turning Willis into one of biggest action heroes in cinema, next to other icons such as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Willis grew up in New Jersey, where his parents, a German mother and an American soldier, relocated from Germany, where he was born. In spite of a speech impediment, Willis decided to try his luck in drama at Montclair State College. “I used to stutter a lot and sometimes it comes back and I don’t know why,” he wonders.
Taking speech classes, Willis was able to overcome his affliction and get several acting jobs in TV, eventually gaining fame for his charming performance in the 80’s show, Moonlighting. But it was landing the lead role in Die Hard that vaulted him to the pinnacle of Hollywood, which he attributes to sheer luck. “I had been asked a few times to do the film and I wasn’t able to do it because I was working in TV, but thankfully Cybil Shepherd got pregnant and Glenn Caron gave us a hiatus of 11 weeks and that’s when I shot my side of the film. They had to go and shoot everything else that happened in the first Die Hard and it was so hectic and fast, but it was a lot of fun,” he smiles reflectively.
In spite of the phenomenal success of Die Hard, Willis’s career suffered some setbacks that resulted from starring in critically-panned movies and commercial flops, but he always managed to bounce back in masterpieces such as Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) and The Sixth Sense (1999), and blockbuster Armageddon (1998). “I have a couple of handfuls of films that didn’t make as much noise as some other films have,” he concedes. “All film-makers try to do great every time and not every film gets noticed and not every performance works out to be the most exciting thing. I don’t know. All I can say is that I try and try.”
The occasional box office failures of Willis’s films don’t perturb him and he continues to seek out roles that fulfil him artistically, directors that inspire him and projects he deems worthy of his efforts. Last year, he worked on small projects such as Moonrise Kingdom and Looper, which failed to impress in the box office, but he remains proud of them. “Looper didn’t work but it was a very complicated story and I really like that film. I like what they were aiming for and it’s very novel, a very interesting film,” he enthuses.
There is something far more important to the 56-year-old actor and that is his family. The father of 4 daughters (3 with former wife Demi Moore and one with his current wife Emma Heming) tells me that when his 4-year-old daughter told him over the phone that she wanted to see him, while he was away shooting a film in Rome, he dropped everything and flew to the US to spend the weekend with her. “That’s love; it’s what I had,” he glows. “It’s a love I have for those kids and the time I want to spend with them and goof around with them. My daughters are now in their twenties and there was a section of time when I didn’t quite know what kind of adults they were going to turn into, but they turned into really great women with great morals and great ethics. They are kind to people, polite and intelligent, and I couldn’t be more pleased.”
So in awe of the women around him, the man who epitomised machismo on the big screen has become convinced that women are a superior gender to men. “Women are much smarter that you and I,” he asserts, pointing his finger. “You may be smarter than I am but women are much smarter than men. They should be in charge of everything.”