Bruce Almighty

In a world exclusive interview, the original (and best) action hero, Bruce Willis, chats to Total Film about terrorism, fame, religion, music, swearing, YouTube, how to be cool, and why John McClane is back to save the world in Die Hard 4.0

IT’S APRIL IN NEW YORK CITY. Bit muggy. But Bruce Willis’ sprawling hotel suite is lightly chilled. As it would be, with Willis in it.

He is wearing a green sweater over a white t-shirt. Dark jeans. Clutching a coffee. Total Film walks over and shakes him by the hand.

There goes the twinkle, the squint, the half-smirk...

Total Film really needs a wee, but as the intro pleasantries trail off and the PR slips away, it’s clear that the egg-timer has been well and truly flipped over.

We have 30 minutes of Willis’ time and not an instant more. Bruce clunks down his BlackBerry on the table, sneaks a slurp of coffee, leans back. Twenty-nine minutes and 40 seconds.

Total Film remembers that this man’s real name is Walter…

Born on a US military base in Germany, on 19 March, 1955 (American dad, German mum), Walter Bruce settled in New Jersey two years later. The young Willis was a contradiction: a confident kid with a stammer. The Student Council President channelled his swagger into drama classes, where linguistic study and rehearsal neutralised his speech-glitch.

He bulked up by taking to wrestling, but enjoyed it too much and got suspended for three months after a school brawl. On leaving, he shrugged away the college pressure and took jobs as a driver and security guard, playing harmonica in an R&B band. When he finally followed his calling and moved to New York City, he shared an apartment with fellow struggling thesp Linda Fiorentino. In 1984, after scoring a few TV pop-ups, he flew to LA to audition for a role in Desperately Seeking Susan. He didn’t get it, but blagged his way into tryouts for a detective spoof called Moonlighting. He bagged the role – as the smartmouth, street-level foil to prissy Cybill Shepherd – after a female producer reportedly enthused that he looked like a “dangerous fuck”.

Moonlighting was gigantic. It ran from 1985 to 1989 and transformed Willis from bit-part bad ass to all-American rogue poster-boy. He milked the popularity by cranking out a couple of soft-rock vanity albums and snagging the lead in a 1988 action movie…

“I never wanted to be a movie star,” says Willis, sloshing his coffee around the cup. “I never imagined I would be! Sure, I did a bunch of theatre in the old days and, in my feeble little mind, I hoped to someday be in a Broadway show and maybe someone would see me and put me in a film. But I never thought, ‘I want to be famous!’ I just wanted to act and maybe get a little bit more than I asked for.”

With Die Hard, he got a lot more.

After Die Hard, everything changed. Suddenly everything was a variation on the film’s good-guy-on-the-inside theme, with studios cranking out Die Hard on a bus (Speed), a boat (Under Siege), a plane (Air Force One), a train (Under Siege 2) and a boat again (Speed 2). Die Hard and Die Hard 2: Die Harder writer/producer Steven de Souza recently claimed he took a call from a young producer, pitching a new action movie that – in true Hollywood style – he excitedly claimed was “Die Hard… in a building!”

Die Hard 4.0 is Die Hard on the internet, with Deadwood’s Timothy Olyphant leading a band of hackers who cripple the US computer infrastructure. They take over traffic lights, banking networks, the stock market...

Justin Long (Dodgeball) teams with Willis, as a not-so malevolent mouse-jockey who shifts McClane (now a Homeland Security ex-cop) up to speed with the tech-speak.

Although Willis says he does “get” the internet, he’s not quite the 21st Century, digitally savvy, bloggy type. “My kids help me with all my computer needs. Any problems, I just ask my 13-year-old daughter [Tallulah Belle]. She does a couple of tricks and then everything’s working again. YouTube is insane, though. It’s only been around for a year but it’s already this deep canyon of popular culture.”

Reprising the McClane role after 12 years, the 52-year-old cheerfully re-absorbs all the character’s quirks – and creaks. “The studio were keen to have me play the character at my own age and how I look today. Instead of trying to go younger or try anything other than just getting out there and having my ass kicked.”

And you were happy to take the battering?

“Oh yes! I really did take it. I got in good shape – I don’t like to work out, it’s a pain in the ass – but I still took a few hits. There’s a scene where I have to let Maggie Q really beat me up – while waiting for Justin who’s taking a long time doing something – and I took a kick to the head from the stunt girl. If she’d kicked me half a second earlier, it would have taken my eye out. I love all the physical stuff, but the recovery time is a lot longer these days. Keeping up with the kids is tough. Well, they’re all in their 30s, but they were kids when the first Die Hard came out, and they’ve taken everything up to another level – doing things I’ve never seen anybody do. It’s big!”

Tellingly, post-9/11 and all that, where cartoon crooks like Hans Gruber just aren’t scary anymore, the Die Hard 4.0 terror comes from the enemy within, rather than the enemy out there – or over there (Europe).

“Yeah, for a long time the studios were reluctant to make films about terrorism. The angle with Die Hard 4.0 is computer terrorism, but we still had to tell the story in a post-9/11 world – while at the same time staying true to what everyone will expect from a Die Hard movie. It’s still a ride, man!”

And that’s the appeal. The original Die Hard was a palate-cleanser after a stodgy decade of over-pumped, superhuman action stars (Stallone, Schwarzenegger). Willis played McClane as tough but vulnerable, hurtable, occasionally panicked, self-doubting. Human.

“John McClane was never about being some kind of superhero, no,” says Willis, now coffee-free, fidgeting with his BlackBerry. “He’s the classic ordinary guy thrown into extraordinary circumstances. I really leaned into that and allowed myself a lot of hurt, a lot of falls and cuts. He had to get bloodied and tired. That way, people were there with him more. It seemed more real. Some parts of Die Hard 4.0 were done in a superhero kind of way and I can’t tell you it was my idea, but there was such a good response to it... Although we still stuck with the rules we invented on the original: he loves his country and his family. He won’t allow anyone to be harmed if he can stop it. He won’t take any shit. He doesn’t respond to authority...”

Are we talking about the character of John McClane or Bruce Willis?

“Haha. Well, if you’re asking where Bruce Willis ends and John McClane begins… I don’t know. He certainly looks like me…”

A FEW DAYS LATER, Total Film is lolling around the garden, wine-woozy in the Bank Holiday sun...

The phone rings...

To read the rest of Total Film's laid-back chat with Willis, pick up the new look issue. You'll recognise it. It's the one with the bald bloke on the cover.

The Total Film team are made up of the finest minds in all of film journalism. They are: Editor Jane Crowther, Deputy Editor Matt Maytum, Reviews Ed Matthew Leyland, News Editor Jordan Farley, and Online Editor Emily Murray. Expect exclusive news, reviews, features, and more from the team behind the smarter movie magazine.