Back in the Fight

At age 52, Bruce Willis resurrects a die-hard character

It takes Bruce Willis awhile to get warmed up. He's always just a bit below room temperature -- a cool brother, dig, dating back to his Moonlighting days as a private dick belting out "Tighten Up" while going undercover as a man of the cloth in Wayfarer shades. He's been on the personal appearance tour for a few days before he sits down in an upscale Dallas hotel room to talk about the new Die Hard movie -- the fourth, Live Free or Die Hard, which is more like parts one through three added up and multiplied by a few hundred million. Dressed in gray suit and white shirt, he's crisp but also a little frayed, running two hours late for this sit-down.

He starts by talking in sound-bites -- sentences about how doing sequels is like doing weekly TV ("It's another episode in a film you've already seen ... the audience comes into the theater already knowing a lot about the character") and how he hadn't really considered playing NYPD detective John McClane again and how hard it is to roll with the concrete punches at age 52 and on and on and on, the standard ho-hum stuff you do when you're on the road selling a sequel. Not that he doesn't care, but this is just another part for Bruce Willis: pitchman for a film about which people are skeptical enough as it is. Another Die Hard? Try hard? Why hard? Lie hard? Can you get hard? Seriously. Not again.

But, see, this is interesting territory for Willis because it's back to the beginning for him. Rewind the tape to 1988 and his first $5 million paycheck and first big movie (can't count Blind Date, shouldn't count Sunset). It made him who he is today -- the smirking action hero, the Jersey boy who proved wrong the studio bosses who didn't believe him capable of saving the Nakatomi Building. Save a building, launch a franchise, make a career -- fairy tales can come true, as that other kid from Jersey sang way back when.

Director Len Wiseman frames Bruce Willis in Live Free or  Die Hard
Director Len Wiseman frames Bruce Willis in Live Free or Die Hard

Twenty-some years ago, it could have gone any number of directions for Willis, who, in 1984, turned in perhaps the most memorable villainous performance on any Miami Vice episode when he played a wife-beating gangster. The guy could play cruel. And comic, too: Moonlighting, at least during its first two seasons, was as Hepburn-Tracy as TV had ever been. Then came Die Hard, followed by a dozen movies kinda like it, if not exactly like it. He does quiet as well as anyone, as evidenced by The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, especially. But mostly he does loud, louder and loudest, and Live Free or Die Hard is a big fucking bang when it works -- and even when it doesn't. So, Bruce Willis, what's it all mean?

There's a line in the beginning of the new movie in which someone asks you if you've done this a lot. And you say something like, "Kill people? Not in a long time." The way McClane says it indicates this guy's got a lot of baggage. Did you ever think, What's John McClane been up to the last 12 years, since Die Hard with a Vengeance?

Do I think about it as Bruce Willis? Not very often. In my travels around the world for other films or on my own for vacations or stuff, everywhere I went, somebody would come up and go, "When are you gonna do another Die Hard?' And for a long time, I thought that was just something people said to say hi and tell me they liked the Die Hard films. But it wasn't till we started shooting that I actually realized that there was more of a wanna-see for another installment of Die Hard than I thought.

You resisted it for a long time, though.

It was the story. It's one of the things I've learned in the last 20 years: If you don't start with a good story, then it's really difficult to get an audience to come see it, because what you're really asking an audience to do is leave their house, get in the car, hire a babysitter, park somewhere, [and] go in a theater. And people can watch a movie on their big flat-screen and get the same experience.

But isn't it also the character? You've always said you need to live a life before you can play certain characters. McClane seems to have a weight on him now that he didn't have before. I assume there's something about him you wanted to explore, too.

It's John McClane at 52, which is different than when I played him at 42 or 33. The idea of doing the fourth installment in this franchise started to make a lot more sense after a good friend of mine, a writer named Jason Smilovic, who wrote Lucky Number Sleven, started talking about the mythology of Die Hard and the fact that if you're in a film that's the fourth installment in a franchise that spans 20 years, there's a certain expectation the audience comes in with and wants to see how the character's held up and changed. Someone had suggested earlier on -- or it was talked about, anyway -- whether I should try to play him younger or whether I should try to play him at his own age, and it just seemed to make more sense and to be more fun to see the guy at 52 years old and then to go back when you have that four-disc set to go back and see me at 33 in 1988 and see me now at the ripe old age of 52.

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