Bruce Willis is the action hero that smart moviegoers love to hate, and not just because he had the effrontery to release a singalong soul album called The Return of Bruno. The problem with Willis is that he is arrogant and one-note: a smirk who pumps out snarky one-liners along with gunplay in pulpy action movies.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Willis has heard it all before, and it used to be the reason he dodged press. Until a few years ago, he hardly ever gave interviews, especially to the British papers. He might have heard it all before but it didn’t mean he had to like it. To get the word out on his disaster epic Armageddon, the world’s press gathered at the Cannes film festival and watched a highlights clip reel. Disaster indeed, as they guffawed loudly at gloopy scenes where Willis tried to blow up an asteroid whilst keeping a grip on his faltering relationship with daughter Liv Tyler. Alas, Willis was a surprise guest at the event. “I’m glad you find the end of the world so amusing,” he groused, and stalked offstage.
Not his finest hour, although since Armageddon was a massive hit, he got the last laugh on all of us. But if he could do it all again, would he do it differently? Make a few more movies where he played the kind of noble everyman that built a career for Tom Hanks? “If I could go back in time, I would try to make more mistakes earlier,” he decides.
“I want to get through the anxiety of making a mistake as fast as I possibly can. If I make a mistake or do something rude or hurt someone’s feelings, or if I do anything that I consider a mistake, I want to try to correct that and make it OK as fast as I possibly can. It might be just me, but I’ve a lot of anxiety about making mistakes. There are things that I did as a brash kid that … well, you know what I’m saying.”
I think we do. Not all Willis’s choices have been smart – the full-frontal nudity of Color of Night, Hudson Hawk, covering the classic soul song Respect Yourself, and the multiple wigs of The Jackal – but you cannot deny that he has always been good value as a movie star. At worst, he’s smarter than his scripts, and at his best he plays exhausted capability like a Stradivarius, as he moves through a symphony of bad guys and fools. And he never got quite the credit he deserved for his tender-hearted boxer with a prized watch that has survived unspeakable indignities in Pulp Fiction.
Thank goodness Looper is one of his better films, with knobs on. And Willis knows it too. A clever, confident science fiction thriller, it also plays a mini-homage to all the tricks and tics we associate with Willis. In 2044, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a hitman whose one job is to wait for men to appear out of thin air and then execute them. A ‘looper’ bumps off mob targets sent back in time; the advatange is that there’s no body or clues in their present, merely a mystery body who pops up in the past. It’s all going very well until Willis appears as as the retired, jaded future version of Gordon-Levitt’s character. You can almost hear the pitch meeting: “It’s 12 Monkeys but without Brad Pitt showing off”.
Think about the possibilities too long and you could get one of those headaches brought on by trying to figure out second cousins, but essentially living in the same timeline as your future self means you directly confront the fallout of your mistakes and may not like what you see.
Gordon-Levitt, 31, looks like Willis the way I resemble Blind Boy Fuller, but a prosthetic nose gives him Willis’s distinctive hook. Other refinements added up to three-hour daily make-up sessions during filming, but the best impression comes from squinting and tightening his lips into that familiar half-smile. The younger actor studied Willis’s movies, listened to tapes of Willis reading lines and hung out with the action veteran until he had the tough-guy swagger. It is, says the original, “a very, very good Bruce Willis”.
The real Willis is only slightly less convincing, if you are expecting his screen persona. He is more softly spoken and low-key, sometimes dropping to a murmur that forces you to lean in. He’s also surprisingly thin, battling a “baked goods” habit by going to the gym once and sometimes twice a day. Rather than cockiness, he epitomises quiet confidence.
He admits that he keeps himself on a leash and thinks about what he wants to say in an interview. He has been seriously burnt by the backlash to his Republican views in the past, although it’s hard to see much disagreement with his disappointment with Mitt Romney at the moment. He has also been vocal about the American right to bear arms, and put a $1 million bounty on Osama Bin Laden – a private remark, he says, which got amplified when it was aired in the media.
He admits he did want to join the army when war was declared against the Taleban in Afghanistan, “but I was too old”. He’s a sort of ying to George Clooney’s Democrat yang, and it must frustrate him that Clooney doesn’t seem to cop as much flack. The upshot, however, is that Willis no longer volunteers political opinions to tape recorders.
He’s far more comfortable talking about acting mistakes instead. His breakthrough role came in 1985 in the hit TV series Moonlighting, opposite Cybill Shepherd. But there were also some strikeouts at that time, like In Country, Sunset and Blind Date. There was sniggering, and a suggestion that Willis had overstepped his TV mark. Then he starred in Die Hard, solidifying his place in Hollywood.
After more than 25 years in the business, Willis still feels like he has more to accomplish after a career of highlights, but also admits he wishes he could go back in time and bump off some roles from his CV – “There are a good, maybe, dozen films I’d like to strike off the list and take them out of rotation. You’ve seen them, you know which ones suck.”
That’s one of Willis’s grace notes; the ability to send himself up. There are hair jokes: if you mock the sappy haircut of his decent sad sack cop in Moonrise Kingdom this year, he’s apt to remind you that “hair being what it is these days, I like my hair in that film”. In Robert Altman’s movie satire The Player, he turns up as his actor self in the movie-within-a-movie, blasting into San Quentin’s gas chamber to save Julia Roberts. He would have been faster, but “traffic was a bitch.” You can hear the writers of The Last Boy Scout swoon with jealousy in the background.
Action heroes go in and out of style, and few have managed the longevity of John McClane; funny, tough and a little beery. But Hollywood has changed in the period between Die Hard and Die Hard 5: A Good day to Die Hard, which Willis shot in Budapest this year.
Suprisingly, however, amongst the doom-laden prophecies of falling box office and distracted youth glued to their phones, Willis is upbeat about the economics facing modern movies. “What I’ve seen happen over a couple of decades of acting is that it gets bigger, it gets smaller, and it has gone through a little compression right now.
“It seems like the sky’s falling syndrome – and in a couple of years, the sun will come out and everybody will be happy. I’m the last person that understands why or how all that happens, or when it happens, but they still seem to be putting large amounts of money in big bags somewhere, and getting away with it.”
Would the younger Willis have dreamed that more than 20 years on, he would still be starring in sweat, blood and undershirt movies, or busting heads in The Expendables 2, which reunited him last month with tough guys like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dolph Lundgren?
Come to that, why do audiences and Hollywood still cling to old action stars like Willis, Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson? “It’s not like they’re not looking for the next new thing,” says Willis. “They’re looking for young guys all the time but it’s difficult to make people in the press and the movie-going audience want to like someone.
“But James Bond is a good example. I really like Daniel Craig and I like his work. He completely got me off from the old James Bonds – except for Sean Connery. I was just waiting for somebody new to come along, and he’s doing great.”
Willis can see the day when he won’t do fight scenes in films. “Right now, I’m doing OK, but I used to bounce off cars a lot easier than I do. But I think everybody stays alive longer now too,” he says. “Science has found a way to keep you alive much longer, so people who are 65 still want to work and are still vital. They’re still young enough to do the job that they do.”
Generation gaps being what they are, occasionally he has been joined on screen by his daughter Rumer in films like Hostage. When I met her a few years ago, she seemed shy and rather tentative. Mind you, if your father is Bruce Willis, it’s difficult to establish your own voice. He was, of course, married to Demi Moore until they broke up in 2000. Everyone knows about his old life with Demi: they were so rich they bought a town, they have three girls – Rumer, 24, Scout, 21, and Tallulah Belle, 18 – and he remains friendly with Moore to this day, although presumably he has cooled off on her ex-husband Ashton Kutcher.
Apart from the united front, however, the details remain deliberately foggy. Despite their high-profile divorce, Willis is proud that he and Moore managed to keep their split private. “We both didn’t want to wash our dirty linen in public. We did that for our children as well,” he says.
So is he the kind of protective John McClane dad that his daughters dread bringing their boyfriends home to? In the past he has joked about facing down spotty teenagers at the door but now admits, “I tried once, and Scout just shoved me out of the way. I’m not a dangerous guy; I can’t even scare my kids any more. They just look at me and they go, ‘Dad.’”
He is openly soppy about his children, and is regularly spotted celebrating birthdays with them at hotspots around New York, Las Vegas and LA. “If you think that I’m fortunate to be acting and be in films, I feel like I’m fortunate that my kids still want to talk to me,” he says with a brief laugh. “It’s amazing to me that they still call and want to do things with me because I know a lot of people don’t have that kind of relationship with their kids. I’m very proud of my daughters. I would do anything for them, and my wife, and probably Demi too.”
British model Emma Heming is Willis’s second wife. They tied the knot in 2009 at his home in the Turks and Caicos islands, and apart from the occasional red-carpet appearance they keep out of the limelight. The same applies to their one-year old daughter, Mabel Ray, for whom he claims to be “changing diapers like a champ”.
Although there’s a 22-year age gap between Willis and his second wife, Heming says a work ethic ethic drew them together. “We have so many things in common,’’ she has said. “We’re self-made, we came from the same background and we went to work and became self-sufficient.’’
The same could be said of Moore, who was ferociously ambitious and became the highest-paid actress of the 1990s. Is there anything different between a second and first marriage? “I don’t know if I’m doing anything differently,” says Willis. “I think I’ve become a nicer person over the years, and I don’t take things so seriously. I try to fool around more and laugh more. I get cranky if I’m away from home too long but my wife travels with me, which is great. I never thought I would get married again. I never imagined I could be as happy as I am now.’’
Speaking of fooling around and laughing; what news of Bruce Willis and the Accelerators? Is there a reunion planned? “Singing?” he says, incredulously. “No, over, retired. I never really called myself a singer. The closest I got was that I used to shout in key.”
Reassuringly, perhaps, there’s a new generation that enjoys the Willis brand of groove. “I sing to my youngest daughter now, but she doesn’t know what songs are yet. She just knows that she likes the sound.”
• Looper is released on 28 September