How Bruce Willis Keeps His Cool

9 minute read
Joel Stein/Los Angeles

I’m pretty sure Bruce Willis lied to me, and I’m pretty sure I liked it. He made me feel that the two of us–men equipped with a certain tough cynicism, men who know that this whole celebrity machine is overblown, men, damn it, who have lived–could be straight with each other. When Willis, who was in Alcoholics Anonymous and now occasionally drinks, began to rave about the dangers of booze (perhaps provoked by my repeated references to his 1980s Seagram’s wine-cooler commercials), and I countered with a question about a YouTube video of him looking a little plowed at a recent Nets playoff game, he smiled. He paused. And then he said, “Jet-lagged.” Yes, I thought, dude was jet-lagged. I’ve been jet-lagged and mocked Cybill Shepherd and cursed on national TV. Almost.

“Sometimes I overestimate my ability to function under duress with less than enough sleep. We all have trouble sleeping. Do you have trouble sleeping?” And then Willis moves on to something else, and I think that, maybe, actually, Bruce Willis knows that I know he might be lying, and he respects me enough not to pretend he’s not. We’re both men who understand that I have to ask him something that requires a lie, and he has to deliver that lie.

That’s the thing about watching Bruce Willis act: it’s not just that he’s so incredibly cool–it’s that he makes you feel like you’re cool too. Unlike George Bush’s, his smirk is inclusive, a charming plea for forgiveness for being a tough guy. He is the bouncer who listens to you and smiles as he’s tossing you from the bar.

He made audiences feel cool as the fast-talking, smart-alec private eye David Addison in Moonlighting. He did it in three Die Hards, Pulp Fiction, Sin City and somehow in that movie where he puts words in a baby’s mouth. Can he still make us feel cool in Live Free or Die Hard, the fourth installment of the action series about a normal NYPD cop who always finds himself in the middle of absurdly dangerous terrorist plots? “I’m a gambling man by nature,” Willis says of returning to a franchise that started in 1988 and had its last installment 12 years ago. He admits that the second and third Die Hards were not great but says this one takes a retro action-movie plot (it’s pretty much WarGames meets WarGames) and makes it look contemporary. This isn’t last year’s Rocky movie, a wrap-up story about an old man. This is full-on, action-hero bombast.

So the risks weren’t just that the movie would be bad, or that a 52-year-old man would look silly jumping and diving, but that no one would care, that action movies are the westerns of our day, a product of ’80s American supremacy that can’t be resuscitated. Also, the risk was that Willis would break something on his body. “They played a Jedi mind trick on me and said, You’re getting older and shouldn’t do your own stunts, so of course I did my own stunts,” he said. He shows me, after some prodding, the spot near the bridge of his nose where he got 28 stitches after getting kicked in the head. “I just rubbed dirt on it and kept going,” he said, smirking. Really? “Yeah, just rubbed some dirt on it.” Seriously? He raises one eyebrow, either amused or disappointed or both. “No.”

He’s a little bit like the older brother, the alpha male who defends by playfully attacking. Early in the new film, there’s a scene in which Willis yanks a guy out of a parked car for trying to get to second base with a college student. She yells at Willis’ character for intervening, calling him John. He tells her that he hates when she calls him that. So she calls him Dad. It’s kind of creepy, the fun we’re supposed to be having assuming a college kid is his girlfriend, and it gets one to thinking about Willis’ dating life. When I ask him about it, he turns the question on me so that I’m the creep: “That thought never crossed my mind–of asking Mary Elizabeth Winstead on a date. No one has come up with that question. That’s good. I’ll tell her you asked about that.” I let out a little embarrassed giggle because it even feels cool to be made fun of by Bruce Willis.

“Bruce Willis is a pimp, dude,” says Kevin Smith, the writer-producer who plays one of the villains in the movie and was such a fan growing up that he had Willis’ pop-blues album, The Return of Bruno, in his car’s cassette player at all times. “Bruce Willis made me start drinking. I’m not a fan of alcohol. But when Bruce Willis sings about golden wine coolers, you have to get your drink on. I showed up at parties with Seagram’s wine coolers, and people would say, ‘What are you, crazy? We have a keg. We have vodka.’ But no. I’m Bruce Willis smooth.”

It’s that coolness that lets Willis walk away, John McClane–like, from disasters that might have destroyed other careers: Hudson Hawk. Talking-baby movies. Movies with Matthew Perry in them. Investing in Planet Hollywood. Giving his kids odd names. Endorsing George Bush. People just don’t abandon Bruce Willis. Despite the cuffed Levi’s 501 blues he stills wears, he somehow stays with the times–Pulp Fiction, Friends, the Beavis and Butt-head movie, Sin City. It’s because he never put himself on a different level from us. “Could you ever picture yourself hanging out with Sylvester Stallone? Could you picture hanging out with Arnold Schwarzenegger? No,” says Smith. “But you could with Bruce Willis. He acts like your friends. He talks like your friends.”

And he’s like that all the time. “He’s so relaxed on the set,” says Timothy Olyphant, who plays the main villain in the new movie. “It was one of those sets where you can feel the money flying out the window and you feel the pressure of it all. And he was like, ‘Settle down. Just get this right.’ He gave me a great deal of confidence.”

Smith concurs. He tells a story he has told before about when Willis, a producer on the film, had Smith rewrite a scene he was in to remove some of the exposition. The studio wanted to discuss their objections to the rewrite. “I was there when he made that call,” says Smith. “He was talking to some higher-up muckity-muck at the studio. He kept saying, ‘Uh-huh, uh-huh.’ And then he said, ‘Let me ask you this: Who is your second choice to play John McClane? Thought so.’ And then he hung up. It was just as cool as that.”

Willis, of course, tells me, grinning, that that’s just an “anecdote” and that Smith is a “storyteller” and that he and I, we know it’s not true. And right then, that story is no longer true.

I believe Willis when he tells me that it doesn’t matter to him that this is the first Die Hard that’s not rated R, but even I can tell that it bums him out a little. “It’s hard to do one of these without cursing,” he says of portraying a character associated with one exuberantly vulgar catchphrase. “But if that’s your criteria for seeing a movie, counseling may be in order.”

If McClane has softened a little, so has Willis, who once sang a song on Letterman about the thrill of killing Saddam Hussein. “My political point of view has moved more toward independent,” says one of the few actors known as a Republican. “People would rather see me as a conservative than as a liberal, but I have lots of liberal notions.” And he does keep turning all the desk lamps in the halls of the hotel off. He figures people like to identify him with the GOP partly because it makes him seem rebellious within Hollywood and partly because we like to see our heroes as rugged, libertarian individualists. Which leads him to lament living in a time when Isaiah Washington is fired for calling a gay Grey’s Anatomy co-star a “faggot.” “I hate to think we live in a time when you can get fired from your job because of what you say,” he says. “He didn’t punch anyone. I think we’ll think differently with hindsight.” Clearly, not all his notions are liberal.

But he is famously liberal in accepting that his ex-wife Demi Moore has married a much younger man, Ashton Kutcher. For this he thanks–and this lets you see how insular fame is–Will Smith. “He was very wise, and I want to give him credit,” Willis says. “He told me, ‘You put the kids first. As an adult, a couple years will go by, and you’re fine.’ It was good advice, and I was smart enough to take it. And to pay it forward to my friends.” It’s hard to believe, but Willis honestly seems cool even when he’s using the phrase “pay it forward.”

He doesn’t like that his private life is reported on, or that he has to do interviews like this one, but he understands that the world isn’t how he’d like it. “Everything is entertainment. The news is entertainment. Sports is entertainment. It’s all just one big game show,” he says. And the Internet, oh, he does not like the Internet. “The Internet is a big dark hole. What if the Internet was the lead mugs that everyone in Rome was using that led to the end of that civilization? What if 20 years from now, the Internet led to the downfall of the world?”

So, yeah, he has his weird side, this bald man in a red T shirt and crisp blue jeans, telling me things that aren’t quite true, trying to end the interview early, clearly disgusted by my occupation–but it’s a likeable weird. When I leave, he does perhaps the strangest alpha-male thing of all, something I’ve never heard an interviewee do. He nods approvingly and says, “Good job.” You can’t be Willis-smooth unless you play the game to the end. *

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