Bruce Willis: Planet Willis
One of the things that stood out about Movieline magazine was that they didn’t pull their punches in interviews. The writers asked their subjects the kind of direct questions you didn’t see that often in other entertainment magazines. This was true even when the subject was known for being difficult. If anything, the questions were even more direct with a difficult subject. That was the case when Martha Frankel interviewed a very defensive Bruce Willis for the cover story of the August 1996 issue.
Bruce Willis’s assistant calls to say that he’s waiting for me in the lobby of my hotel in a tony London suburb. I take a deep breath and head downstairs where Willis is slouching by the back door. As I make my way across a lobby crowded with vacationers and businesspeople, I see a woman recognize Willis–in slow motion, she just uncurls her fingers from her teacup and lets the steaming liquid fall into her lap. Willis doesn’t see it happen, but he must have seen thousands of incidents like this, because he quickly beckons me outside, where it’s windy and rainy, yet somehow preferable to the warm room crowded with people.
As we walk along the Thames, Willis is giving me the hairy eyeball. He doesn’t exactly turn towards me, but I can tell that his eyes are glued to my face, searching to see if this is going to he one of those interviews in which, he’ll explain later, “I relax and say what’s on my mind and it comes back to bite me in the ass.” I’ve read Willis’s press on the flight over, and, I have to admit, this guy must have teeth-marks all over his tush. Women journalists in particular seem to take umbrage at not only what he has to say and how he says it, but at the mere fact that both he and wife Demi Moore are in show business and that they’ve had three children in seven years (daughters Rumer, Scout and Tallulah).
But I remember Willis as the affable bartender from New York’s Cafe Central years and years ago, a guy so funny and breezy that even when you were falling-down drunk (and in the early ’80s, almost everyone was), he could still make a joke that would have half the room in hysterics. When I bring up the old days, Willis says, “Stephen, my assistant, is a guy I used to tend bar with at Cafe Central. I have a pretty good close circle of friends and family. I don’t really make new friends, rarely, and I’ve had most of my close friends for a long time.”
“Before you were famous?”
“Oh yeah. From the New York days and some friends from college, some guys from high school. That’s the only thing that seems real. I know a lot of people, but then there’s a line between who I consider my friends and family, and everyone else.”
“Those were some wild days, huh?”
“New York in the early ’80s was like nothing else. Everyone would start drinking by nine sharp, and they’d stay there till five in the morning. There were no breaks, nobody calling the shots. I saw some things at Cafe Central, some famous people…” He starts to laugh. “Yeah, it was a time like no other, and I’m very glad to have been there.”
“I remember times at Cafe Central when you were the only one who was still standing…”
“I was just sober the longest, that’s all. When people talk to me now about why I don’t drink, it’s hard to explain. It’s that I had done it all, two or three times! So, yeah, those were the days, and I’m glad I lived through them, and I’m glad I don’t have to live through them again,”
We walk until the chill is too much for both us, and then turn back to the hotel. We are about an hour and a half from London, in a town that has neither good food nor a movie theater, but is close to where Willis has rented a house while he shoots The Fifth Element, a futuristic sci-fi movie directed by Luc Besson, a Frenchman most famous for La Femme Nikita and The Professional, among others.
When we get back to the hotel, we’re led into the dining room, which won’t be open for another hour or so. We have the whole room to ourselves. Willis eyes the tape recorder suspiciously. “I really hate to do interviews,” he tells me.
“Me too. But that’s why they pay me the big bucks.” I push the “on” button and the tape begins to roll. “It’s just that every time I do an interview, I wind up wishing I hadn’t. Everyone has an axe to grind, everyone comes to the interview already sure of what they’re going to write…”
“In your case that seems to be true. I read where one journalist said you came to the interview without your personality,” I start to giggle.
“That’s funny?” Willis asks, not amused.
“No, no,” I sputter. “Well, yes, it’s a good line, but no. it’s not nice.”
“I’m telling you, everyone comes at me and they already know what they want to say.”
“Cross my heart, I come here with no preconceived notions, except that you’re one of the few people I’ve interviewed that both my male and female friends love. The guys love you because you do all those ‘dick’ flicks and…”
‘”Dick’ flicks?” he asks, trying not to laugh.
“It’s all right to laugh with me,” I tell him, because while my whole intention is for us to relax and have fun, his intention seems to be that we have no fun at all. Right now, I’d rather be interviewing Harrison Ford, who has a habit of leaving the table if he starts laughing, in order to pull himself together and put the dour face back on. Willis has reset his facial muscles into that glare, and doesn’t seem to want to budge.
“Dick flicks?” he repeats.
“Yeah, all the Die Hards and The Last Boy Scout and Pulp Fiction, all those movies that reek of testosterone.”
“You don’t like those films?” he asks.
“Some of them, sure, loved Pulp Fiction, thought you were great. I have to admit that the rest of them sorta rolled off my back. But then my female friends like you because you interspersed those films with ‘chick’ flicks, like In Country and Mortal Thoughts and Nobody’s Fool. Lots of women only know you from those films, so they think you’re a really sensitive guy who makes little movies that don’t make all that much money.”
“I am a sensitive guy,” he says, without even the slightest wink. “People think they know the real me. but they don’t. And then they write things that make me sound like such a schmuck…”
“You might have to become a little more thick-skinned as a celebrity in America these days.”
Willis leans forward and tenses his whole body. “Where does it say that? I mean, actors are sensitive by nature–that’s why they become actors. And then you get famous and you have all these assholes from tabloid television following you around and going through your garbage. Where does it say that in order to be in the entertainment business you have to give up your privacy and dignity?” His voice hasn’t risen above a whisper, but I feel like he’s yelling at me.
“Maybe that should be in the actor’s training manual,” I say. “Instead of talking about method acting, it should say that when you finally hit it big, you’ll have to give up your precious privacy. Would that have stopped you?”
Willis shakes his head. “When I first started, I don’t think anything would have scared me. I was so excited to be working. But it was different when I was in New York. And when I went to L.A. to do ‘Moonlighting,’ it was different there than it is now. The whole tenor of the press has changed in that time. It’s become much more aggressively hostile. There’s a reward for that kind of behavior. No matter what it takes to get that video to ‘Inside Edition’ or ‘Hard Copy,’ they’ll take that risk, because (a) they might become semi-famous because of it, and (b) they’re gonna make money.”
“So, why do people want to be famous now?” I ask.
“Most of the famous people I know don’t want to be famous. But I think the desire for fame is overwhelmingly obsessive in the United States. Look at all these people on these daytime talk shows, telling their darkest secrets.”
“So you don’t like being famous?”
“It’s not that I don’t like what I do… I love it. I love the movies and the acting. What I don’t like is that when my wife was pregnant, we were walking down the street and a guy popped out of the bushes with something in his hand that he’s aiming at her. So, it turns out to be a camera, big deal! By that point, your adrenaline is pumped. If you’re a man and that happens to you, you just want to take a swing at him, it’s just so out of control. But it’s not up to me to say this. I’ll just sound like another whiny actor. ‘Oh, poor me.’ It’s you who should be saying these things. You should be wailing about the abuses, the stalkings, the invasions of privacy.”
“You think the sickos who are bothering you give a shit what I have to say? ‘OK, all you psychos out there who think Bruce Willis’s life is a thousand times more interesting than your own, please stop making pains-in-the-ass of yourselves. Leave movie stars alone. These people are entitled to their privacy.’ Is that what you mean?’
Willis ignores me. “We don’t really live in Hollywood anymore and we don’t do the whole Hollywood scene…”
“Wait a minute. Every time I see a picture of you and Demi, you’re onstage at some Planet Hollywood opening, playing with your band (The Accelerators), and you’re surrounded by movie stars.”
“Yes, those are the times we do it. That’s when being a… what?… celebrity?… whatever it’s called, that’s when it’s the best, because then the fans are having such a good time, and you’re doing what you do, and it’s relaxed and contained You don’t see us out a lot in Hollywood. Most of the time we’re home with the kids or we’re on location. Our friends aren’t Hollywood people.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted already. What happened to the dishy small talk that precedes discussions like this? I try a different tack.
“Would you take off your hat, so I can see what your hair looks like?”
“Why?” Willis asks suspiciously.
“So I can describe you.”
Slowly he slides the baseball cap off his head, revealing short blond hair with black roots. I write on my pad, “blond, with dark roots.” Willis turns the pad around and reads it.
“Why would you say that?” he asks.
“Because our reader want to know what you look like in real life.”
“But it’ll sound so silly.” “OK. I’ll say that we both have blond hair with dark roots coming in.” This seems fair enough.
“But your readers don’t know what you look like, so it won’t have the same impact to say we both have blond hair with dark roots.”
“Duly noted,” I say, feeling as if I’m on the witness stand.
“Anything else you want me to take off?” he asks.
“No. Is it so weird to ask you to take off your hat? I’m just trying to report what’s up with you now.”
“Not what’s up with me. Just what’s up with my hair.”
I throw up my hands. “OK, fuck the hair. I’ll just say that you’re wearing a baseball cap, a white T-shirt, blue jeans and sneakers.”
“No, I’m going to say that you’re very defensive about your hair. Is that OK?”
Willis rolls his eyes but flashes his $16 million smile. “When was the last time you took a swing at someone?” I ask, remembering what he said about that guy with the camera.
“Not for a long lime. I can’t remember the last time, in fact. Just because you want to do something doesn’t mean you will.”