In Select Theatres May 25, 2012
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In Depth

People In Film | Bruce Willis

Bruce Willis | New Horizons in MOONRISE KINGDOM

In Wes Anderson’s latest movie, MOONRISE KINGDOM, Bruce Willis plays the sheriff of a small island off the coast of New England circa 1965 who leads a group of townspeople (which includes Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Bob Balaban, Tilda Swinton and Jason Schwartzman) in search of two 12-year-old lovebirds who’ve run away together. For the 57-year-old superstar actor, this is his first time inside Anderson’s strange and wonderful world, but with his patented dry wit he fits in well. In fact, according to Willis, when given a choice he prefers doing comedic parts over the action and dramatic roles he’s best known for. “I would do comedy all the time,” he told Relevant Magazine. “It's just the most challenging thing to make someone laugh, and the most rewarding thing in entertainment. To be funny you have to commit to the truth of the story you're telling, even if it's the craziest story you've ever heard, and act like it's true. Whereas in drama, it's just on the page: ‘My girlfriend took the dog and now I'm lonely.’ That's easy to play. It's much harder to do comedy.”

Bruce Willis | Blue-Collar Kid on Stage

Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd in Moonlighting

The oldest of four children, Willis was born in West Germany in 1955 and grew up in Carneys Point, New Jersey, where the blur-collar environment around him – his mother worked in a bank and his father was a welder, master mechanic and factory worker – led to Willis’ gruff exterior. Having a stutter growing up, he often had to gain respect through fighting those bullying him. He channeled that frustration into something more positive when he realized that participating in the drama club and performing on stage made his stutter disappear. He took jobs after high school as a security guard, truck driver and bartender; he even was a private investigator for a while (which would help in the future). But he still had a desire to act and after studying drama at Montclair State University, he moved to New York City to build his talent into a career, joining Stella Adler’s acting class. “I was lucky because she liked boys,” Willis told the Daily Mail. “She would be merciless on the women but she let me take the class for free… I had a blast [living in New York City] and I could stretch $20 over three days. I would live off pizza and beer.” In New York, he honed his craft in off-Broadway productions, debuting in 1977 in Heaven and Earth and getting small, uncredited parts in films like Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City. In 1983, Willis gained media attention when he was cast in the Circle Repertory Company’s staging of Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love. After that play’s run, Willis headed to Los Angeles. He unsuccessfully tried out for a part in Desperately Seeking Susan, then for a new ABC pilot. “The third audition that I went on was for Moonlighting.” And that’s when Willis’ life changed forever.

Bruce Willis | All Action, Plus Words

Bruce Willis in Die Hard

Willis got his first taste of fame when he played the smooth-talking private detective in the hugely successful TV series Moonlighting, opposite Cybill Shepherd, from 1985 to 1989. Willis’ charisma, good looks and comedic timing made him an instant star, and lead to him getting his first lead movie role in the 1987 Blake Edwards comedy Blind Date. However, his career would be defined a year later when he took on the role of NYPD officer John McClane in the blockbuster Die Hard. Mixing his charm and a bad-ass hero persona, Willis brought to the screen a different kind of action star, one who didn’t need bulging muscles and steroid-fueled strength to play tough. The film became a global hit and spawned three sequels (with another one on the way), making Willis as big an action star as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But Willis admitted once in an interview to IGN that there was some luck involved him taking this career-changing role. “I had already passed on [Die Hard] and, in all honesty, anybody who likes the film and myself owes Cybill Shepherd a big thanks because had she not gotten pregnant during the shooting of Moonlighting and had [producer] Glen Gordon Caron not decided to shut Moonlighting down for 11 weeks, I never would have been able to do Die Hard.” Indeed Willis' take on the film's origin defines the wit that sets him apart. As Caryn James noted in her New York Times review, Die Hard works because of its “hero who carries with him the smirks and wisecracks that helped make 'Moonlighting a television hit.” In future films, Willis refined the action hero’s qualities and quips, often borrowing more from hard-boiled detective fiction than comic books. In Tony Scott’s 1991 The Last Boy Scout, Willis partnered with Damon Wayans to play a down-and-out detective dealing with corruption in professional football. In Rowdy Herrington’s Striking Distance, Willis is a Pittsburgh cop who’s been fired for refusing to let his suspicions rest. Recently in the action romp Red, Willis played up to his persona for often comic effect, as the Denver Post’s Lisa Kennedy so warmly noted, “all smirk and vulnerable charm.”

Bruce Willis | A Serious Side

Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction

As the ’90s rolled in, Willis had become one of the top box office draws by mixing action roles with the occasional comedy like Look Who’s Talking. But around the middle of the decade he looked for a role that would show him in a different light. Not known for his dramatic work (outside of a Golden Globe-nominated performance as a Vietnam vet in Norman Jewison’s In Country in 1989), Willis solidified his abilities when Quentin Tarantino cast him in his 1994 smash Pulp Fiction as Butch Coolidge, an aging boxer with a strong affection for his watch. The film went on to become one of the landmark titles of the ’90s and Willis’ role received rave reviews, with Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers calling Butch “his tastiest role in years.” The film, as Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman explains, permits Willis to explore the tangible depth of his tough guy persona: “Willis, his emotions as exposed as his nearly shaved scalp, makes Butch a complexly sympathetic hero: now dim, now brutal, now tender, now an avenging samurai returning to hell to save the man who'd sworn to kill him.”  Willis' dramatic talents were further demonstrated in two very different roles. In 1995, he starred opposite Brad Pitt in Terry Gilliam’s time traveling post-apocalyptic thriller 12 Monkeys. Then, four years later, Willis played a psychologist to a small boy who sees dead people in the surprise sensation The Sixth Sense. “It was a script I said yes to right away,” Willis said in an episode of The Actors Studio. “Most of all because when I read the script I was fooled by it. I had no idea when I read the last couple of pages [what would happen]. Which is difficult to do because it’s hard to fool people today.” In his review of the film (and appreciation of the actor), the New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris noted, “Bruce Willis reminds me once again that, despite his generally bad press, he is the most reliable character lead in the business, perhaps lacking Gene Hackman’s range and Kevin Spacey’s flash. But I have lost count of the number of Bruce Willis vehicles that would have been unwatchable if he hadn’t been in them. Indeed, he reminds me of nobody so much as Robert Mitchum in his unappreciated heyday, when he was dismissed as dull and expressionless simply because he didn’t tear a passion to tatters at every opportunity. With Mr. Mitchum, as with Mr. Willis, less was never more.”

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