When a bare-footed, sweaty-vested John McClane took out a tower’s worth of terrorists in 1988’s Die Hard, few would've guessed that he’d still be at it 25 years later. This month, Bruce Willis returns to his most iconic role in A Good Day to Die Hard, which gets a worldwide release on Valentine’s Day. The fifth installment in the Die Hard series transplants the action to Moscow, where McClane and his estranged son (Jai Courtney) get caught up in a terrorist plot, with predictably bombastic results. It’s actually the third Willis film to open in Japanese cinemas this year, following the belated releases of Rian Johnson’s time-travel thriller Looper and Wes Anderson’s genial Moonrise Kingdom...
Did you need much persuading to do another Die Hard movie?
No, no. Really it has to do with whether someone can come up with a good story [for a new film]. What we realised before we started putting this script together is that the Die Hard films are more fun when there’s a family element in there – when there’s some family member to take the piss out of my character, John McClane, and tell me how wrong I am and how much I don’t know. I like this kid in the new film who plays my son, Jai Courtney. He’s very good. He’s got a heavy Australian accent, but when he came into the audition it sounded like he was from South Jersey.
You’re a father of daughters yourself. Are you a hard man or a softie with them?
You should ask my wife when she goes by [his wife and ten-month-old daughter are in the room next door during the interview]. I’m a softie, I think I am. I’ve learned a lot about family relations and kids and I put that into this movie. I have all girls, and they have no problem letting me know if I’m not doing the right thing.
What happened to the white vest? You’re not wearing it this time.
Someone wanted to try out a new look. But that was always my good look – the T-shirt. That shirt saved my life on Die Hard 3. Sam Jackson and I were jumping off a boat into a river, and there was an explosion. We were to jump onto a high scaffold and a grip named Tony Whitman was on the scaffolding and caught me as I was about to go flying to my death. He grabbed that little tiny T-shirt and pulled me back! My family thanks you for saving my life.
Is A Good Day To Die Hard the kind of film you’d watch yourself at home?
I’ve seen this one in a theatre on my own, and I’ve seen it with a big audience. I like it. I think it satisfies on a lot of the Die Hard big ticket items. The audience digs it. If it’s a Valentine’s Day movie, all the better [it’s being released on February 14]. Let the girls choose. They should be in charge of everything anyway.
Why are Brits and other Europeans so often the bad guys in the Die Hard films?
It’s a Shakespearean thing, they’re all much better actors. In this case, Alan Rickman broke the mould. A lot of people over at Fox wish that we didn’t kill him off in the first one!
Well, people have come back from the dead in movies before.
We’d have to get a little piece of his DNA, I guess!
We see a portrait of Barack Obama on the wall in A Good Day to Die Hard. Are you a fan?
President Obama? He’ll do. He’s as good as anyone else I guess. It’s a thankless job. He could be president for a 100 years, and the way it works is that Congress is in charge, not the President. It’s a tough job. I wouldn’t want it. It ages you.
You were in The Expendables 2, and that took a wink-wink attitude towards older action heroes. How long can you go on?
I’m sure my body will tell me when it’s time to hang it up. As long as I can still run and act like I’m running fast. I’m happy we didn’t go for the wink-wink version with this. People do get hurt and blown up in the film – all in the name of entertainment. We’ve seen other films where they just start going for the comedy in the second and third film.
How much did you have to work out to prepare for this role? You turn 58 this year.
I don’t think I had to do any more to get ready for this film than the workout I was already doing. I work out for myself and for my kids, so I can horse around with them and run and play with them.
The debate on screen violence has reared its head again. What’s your reaction when you hear talk of links between real and fictional violence?
It’s a big topic, and it’s been around for years. I can’t think of too many examples of where something happened in a film caused someone to go berserk in real life. I think anyone who does already has a headstart on being berserk. Guns, yes or no, is not the point. We have the Bill of Rights, and the right to bear arms has been in the Constitution as long as we’ve had one. I just don’t want any of my rights taken away. If you take one away, you’ve got to think they’re going to take them all away. These films are great examples of film and mayhem and explosions and weaponry in the line of an amusement park or a rollercoaster. Anyone who goes to films knows that anyone they see injured or shot is going to get up when they say cut.
Do people yell your catchphrase at you in the street?
‘John McClane! Yippee ki-yay motherfucker!’ Little kids do it!
What’s your response?
I look at the parents, and they go, ‘Oh sorry...’ It’s in the culture. That line was just a throwaway thing based on something Alan Rickman said. I just threw it out there at the end of the scene. It was when you could still say motherfucker in film. It got chiselled down to PG13. This one’s back to an R-rating now, so it’s a little tougher.
Do people expect you to be harder than you are?
Sometimes in the pub! Sometimes people come up and say, ‘I’m going to fight John McClane.’ But I’m not a fighter! I’m just an actor. I work. It’s happened from time to time. Not often, but it’s happened.
Do you like being offered more out-there films like Looper and Moonrise Kingdom?
Both are so different, but both those guys [Rian Johnson and Wes Anderson] said they hired me because they had me in mind for it. I was the cop in Moonrise Kingdom with those white socks. It was funny and crazy and fun to do, and I did it because I wanted to work with Wes Anderson. Also, I like science fiction and time travel movies, and Looper was so well written.
Was Bill Murray fun to work with on Moonrise Kingdom?
You can’t keep a straight face. Everyone off camera has to turn away and laugh.
Are you as tough to work with as the director Kevin Smith makes out? He said working with you on Cop Out was ‘soul crushing’.
Poor Kevin. He’s just a whiner, you know? We had some personal issues about how we approached work and he takes a very different path to creativity. I don’t have an answer for him. I’m never going to call him out and lay him out in public. Sometimes you just don’t get along.
Is the best of Bruce Willis yet to come?
I had a pretty good time in 2011 and 2012 – I worked with Stephen Frears, Wes Anderson, Rian Anderson, and Die Hard turned out well. Is the best yet to come? It’s been fun for me, I like it. I don’t know what the best is. I only compete with myself. I don’t feel like I compete with other actors or other stories. I’m just trying to improve myself and be better in the next film than the last one. It’s just pretence. We’re just acting.
Are you still scratching your head over what the title of this movie actually means?
It’s a vanity that someone over at Fox gets to name the film. It’s naming day, and I go, ‘A Good Day To Die Hard?’ It sounds so complicated. What do you think?
It doesn’t make any sense. But I guess, for a global audience, it sounds okay?
Yeah, everybody is going to end up calling it Die Hard 5 anyway.
A Good Day to Die Hard opens nationwide on February 14.
Interview by Dave Calhoun