Film Reviews

Tell Them Willis Boy Is Here

Before Bruce Willis enters the room, a studio publicist announces that Mr. Willis will not discuss anything pertaining to his ex-TV series, Moonlighting, or his personal life.

Hmmm. Okay. So, um, Bruce . . . whaddaya think of those Voyager photos of Neptune?

Fortunately, the sole job qualification of studio publicists, it appears, is to be overly protective of their clients. As soon as Willis sits down and opens his mouth, it is to discuss Moonlighting and his personal life. In fact, it takes him almost fifteen minutes to reach the subject of his new film, In Country, the Norman Jewison-directed drama that Willis is in this Toronto hotel room to promote. Asked if he enjoyed the previous night's post-premiere party (the kind of ice-breaking, chit-chatty question most folks would answer with a twitch of the head), Willis is verbally off and running on the taboo topics--without a scintilla of the glib, wild-man humor of his Ray-Banned TV persona, David Addison. You see, Willis yearns to be taken as seriously as he takes himself. All he asks is that we take him seriously from afar.

"No, I don't like that kind of thing," Willis says of the gala bash. "I'm embarrassed by it. I really don't care to be a celebrity. I like being an actor and working in films. But that's where it ends. Everything that comes with it just doesn't appeal to me."

Willis is, in short, part of an ancient breed. The Hollywood Loner. He vants to be alone. In front of a half-billion people.

"I keep to myself. I spend most of my time with my family and a close circle of friends who treat me like an ordinary guy. I avoid situations where I'm confronted with people's image of me. I just don't understand what all the hubbub is about."

But isn't a little "hubbub" part of the $5-million-per-picture territory?
"I didn't know that going in. I just thought, `You get to be an actor, you get to act in any film you want.' I didn't find out until it was too late that all these things come with it. Someone once asked me, `Isn't it nice having the first shot at just about any script you want?' And it is. But I'd trade that in a minute for a little anonymity."

Of course, Willis could move to an island in Tahiti like Marlon Brando and get all the anonymity he can eat. Or he could just sit at home until anonymity finds him. Instead, he puts up with all that pain-in-the-ass hubbub to make movies. Like In Country.

Based on the critically acclaimed novel by Bobbie Ann Mason, the film casts Willis in the genuine departure role of Emmett Smith, a Vietnam vet living in a small Kentucky town. Haunted by the war, Emmett exists in a sort of no-man's mind-set--not living in the past, but not able to work through it, either.

Willis believes his performance in the film will surprise a lot of people--which brings him to the designated nonsubject of Moonlighting.

"We did 65 hours of that show. That's the equivalent of doing 32 feature films playing the same character. So I guess it would be difficult for people to not develop some preconceived notion of the roles they expect to see me play. "TV is very crushing. There's no other format as hard as a weekly, hourly TV series. The last couple of years, we were under incredible pressure. We set such a high standard early on, people came to expect that level of quality with every show we did, which put a very heavy strain on all of us.

"I'm sure it's tough for people to understand that it can be a hardship to have a hit TV show and all the money you ever wanted. But I felt trapped in a job and a situation I had no control over. It almost ground the desire to act right out of me. But that's done. Now I feel like I've been given my life back."

That retrieved life, by the way, began in Penns Grove, NJ, 35 years ago, and proceeded without direction until Willis moved into a railroad flat in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen and began making the audition rounds Off-Broadway. He was bartending when he finally landed the lead in Sam Shepard's Fool for Love. During a vacation in Los Angeles, his agent pressured him to try out for the TV show that went on to become a darling of critics and viewers for at least half of its five seasons.

Perhaps Willis was trapped by Moonlighting. But he made regular escapes, remaining on the lam long enough to pitch Seagram's Golden wine cooler (for a cool $5 million, one of the biggest payoffs in TV-commercial history); record a Motown LP, The Return of Bruno (which Willis calls "a major disappointment, even though it went platinum"); and star in the feature films Blind Date (a medium-sized hit); Sunset (a flop the size of Texas); Die Hard (an out-of-the-blue smash); and In Country.

"I wanted to do In Country so badly I literally chased after Norman [Jewison]," Willis recalls. "I had to play this part. I felt very challenged by it. Most of the things I've done, I went in knowing exactly how I was going to play it. But with this film, I didn't have all those answers figured out. All I knew was that I'd have to throw away all my schtick."

Willis calls himself a "student of Vietnam," but he admits his knowledge is second-hand. "I was drafted in '71 or '72, the year the draft was abolished and I was placed on 1-H--kind of a holding status in case the draft was reinstated. Thank God it wasn't."

Still, it is Willis' hope that if anyone appreciates In Country, it will be Vietnam veterans. "That will be the true watermark. Talking to veterans, the most important thing I learned is that they don't want to be patted on the back and told, `Okay, everything's all right now.' They shun that. But my personal feeling is, that's exactly what they need: to be embraced, to be told to lay their burden down, that Vietnam wasn't their fault. If this film can help to accomplish that, we've done an admirable thing."

Willis is obviously proud of his first Serious Picture. But his most treasured accomplishment of late is his 14-month-old daughter, Rumer Glenn--co-produced by Willis' wife, actress Demi Moore, and born in Kentucky during the In Country shoot.

"In a strange way, being there made the baby so much easier," Willis says, getting personal again. "We were very anxious about having her in L.A. because of the way the press focuses on our life, anyway. In Kentucky, we had a very protected environment; the entire crew had a strong sense of family about it. We felt very secure."

In addition to making babies, Willis has been making deals. His green-lighted projects include a Die Hard sequel (for which he'll receive a reported $7.5 million, up 50 percent from Part I); a caper comedy called Hudson Hawk; Sgt. Rock, based on the grenade-biting comic book hero; and a villainous supporting role opposite Moore in the drama Mortal Thoughts.

A supporting role? As a baddie?
"I'm a confident guy. I'm not afraid of damaging my career with a move like that. Actually, it's quite a relief not to have to carry an entire film. And you know what? I'm an actor. Once you've reached a certain level of success, as I have, what's left? Nothing except new challenges."

Or a move to Tahiti, away from the hubbub.

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Michael Burkett

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