Bruce Willis: The all-action hero who's coming to the rescue again

He is back as a cop in Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom. But, he tells Emma Jones, he's nothing like his Die Hard macho man

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Bruce Willis is a career cop. From the career-making (Die Hard) to the near career-breaking (Cop Out, anyone?), over a 30-year career he has played the long arm of the law as many as 20 times. There's no one who delivers a bloodstained wife beater and lacerated feet better than Willis.

So it's no surprise to learn that in Willis's latest movie, Moonrise Kingdom, he is once again a world-weary police officer. The difference is, this movie is made by the whimsical Wes Anderson, who thought it would be fun to hire the actor to play the antithesis of everything he's ever done before. Captain Sharp and his comb-over are chasing after two teenage runaways in 1960s New England. He's a man of few words; deeply shy and awkwardly caring.

Wes Anderson and Bruce Willis. It's an intriguing partnership. Even more intriguing is the idea that Captain Sharp may be closer in real life to the real Willis than Die Hard's John McClane. When we meet at the Cannes Film Festival, Willis is a still centre amid much anxious fussing. He's suited and shaded, but when he speaks, it's in a voice so quiet that you have to lean in closely to hear.

"I liked the fact that the action is the least important aspect of my character in this movie", he says. "I wanted to do this not only because it's a really sweet love story, but there are complexities to the characters. Mine's a mess; he's having an affair with a married woman and he's befuddled as to who he is and how he's supposed to behave with everyone. He's awkward and really charming at the same time.

"Nothing very exciting has ever happened to him. There's certainly not a lot for him to do where he lives until the kids run away. It's such a simple story, yet in Wes's hands it becomes a really beautiful picture."

In Anderson's hands it also acquires his trademark colour, charm and craziness. The film is set around a local scout camp. As well as his regulars Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman, the director has added a few more scalps to his ensemble belt. Edward Norton plays a frustrated explorer-turned-scoutmaster; Frances McDormand the cheating wife and Tilda Swinton a nightmare Nanny McPhee simply titled "Social Services".

It was a whole different way of working for Willis. On Anderson's budget, he had the cast doing their own make-up and for a while, they all lived in what Willis describes as "our own scout camp". Though he enjoyed working with Anderson and the cast, Willis stopped short of living in the shared house the director hired for the cast to live in for the shoot. As Murray puts it: "Bruce lives in Idaho. He needs wide open spaces." At the mention of Murray, Willis's face lights up. "That guy just cracks me up. I was so happy to have the chance to work with him." In Bruce Willis speak, it's practically a declaration of love.

It shouldn't be such a surprise to learn that a different hero lurks inside the heart of this man. He was married to Demi Moore for 13 years and then attended her wedding to Ashton Kutcher becoming a poster boy for maintaining civilised relations with an ex. Mention of Moore is strictly forbidden today, but he's happy to talk about fatherhood. He has four daughters, the youngest of whom, Mabel, was born this year to him and his second wife, Emma Heming.

"It's sweet because in this film, Sharp is a surrogate father to the runaway boy scout. It's a whole different dynamic between a father and son. It was interesting for me to explore relationships rather than just crashing around, smashing things."

In the film, Murray plays an overprotective father to his daughter. Has Willis too, ever been tempted to crack out the shotgun when suitors for Rumer, Scout and Talullah ( his grown-up daughters with Demi Moore) come calling? He smiles. "What can I say? I understand Bill's character. The job of a father is to protect, that's what you have to do with your daughters."

Moonrise Kingdom is an audacious choice for an actor who has confined himself to action movies. He proved himself a fine comic actor early on, in the 1980s TV series Moonlighting, playing opposite Cybill Shepherd and his guest appearances on Friends won him an Emmy. Yet his moments of film genius – Die Hard, The Fifth Element, Twelve Monkeys, The Sixth Sense and Pulp Fiction – all have action at their core.

"I like to think I am getting smarter with the choices I make, and that it's easier to choose the stories I want to do," he says. "I want to keep taking risks, I really do, even if I do end up like in this film, wearing pants half way up my leg and a scout outfit. I don't want to take myself too seriously and things like this are a great opportunity for me to do something funny, to approach acting from a whole different point of view."

Having said that, after this, he'll be back promoting the kind of films that have helped him to make two billion dollars at the box office: The Expendables 2 is out later this year, and in 2013 he'll repeat his most famous role, playing John McClane for a fifth time in A Good Day to Die Hard. The reason he's willing to go back there, he says, isn't to do with the money.

"I am still trying to do as good a film as the first one we did," he explains." That's why I'm willing to go back and keep trying. And I like being him. There will come a time when I can't be John McClane any more. But while I still can, while I can run, fall down, fight and crash things, I am still going to do it. I get a big kick out of it."

Perhaps Willis rarely fulfils his complete potential because no one can see him as anyone but McClane, the ultimate everyday action hero.


'Moonrise Kingdom' is in cinemas now