Bruce Willis: Bed-bound action star

Adapted by William Goldman, the Broadway version of Misery will see actor Bruce Willis mostly in bed.
Adapted by William Goldman, the Broadway version of Misery will see actor Bruce Willis mostly in bed.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Bruce Willis, known for action films, will play an incapacitated author in the stage adaptation of Misery

NEW YORK • On a recent afternoon, Bruce Willis slipped into a two-bedroom suite on the 11th floor of the Trump International Hotel Central Park at Columbus Circle. The room was decorated in taupes, greys and sedate purples, so tasteful it nearly came back around to tasteless.

Willis looked pretty tasteful, too, in an off-white shirt, tan corduroy pants and grey sneakers. He had a handsome scruff of salt-and- pepper stubble and a bald head that shone.

Willis, 60, ignored the storybook views of Central Park, the array of coffee and tea. He ignored both bedrooms too. Which makes sense.

Over the next several months, he will be spending more than enough time in bed.

He is set to play Paul Sheldon, a mattress-bound romance writer who is menaced by a crazed fan in the stage adaptation of Misery, the 1987 Stephen King chiller, which begins performances at the Broadhurst Theatre on Oct 22. Laurie Metcalf will play Annie Wilkes, Paul's psychotic captor.

Willis described the role as "85 minutes of being in that bed and just a few minutes of being out of it".

Bed is an unusual place to find Willis, an action star more often sighted upright - in a car, on a plane, firing any number of semi- automatic weapons. Broadway is a strange locale for him, too, though the former bartender began his career off-Broadway in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

He is apparently happy to be back. "It's exciting," he said.

He did not sound excited. Though never exactly impolite, he was aloof and evasive. His knowing smirk was absent, his sea-glass eyes flat.

You could chalk this up to a natural reticence or to the fact that he was due to start rehearsals shortly, and it is difficult to speak about a project still aborning.

Though he would not say what pushed him to play a character like Paul ("I don't think about anything like that," he said), Paul is a fascinating part for him, a no-brainer in some respects.

In King's novel, Paul describes himself as a writer of two kinds of books - "good ones and best- sellers" - and he considers it an injustice that people more or less ignore his quality material in favour of the bodice rippers featuring the nubile orphan Misery Chastain.

Similarly, Willis has always alternated money-making franchise work with roles in artier, independent films such as Looper (2012) or Moonrise Kingdom (2012).

While he often gives still, almost taciturn performances, he has never played a character quite so immobilised. Paul begins Misery with both of his legs shattered by a car accident. Under Annie's maniacal ministrations, he acquires new and worse injuries, particularly in a gruesome scene of hobbling, the mere mention of which can still excite shivers from those who saw the 1990 film version with James Caan and Kathy Bates.

Watching a man who often does so much forced to do so little is one of the great draws of Misery.

"It's because he's so brilliant as an action star that audiences are going to want to see what he does when he's forced to lie in bed," William Goldman, who adapted the script from King's book and his own screenplay, wrote in an e-mail message.

Paul "is stuck onstage - literally", said director Will Frears. To play that part, "you need an athlete", he added. "You need somebody who wants to be jumping off a skyscraper. When you don't let them, all of that passion and life gets forced into the language."

Willis said he was looking forward to the challenge. "The idea of being trapped at someone's house and getting smashed around and not having any control over it seems fun to me," he said.

He is fairly private about his actorly process, so he would not discuss just how he might play Paul or how he would convey the suffering that Paul endures. He does not think of himself as a method actor and would not draw on some deep store of personal anguish to rev himself up for the role. "I can't remember the last time I did that," he said.

However he makes it happen, Willis is very good at suffering.

He has bedroom eyes in a body-shop face and they can communicate any amount of agony.

Film critic Elvis Mitchell, who caught Willis in Fool For Love in 1984, described the "capacity for ache" that has served him well in many a loud action film, and in quieter ones, too, such as The Sixth Sense (1999).

Willis played down the seriousness of Misery. Rumer Willis, his eldest daughter with his first wife, Demi Moore, will also be making her Broadway debut this autumn, in the musical Chicago. Willis, who has recorded a couple of albums, but said he did not dance plausibly, does not envy his daughter.

"Jazz hands?" he said. "That's harder than my work."

Would he attempt a musical - from Misery to Les Miserables, perhaps? "No," he said.

Right now, he is thinking about "the idea of being scary onstage". The Broadhurst is a big theatre. It cannot mimic the intimacy of a camera close-up. But the goal is still to try and terrify the audience.

"I hope we do scare them," he said. For once, he sounded as if he meant it. "It's got to be fun," he said. "It's got to be violent."

He does not scare easily, though he has made films that have scared others, such as 12 Monkeys (1995) and The Sixth Sense.

After so many years in the business, nothing on film spooks him anymore.

"I know the trick to all the stories that you're trying to tell," he said. "I'm not getting beaten up. I'm not getting shot. I'm not really getting hurt."

In recent years, he has acquired the reputation of an actor who does not always try as hard as he might. Here, with little chance for rewrites or retakes or obliging camera angles, he will have to deliver. Then he will have to come back the next night and do it again.

Maybe that scares him. Maybe it does not. Maybe it should.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2015, with the headline 'Bed-bound action star'. Print Edition | Subscribe