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I can still look cool.

He may be best known for playing tough action heroes, but Bruce Willis is taking on a rather different role in his latest film - a con-artist racoon. Rob Driscoll meets the actor and discovers a softer side to him

BRUCE WILLIS has a confession to make. He's scared of spiders. The tough guy superstar who gave new meaning to the term 'action-hero' in the 1980s and '90s - saving the world several times over in movies from the Die Hard series to Armageddon - freely admits he has a problem with Mother Nature's eight-legged web-spinners. And he doesn't care who knows it.

'Does anyone like spiders?' he grimaces.

'What about brown recluse spiders? Or the black widow? Those two spiders can kill you, and I can't tell the difference between a brown recluse spider and any other one, so I'm not about to go checking them out.'

But why this talk of Brucie's very specific type of arachnophobia?

Well, the conversation has been dwelling on nature and all living beings, thanks to Willis's newest, and unlikeliest, big screen role - as a smooth-talking racoon in Dreamworks' big new animation comedy Over The Hedge.

This quirky vision of woodland animals living near to suburbia sees Willis voice the character of RJ, a roguish and opportunistic con-artist who explains to his wary friends that a nearby, large green hedge is 'the gateway to the good life' where peculiar creatures called humans live to eat, rather than eat to live.

Proving the adage that one man's rubbish is another man's - or rather animal's - treasure, especially the abundant foodstuffs lurking in their dustbins, the charismatic yet manipulative RJ has his own reasons for convincing his woodland band that there's little to fear, and everything to gain, from their over-indulgent new neighbours.

For Willis, Over The Hedge was a welcome opportunity to make a movie more suitable for his children - Rumer, 18, Scout 15, and Tallulah, 12 - all the product of his marriage to ex-wife Demi Moore, with whom he remains famously amicable.

'They've given it six thumbs up, they really liked it, and my kids can be very critical of my work - and have been at times,' smiles 51-year-old Willis.

'They're kind of the third part of the audience demographics that Dreamworks was going after - parents bringing their younger kids, and the teenagers who just go because they hear it's funny. My kids went out and told all their friends about it.'

Willis's vocal co-stars include Steve Carell, of The 40-Year Old Virgin fame, as a cautious turtle named Verne, keen to keep his family safe on their side of the hedge; Star Trek veteran William Shatner as a possum called Ozzie, excelling at playing dead when necessary; and Nick Nolte as an imposing bear named Vincent.

For Willis, another attraction proved to be the film's gentle satirical digs at the consumerism and environmentally-unfriendly nature of modern-day American suburbia.

'We take a satirical poke at suburban life, although our goal was mainly to be entertaining and funny,' says Willis. 'But they are certainly issues.

'Personally, I hate driving. If I could get around some other way, I would. I live in Los Angeles, I'm in a car on average five hours a day, and I get really cranky. I know some people in the film business who used to drive gas-guzzlers who now own environmentally-correct cars.

'I'm about to buy an electric car that goes 130mph, just because it makes sense. It seems ridiculous to keep sucking all that oil out of the earth when they have an alternative that still gets you around.'

Over The Hedge is Willis's first fully-fledged animation voice-over - apart from a cameo as Spike the Dog in TV's Rugrats - and it was a job whose demands he found more than a little surprising.

'Normally you work with other actors, you've got props, the cool clothes, the gun, whatever.

'This was just me reading the lines, and trying to be funny - and that's a challenge, because when you have to record it line by line, out of context, it's hard to get any kind of comedic timing going.

'When you watch the movie, you get the illusion that we were all sitting around Bill Shatner's house, drinking beers, and they handed us microphones and said, 'C'mon, let's just do this movie Over The Hedge, we'll get it done in one day!'

'Whereas it was another 18 months later that I finally finished my work on this film.'

Indeed, the makers of Over The Hedge often had their work cut out tracking the ever-busy Willis down for his voice-recording sessions.

Last year, by day he was filming the thriller 16 Blocks, playing a tough urban cop, and by night he was in the recording studio for his Over The Hedge work.

Although it's largely played for laughs, Willis reckons Over the Hedge carries an important message about humans and animals.

'I think that human beings have forgotten that we are animals, that we're just at the top of the food chain.

'Where I live in Los Angeles, it's kind of in the woods, and I have a whole food chain there, from deer to possum to skunks - I've almost been skunked a couple of times. My dog bit into a porcupine and had enormous quills all the way through his jaw - it was horrific!'

When Willis finally saw his animated alter-ego, racoon RJ, up on the big screen, he had a strong reaction.

'I was bewildered and shocked,' he reveals. 'Especially as for a long time I thought I was playing a rabbit. And then I'm looking at this little racoon, and that changes my whole performance!

'But it was a lot of fun getting into the RJ mode. He's basically a little rascally, devil-may-care racoon - the David Addison of the animal kingdom!'

That's a reference, of course, to the irreverent character that first brought Willis international fame on the 1980s TV series Moonlighting.

Fast forward a couple of decades and Willis is far from slowing down - he's even got Die Hard 4.0 (the title is a reference to the computer age) on the cards, though the chances of seeing him jumping off the roof of Nakatomi Towers seem pretty remote.

After all, at 51, Willis knows his physical limitations - and that came home to him while filming his next movie Alpha Dog, a thriller co-starring Justin Timberlake.

'I had to jump over an 8ft concrete wall, the kind of stunt that would have been a lot easier 10 or 15 years ago. For the first time, I actually had to stop and think about the consequences of going over that wall.

'I climbed up the wall, looked down to the ground, and realised it could go one of two ways - and it worked out successfully. I made it, and I still looked cool!'

Over the Hedge opens today

Don't miss tomorrow's Western Mail Magazine for our interview with Over the Hedge's animator Rhiannon Wilhelmi
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jun 30, 2006
Words:1162
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