MODESTO, Calif.—If you’re going to go big, go big.
If you’re going to go bad, go bad.
Live Free or Die Hard
Bruce Willis, Justin Long, Maggie Q, Timothy Olyphant, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Cyril Raffaelli
(20th Century Fox; US theatrical: 27 Jun 2007 (General release); UK theatrical: 4 Jul 2007; 2007)
If you’re going to go big and bad, go “Die Hard.”
For 39-year-old Timothy Olyphant, squaring off with Bruce Willis in the fourth installment of the wildly popular action franchise was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“Ever since I went down this road, every now and then, there are these moments that happen that I didn’t see this coming,” the 1986 graduate of Modesto’s Beyer High School said. “Back in 1988, I never thought, `I bet I could be in one of those “Die Hard” movies.’ It’s best not to overthink these things.”
As the villain in “Live Free or Die Hard,” opening Wednesday, Olyphant plays tech mastermind Thomas Gabriel, who is threatening to take down the world’s digital infrastructure. There to stop him is Willis’ decidedly analog hero, John McClane.
Olyphant said stepping into such an established series was fun but intimidating.
“You try not to think about it, but there was a moment,” he said. “I remember saying to (director) Len Wiseman the first day of shooting, `I’ve been in a lot of movies where I thought no one might see this movie. But this is the one time I feel I can guarantee for better or for worse, people are going to see it. So before you roll camera, give me a second. I need to think of something.’ At the end of the day, no matter what I’ve done in the last 10 years or what I do in the next 10 years, if I step foot anywhere in Asia, they will say, `You’re the villain from “Die Hard.”’”
Olyphant filmed his part in the big-budget summer blockbuster over three weeks in January. Much of the rest of the cast and crew had been working since October on the effects-and-action-heavy production.
For the past three months, Olyphant has been in Bulgaria shooting his first starring action role, in the adaptation of the video game “Hitman.” Olyphant plays the title character, Agent 47, a genetically engineered assassin whose name comes from the bar code on the back of his bald head.
Olyphant spoke from his hotel in Sofia, Bulgaria, during the final days of filming “Hitman” last week. This week, he jetted off to Berlin, London and New York to walk the red carpet at premieres of “Live Free or Die Hard.”
How did your role in “Live Free or Die Hard” come about?
Someone called and asked if I was interested in meeting the director, Len Wiseman. They said Len wanted to meet with me. I went and had a drink with him. We talked a bit about it. After that, there was a very generous offer and we were off and running.
What attracted you to the project?
I liked Len; he is a very bright guy and is a real “Die Hard” fan. There is something about a director who is a huge fan, like the director of “Hitman” is a huge fan of the game. When people are unapologetic fans of the material, it feels infectious. Like me, he grew up with those movies, especially that first one.
Had you worked with or met Bruce Willis before? Did you two share much screen time?
I met him years ago at a table reading for a script he and I went to. It was just a reading and we said hello. I never brought it up, so I don’t know if he remembers. But he couldn’t have been nicer. We shot scenes in which we are talking to one another without ever having been around one another. I think he might have shot parts of the scene where I’m talking to him before we ever met. So he wasn’t there when I shot my side; ahh, the magic of film. In fact, I’m not sure the scene had been fully written when he shot it.
What was it like working on such a big-budget project?
These things are monstrous. I think I’m not talking too much out of school when I say they’re always a disaster. I think when Bruce first met me, he said, “This thing is a disaster.” But that’s just the way these things work. You just can’t fly through. It’s not like, “Today, we’re going to have a police car fly through the air and hit a helicopter and then be done by noon.” It’s a lot of sitting around.
The upside is that it all still comes down to the same thing as far as my job is concerned. You are still trying to tell a story, to create a reality and remain truthful. You’re still trying to hit your mark and look the other guy in the eye; it’s just sometimes with these types of movies, the other guy isn’t there.
Tell me about your character and his evil ways.
He is a former government employee who warned the government that this could happen and would happen. And he feels like he lost his job and a great deal more because of it, though quite possibly he was unstable to begin with. This is a little “Let me show you what I was trying to warn you about” payback.
The thing that is of interest about him, the thing we tried to explore without betraying the genre, was that he was a guy like Timothy McVeigh who thought of himself as a patriot. He felt like he was doing something for the greater good. So that is the territory we’re tiptoeing in while still keeping it a big popcorn film.
Is it fun playing the bad guy?
It’s fun in the sense that with those characters, no one is really home. You have a license to behave and act in certain ways. It’s the old cliche: The devil has the best lines.
How have your family and friends responded to you being in a “Die Hard” movie?
I’ve gotten e-mails from my friends. ... They’re like, “Hey, buddy, I hear you’re in the new `Die Hard!’ Don’t (screw) it up!”
Have you seen the film? What are your expectations?
I’ve not seen it yet, but I keep hearing that it’s great. I got an e-mail from Mr. Willis saying that it’s good. He said, “Congratulations, it’s great.” I’ve know him to be an honest guy, so we’ll see. While we were making the movie, Len would pull out his laptop every now and then and show me the action sequences they had filmed. They were very slick and fun. I was watching those thinking, “This might be good.”
So how did the “Hitman” role come about?
God bless the people at Fox Studios; the same people making “Die Hard” offered me this. It’s always a lovely thing to do a movie for someone and then have them offer you another one. This is the first time I’ve ever held down the fort on this kind of a film. This one felt like a lot more responsibility.
Were you familiar with the video game?
No, I didn’t know the video game. They sent me the images from the game and it seemed like quite an opportunity. Video games are today’s comic books. You talk to the kids these days and they talk about video-game characters the way we talked about comic-book characters growing up.
The images of the character were really quite dazzling and compelling. Yet there was also something startling and different. The bare bones of the story was really quite reminiscent of some sort of great genre films.
I saw that some pictures of you with your bald head from the set leaked onto the Internet recently.
I know, I stand next to some 15-year-old with a cell phone and it’s all over the Internet in 24 hours. Crazy.
So what do you have planned as soon as “Hitman” wraps and you finish doing “Die Hard” press?
I plan on going home and drinking for about five days. I’ll tell my kids to run into the kitchen and get dad another beer. After that, I’ll regroup. But I don’t plan on working for a little bit.
Is there any more talk of a “Deadwood” movie? (Olyphant played the lead character, Seth Bullock, for three seasons on the gritty HBO Western. The series abruptly ended before the planned fourth season began production.)
There is still talk about it, but I’m not holding my breath. Obviously, as a fan of the show, it’s disappointing; it was one of the great experiences of my life. It’s a sad way to see it go. But I’d be shocked if they came up with something.
Now you’ve done indie dramas, Westerns, romantic comedies, horror, action. What genres are there there left for you to conquer?
I still haven’t done a baldfaced comedy. I don’t think I’ve had the opportunity to be outright funny. But I think if anything at this point, I need to focus a little bit more and narrow down. But you take it as it comes. I’ve been very lucky. They’ve continued to allow me to do a lot of different stuff.
The opportunities keep getting bigger and better, and with those opportunities more opportunities come. That’s what I look forward to, the next stage. If a movie like a “Die Hard” or a “Hitman” is a success, it will allow me to choose more what I want to do. That is the ultimate place to be able to work from. To have choices.