With so many comic books and graphic novels being made into movie, “Red” stands out from the pack because almost all of the stars in the action flick are over the age of 40. “Red” stands for “retired, extremely dangerous.” Bruce Willis heads the cast as Frank Moses, a former black ops CIA agent, who has developed a long-distance infatuation with Sarah Ross (played by Mary-Louise Parker), the phone operator he calls about his retirement paychecks. When Frank goes to visit Sarah and finds out that U.S. government assassins are after him, he calls up his former CIA colleagues to come out of retirement and help him.
Those former colleagues include Joe Matheson (played by Morgan Freeman), Victoria (played by Helen Mirren) and Marvin Boggs (played by John Malkovich), who hatch a plan to break into secret CIA headquarters to uncover information that will help their cause. Meanwhile, Frank’s love interest Sarah finds herself reluctantly caught up in the cross-country race to elude the assassins. Karl Urban plays a CIA agent who is ordered to kill Frank. At Comic-Con International 2010 in San Diego, Willis, Mirren, Parker and Urban sat down for the “Red” panel held July 22. Here is what they said when they answered questions from a panel moderator and people in the audience.
Bruce, you’re no stranger to working in all-star cast. What was it like to work with the all-star cast of “Red”? It looked like you had a lot of fun.
Willis: We did have a lot of fun. Every day was fun. It was a really ambitious product, and remains an ambitious project and film to get out. The work that the actors did became easier each week because every week we got another movie star who came in that we were all excited about. I think that John Malkovich and Mary-Louise [Parker] spent and I spent the most time together. And every week … it was like recess. It was so easy to do and so much fun to work with these actors. [He says jokingly] I think over 75 movie stars are in “Red.”
Mirren: They had the queen [referring to herself] and then they had God [referring to Morgan Freeman].
Helen, can you comment on the shirt that you’re wearing? [Mirren is wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt that says, “Harvey Pekar, 1939 – 2010. Rest in Peace.”]
Mirren: As you all know, a great artist, a great innovator and actually the guy who turned me on to the fact that graphic work, graphic novels, graphic art could be so deep and interesting and personal. And I think he was a great genius in this world. I wanted to salute him today.
Helen, your character in “Red” is a very different role from what people are used to seeing. What attracted you to the project?
Mirren: Well, just that. It was very different. You know, as an actor, those are the roles that you long for. You always want something that’s going to kick your last role out of the water and put you off on a new path. And this [role in “Red”] miraculously came along for me. And he [Bruce Willis] is sitting to my left, and she [Mary-Louise Parker] is sitting to my right, but I was a huge fan of both of these actors. So it was a great honor for me and quite intimidating to find myself acting with them. And also, I guess the kind of people who see this are not the kind of people who see a film about Tolstoy. It’s kind of nice to find a new audience, I hope.
Karl, what was it like going up against Bruce Willis in “Red”?
Urban: I’ve got to say that I haven’t had so much fun in years. It’s not often that you get to pick up one of the most iconic action heroes ever, and throw him across the room and watch him smash into some furniture. And he got me back for it — big time, too. It was a lot of fun. It was one of those situations where I got to work with someone whose work that I had admired and respected for such a long time. And then to work with him and to find out that all my expectations of who he actually was as a person were exceeded by what such a wonderful man and generous actor he is.
Mary-Louise, how did you get into the action elements of “Red”?
Parker: Well, I don’t sort of instigate the action. People are dragging me to safety or trying to smother flames in front of me or drag me out of a car. Usually, Bruce is just dragging me somewhere. So I’m kind of passive when it comes to the action, which is kind of fun.
Were you able to add any comedic elements to the film?
Parker: No. Everybody was allowed to be really collaborative and encouraged. It just felt like you could make choices. It was fun.
What was it like trying to keep a straight face with John Malkovich and Morgan Freeman in the comedic moments?
Willis: Difficult. Everyone in this film was funny and is funny. I wish there was a little film, a “making of” film of everyone off-camera, trying to keep a straight face while the other actors were just trying to be funny. I keep hearing people talk about this film as if it’s just an action film, but I thought I was in a romantic comedy. There’s a ton of comedy in it. And depending on who you ask, they will tell you what kind of film this is.
Bruce, what was the funniest moment for you in “Red”?
Willis: There were a thousand funny moments. Every day was fun and funny. [He says sarcastically] I know that everybody understands that acting is a really difficult job. It’s hard work. You’ve got to get dressed up, you’ve got to hang around with beautiful women. It’s difficult. It’s a problem.
[He says seriously] But with this film, it was just a blast. We were just cracking jokes. Remember recess [in school]? It was like recess, and not like work and not like math class. It was just really big fun every day. So I don’t know if I could say that I have one moment that was [funnier] than the other one.
Bruce and Helen, what do you think it would be like to be John Malkovich?
Mirren: Well, first of all, which end do you want to be, Bruce? Do you want to be the top end or the bottom end?
Willis: John Malkovich is …
Mirren: Well, you know he’s a Renaissance man, John. He’s a clothes designer; he has a clothes line. He does one-man shows. He does opera. I mean, he directs. He’s just the most extraordinarily talented man. And being the brilliant actor that he is — both serious and comedic actor — is only a small part of what John is, actually. He’s also very kind and very sweet and also incredible fun to be with. So we’re all big John Malkovich fans up here on this stage, as I’m sure you all are out there as well.
Karl, what was it like doing the stunts and weapons training?
Urban: It was pretty intense, I have to say. One of the crazy things about our job is that we get taught these insane skills that we could never use in real life. And this movie was no exception to that. It was extensive weapons training. Bruce and I trained for several weeks to do this extraordinary fight that’s in the film, but we had a lot of fun doing it.
Mary-Louise, how was it working on a TV series like “Weeds” compared to working on a movie like “Red”?
Parker: Well, movies take a really long time. And you can shoot on a TV show in one day what you shoot in a movie in two weeks or a week or something like that. There’s a lot of time sitting in movies, so you can put alligators in people’s trailers in your spare time. So it [making a film] moves slower, which in some ways is great, because you can live with a scene and invest in it a lot. And in some ways it’s hard, because sometimes you can start to lose your energy a little bit, but both are fun.
Bruce, you do a lot of your own stunts, so how do you make those stunts work?
Willis: Well, you always want to try to keep everyone around you safe and keep yourself safe. That said, Karl and I and the stunt guys on this film really leaned — especially in the fight sequence — into “right now” time. It’s not an old-time fight. It’s like mixed-martial arts fighting — what you see in cage matches. At the same time, it looks more brutal and it goes faster, and there are things that I haven’t done in a long time. I got thrown through the air, I ran through a glass window and things like that. As long as it’s safe and you get to come to work the next day, that’s the big, fun part. But I really enjoyed fighting with Karl Urban. Whoo!
Karl, in most of your movies, you’re the protagonist. What attracted you to play an antagonist in “Red”?
Urban: Thank you for your question. That’s actually a very good question. First of all, it’s not so cut-and-dry. I play the character of William Cooper. I’m a CIA officer, and my job is to, in this film, I get given the task to hunt down and kill Bruce Willis [as Frank Moses]. But it’s not, as you think, a stereotypical bad guy, twirling a moustache. That’s just not the way it is. I’m a guy with a family, trying to do a job. It’s really interesting, through the course of the film and interacting with Frank, I start to learn more about what’s really going on. And it’s a really wonderful character with a great journey.
Mary-Louise and Helen, what was your training like for the action scenes in “Red”?
Parker: We both told each other that we thought that as soon as they saw us run, they’d fire us, because neither of us can run with a straight face.
Mirren: Yeah, the first thing we said to the director was, “We can’t run in this action movie.” I did some gun training. That was it, really. As Karl said, the great thing about our job is that we find ourselves in these extraordinary situations and learning skills that we’ll hopefully never have to use. And certainly, learning how to shoot a gun was one of the ones I had to learn. Of course, I was surrounded by experts — not just in the people who were training me, but a lot of my co-actors have shot a lot of guns. So all I had to do was watch them, really.
The most difficult thing about shooting guns instantly on film is to not pull a silly face while the gun is going off, because it’s always a bit of a shock. So you find yourself sticking your tongue out or blinking or whatever. So the hardest thing is to keep a straight face while you’re shooting a gun, if ever any of you have to do that on film in the future.
Parker: Alec Baldwin told me, “Just look like you constantly have to pee, and it’ll seem like you’re in danger.” So if I was lost, I’d think of that.
Bruce, since there are a lot of accomplished actors in “Red,” what did you do to bond with each other?
Willis: It’s a very good question. Thank you. I’m always excited to be around other actors. I sometimes only get to work with myself, and it’s so tedious. I was so excited to go to work every day, and we ran into work every day. I’ll just give you one example: We were so excited to know that in the ninth or 10th week that we were all going to get to work with Richard Dreyfuss. It was unbelievable. We were like little kids. “Oh God, Jaws is going to be here!” We had a little code name for him; his name was Jaws. “I’m going to work with Jaws today.”
It was just so exciting and so fun. Everybody is nice, and really almost too nice. [He looks at Mirren.] Just so polite, and you just go, “God, OK, aren’t you ever going to do anything wrong? Aren’t you going to yell at somebody or throw your shoe at somebody — something movie-star like or something actor-ish?” But everybody was really nice and fun and funny off-camera and funny when you’re just telling stories about your own life and how weird things are to be all of us.
Mirren: And I also have to say because he was our leader, Bruce, he was so incredibly welcoming as each actor arrived on set to do their bit. He was always incredibly welcoming, and I think that was how we all bonded, actually. It was basically through Bruce and through [“Red” producer] Lorenzo [di Bonaventura], who would take us all out to dinner. We’d eat and we’d drink and we’d chat. They were just so incredibly welcoming. They made us all — me, anyway, and everybody else, I’m sure — feel really comfortable and at ease. So I think that’s how it happened.
Urban: Bruce and I bonded in a way where we learned to beat the living sh*t out of each other.
Karl, how extensive was your training for “Red,” and did you get injured at all?
Urban: As I said before, I guess the process for it was twofold: One was learning about the world of the CIA, and we really had a wonderful tutor in that: Bob Baer, who has [written] many books about his time in the CIA. And he came and talked to Bruce and [me] about what that experience was like. It really and truly was mind-blowing. Little tidbits, like they can actually track you with a cell phone, even when your cell phone is turned off. It’s quite phenomenal.
So it really was quite a paradigm shift to find out what these guys actually do. He talked a lot about the “old school” CIA, which Bruce’s character represents, and the “new school” CIA, which my character represent, and the on-the-ground intelligence gathering that the old school inhabited, whereas the new school, how they rely more on technology. So that was a very interesting facet of exploring this character. And then the other part was just all physical. It was learning how to fight and drive cars and shoot guns. We had the most amazing stunt team.
Willis: Great, great stunt guys.
Urban: Yeah. Buster Reeves was my stuntman and trainer. He’s got some MMA [mixed-martial arts] record for the most kicks to the head. We were standing in this room, and he said to me — this was on day one — I’m standing opposite him and he’s 12 feet away, and he goes, “OK, Karl, I’m going to come towards you. Now you tell me when you feel threatened.” He takes one step and I go, “Yep! All good!” And what they did actually as part of this process to let me know about what the end game was this fight, they actually put me in a chokehold and just about choked me out until I passed out. So that was a lot of fun. Thanks for your question.
Did the cast get to ad-lib a lot on “Red”? Did Bruce get to play the blues?
Willis: I didn’t play the blues. I tried as much as possible not to sing. I think everyone — and I’m not sure if you could call it improvisation but — all actors have to make the words fit in their mouths, and make the words the words fit to how you say it and how you make it life-like and make it look like what you’re saying is just conversation that you’re just thinking off the top of your head. That process is not quite improvisation, and sometimes it was, but I think we really, more than any other film I’ve worked on in a decade, really stayed close to the script and never changed a location and never changed what we were doing. It was always the same story from start to finish. That seldom happens in Hollywood or in Toronto.
Helen, how was the experience of making “Red” different from how you thought it would be?
Mirren: I think it was kind of easier than I thought it would be. Of course, it had all the complications and difficulties and long days and everything of every other movie and the discomforts and so forth, but there was an ease to it, I think we all felt. There was a pleasure in doing it. And as Bruce says, it was a lot of fun. And I think that took me by surprise. I was really intimidated, coming into it — sh*t-scared, really. But because it was an unknown world to me and an unknown genre, so I guess the psychological comfort level of it took me by surprise. It was great to have guns instead of words. Long speeches are harder than shooting a gun off.
How was it working with Morgan Freeman?
Willis: Thank you for asking about Morgan. A good two-thirds of the cast are not here today, so I would like to thank you on behalf of all those guys. I think everyone was on their best behavior on this film. It was just not tense, un-tense … and fun … I played Little League baseball when I was a kid. I wasn’t that good. Working on this film was like somebody said, “Come up and play for the Yankees and play with the Yankees,” because everybody here and every on this film, all the cast just stepped up to the plate and goes, “Yeah, all right. Throw it in there,” and just hit the ball right out of the park.
Everybody did just a great job. No hiccups, no “I thought that was going to be different.” Morgan was great, really sweet. I’ve done a couple of films with him. This was a great experience, a really fun experience. I just want to thank all you guys for letting us come here. Let’s see if you can get more people in this hall next year, but thank you for letting us come. It’s been a ball being here at Comic-Con. This is my first time here.
For more info: “Red” website
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