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Michael Bay has worked with a lot of movie stars. Over the course of a feature film career that now spans nearly 30 years and billions of dollars in box office, the legendary action director has been behind the camera for everyone from Jake Gyllenhaal to Mark Wahlberg to Dwayne Johnson. Still, that doesn't mean he was always the most confident guy when tasked with working with some of the biggest names in the business.
In a wide-ranging new interview with Entertainment Weekly, the Ambulance director (in theaters now) was asked to reflect on his time with one of the biggest names in his filmography: Bruce Willis, who starred in Bay's third feature, Armageddon, in 1998. Though Bay already both Bad Boys and The Rock under his belt at the time, he wasn't yet the household name behind the Transformers films, whereas Willis was... well, Bruce Willis.
For Bay, looking back on the experience reminded him of what it was like directing another screen legend: Sean Connery, who co-starred in The Rock.
"Listen, I've worked with Sean Connery, and he was very tough on directors," Bay said. "I was so scared to say my very first line of direction to him when he was in the interrogation room in The Rock. He was wearing a long gray wig. First take, second take, I go — I'm scared out my mind to say this, by the way, because he's done 75 movies, longer than I've been alive — and I'm like, 'Sean, can you say that less charmingly?' And he goes, 'Sure, boy, sure.' So he called me 'boy.' But he weirdly took me under his wing. He was a very tough-love guy, but I could tell he really liked me. He would never show it. But he taught me a lot."
Thoughts of Connery led Bay to discuss Willis, who recently announced his retirement from acting due to an aphasia diagnosis, leading all of Hollywood to reflect on their time with the Die Hard and The Sixth Sense legend. For Bay, working with Willis was less about getting up the courage to talk about more about showing him what he was capable of early, thanks to a suggestion from producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
"Bruce was tough at the beginning of Armageddon, and there was a point when [producer] Jerry Bruckheimer said to me, 'You've got to show him some scenes.' So I did. And Bruce goes, 'Wow, you should have shown that to me earlier.' And ever since then, we got along. But you've got to understand, from an actor's point of view, you're putting yourself out there, and it's a very scary thing when you don't think that the director might have your back. Does that make sense?"
He continued, "I loved working with him. I thought he was a stunt mogul, but apparently that wasn't his thing. I'm like, 'What? I saw Die Hard. He was amazing in Die Hard.' Apparently, it was a stunt man. I love Bruce because he was funny — he would do improv. There are certain people that are movie stars. He was one of them."
At 57, Bay himself has no plans to retire at the moment. He's made 15 feature films since 1995, from mid-budget action movies to CGI-laden blockbusters about talking robotic cars, and he's probably got more than a few left under his belt. Still, while he might see the instinct to reflect in his peers, he's not interested in it... yet.
"I haven't even thought about that. It's funny when I hear directors that are younger than me talk about their legacy," Bay said. "To me, that's sort of... I don't know. I don't think like that. I really don't. I think a day at a time, a week at a time, planning a movie. Because I'm never going to die. We're all immortal."