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SYFY WIRE 12 Monkeys

Did you know Tom Cruise & Nic Cage were considered for ’12 Monkeys’ ahead of Bruce Willis?

Let us once again explore the infinite "What If...?" possibilities of Hollywood history.

By Josh Weiss
Nicolas Cage, Bruce Willis in 12 Monkeys, and Tom Cruise

Bruce Willis absolutely ruled the '90s. That's just a fact and no — it is not up for debate. Between the years of 1990 and 1999, the actor proved himself to be a silver screen chameleon, capable of blending into any role or genre with apparent ease.

This rare talent for onscreen adaptation landed him a string of '90s genre projects that continue to define the world of cinema to this day: Die Hard 2, Die Hard with a VengeanceDeath Becomes Her, The Fifth Element, Pulp Fiction, Armageddon, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and, let us not forget, 12 Monkeys (now streaming on Peacock!).

In particular, director Terry Gilliam's seedy sci-fi romp provided Willis the opportunity to take a break from the action hero persona he'd gained from playing John McClane in the Die Hardseries.

The character of James Cole (a grizzled convict sent back in time to gather intel on a deadly virus on behalf of future scientists) was resourceful and battle-worn like McCclane, yes, but he was also vulnerable, manic, and, in a way, childlike. Having lived underground for most of his life, James simply cannot contain his joy when he explores a world untouched by disease.

RELATED: Bruce Willis' 8 best sci-fi roles: From 'Death Becomes Her' to 'The Sixth Sense' to 'Looper'

Willis nailed the performance — no surprise there — though you may be shocked to learn that he wasn't the first choice for Cole. Speaking to Inverse as part of an oral history celebrating the 25th anniversary of 12 Monkeys two years ago, Gilliam revealed that the names of two other super-stars came across his desk.

"The pressure was to get a movie star in," the Monty Python alumnus said. "That was at a time when I was still a hot director, so people wanted to come near me and touch me. So they were coming up with all these names. And I just kept saying no. Tom Cruise, Nic Cage, they were all being thrown at me."

He continued: "I had never been a great fan of Bruce's before, but I liked talking to him, and I thought, 'OK, this guy's smart; he's funny.' I explained to him my concerns about him as an actor. I hated that moue [pursed-lip expression] he does in his films when he gets a bit nervous. I thought, 'God, that's horrible.' He does a mouse with his mouth; it's a Trumpian mouth. For a moment it goes all Trumpian. Rectal. It's like I'm looking at somebody's a—hole."

Chatting with The Hollywood Reporter for a separate oral history, Gilliam recalled that while he did have the occasional creative spat with Willis — "there were certain things he resisted" — the actor never failed to deliver the goods. "The rest of the time, I just thought he was on fire," he said. "He was just so good. And surprising all the time."

"Bruce has terrific craft skills, of getting into the right place," added editor Mick Audsley. "Repeating things, which we had done at six in the morning and then nine o’clock at night three weeks later, to be able to match it and all that stuff. He’s got all of those wonderful skills that are less visible outside of the cutting room. But you get to appreciate them in my job because it reduces the work of bringing things together and making a performance shape."

12 Monkeys is now streaming on Peacock.