In his 20 years of stardom, Bruce Willis has been a TV detective, an action hero, a dead guy and—his most surprising role—the poster father for happy postdivorce families. Since he and Demi Moore split in 2000, they have shared custody of their three daughters—Rumer, 16, Scout, 13, and Tallulah, 11. And yes, he is pals with his ex-wife’s love interest, Ashton Kutcher. (Both Moore and Willis live in L.A. and maintain homes near each other in Hailey, Idaho.) This week the family man takes his eldest daughter to work: Rumer appears in his new thriller Hostage. Willis—who turns 50 this month—sat down one recent afternoon with PEOPLE senior editor Jess Cagle at Manhattan’s Peninsula Hotel. While guzzling one cappuccino after another, he spoke about his marriage, his girls and his romantic future.
People are fascinated at how close you and Demi have stayed since your divorce. How do you make that work?
Early on Demi and I decided to put the kids first. What you see is the result of that. I have to give credit to Will Smith, who, at a time when I really could use it, gave me some great advice. He said you’ve gotta let the kids know it’s okay for everybody to be together—you know, exes, new partners. I am still great friends with Demi. I am honestly great friends with Ashton. We go on vacations together. I think how Demi and I and Ashton and my three daughters are handling this is evolution.
You’re lucky Demi found someone you like.
Yeah, it could be a lot worse. Not that she would choose this kind of guy, but it could be a biker dude that is abusive, any number of things. Ashton is a really great guy, and a really thoughtful, introspective guy who loves my kids as well.
Did it take you a while to decide you trusted him?
I liked Ashton right away. We just kind of hit it off. He’s got a great sense of humor. For me, as long as she’s happy, I know the kids are going to be happy. My kids have seen parents who call the cops on each other, and yelling and screaming and carrying on, and they know that what they have is different than that. Evolution is a good word.
When your own parents split, did they teach how to do it—or how not to do it?
How not to do it. They separated at first, but very little was said as to why. When Demi and I realized we were separating, we started talking to the kids right away. We let them know that they were gonna be okay.
It’s like walking around in your underwear. I know wherever they are right now, they’re suffering. It’s not the announcement that’s the hard thing, it’s living in the public eye and knowing there are going to be times when you would just as soon keep it to yourself or keep it amongst your friends.
It seems you’ve had a lot of personal upheaval the last few years. Your brother Robert died of pancreatic cancer [at age 42] in 2001….
He had a troubled life. He finally got sober two years before he died. They say that no parent is supposed to bury their own child, but he really managed to help my mom and dad get through it and kind of brought my siblings back together.
Your stepmother also.
I had a wonderful stepmom who died two years ago from cancer around the holidays. She was a real fine woman with a great sense of humor. My kids loved her. She and my dad really looked after each other.
Are you living in L.A. full-time now to be near your daughters?
Yeah, I had a couple of houses there. They were not big enough for three kids to have a little bit of room to run around and each have their own bedroom, which is key. They all want their own space. L.A. is my least favorite city, but my kids are in school there. I had just finished a house in Sun Valley [Idaho]. I figured the kids were gonna finish school there and I was gonna live in Sun Valley. Now that house has been relegated to a vacation home. This past fall Demi did a film over in London, and I had the kids for three months straight. Just taking them back and forth to school—which in Hailey is a 10-minute drive each way—in L.A. it’s an hour and a half each way.
When you date, do you look at each woman and think, is she the one?
I think unless the hand of God intervenes, I’m going to go out as a bachelor. You’re asked to stand up there and say, “I promise to love you forever until death do us part.” You might as well be crossing your fingers when you say that. How can you possibly know where you’re gonna be five years from now, or 10 years from now, or 20 years from now?
Were you engaged to [ex-girlfriend] Brooke Burns?
The topic had come up. She’s a wonderful girl. It was fun. We were always laughing. It was my problem. I just have doubts about my ability to maintain a relationship necessary for marriage. If I know anything about myself, I know that.
Still, do you ever think about having more children?
My younger brother David, after vowing to be single for the rest of his life, got married and has two kids—a beautiful daughter and a 1-month-old son, who I was holding in my arms over Thanksgiving. I could have another kid. I don’t know the math on that. How do you find somebody who can live with the fact that I don’t want to get married?
Are you dating anyone now?
No. I actually said these words aloud for the first time this year: I’m comfortable being alone. I’m comfortable being single. I may fall in love again, but—for those kids who are listening to Bruce Willis for love advice—any relationship that isn’t founded on friendship is just doomed.
And your three little girls are all turning into young women. Is that scary?
I get a big kick out of watching them grow up. Everybody says, “Oh, you have three daughters, you gotta watch out.” But I think that their mom and I have both realized that it’s our job to get them ready to go out into the world now. They’re really good, they’re well-mannered and funny, and they have a leg up if they want to act. They tell me, “Dad, we’re set rats.” They knew when they were 2 years old, when somebody said, “Rolling!” you don’t talk.
[Rumer plays his kidnapped daughter in Hostage.] Was it tough to do the scene where she’s tied up and crying to you for help?
I was just physically and emotionally drained at the end of that night. Actors sometimes have to go to horrible places. Just imagining having one of my children held hostage or taken away from me is my worst nightmare.
And all three girls want to become actresses?
The rule in our family is, they can act with their mom or with me until they’re 18.
How do you feel about turning 50?
I remember when I was a kid, 50 was pretty old. I feel great. I look after myself. I can still run around and keep up with my kids. Everybody, no matter how old you are, is roughly around 24, 25 in their heart. I just did a week on a film called Alpha Dog. I had to do a stunt where I had to run at full speed and get over a wall, and I had to drop 6½ feet on the other side. It was the first time I thought, I hope I don’t turn my ankle or some old-man thing.
How do you stay in shape?
Mostly weight resistance training, almost an hour of cardio at least three times a week. I have a gym in my house in Los Angeles and a gym trailer that I can take on the road with me when I’m on location. At my house there’s a very long steep driveway. I do wind sprints that kick my 50-year-old ass. It’s part of my job. I have come to associate working out as work. Whenever I don’t have to do it for films, I kind of slack off.
Is sex better at 50 or 25?
Fifty. You’re in less of a hurry. You know a few more tricks. For me, you make it more about the woman. And just the simple fact that at 50 you can still do it. That’s a nice little bonus by itself.
You’ve probably got a few more years left in you.
I’m counting heavily on science.