Al Powell

Reginald VelJohnson Interview

Finally, I spoke with actor Reginald VelJohnson. He played Sergeant Al Powell, McClane’s lifeline on the ground as the madness unfolds in Nakatomi Tower. We talked about incorporating his tragic backstory, filming Powell’s breakthrough moment at the end, and his relationship with Bruce Willis during the production.

/Film: Your performance provides an anchor for both John McClane’s character outside the building, and really for the movie itself. Seeing all of that bureaucracy unfold, it’s nice to know there’s someone on the outside who gets it. Did you understand that was part of what you guys were doing outside of Nakatomi Plaza at the time?

Reginald VelJohnson: No, I didn’t. I actually just was doing what the director told me to do because it was my first big movie role. So I really didn’t investigate what the role was doing in the movie, I just did exactly what he told me to do.

Were you able to lock into your character and understand him right away? I know sometimes it takes a little while to ease into a portrayal.

I didn’t do it right away. I didn’t realize he was an integral part of saving Bruce’s life in the movie until toward the end. It was my first big movie role and I didn’t really understand what was going on.

John McTiernan has talked about how important it was for the relationship between McClane and the villains to be very serious, and for the humor to exist on the periphery. What do you remember about filming the comedic sequences with the police chief and the FBI agents?

I didn’t realize how important my part was to Bruce’s character until he was in the bathroom when his foot was cut and he was sitting in the bathroom sink. That’s when I realized, ‘Oh, OK, my character is an integral part of the movie.’ It was interesting dealing with Bruce and the director and the same time and finding out where my character fit in. I’ll never forget that, realizing how important the role was to the whole movie. It’s kind of like I wish I could do it again so I could do a better job. [laughs]

We find out that Al Powell’s backstory involves him shooting a child. Was it surprising to see that idea become even more relevant in recent years?

Yeah, when I was doing it, Powell shooting a kid was an important thing for me. I wanted to make sure that people got that, and they did. It was interesting for a cop to admit that at the time, and John McTiernan took a lot of time to make sure that part of the movie came out the way it did. I do remember him giving me a lot – this is 30 years ago, wow – giving me a lot of interesting things to do with that situation in the movie.

Like what?

The actual words. “I shot a kid.” I had never really experienced a cop doing that before. A cop shooting a kid was a heavy thing, and I wanted to make sure that came across well.

Die Hard Bruce and Reginald

What was your relationship like with Bruce Willis while making this movie? Did you two do anything to build your camaraderie off screen?

I was very intimidated by him in the beginning. He was a star, and I didn’t know what he wanted out of me. But he was very, very nice and very careful with my character, telling me what he wanted me to do. That was it – it was really cool working with him. As a matter of fact, I’m going to be doing a tribute to him, the Comedy Central Roast, soon, but he was very giving and caring with me in the movie and I really appreciated that from him. I never got a chance to tell him how much I appreciate how he treated me. Because it was his first big thing, too. I was just there. I was just curious as to what was going on, and didn’t realize how big my role was.

There’s something so satisfying about watching Powell’s arc unfold during this movie, because he’s really like the co-lead of the film. Even though he doesn’t enter the story until later, we arguably know as much about him as we do about McClane.

Wow, I didn’t realize that. I had heard that the role was given to Gene Hackman and he couldn’t do it or something like that, and they decided to cast a regular guy, which was me. They told me to put a cop uniform on and parade around in [the producer’s] office. I think they made the role bigger than it was when was originally written because they didn’t know exactly what to do with the character, and I guess they got me (laughs) to give them what they wanted, so I’m glad I did it.

I loved Family Matters and I know that show was a big part of your life, but does anyone ever recognize you on the street for your work in Die Hard these days?

Oh yeah. I was just in the supermarket and a guy told me how much he enjoyed Die Hard. I got Family Matters because of Die Hard, actually. The producers saw a screening of it before the movie came out, and they cast me to play Carl Winslow, and I didn’t realize that. I found that out later on. To do a role that well and that effectively has been a blessing to me, and I never got another role like that ever since then, and I don’t think I ever will. It was a good role, and I was nominated for an NAACP Award. I didn’t get it, but just the idea that they nominated me in the role was an honor.

Why do you think this movie holds up so well thirty years later?

I guess because Bruce played a part that he never played before. I think it was the first time that the regular guy saved the day, so to speak. There weren’t that many projects with that kind of character in it when the movie came out. I think Bruce playing an everyman kind of guy who triumphs by his own [wits] was a fresh thing at the time. I think people hadn’t realized how important it was that you stand up for yourself when you can, and I think when it came out, people really gravitated to him doing that. That’s what made him a star.

We talked a bit about the serious aspect of Al Powell’s character, but there’s a lot of comedy for him as well. Do you remember doing any improv or suggesting any jokes or alternate readings?

It was all scripted. I was too nervous to suggest anything at the time! I didn’t really get comfortable doing the role on my own until toward the end of the movie. I just listened to the director and the producers. Joel Silver was the producer, and he did a lot of planning and telling us what to do, and I was just there listening and saying, ‘Yes, sir!’ I was just nervous about doing the job since they gave it to me, I wanted to make sure I did a good job.

Al Powell 2

The scene at the end in which Powell and McClane meet for the first time and Powell is able to pull his weapon again in the face of danger – what do you remember about filming that?

Shooting the gun. I was very nervous about having to hold the gun, and the special effects guys were showing me how to handle it. That was very nerve-wracking for me, I was trying to make sure I held that gun right. I didn’t realize that the scene became an integral part of the movie until I saw the movie.

William Atherton, who plays the newscaster, was in Ghostbusters, and you were in that movie too.

Oh yeah! I didn’t realize that until somebody pointed it out to me, but he was sort of a…he sort of played his role perfectly. [laughs] He was kind of like that. We didn’t have much to say to each other on either project. I’m sure he’s a very nice guy, I just never really spoke to him.

I just didn’t know if you two made eye contact on the Die Hard set and gave each other a nod of recognition.

[laughs] No, we didn’t. We were just trying to get it done, man. He was just doing his job and I was doing mine. I never really had the chance to speak to anybody or build camaraderie with anyone. Except Alan Rickman, he was a very nice guy. We would always talk and have a nice time during filming. He was an interesting fellow. I enjoyed working with him, God bless him.

When you look back on your work on Die Hard, what are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of the movie itself, actually. I enjoyed working on a project that became a classic. I didn’t realize what kind of a classic it would be while I was doing it. And working with the director, working with Bruce and Bonnie [Bedelia]. Bonnie was a sweetheart. I just remember the experience of putting it all together. I go back sometimes and look at Nakatomi and wave to it as I pass by.

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