Bruce Campbell's B-list: 'Burn Notice,' 'Bubba,' books & back to 'Evil Dead'


Campbell in 'Burn Notice,' Courtesy USA
He is Ash, the wisecracking hero with a chainsaw hand from the Evil Dead movies. He is Autolycus, the comical “King of Thieves” from the Hercules: The Legendary Journies and Xena: Warrior Princess television series. He is an aging mummy-battling Elvis Presley in the horror-comedy Bubba Ho-Tep. And among nearly 100 other characters, self-proclaimed B-movie actor Bruce Campbell is now retired Navy SEAL Sam Axe from USA Network’s hit spy show, Burn Notice.

Instead of gaining fame as a pretty marquee face in blockbuster movies, Campbell’s notoriety is the result of years spent in the blue collar world of acting. Originally from the suburbs of Detroit, he is a work-for-hire performer who just happened to appear in enough movies and TV shows he got to be well known. It didn’t hurt that his roles in the aforementioned cult favorites (not to mention his turns in Maniac Cop, Escape from L.A., The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.) made Campbell a pop culture stalwart. Campbell has even traded in on his working-class cult actor status in those Old Spice commercials, a meta movie My Name is Bruce – where he played himself – and two books, If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor and Make Love! The Bruce Campbell Way.

But it is getting more difficult for the 53-year-old to claim “B” status.

Since the show’s premiere in 2007, Campbell has appeared in Burn Notice on Thursday nights at 9 p.m. as Sam, a beer-drinking, ladies man who uses his espionage knowledge as a do-gooder private investigator in Miami alongside disavowed spy Michael Westen (played by series star Jeffrey Donovan) and former IRA operative Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar). A fan favorite, Campbell’s character received the stand alone treatment in the TV movie, Burn Notice: The Fall of Sam Axe and the fifth season premiere of Burn Notice net 5.2 million viewers. His current success also involves appearing as the voice of “Torque” Redline in Cars 2, in theaters now and an upcoming appearance at the Comic-Con International in San Diego.

While taking a break from filming the sixth season of Burn Notice in Miami, Campbell discussed his work on Burn Notice, as well as involvement with Evil Dead and Bubba Ho-Tep sequels, and more books.

Q: You’ve lived in Oregon for some time, but have also been filming Burn Notice in Miami for a few years now. What’s the big difference between the two areas?

A: Everything. In Oregon, You're just going up a hill or down a hill. It's green but it's a really different kind of green. It's really lush here in Miami. It's all very lush … And I guess, driving etiquette.

Q: Driving Etiquette?

A: It's sort of lost here in Miami. It's a strange combination of collision of cultures here. It's different in Miami with driving. In Oregon, at four way stop signs, we'll go, “You go. No, no. You go ahead. No, no. You go ahead.” In Miami it's. “Can I just blow the stop sign?” It's a whole different mentality. But the air is spectacular in Miami. It's fresh air. It's fresh sea air. So that part is awesome … And about everything else is different. I crawl out of my home in Oregon, all pasty and white, and then I have to become the guy who is too tan. It's a life of contrast. But that's kind of the fun, I guess.

Q: What is the appeal of Burn Notice compare to other spy franchises out there?

A: Here's my take: If you're trying to be cool, you fail. In the case of Burn Notice, we're not really trying to be cool. We're a bunch of middle-aged, former spys, former Navy SEALs, former IRA terrorists, former housewife. Burn Notice is the story of a behind-the-scenes version of spies. You get to hear what they're concerned about, what they're bored with - All while saving the average person's life. I think the appeal is that we're just people, and the kind that hopefully you'd like to go out and have a beer with. If you don't like these people, you won't care if they're in a life or death situation. My problem sometimes with either spy shows or spy movies is that the kind of the lead guys are too cool and they're more concerned about being cool than being well-rounded characters.

Q: It isn’t a downer of a show, either.

A: The end of every week, it's not a jaded show. The bad guys are going to go down. We may take them down from the inside or the outside or both. They will not succeed. Every week, we just help innocent people. That's the main thing with what we do. I think the average American can relate to that.

Q: Burn Notice also has something of a blue collar approach to spy work, which is a theme with your acting career.

A: Yeah, we're very old school. Fiona has a line [in the Season Five premiere] where she says, “I could have done the same thing with a little olive oil on the engine block.” Sometimes you don't have to have these big, practical operations. Sometimes you just have to go out and conduct old-fashioned surveillance.

Q: In The Fall of Sam Axe movie, which is being released on DVD and Blu-ray July 26, you have a scene where you hurl a chainsaw. It’s very Ash-like. Who came up with that idea?

A: It was the writer's. I usually try to avoid any reference to anything I've done in the past. They even had a couple of other lines and I told them I couldn't say it. They were just too on the nose. I think it was their fun little nod to my past.

Q: You’ve done so many characters that people know and love, but do you want to retire them?

A: No … you know, people want another Evil Dead movie, but they should be careful what they wish for. I remember when Army of Darkness came out. It was not some great salvation that was going to save all the Evil Dead fans. It got generally lousy reviews. It did horrible at the box office. It wasn't until literally 20 years later that it's now hailed as a cult classic. It's on American Movie Classics for God sakes. And now, it’s got 17 versions of it on DVD. So folks caught up to it. But not only was it not a hit with people right away, it took Army of Darkness 20 years to become a successful movie.

Q: Were they difficult films to make?

A: Without a doubt, those were most difficult shoots I've ever been on. Those three movies. There's no other. Nothing else compares with anything I've ever done before or since. And I doubt I'll ever be in a situation like that. And I doubt I'll ever let myself be in a situation like that again. These are really grueling movies to make.

Q: So is “No” the final word on any more Evil Dead movies?

A: I'd actually like to just do another really cool, scary horror film that actually isn’t Evil Dead. Just make it a scary horror film. I would be into that even more than a sequel. Sam Raimi [director of Evil Dead and Spider-Man] happened to have been launched into the A-leagues of directing. So I think he would only do another Evil Dead movie if it was the funnest thing ever - which they're not. So, you know. Who knows? None of us has ever said, 'Never.' But I don't know that the word will change.

Q: And what of the rumblings about an Ash vs. Jason vs. Freddy flick?

A: That’s another big one. We had a conversation about a new one. But once you find out Ash can't kill those two characters, then what are you there for? … And creatively, the only thing we had control over was the character Ash. So, ok. What does that mean? They trade zingers and one liners and beat each other up for 90 minutes? For me, it's all about, what's going to satisfy the audience?

Q: But seeing Ash back on screen may make the audiences happy, right? To see the character back in action.

A: Here's the truth of it: Evil Dead comes out, some people really like it, some people hate it. We make another one. A lot of people say, “Oh, it's not as good as the first one.” But a lot people watch the second one. Army of Darkness comes out and people say it’s not as good as Evil Dead II. From a filmmaker’s side, we always hear what the fans have to say - and it's not always positive. It just means they want more of the same stuff. They want more cotton candy, but it might make them barf at the end. It might make them sick if they get too much.

Q: When you do fan conventions, people come to see you as Ash, Autolycus, etc. Are you noticing more people showing up for Sam Axe?

A: A fair amount. I kind of monitor when I go to conventions. Just to kind of take a poll and see what people are into. And I'll have a photograph that comes in front of me on the table. You're going to have, 80% will be Evil Dead, 10% will be Burn Notice because it's sort of filtering in and it takes time for it to really settle in … You always get the current stuff to work again and some people always bring that for you to sign. And then it's about 10% of miscellany. They range from Brisco to Bubba Ho-Tep to Herc and Xena- that sort of spattering.

Q: Do fans surprise you with obscure favorites?

A: The other day, a guy came up with Man With The Screaming Brain. I was like, “Wow. Not many people bring that up.” And the kid goes, “Oh God, I love that movie.” I’m like, “Wow. I've never heard that. You love that movie?” “Yeah, it's so bad.” It's such a terrible movie that he just loved it. I guess whatever gets you to buy something.

Q: You've done so many projects with connections to monsters, zombies, ghosts, demons, etc. What is your personal take on it? Do you believe in anything within the paranormal?

A: No. No, but I’ll go with UFOs. Because I think it just makes sense for them to be out there, and they shouldn't be called UFOs but beings from another planet. I'm all over that. I'm pretty sure that's happened. And you know, we could use a little help here, frankly, so I hope we do get invaded or discovered or whatever you want to call it. If someone could actually come to our planet, then we need their technology.

Q: When you live in that big, open sky, up in the Pacific Northwest, have you ever seen anything?

A: We get great stars up there. But no, I haven't seen anything worth telling anyone about.

Q: There's a big summer movie that came out that reminds me of you: Super 8. It's a movie that has younger actors, not really a ton of A-list stars and it revolves around kids playing with a Super 8 camera like you used to. Have you seen it? Did you feel any sort of personal connection to it?

A: I actually want to see it mostly because of that. It'd be fun to see how accurate they are about the cameras. How they had to do stuff.

Q: Did you enjoy the process of providing the voice of “Torque” Redline in Cars 2 and then seeing how it’s animated?

A: You try to figure out what they're going for, try to get what they're looking for, mostly. He’s a spy, a hot rod kind of tough guy. It's funny when the animations just come alive. I haven’t seen the finished Cars 2 because I've been working down here in Miami but it's fun to see what it becomes. You're in a studio recording, then when you see it, it’s a huge, digital creation.

Q: Think we’ll see another book from you, or the Bubba Ho-Tep sequel Bubba Nosferatu (where Elvis fights vampires)?

A: You won't see Bubba Nosferatu unless something drastic happens. [Ho-Tep Director] Don Coscarelli and I cannot agree on a script. So that's kind of a fundamental thing. We realized it’s not worth doing if we don’t agree. I have to speak with my publisher about a third book called, Vagabond: An Actor’s Gypsy Life. It's really just the kind of things I've been doing when I wasn't filming. It's a sort of travel book I guess you might say with a movie slant.

Q: Are you working on anything for a post-Burn Notice career?

A: I've been working on some material before I realized that if I'm working on a TV show seven months of the year, it limits what I can do with my off-season. So what am I doing developing all this material? [But] I got an action movie that I just had written, and then I'm working on a little Western - so a couple things. I'm getting ready for when Burn Notice ends.

Q: Would you ever want to do another meta type movie, like My Name Is Bruce, where you played yourself?

A: Well, that movie was pretty savaged when it came out, so probably not. People - it's so funny how they react when you basically say that it's you. I think there's probably somebody out there the really thinks that I feel my dog whiskey based on the movie. It's hard to say. And that movie was weird … I said, “Yeah. A chance to make fun of everybody. Myself and fans included.” I thought it was a fun opportunity. I don't think I'll do it again. It's probably some of the worst reviews I've gotten.

Q: I happen to like it.

A: Twenty years from now it'll be on American Movie Classics!

Q: You turned 53 in June, but look great. Is it true you lost 20 pounds for The Fall of Sam Axe?

Slimmed down Campbell in 'Fall of Sam Axe'
A: Well, I had to play Sam Axe five years younger and [Jeffrey] Donovan [who directed the film] was like, “So, dude. What are you going to do?” I'm like, “Well, I'll dye my hair.” He’s like, “No, You're still active. So you gotta get active.” So I went home on the last break. And we got mountains that are up to 7,000 feet. So I just hit the mountain to get back at it. You know, you get the eye of the tiger back. And this time, I'm doing my darnedest, because I just turned 53. Now I'm just doing it for me. Years past, I would get ready for a movie. You work out, you work out, you work out. All that training and all that crap. Really living a gym. You get tired of it and I did that for about ten years. Then you’re like, you know, I'm just going to do my own thing now. Now, I'm just going to maintain it for me, now.

Q: Speaking of books, comedian and The Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman was your first literary agent, correct?

A: Yeah. John was the first guy to send me an email and say, “Hey, How about writing a book?” He was an assistant to a literary agent and then he became a literary agent. And then he became John Hodgman. The son of a bitch gets more residuals than I do!

Q: Do you guys stay in touch?

A: We’re tight email buddies… I'm so glad. He's always been the smartest and funniest guy in the room. And it's just great to see a guy just take off. He’s an incredibly nice, hard-working guy, so I just think it's awesome. There's an origin to everything, everybody.

Q: So Hodgman helped make If Chins Could Kill happen?

A: Yeah. That was the first Chins book. It's not an A-listers book. It's a book about, sort of, the working stiffs of the film industry. I give him a lot of credit for making it happen.

Q: After becoming so well known, and now being on Burn Notice, are you still a “B” actor?

A: Look at it this way: Burn Notice is “B” television. We're cable. It's a B-TV show and is technically a genre TV show.

Q: So you still classify yourself in the “B” role?

A: I do. The funny thing is, ironically, I'm known as a cult actor. But currently, I’m working for two Fortune 500. You’ve got NewsCorp which owns Fox, which produces the show you’ve got USA, which is owned by GE. So I work for corporate types even though I may make my living doing off-kilter stuff - but then they wind up selling it to big corporations!

Q: Are you going to be at San Diego Comic-Con?

A: I will be at Comic-Con, I think, on Thursday or on Wednesday and do the panel on Thursday. Then I'll just still be roaming around on Friday doing various things. So Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. You got to go to Comic-Con. You got to!