Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we ask actors for memories about roles that defined their careers. The catch: They don't know beforehand what roles we'll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Sure, Bruce Campbell has a long string of B-movies to his name (Moontrap, Maniac Cop 2, something called Torro. Torro. Torro!), but some of his films, like the Evil Dead trilogy, have stood the test of time. The longtime cult favorite can currently be seen on USA’s Burn Notice and in his mock-autobiographical film My Name Is Bruce—a deep satire of Campbell’s storied career, now available on DVD.
The Evil Dead (1981), Evil Dead II (1987), Army Of Darkness (1992)—“Ash”
Bruce Campbell: I wrote a book about it. There is so much to tell. I have hours worth of anecdotes. Is there any way you can hone that down for me?
The A.V. Club: How about something for the benefit of those who haven’t read the book yet?
BC: You know, I must be honest with you. Funny stories on set—there are thousands of them, but they are only funny to the people who were on the movies. You start to have inside jokes and gallows humor. You have all kinds of things you laugh at, but as soon as you tell somebody, the joke falls flat because they don’t know the context of it. That’s the best thing I can tell you. The dynamic between all these people, half of whom have never met before, is always interesting. On the first Evil Dead, half the people were people we didn’t know, and the other half were people we knew really well. Of those people we knew really well, we didn’t know how hard this experience was going to be. So we knew each other much better by the end of that 12 weeks, as far as who could put up with what and who could tolerate what. You really found out what people were made out of. You get to see people at their best and at their worst.
AVC: When were you at your worst?
BC: When you are up all night and it’s 23 degrees outside and you can’t feel your hands anymore. That was a 12-week show that was only supposed to be six weeks.
AVC: In your opinion, is Ash worthy of more movies?
BC: No. I think there should be an end to everything. I mean, did anyone really want Indiana Jones 4? The answer is no. I’ve taken a poll in about seven theaters now. Of 300 people, three hands go up. You are bound to disappoint. I would rather disappoint with a brand new original movie. People worship Army Of Darkness,and God bless them for it. It’s a beautiful thing. The movie bombed when it came out, and not many people are aware of that. Twenty years later, the thing has picked up speed, and it’s on American Movie Classics now. That was a long time ago, and whatever we do next will always be compared to Army Of Darkness, and I don’t see how we can win. You make that movie, and I can tell you the quote right now, “Oh, it’s not quite as good as Army Of Darkness.” Then we would have gone through immense physical pain and anguish to bring something out that ultimately disappointed. That’s really not what I’m into these days.
AVC: Did you feel that way when you made Evil Dead 2? That people would compare it to the first Evil Dead?
BC: No, we did Evil Dead 2 because we needed to make another movie. Evil Dead 1 was never supposed to have a sequel. It’s not like we woke up one day and Sam [Raimi] went, “I’ve got this horror trilogy.” These movies came out in fits and starts. If this were meant to be any kind of franchise, the sequel would have been done in 1982, and the last one would have been out in 1985. Instead, we spread out over another decade and a half beyond that. In the same breath, so you don’t misinterpret it, I have nothing but good will toward the Evil Dead movies, and the same with Sam Raimi, but he’s signed on to do more Spider-Man. I’m in a TV show, and I signed a multiple-year contract. If they want me back, I have to go back. That’s probably why you haven’t seen a sequel or remake from Evil Dead yet.
Darkman (1990)—“Final Shemp”
AVC: There are rumors on the Internet that you were supposed to star instead of Liam Neeson.
BC: I did not audition for that movie. I think Sam had proposed that I be that guy, but it was shot down at the studio level. So as a gag, I did the very last shot. It wasn’t really a scene. I was never quite that involved in the casting process. I just know they wanted somebody else.
AVC: They wanted somebody with more credits?
BC: Yeah, I was no Liam Neeson at the time. Studios have all kinds of reasons. They didn’t want me in the second film, Crime Wave, so I’ve been turned down before. It’s all part of the casting process. You just develop a bit of a thick skin after a while.
AVC: Are there times when you take things personally?
BC: Sure, but over time you don’t, when you see certain patterns. They might cast an actor because he is too tall next to the leading lady, who is too short, or they might not cast your guy because he’s blond, and they wanted a brunette. There’s all kinds of reasons why they want one person over another. I don’t worry about it, but it can hurt sometimes if you really wanted something, if you really went after something.
AVC: It often seems arbitrary.
BC: Sure, because the producer, who might be a moron, might want some actress over another one because she is sexier, not because she is a good actress.
The Adventures Of Brisco County Jr. (1993-1994)—“Brisco County Jr.”
BC: It was a one-season wonder for Fox. It was a really fun, unique experience on a unique show.
AVC: What do you remember about the role?
BC: He was a great leading-man role, because he was not only smart—he was Harvard-educated—but he also had cowboy skills and could fight and rope and ride and shoot. He was sort of a one-stop shop, which was good, because if your hero is smart, you can have good bad guys, because your bad guys can be smart. Overall, I thought it was a very intelligent show.
AVC: How closely did you work with co-creator Carlton Cuse?
BC: Pretty closely, because he was our boss. It was pre-Lost for him. It was one of the first shows he ran, so he was the man we answered to—him and Jeffrey Boam.
AVC: What was his management style?
BC: Carlton wants what he wants. He’s pretty tough, but most guys who run television shows are tough guys. It’s a tough gig. He was very specific about what he liked and didn’t like. You could really ad lib on that show. I ad lib a lot in what I do now. Depending on the show—normally if you are on a scripted show like Law & Order, those people are not ad libbing. You can’t even stray by mistake.
AVC: What style do you prefer?
BC: I prefer a much looser style. Any time a writer thinks he has all the answers to how someone should talk or react or end a scene, it’s a spontaneity-killer. Sam Raimi will write a script, and then during a take, he will shout out new lines that he wants you to say while the camera is rolling. He’s that spontaneous. I love that. [Raimi and Campbell are close friends; Campbell has appeared in all three of Raimi’s Spider-Man movies. —ed.] That is the world I grew up in, and that I understand. I don’t get making sure you get every word right in some stupid speech just because a writer sat there and did it.
AVC: Have you developed the ability to tell when you’re watching an unscripted moment?
BC: Yeah, because things get real natural and weird all of the sudden. It sometimes causes other actors to react unexpectedly. It definitely mixes it up. I tend to enjoy watching it when I see it. Like on the old Carol Burnett Show or anything like that, you know that they were adding stuff. I’m sure with Saturday Night Live, it’s the same kind of deal. They would go off-book as often as possible. It doesn’t mean that you have to. As an actor, I’ll read a script and say, “This is fine. I have no new ideas.” In other cases, I’ll go, “Oh man, this guy doesn’t know what he’s doing,” or, “This thing needs an ending,” or, “This speech needs a wrap-up,” or, “I don’t know what this guy is trying to say.” That’s when I tend to look for other ways to do something. I never wake up in the morning and say, “Boy, am I going to ad lib today!” Every situation is different.
AVC: You have to learn how to pick your battles.
BC: Yeah. and find out when you even have to battle.
Ellen (1996-1997)—“Ed Billik”
BC: I had a deal with ABC—when you have a deal with a certain network, they try and put you in whatever network shows they have. Ellen was going at the time. I had a quick meeting with Ellen, because some boss character had fallen out. Some actor had been replaced. I went in for a meeting in the morning, and they said, “Can you come back after lunch to rehearse the first show?” It was an immediate thing that just fell out of the sky.
AVC: Do you feel like it was a good fit?
BC: Yeah, it was great, because I had never done a sitcom before. I had never done that format before, where you rehearse for four days and put it on its feet in front of a live audience. That was bizarre. Ellen was really fun to work with. You want to talk about spontaneity—she would always do two takes for each scene that we did. If she got her lines right on the first one, during the second take, she would go off and do something completely different. If she didn’t think she got the first take right, she would do it normally the second time. It was fun to watch her work. She was very professional. It was a good situation. Jeremy Piven was on the show, and he’s Mr. Emmy now. It was also when she came out. so it was big news. She was the first openly gay primetime character.
BC: I met my darling wife on the set. She was the costume designer, and I was the leading man. I thought she was a little hottie. I went after her and she ignored me. It was an ongoing battle from there. We met in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, when it was freezing on Lake Superior.
AVC: What was your in?
BC: I would manufacture stuff. My character was a guy named Stover, who was like a post-apocalyptic Jeremiah Johnson. I would come to her office and insist that I needed the materials to learn how to sew, since my character would have to sew and make his own clothes. She was like, “Yeah, whatever, dude.” That’s how I was able to kill time in her office, to spend more face time with her and impress her with my acting skills.
AVC: Did she eventually warm up?
BC: She knew right from the start that I was trying to get in her pants.
AVC: How long did she hold out?
BC: [Holds phone away from mouth.] How long did it take before we got married? [Mumbling.] A year later, we were married.
AVC: How does she feel about the fact that you are talking about her, and she’s right there?
BC: She loves the fact that I talk about her, especially when it is being recorded. Her name is Ida, and we’ve been married 17 years now. That’s 70 years in Hollywood years.
My Name Is Bruce(2007)—“Bruce Campbell”
AVC: How comfortable are you with self-parody?
BC: I see parody as another form of comedy. If you are making a comedy, there are a lot of different ways to do it. I’m not necessarily always aware of my quote-unquote persona when doing things like that. It’s more, “What does the character need at the time?” I’m certainly drawn to certain types of material, there’s no doubt about that.
AVC: But in this latest film, you need to be aware of your persona. You play an exaggerated version of it throughout the entire movie.
BC: In this one, sure. I never thought “I’d better play it like this, because I’m Bruce Campbell.” I can’t help but play it like Bruce Campbell. It’s only a matter of what you want that character to do. How good or bad do you want them to be? How smart or stupid do you want them to be? It’s not like, how different from Bruce Campbell do you want them to be? You are still dealing with a character in a movie.
AVC: What was your biggest challenge on this film?
BC: I’m wearing three hats; I’m acting, producing, and directing. I was very involved in developing the script, too. But to me, that is very liberating. To me, the lower the budget, the more I want to be involved. I want to be more in control of my own destiny when there isn’t much money involved, because you don’t have the experts who can control your destiny. If you are in a Spider-Man movie, you’re always going to look good and sound good, and they’ll take good care of you technically and other ways. The director usually knows what he’s doing. On a low-budget arena, I show up on the set, and half the people there have never worked on a movie before. Sometimes that can be very disturbing. I figure at the budget that we were, I have as much directing experience as some other schmoe. So I’ll be that schmoe.
AVC: So when more money is involved, creativity goes away?
BC: It can. Sam Raimi is still pretty good at being creative. For me, it’s not about more money, it’s about more chefs. How many chefs are involved? In my opinion, movies are not a democracy, they’re more like a dictatorship.
AVC: You were the bad guy on this one?
BC: Yeah. Not that you can’t have fun along the way, but as a filmmaker, I want what I want. I’m not interested in 47 other ideas. If I did, I’d have some other job. My theory is: You are making movies, you’re not making friends.
Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)—“Elvis”
BC: Bubba was a very interesting experience. It was sent to me eight or nine years ago. It definitely was one of the weirdest scripts I had ever read. I wasn’t that familiar with [writer] Joe Lansdale, but I was very familiar with [director] Don Coscarelli. It was great to participate in, but it was a tough shoot. My wife doesn’t like to even be reminded of that shoot, because she said I was a butthead while we were making the movie. Actors tend to carry that stuff home, unfortunately for their spouses. But I was very happy with the outcome, and I think it will shortly be considered some form of cult classic. Easy to make, difficult to watch—that’s the theory.
AVC: What specifically was hard about the shoot?
BC: You have two to three hours of makeup every day getting it on, and then an hour getting it off. Then there’s a 12-to-14-hour shoot in the middle. There’s not a lot of time to sit around and crack jokes. It is very physically demanding.
AVC: What is your understanding of what a cult film is?
BC: There’s various degrees of cultishness. You’ve got your Rocky Horror Picture Show,which is the A-number-one kind of cult movie. Then you’ve got your American Pie kind of deal, which is a giant in DVD and all that. I liken it this way: In a mainstream movie, 100,000 people will see it once. One person will see a cult movie 100,000 times. Sometimes, like with Evil Dead 2, people have seen it a hundred times. If they’re feeling bad, they pop it in. It becomes their personal opiate.
AVC: What makes a movie a cult classic? Sometimes it seems like a backhanded compliment, because the film tanked.
BC: I disagree. A cult classic is one that has been fully embraced by an alternative audience, not the popular audience. There are two different audiences. One is a very specific sci-fi lover or a horror lover. The difference between my fans and Tom Cruise’s fans is that no one is tattooing Risky Business on their back. Yet I’ve seen the poster for Army Of Darkness on a guy’s back—his whole back. It was beautiful.
AVC: Can you predict what is going to attain cult status?
BC: No. If you try to, you will fail horribly, because then it is too knowing. The audience will decide that. I don’t try to make cult movies, but I do like alternative forms of entertainment. I wouldn’t use the word cult so much.
AVC: It’s become a go-to tagline for low-budget horror flicks.
BC: Yeah, that was made up by some other genius.
Burn Notice (2007-2009)—“Sam Axe”
BC: They contacted me and asked me if I wanted the role. I was like, “Yeah.”
AVC: When was the last time you actually auditioned for a part?
BC: I’ve gotten parts through audition, knowingly, only two times: The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. and Knots Landing, my first TV job. It’s great to avoid that process, because I hate it. I hate having to prove myself to some idiot.