Interview: Bruce Campbell – BURN NOTICE

     January 22, 2009

Written by Matt Goldberg

Whatever Will Smith may claim, among geeks, Bruce Campbell is Legend. Starring in some of the most beloved cult movies of all time will do that. His effortless charisma and easy charm have led to geeks around the world making his name the default answer in any dream casting, no matter what the part.

That charisma and charm carries over to his work on USA’s “Burn Notice”. As ex-Navy SEAL Sam Axe (only Campbell could play a character with that name), Campbell joins in the sardonic fun as super-spy Michael Weston’s go-to man (his go-to gal is the lovely and talented Gabriella Anwar) on missions.

We spoke with Mr. Campbell about the upcoming episodes of “Burn Notice”, his thoughts on the show’s success, and the future for his character.

“Burn Notice” returns tonight at 10/9c on USA.

How much creative input do you have with your character for the show?

Bruce Campbell: Well, every situation is different and Burn Notice is very structured. Matt Nix, it’s his show, it’s his concept, it’s his idea. So when I came on board, I’m going to give smaller stuff. You know, I might ad lib some stupid joke at the end of a scene or whatever. Or I might suggest a tone of maybe treat Michael’s mother more gently at some point. So it’s really for me mostly smaller stuff; the captain of the ship is Matt Nix and he’s also allowing us to think through scenes and if we want to throw in a line or so, he doesn’t have a problem with that. But I never show up on a set going, “Man, I got to ad lib today.”

Are you at all surprised about how successful the show has been?

Campbell: I’m surprised by everything these days because you never know. My basis for accepting this script when it came across my desk was I loved the fact of what it wasn’t. It wasn’t a cop show, it wasn’t a doctor’s show, it wasn’t a lawyer show. There’s plenty of stuff that goes on, but this is basically the human side of spies and I went, right, I can get into that. And I really enjoyed the fact that it’s a good blend of a show that does have strong main characters, and not a lot of them. It’s got four main characters. And that’s what the emphasis is. And oh yes, stuff blows up and every week there is a caper where you defeat the jerk of the week. But I think it’s mostly you watch these characters from week to week, and that’s what I enjoy. And that’s what appealed to me and that’s what keeps me interested in the show is it’s not really about the explosions, it’s about the people who are doing the explosions.

So for someone who hasn’t seen any episodes so far, what would you say to somebody coming in like totally virgin coming into the show?

Campbell: Well, I think if you come into the show late, you’re going to be okay because they always do enough recaps to kind of fill you in. And the lead character, Michael Westen, has very heavy voiceover, he’s kind of guiding you through the show, so I think you’re going to be fine. He’s going to give you any kind of recap that you need to jump in. And those people that have followed everything, I think they’re going to be all over it because they’ve been waiting for it for, whatever, four or five months now.

What about your role continues to challenge you?

Campbell: To try and figure out how to sweat less. No, I would say just to keep Sam interested in the stories and participating on stories. If the writers do most of the work, which they will then do that, that they’ll keep the character engaged. And if the character’s engaged, then it’s easy for me to be engaged in the character. So hopefully whenever Sam was around in his portion that he’s involved in something or has an opinion about something or whatever. No actor likes to just sit around. So as long as it’s the same as the first two seasons, I’m good to go.

Do you have a most memorable moment you’ve had from filming the seasons?

Campbell: For me, I’m just convinced one day that some bystander’s going to shoot me with a gun. And the reason why I say that is because my character Sam has a rifle with a scope and often he’s up on high rises and overpasses taking potshots at people. And sometimes you can’t see the crew connected to me, because they put me sometimes far away. And Miami has a lot of guns, and so I’m just afraid some do-gooder’s going to see me up there firing away and they’re going to save Miami from that criminal. And then Burn Notice will have three main characters.

One of the aspects I love most with your character in the previous season was your relationship with Veronica. I was wondering if we’re going to see any more relationship drama from Sam with any ladies in the future.

Campbell: They do, I think that there are efforts. But, you know, Sam’s a tough case because he’s kind of a, he’s a bit of a handful and they’re always doing capers, so it’s tough to have any kind of romance. But there is another brush with romance in some of these upcoming episodes. Which is fun, because I actually think if Sam is not so much button-down that we can see perhaps his exploits, if you will.

Are there any upcoming guest stars that we can look forward to seeing?

Campbell: Oh, yes. In these upcoming episodes it’s pretty full on. You’ve got Patricia Helfer back as Carla. So she’s going to be causing lots and lots of trouble. Michael Shanks is back as another one of these fellow cohort guys who you’re not sure if you can trust or not. The great John Mahoney, who I worked with in the Hudsucker Proxy, John Mahoney from Cheers, he’s back as someone I can’t tell you about because I’d have to kill you. Former Dallas Cowboys Michael Irvin is joining us. He’s Mr. Football, so it was kind of fun to do a football theme episode. Dina Meyer shows up as, well, let’s just say someone who perhaps was close to Michael Westen. And of course with Fiona that’s going to cause some sparks. And there will be some sparks flying in these next seven episodes, I can guarantee you.

We were introduced to a little bit of Sam’s backstory this past summer of season two where it was revealed the character was married in the ‘70s and that actually ended your relationship at the time. Are we going to get any more information about this woman that Sam was married to or any more backstory into Sam’s life?

Campbell: I’m sure some back story’s going to come squeaking out in some way. I kind of was amused myself finding out that Sam had a wife in the past. I think it’s fun. That’s the beauty of these characters who have a history that things are going to come up that are complicated in their life. The first season Sam had some kind of questionable relationships from the past that have come back to haunt him, so I think that’s always going to happen. When you have three spies, former spies that are kind of damaged goods, there’s going to be enemies that come back, old friends and people that you may or may not want to see again.

Do you feel like Burn Notice is sort of bringing back the escapist action series? There are other shows on the air now like on TNT they have Leverage. While most people compare it to something like Oceans Eleven, I feel it has a lot of Burn Notice influence to it because it involves people sort of helping out the little guy and fighting back…

Campbell: I’m glad you said that. Look, I’ll tell you, I think the reason why this show, aside from the magnetic Mr. Donovan and the wonderful Ms. Gabrielle Anwar and Sharon Gless, is the fact that it is iconic. And I don’t mean that to make the show any better than what it is. It has iconic aspects. Little Billy’s always going to get his medicine, for the most part. And it’s a show that lacks cynicism in a way. That there’s a sweet core to it of just human beings and I think anybody can connect to that. Not everyone can connect to the Bourne Identity type of spy, but I think people can identify with this Michael Westen because he’s fixing his mom’s garbage disposal when he’s not doing some covert thing, so that’s what appeals to me. And I like the fact that everyone in this show is an adult. It reminds me of shows when I was a kid. I watched Rockford Files and James Garner was an adult; he wasn’t some kid actor. And so I like the fact that this show is just geared for anyone who wants to see this type of story. It’s not geared for kids or whatever, it’s just a show that I would watch when I was in high school, too. So, I don’t know, I think that’s what appeals to me.

There’s been a lot of cool spy tricks and set ups they’ve done on Burn Notice. And I was wondering, what’s been your favorite thus far?

Campbell: Oh man, mostly it’s just the bravado. I love the fact that in Burn Notice we not only, see, like here’s the difference in Burn Notice and it’s just more of a thematic thing is that if the police catch someone who’s done identity theft, they might catch the guy. They might, not necessarily, but they’re not going to get your money back. In Burn Notice we’re not only going to catch the guy, we’re going to get every penny of your money back, and maybe a little more. And if the guy’s careful, he might die. So our characters don’t crap around. Fiona is basically crazy. She’ll blow up anything for any reason. So these are not three characters that you need to mess with. So what I like is whenever they’re confronted with something, they’ll come back at it in such a way that is very bold, usually, and that’s what I like.

And I think the show is potentially appealing to people because it does give you a sense of justice. For the most part, we are going to catch these guys and we’re going to punish them, and we might torment them at the same time. So as far as any one particular schtick, I don’t really have a favorite. My favorite thing is, you know, there’s an episode coming up where some kid gets in trouble with a gang banger who is a car thief. So instead of just telling the guy to knock it off, the Burn Notice guys what they’ll do is they’ll pretend that they’re a bigger band of car thieves in town to just run the guy out of town. They think bigger than just knee capping a guy in the parking lot. So it’s kind of fun.

I just like the inventiveness. Because they’re spies they’re used to being in tricky situations, they’re up against this and that. And I also like they’ve got a little old school/new school. Michael Westen’s more new school; he fights differently, he thinks differently, he’s a little more outside the box. Sam is more like, well, let’s just hurt somebody or plant a bug. Good ole fashioned espionage. Fiona is a little bit of a loose cannon, so that makes it okay, too, because we can’t always control her.

The dry humor is kind of a big part of what keeps me tuning in, so how important is it to keep that humor in the show to kind of break up some of the tension that can be present.

Campbell: I think it’s imperative. And I think Matt Nix has always started with that dry humor right from the beginning. The voiceover that Michael Westen has is very dry. It’s very urbane sometimes. It’s very erotic, it’s very wry, it’s very witty, so I’m right there with you; I think it’s imperative. Otherwise, we’ve all seen movies where spies take their jobs so seriously. But if you really think of it, at the end of the day spies are just people; they’re just schmoes. They have the same issues as everybody else, but you wouldn’t think of it. You wouldn’t think that a former CIA spy would be having personal problems that would interfere with his work or whatever. You just think of them as being robots, but they’re not.

Do you kind of feel that that’s what helped viewers kind of relate to these characters?

Campbell: There’s no question about it. If we were doing nothing but spy-speak all the time, I think you’d get some guys to watch and go, “Yeah, okay, cool. They’re talking that cool spy stuff.” But I think at the end of the day I want the soccer mom to be able to watch this show and go, “Oh, cool, they’re trying to patch up their relationship with something. Or Michael’s working on some old problem in the past that is now coming back to haunt him.” I think that’s what’s getting a wider range of viewers. It really isn’t just squinty-eyed spies shooting the gun sideways looking cool. That they are flawed, all of these characters are flawed, and they’re all kind of doing the best they can. They’re tap dancing as fast as they can.

A question about your character and also Michael’s. What are the fatal flaws that you all perceive within the character and how do you work those in, because you guys are naturally funny, you’re naturally accomplishing the jobs and getting it all done, yet Sam definitely has his own quirky side that sometimes interferes but also makes it move forward, but there is a fatal flaw in every character.

Campbell: Sure. They are damaged goods. These are people who have had histories and pasts and sometimes they didn’t go well and something went weird enough for Michael Westen to get burned. You know, the Michael Westen character, Jeffrey can speak more toward that, but he comes from a weird, messed up family. He’s got family issues. He’s got issues with his brother, he’s got issues with his mother and issues with his ex. So everybody has issues. And he and Sam get along pretty well now, but in the first season he wasn’t even sure if he could trust Sam because Sam, in order to save his own skin was willing to chat occasionally with the Feds and give them some information to keep his butt out of the fire. And Sam’s flaw, obviously, he’s a party boy, so it’s going to distract him a little bit; it’s going to slow him down. He’s going to be probably putting his nose in some of the wrong places sometimes. But yet he’s coming around as a pretty loyal character.

And Fiona, I’m not sure what her excuse is, but she’s just mostly nuts. And I think that’s good. I like it when, like there’s a couple of upcoming episodes where she gets really angry because of what’s going on with either kids or something like that. When she steps in, it’s kind of fun to watch. She’s good at getting angry and wanting to hurt someone.

Between this role and also a lot of roles you’ve done in the past, and your new movie My Name is Bruce, you have a good time toying with the image of a hero. You enjoy playing characters that are flawed and self-obsessed, yet they’re eventually able to put it together to save the day. Why do you find that kind of an interesting character to play?

Campbell: Because me personally as an actor can relate to that more so that I can, it’s just easier for me to do. I’m not good at playing someone who doesn’t have weird quirks, because I’ve never met someone who didn’t. So that’s why I tend to avoid a little bit of the traditional hero thing, and that’s what appealed to me about this show. This show is very untraditional, yet, having said that, there are traditional story elements that things are going to be made right by these people. So I don’t know, those types of characters have always appealed to me, hoping that they will appeal to the average garage mechanic who’s watching the show. As an actor, I want my work to be as appealing to as many people as possible.

Also, like you said, for traditional characters you were talking about Fiona, there are a lot of really tough women in this show, like Trisha’s character.

Campbell: Yes, these are mostly, they’re ball busters, these women, and I think that’s fun. Why not have strong characters, because honestly, that’s how you get good actresses to come work on the show. We’ve had Lucy Lawless and that was really fun, and I knew that we could get her because they could come up with a good character for her. So I’m glad that worked out. Yeah, it’s fun. If you have strong male characters, you better have strong female characters.

One other thing that is sort of I’d feel is almost a character in the show is Miami itself. It’s so beautiful. How do you feel that filming in this city really helps the vibe of the show?

Campbell: It matters, it really does. People can tell. We’re on beaches and we’re in swamps and at the edge of the everglades and running around in funky alleys and buildings, you don’t have to fake your angles. And the main difference is that by shooting there, you know, Florida is a flat state, you don’t see mountains anywhere. With CSI Miami, they’ve got to be careful because if they tilt up about 10 degrees, they’re going to be looking at the Santa Monica Mountains there. So you don’t have to fake anything. You’ve got boats left and right, anything you need saying it’s Miami, it’s there. And we’re really the main show that has stayed. Dexter left, CSI Miami left and we’re it. So we actually get great cooperation. So we get into as many cool places as you’d ever want to get into just because people are excited to have us there. So we’re really capitalizing on it.

USA has kind of given us the edict of 60% of the show has to be outdoors. Because if they’re shooting in Miami, they want to see it.

I wanted to go off something that was said earlier. You had mentioned the Bourne Identity and about the way you kind of like the human side of the show, the human side of spies. Since 9/11 and Bourne Identity, I think the whole spy genre has changed quite a bit and so it was just continuing with that, altering those old archetypes. Where do you guys think you see yourselves fitting into that whole thing with just the humanization and maybe just the little bit of ambiguity and the whole political side of the spy world or whatever?

Campbell: We’re being very apolitical in this. We don’t really take any of those sorts of sides. I just like the fact that we’re not cynical. There’s a lot of spy shows that can be cynical because spies themselves can be cynical because they enlisted for an altruistic reason and sometimes, like with Michael Westen, he would be perfectly justified to be cynical because he got burned after doing what, he doesn’t even know. He was a good spy. So I like the fact that even with that humor has won out over cynicism and so hopefully our show will be placed in that mode that it’s not really a serious kind of Bruckheimer kind of movie.

As a director yourself, what do you think of the style of the show?

Campbell: I think it’s very cool without being overdone. We’ve all seen movies and TV shows where you go, “Geez, give it a rest” stylistically because it’s either too handheld or it gives you a headache or it’s over-editing. I think Burn Notice is very stylish without being obnoxious. I like the voiceover. I think it’s a very unique style. I like the freeze frames where the title comes in Joe Blow, Client. And then another one comes in, Joe Blow, Loser, or whatever. It’s just kind of a fun, makes it a little cool and jazzy and freewheeling. And they also mess with the colors, too. The show’s very colorful. If you look at the ocean in any of the shots, it’s bright green or blue. The clouds are amazing, too.

How much do you see of yourself in Sam and how much do you see of the others in the characters they portray?

Campbell: Well, that’s always a tough call. Actors can’t escape their own physical being. You’re always going to see Bruce Campbell there doing whatever. I don’t drink as much as Sam does and I don’t womanize as much as Sam does because I’ve been married for 17 years to the same woman. So, it’s always fun to just let loose. Sam is a much more relaxed character than me. I live in the Pacific Northwest and by the time I show up in Miami this March, I’m going to be white and pasty and I’m going to be squinting at the sun because it’s been raining and snowing here in the Pacific Northwest. So I’ll go back down to Miami, I’ll strip my work boots off, my jeans off and get back into that character, get back into that basically removing clothing. You know, I get my t-shirts off, I get my flannel shirts off and start getting back in flip flops and shorts. Because I literally live at the complete opposite end of the country and it’s a huge adjustment every year, but it kind of cracks me up that people perceive me as this kind of, hey, beach guy with a beer in his hand and I’m kind of the opposite. I’m such a woodsy guy. I like mountains and streams and rivers and lakes.

Have you ever been approached or are you ever going to direct any episodes of Burn Notice yourself?

Campbell: I’ve never really discussed it officially or had it posed to me. I’ve directed television in the past, but I think in this case it’s really, I’m in a fun situation where Jeffrey Donovan and Gabrielle and everyone, we have a good relationship and I’m kind of a bossy director and I’m not sure if it’s right for television. So I think I’m just going to step back. We have a good group of guys that’s come in and out now of men and women who have directed some really good episodes. So I think I’m just going to get out of the way and be a good little actor boy.

Where you would like to see the character of Sam go in season three?

Campbell: I’d like some new shirts. Actually, Tommy Bahama is going to sponsor season three, so you will see some new shirts.

I would like to see, I think like any show you just want to see your character used. I don’t know if I have to have a whole, completely different life revealed, but I think showing people off duty is always good. We see a little bit of that with Michael and Fiona. We don’t really see what Sam does. I guess he’d be sitting in a bar somewhere. I never really know. I never know what to suggest in those cases because the writers have so much going on. They’ve got a lot they’ve got to deal with. And I think they struck a pretty good tone of not getting too involved in your personal life that you’d forget about the caper of the week. So I think, also, until you deal with some huge, bigger story lines, until those play out, you don’t have time to see someone go fishing or whatever.

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