The two stars talk about the upcoming Season 3 finale of the series
Burn Notice is one of the main reason that the USA Network has simply dominated the basic cable ratiings this year and the show's third season is about to come to an end. The Season 3 finale of Burn Notice will air on Thursday, August 6 at 9 PM ET on the USA Network, and two of the reasons for the show's success are the actors Bruce Campbell, who plays ex-spy Sam Axe and Sharon Gless, who plays Madeline Westen, Michael Westen's mother. The two legendary actors recently held a conference call discussing this third season coming to a close, and here's what they had to say.
Bruce, I know that you played in Xena and Hercules as sort of a rogue who helped out the good guys as well. And Sharon, obviously you played Cagney, a bad-ass cop and she also knew her way around bad guys. So I was curious how these roles and others may have helped to cultivate the characters that you play on Burn Notice.
Bruce Campbell: Go ahead, Sharon.
Sharon Gless: Well, the only bad guys I have to find my way around are Jeffrey and Bruce. I mean, my job on the show is the mother from hell. I don't get involved in the heavy stuff like they do.
Bruce Campbell: Sharon, your character is scarier than some of the bad guys.
You helped out in that case when Bruce got captured and you were sort of interrogating the one guy.
Sharon Gless: That's right, I think that's when Michael was captured. Right, that was very, very funny. It's not often that I get to do one-upsmanship on Bruce Campbell.
Bruce Campbell: What's amazing is she turned out to be a very good interrogator and then who knew. I actually think we're going to see in the scenes that come - because Sharon, you were also on a stakeout and you had to spot somebody. You had to be a lookout.
Sharon Gless: At the bingo game.
Bruce Campbell: Right. So don't kid yourself. You're going to be an operative before too long maybe.
Sharon Gless: Okay, look out.
Well, I mean, I've always enjoyed playing a little left of center characters. Otherwise I'd be on a soap opera, you know. What's attractive to me was that these are real characters. These are characters who drink and smoke and make mistakes and have foibles in love and try to fix their mother's garbage disposal. That's what's attractive to me. That's what got me into this show and knowing that I'm with four, three other kind of seasoned adult actors. That's always attractive when you know you're going to be working with people that it's going to be worth showing up for.
Sharon Gless: It's true.
Bruce Campbell: It's made a big difference. And this show, I can't speak for Sharon, but this show came out of nowhere. The things that I plan never happen. Things that I don't plan do.
Sharon Gless: Exactly. That's how I thought. I think that when Bruce and I first - we were interviewed together. Do you remember that, in Pasadena or somewhere? And I was actually sitting in the fat farm and this script arrived and I was sitting all alone in my room and it made me laugh out loud and I was all by myself. And I thought, this is funny. This is fun, I like this. It had substance to it, too.
Bruce Campbell: It probably didn't hurt that you live in Miami, too.
Sharon Gless: I forgot about that, but I didn't tell them that during the interview. I wanted to live in a hotel like you guys. And then when it sold, I had to 'fess up. Yes, I do, though, I do live here in Miami.
So I was wondering, what sorts of methods and what type of influences do you use to kind of inform your characters and your portrayal of each of your characters? Like what do you draw upon to, in your characterization of Sam and of Madeline?
Sharon Gless: Well, my husband said, when he read the script, chain smoking half the time. And he said, how lucky are you, they're paying you to smoke. So he said, wow, you do all the things with the cigarette. I said, "Well, yeah, I already knew how to do that." What do I draw on? I've never actually had children, myself, but I just connected with Jeffrey's character and every week it's different and as the show goes along, Madeline, my character, first she's totally in the dark and very needy and very sort of just all sort of emotional things that are unattractive. And as time went on, Matt Nix said, "Sharon, she's smarter than what I was writing." And he gave me one clue, he said, "Remember, he gets his smarts from her." I said, "Oh, okay." So I just took that information and it gave me and my character a little more confidence. But I don't know, how do you prepare for playing someone who's manipulative? Is it built in? I don't know.
Bruce Campbell: When you're in show business, you know lots of manipulating people.
Sharon Gless: Yes, that's true. But I try to do the manipulation with humor. Hopefully, that's how it's coming across.
Why doesn't Sam Axe's personality match the normal ex-military stereotypes? He seems really upbeat compared to how most shows depict characters that have been in serious military situations. I was just wondering why that was.
Bruce Campbell: I think my character is actually more accurate. I think I run into some of these guys. My first wife remarried a police officer, and I'll tell you these guys like having a good time when they're not working. They don't sit around mopey dope, they sit around and crack gallows humor, lots of gallows humor, dark humor. Frankly, I think they're happy that they're alive most of these guys after going through all of this and they have a good joie de vivre that the average executive might not have. So I should think Sam is very indicative of the real guys, you know guys who are my age who have mustered out in their 50's. Believe me, most of them are drinking beer and sitting around a pool cracking jokes about the old days.
Sharon Gless: In my experience in having done Cagney & Lacey many years ago, we had technical advisors on the set and we had detectives and police. Not exactly in the role that Bruce is playing, but these guys who see so much really do have a very macabre sense of humor. And I do think that's how they stay sane.
Sharon is, I think it's interesting that Matt told you specifically that his idea was that Michael's skills might have come more from his mother than we first thought. Talk a bit more about how you think that might play out. It's quite clear to us I think from watching the characters over three seasons that there's a lot of Madeline in Michael. So talk a bit more about what other skills Michael has that he might get from Maddie.
Sharon Gless: I don't know. I can't say he gets his skills, I mean his technical skills he certainly doesn't get from her. I think what Matt wanted to establish is that he gets his smarts from her. The father was a loser, and I don't think there's a lot he got from him. And Maddie is, she is smart, she can be very keen and if she's, sometimes she plays a little manipulative. No, she doesn't play dumb, but I think that's the hope and I'm very pleased that you see that she is very smart. She's not totally informed as to what he's doing, but she knows him. It's her boy, it's her son.
I guess we really get the sense that Maddie knows more than she's letting on, like most mothers.
Sharon Gless: Yes, and she knows when to use it and when to not, but I don't think at this point -- I think the story would start to end soon if she was totally understanding of what has happened to him and what it is he's attempting. Do you know what I'm saying? Attempting to find his way back. So I don't think she knows all of that yet. She just knows that he's doing stuff that's not ordinary and I think she fears for his life, I'm sure.
I think I'll get my questions out of the way, too, right away. Now aside from you two getting drunk together, how do you want to see Sam and Madeline's relationship evolve in season four. And for either one of you if Michael did re-establish his link to the espionage community, what would happen to Sam and Fiona?
Bruce Campbell: Well, go ahead, Sharon, give it a whack.
Sharon Gless: Well, I think Sam and Maddie have kind of a really cool relationship. We were given a chance to live together. That helps. I didn't tell you this, Bruce, that I really miss the fact that you moved out.
Bruce Campbell: I know.
Sharon Gless: Yes. But that gives you a chance to come back. How do I see the relationship evolving? I see it as all good. I see that it can get rougher, it can get more tender, and I think there's a myriad of things that can come out of a relationship with two people who do respect each other and who both love this one man, this boy, my boy and his friend.
Bruce Campbell: And you know the one thing I should say, too. I can't speak for other actors, but I don't really probe the writers, I honestly don't. I haven't bugged them in three years about what's coming up with Sam. Whether he's going to have a home or a girlfriend. I like to sit back, just like the audience, and let it happen. I get excited reading the next script, because I don't really know what they have planned. The season finale, I couldn't tell you sitting here right now what's going to happen. Not because I'm lying or that I'm not supposed to, I don't know because I haven't asked, I don't want to know. So you know . . .
Sharon Gless: I'm the same way. I never ask about what's going to happen with my character.
Bruce Campbell: No, because . . . as we've seen, they're good writers so you know, get out of their face. We don't like them in our face, I don't get in their face.
Burn Notice has been renewed for a fourth season, and as we all know, the show is extremely successful. How many seasons do think this show will have and do you both plan to stay on the show through to the very end?
Sharon Gless: I don't know. I mean the show - it used to be in the old days when you signed a contract, it was for seven years. But in this day and age, I don't know. I do think it has some longevity.
Bruce Campbell: Come on, Sharon, pick a number, pick a number.
Sharon Gless: Okay, seven.
Bruce Campbell: Seven. I'm going eight.
Sharon Gless: Okay, baby, I'm sticking with you.
Bruce Campbell: The reason I say that is because Monk went eight and we're outpacing Monk in the ratings. And so we're kind of the new tent pole for USA, and I think we're going to be around for the long haul and mentally, I have to say, I'm not looking over my shoulder. I'm fully prepared to ride this show to the bitter end because it's - why, what am I looking for? Actors always seem like they're looking for a better gig. This time I can't, there is no better gig. This is a good gig, and I'm happy to ride it until it ends.
Sharon Gless: Yes, me too. I want to stay. My husband, who is a producer, used to tease me and he'd say, "You know, I wouldn't give these people any trouble." Because he said, "How I would open the next episode is this rainy morning and everybody's just standing in this rain under umbrellas and we pan down. Is that a tear on our hero's face? You pan down and the tombstone says, Madeline."
Bruce Campbell: Season finale or a season opener. Exactly.
Sharon Gless: Yes, right. So I'm just playing myself and I hope they let me stay the whole time.
Bruce Campbell: Yes, gee, Sharon, do you think they'll let you?
Sharon Gless: Well, you know, you never know. They may want to move somewhere. But knowing Madeline, she'd pack too.
Bruce Campbell: Yes, she probably would.
Sharon Gless: Yes.
If Michael, Fi and Sam were all stuck at Madeline's house somehow. They were together, there was a sudden attack by zombies, what do you think your own characters would contribute to the battles against an army of the undead.
Bruce Campbell: I would pick you up and hold you in front the zombies for asking such a lame question.
The show sort of projects itself as a tutorial. It teaches you about different operatives and things you can use in real life. Have either of you ever been motivated to go ahead and try some of these things that the show teaches?
Bruce Campbell: No, and I don't recommend it either. I don't recommend that anybody build anything from any fictional show.
Sharon Gless: Right. Don't try this at home.
Bruce Campbell: It's very important, do not try this at home for all kinds of reasons. I do know, as an adventurous child, we sent UFOs up that were constructed of dry cleaning bags over balsa wood struts with candles as thrusters. And you know, we could have set the woods on fire. We had homemade explosives, we could have blown our hands off. So growing up in suburban Detroit, I definitely had an older brother who was crazy and we were always mixing the wrong things together. Making gunpowder, and so I'm glad to have survived, actually. But now as an adult I can look back and go, "Yeesh, man that was stupid." So I don't caution the separation of church and state when it comes to TV shows it's all fake, folks.
Sharon Gless: When I was watching the show. Alright, we know I can't look at my own stuff. But anyway, I asked Matt in reading all these scripts. I said, "Matt," I've been in scenes or standing by watching Michael and Sam and Fi build stuff right there with whatever they had. And they go in really close and said to Matt, I said, "Matt, this looks really real. I mean you're going to have people go home and aren't children watching this?" And he said, "Sharon, I always leave some things out."
Bruce Campbell: There's always about three ingredients that he leaves out.
Sharon Gless: Yes.
I wanted to ask you both, what is the difference between working on both network and/or syndicated so to speak, free over the air television as opposed to being on a basic cable satellite fiber-optic, for lack of a better expression, television show that's as successful as Burn Notice from both experiences?
Bruce Campbell: Well, I think, here's what I would say. With regard to the difference between network and television, network you have a lot more chefs. We would having people crawling up our behinds much more often about scripts, about performance, about hair, makeup, what you look like. There's a lot more micromanaging because there's more at stake. The funny thing is, on cable, you're a little more left alone. You're only doing between 11 and 16 episodes a year, not 22 or 26 or more. I'm sure Sharon had to do more per season on Cagney and Lacey, but my experience has just been more oversight in the network side. But the funny thing is on the cable side on any given night, Burn Notice is the number one show on television in that slot for our demographic. So ironically, it's a cable show that's actually beating the networks. And you're not really supposed to do that, so I think we've confused our parent company, NBC, by outperforming one of their network shows with one of their cable shows. I think . . . .
Sharon Gless: I think we're beating all the cables, too, aren't we?
Bruce Campbell: We're beating everything on cable and also Sharon, we're beating the network broadcasts in certain demographics. We're actually the number one show on television at that time for those demographics.
Sharon Gless: I love that.
Bruce Campbell: Yes, it's cool.
Sharon Gless: My experience - the difference between working on network and working on cable is that you're allowed to say things. You're a lot freer on cable than you are on network.
Bruce Campbell: On network, they probably wouldn't want you to smoke.
Sharon Gless: No, I'm sure.
Bruce Campbell: Unless you were a bad guy.
Sharon Gless: Yes, and then I mean USA's a little more alert about what comes out of your mouth because we have a demographic of age 10 to age 80. But like working on Showtime, on Queer as Folk, I mean the things that were allowed to come out of my mouth. I was stunned. I enjoyed it, but having worked on network most of my life, you have much more freedom on cable.
With Burn Notice appealing to such a wide audience, have either of you noticed like a shift in either of your fan bases. Like Bruce do more people come to you and talk about like Sam Axe and Burn Notice or is it still mostly people showing you tattoos that they've gotten of your face?
Bruce Campbell: No, it's been nice. I'm now the old guy on Burn Notice, so it's awesome. I get to be a whole new persona of being spotted. And then there's all those fans who will discover Burn Notice and then they'll go back and go, "Oh, he was in these weird movies from years ago." So I don't care how they discover whatever, it's all fine, I'm just glad they're watching the show.
Have you seen a Sam Axe tattoo yet?
Bruce Campbell: No, I haven't seen a Sam Axe tattoo. I'm looking forward to my very first one.
I think the characters and in particular the main cast of course are what makes this show really stand out, and it's not only the four kind of mains but the caliber of guest stars is constantly top notch and I particularly love that the show will bring people back from time to time often when we would least expect it or it would be somebody we assumed we would never see again. And that's really fun and adds a depth to the show and a level of weight to the guest stars that they're more that just plot devices. So I'm wondering if you guys personally, if there's any past guest stars or characters you'd really like to see make a return appearance or if there's anyone out there like a fantasy guest star that you'd really like to have on the show or work with personally.
Sharon Gless: I'd like to have Tyne Daly come back. She wants to come back as a bad guy.
Bruce Campbell: And she'd be a great bad guy. I'd bring her back.
Sharon Gless: I know. Like Judy Dench on the James Bond things. Not a bad guy, but she would be running the whole thing.
Bruce Campbell: Exactly, she's the big evil temptress. But you know we had Lucy Lawless a couple years ago, which was a lot of fun for my old Xena pal. One of these days I'd love to get Kevin Sorbo, my Hercules buddy, to be a bad guy. Nice thing is when your ratings are good you get good guest stars. That's really just the bottom line. Everyone wants to be on a popular show. Nobody wants to be on a marginally rated show. So we're actually very fortunate - that's what ratings bring to you.
Sharon Gless: Yes.
I was very curious since you guys both had said that you don't really want to know what happens with your characters in the future ... Have there been things that you've kind of ad-libbed or done specific to your acting approach that have shown up in later episodes that you were happy with or . . .
Bruce Campbell: Yes, I feel that at the beginning, you speak how the writers write and after a while they write how you speak. So I think there tends to be a line up there, an adjustment to every good writer knows what that particular actor does well and what they don't do well. And I think over time they'll go, "Madeline's really great at this or that." And they'll write that sort of stuff. Or, "Sam's really fun with interrogations. Let's write that more of those." Or with the dramatic thing they might not see as many of those come up.
Sharon Gless: And where I think we eventually are becoming what my husband used to call custodians of our own character. And I mean I don't screw around with the dialogue too much and sometimes I'll add stuff just because I think it's funny. I'm amusing myself. And every once in a while, Oh my God, they kept it in. And that tickles me, but I try to stick to what they write and then you know, you sort of add little stuff just to open it up a little.
Bruce Campbell: And I think generally, Sharon, neither of us really get up in the morning wishing we could come and sit and ad lib, but some things do occur to you on the moment.
Sharon Gless: Yes, exactly. And sometimes they stay in and sometimes they don't.
Bruce Campbell: Right, exactly.
You can see Bruce Campbell and Sharon Gless in the Season 3 finale of Burn Notice when it airs on Thursday, August 6 at 9 PM ET on the USA Network.