The legendary actor who portrays Sam Axe talks about the show's new season
Bruce Campbell is back with Jeffrey Donovan, Gabrielle Anwar and Sharon Gless when the hit USA Network series Burn Notice returns for its third season on Thursday, June 4 at 9 PM ET. Campbell plays the wonderful Sam Axe on the series, who provides for a lot of the comedy in the show, and I was in on a conference call with the acting legend where he was discussing the new season and much much more in this highly entertaining conference call. Take a look at what he had to say below.
Can you tell us a bit about what direction we can see Sam going in this third season?
Bruce Campbell: Well, Sam by now is, we're now past the point where we don't trust him. He's a hopefully valuable member of the team now, and so, like Michael Westen, Sam is taking the twists and turns as they come now. I don't know that Sam is going to get married or any personal revelation. Sam is pretty much living in Michael's mother's house, a room in her house, so he's just kind of a permanent loser, at least in this season. And he's always there to help.
I was wondering, how is Burn Notice different from past TV shows you've done?
Bruce Campbell: Well, the making of television is the same, it's very fast. You're doing between 6 and 11 pages per day, which is a lot. Features probably do three pages. Big features do one page a day. So that's not different. What's different, of course, is we're in Miami, which is a completely out of the box thing for me because I live in Oregon, at the complete opposite end of the country. So it's different in every way physically, and the dynamics are different. I've never really done a spy show before, so this is a first for me. I did a western show, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., and I did a - well actually, no, I did a spy show, Jack of All Trades, where I played the very first spy, but this is, I guess, you'd say sort of modern day, realistic approach where it's not Hercules or Xena or something fantastic going on. What's different is also the subject matter. It's a fairly mature, adult sort of comedy/drama, with no fantastic special effects.
I wanted to ask about the Expo Center almost getting demolished recently, and it sounds like you got a one-year reprieve to stay there for a while longer.
Bruce Campbell: We did, we got a one-year reprieve.
I was wondering A) how do you feel about that; and B) if the show had actually got up and moved, where would you have liked to have seen it gone?
Bruce Campbell: Hypotheticals are tough and I don't ever want to give any impressions that I don't like shooting in Miami. It's good for the show. Miami is a character in this show, and if we moved it would probably be to California because it makes casting easier, all the writers live there, the actors, half of them live there. I live in Oregon, but it would be closer to my West Coast. I have kids there, too, so a lot of personal reasons. But for the sake of the show Miami is a good spot. It's an unexploited city. Even CSI: Miami doesn't even shoot in Miami, they shoot in California, so we're it. We're the only show that is currently shooting in Miami, and the governor even came, Charlie Crist, the governor of Florida. It was great palling around with the governor for a day, trying to bend his arm a little bit, saying, "Hey, Gov, why don't you help us out here?" Because producers tend to go where it's the least expensive, and that's nothing against producers, every producer does that. So we have to see, as long as we can get incentives to stay in Florida, we'll stay. But there's also the reality of, if we don't then we'll leave and fake it. Television is fake, so if we had to fake Florida we could.
It's interesting, the first episode that's showing up Thursday night, the way it was constructed, that it really ends up with Madeline talking to all three of you saying that as characters that you all three needed to work together to watch each other's back, and it seems like Michael has the biggest target. Is that pretty much the whole theme as the season seems to evolve?
Bruce Campbell: I think so. It's going to get worse for Michael Westen this year, because of a couple of things that have happened as a result of the last two-parter. So his world is a little more unstable this year. He's not necessarily under the thumb of Carla any more. She was the evil temptress of the last season. She's out of the way, but that's not necessarily a good thing. His sort of veil of protection has been lifted by these shadowy figures, so now anybody who wants to put a bullet into Michael Westen, which is actually a lot of people, I don't know - so yes, we do have to stick together. In order to pull through, we've all got to be on the same page and watch each other's back, including Madeline. So, yes, the interpersonal dynamics will get theoretically tighter because if things get worse, you've got to know who you can count on.
How do you think that Sam compares to your other roles, and what is your favorite part of playing him?
Bruce Campbell: Oh, I see. Boy, I like Sam because he's my age. He's, when I got the original script for the pilot, it said Sam Axe, who's 50. I thought it, okay. I'm finally playing a mature adult who doesn't have to, he's an ex-Navy Seal, he's tacking around now, he's trying to get laid and drink beer. And I love the fact that all three characters on this show are sort of damaged goods. Sam has his issues, Michael has his issues, Fiona has her issues, mostly anger issues. And he's a character that, to me, feels like an old slipper. He's not stiff. He doesn't use all the same terminology. He uses slang. He's a little bit laid back. He's wearing Tommy Bahama all the time. And to me, I love the fact that there's a character who's that lackadaisical. But at the same time, he can look up anybody; he's got friends for days, he always knows a guy who knows a guy. So hopefully it's just a guy that you'd want to pal around with, but yet these guys are very tactical when they want to be. And ... he's actually more similar to real guys than not. I've talked to a bunch of ex-police officers who watch the show, and they like the fact that we're capturing the human side of spies. Everybody knows James Bond, he's the greedy tough guy, but no one really knows what he's like, and no one ever really knows what his relationship is with his mother. In this show, you get to know that; I think it's great.
In playing the character of Sam, you would know him better than anyone else, so what is your favorite and least favorite aspect of Sam's personality?
Bruce Campbell: He's very loyal. He's not going to rat on anybody, even in the first season where you didn't know if he was ratting on Michael, he never really did. He always just stalled the cops, so very loyal. And he is trustworthy, even though he drinks a lot of beer. His other traits are, I wish he could get a job and an apartment, and a car that he can hang onto. We're going through, like about every fourth episode, Sam gets another one of his cars wrecked. So he doesn't even have a car, and he doesn't even have an address, so I'd like to see, I wouldn't mind some of that happening. But, whatever, I'm not telling the writers what to do. They're doing a fine job.
Obviously Burn Notice has a lot of action sequences, do you find the action sequences to be the hardest part of each episode to film, or are they one of the things that are the most fun during production?
Bruce Campbell: It all depends on what you're doing. Fight scenes can be fun, but they can be very tedious and sweat-inducing, so those take a little more effort. I blew my hamstring last year during a fight scene, so they don't have me fight as much these days, but action sequences are very broken up when we film them. They're little tiny pieces that get all put together. So with an action sequence, you just have to hope that what you're doing is fitting in, because you're only getting a tiny sequence of view, like looking through a scope ready to fire, or something like that. So when it's all put together is when it becomes an action sequence, but actually shooting an action sequence, unless you're chasing somebody, they're actually the least exciting to film.
What is it like playing the comical one to Michael's kind of straight man? It's kind of a pattern here, you've got Jack Stiles in Brisco, you didn't really have anyone to play off there, you were the main character, the main guy. What is it like playing off of him?
Bruce Campbell: It's great, because he carries the show. I'm just hiding behind him, cracking jokes and getting out of there. So it's fine to actually be the guy who doesn't, you know, Sam can be a little snotty, he can be a little snide, he's sort of a naysayer, and he always second guesses things that these guys do to make sure it's safe or tactical, whereas Michael gets involved from a passionate level. He's got to help these people, whereas Sam's like, no, you don't, no you don't. So sometimes he's the voice of reason. But it's nice to have that difference between the characters, and Michael does have kind of his funny wit, a lot of it comes out in the voiceover that he does, but someone's got to be the straight guy, and fortunately, it's Michael Westen.
I've always gotten the sense that behind his wise-cracking, easy-going facade that Sam is actually tougher than people realize, with a pretty intense background of his own. Is there a darker side to Sam in his past, and might we see that touched upon at all this season?
Bruce Campbell: Well, you saw a little bit in the first season when he was being interrogated, you realize that he's interrogated people a lot, he's been interrogated, and he knows how to handle it. So yes, it's nice to see that there is a tough side to these guys amid all the joking, because I think that's really how it would be. These guys are tough on the inside but on the outside they're just normal schmoes. As far as the dark side, I'm sure that Sam has killed multiple people. I'm sure Michael Westen has killed multiple people. Fiona probably has killed more than both of us. So, you'll have to ask her about her dark side. Sam, I think, will go to the dark side, but he doesn't stay there. That's not his bag. If something is horrible, it's horrible, and then you move on because the next day you don't know if you're even going to be around. So I think Sam has appreciated a sense of life, by being so close to death.
Now, you just mentioned that we'll see a bit of Sam's past and I read somewhere that season three will be dealing a lot with Michael, Fiona, and Sam's past. Is everything from Sam's past going to be connected to Michael, or will it be unrelated events?
Bruce Campbell: Oh, no, Sam's got his own past, but I'm sure if they bring up any of our pasts, it will relate to the future; like we're shooting an episode right now that is very Fiona-oriented. Her past is coming back to haunt us now, in a very, very bad way. So I think what they'll do in that case is that they allude to someone's past, it'll be because somebody, you know, Sam's done something in the past. We even had an episode with this character Virgil who is dating Michael's mother. The first episode that he was in was he was an old pal of mine who got into some trouble, and that happens a lot. Sam has things from his past that come up to haunt us currently, so I think you'll see more of that.
I've always found the stories of Sam and his girlfriends fascinating. How does he find these women, or are his criteria really just car and money-based, or is there more to it?
Bruce Campbell: No, it's what he does to the ladies. It's his special skill with the ladies. So it doesn't matter that he has no job or car or place to live. Sam can still get the ladies because, obviously, he's doing something with or to the ladies that is very successful, which we can't discuss here.
So I have a question that I think, could you tell us something about Sam that the audience doesn't know, that you know, maybe even the writers don't even know, but something that you know about Sam?
Bruce Campbell: About Mr. Sam Axe? That he reads a lot. He reads fiction, because it takes away from the reality; and that his favorite book is Wuthering Heights. That Sam is a secret romantic. That's all I can reveal. I'll have to kill you if I tell you more.
I was wondering, do you ever try to think of what the writers might have in store for Sam, like, I know actors like to be challenged, maybe thinking, oh, he could have, like a serious girlfriend, or maybe get some sort of disease, or drug addiction, or do you just sort of, let's wait and see what the writers do?
Bruce Campbell: It's tempting to do that, it's tempting to go, why can't I do this, or why can't my character do that? The show is the star of the show, do you know what I mean? It's all about the Burn Notice. It's all about Michael Westen and his Burn Notice. So for Sam to get a disease or a long-time girlfriend, I think that there's a certain point where that would start to interfere with just the essence of the show. What's really happening here is all these kooky characters are solving problems for little people, and I think our characters get revealed in what we do and how we approach this. All three of them are very decent people who are committed to, Fiona's not really committed to a certain government, but she is committed to doing the right thing. So I think that's what's most important, is that the relationship between the three characters. I just think we shouldn't distract from what's going on, the issues at hand. They've been good, though. We've got an episode coming up, I think it's the fourth episode, where Sam gets audited. So, there are some fun, real-life things that come into play. We found out earlier that Sam had been married years ago, so I think those things will just come out. I actually find it the most exciting if I can get a script and I don't know anything about it. Like I'm reading a brand new one, episode ten, just started reading it, and I can't wait because I don't really have any idea what they're going to do.
Do you think there is any chance that Sam Raimi would ever direct an episode of the series?
Bruce Campbell: Sam Raimi will never direct an episode of Burn Notice because it's done too quickly. Sam is used to shooting these big, big, big, big, big movies, and it takes 100 days or more to film a two-hour piece of entertainment. We film these shows in seven days, so it's a real different mentality of features versus television. So I wouldn't wish that on Sam, because it's actually a difficult challenge every week to pull these shows off, not that Spider-Man 3 isn't, but we have a little bit of a different circumstance here.
You mentioned a little bit about Tim Matheson coming back, so can you tell us anything about any other guest stars you might be seeing this season?
Bruce Campbell: Oh, boy, guest stars. They come and go. We got Nick Turturro, who was on NYPD Blue, he's playing a weasely criminal character. I'm not so good with rattling all the things off. We're starting to get a good stable of directors, like Tim Matheson is becoming a stable director element. So it would be nice to see him come back. I hope he's in another episode as this guy Larry. He plays this crazy guy, Larry, who, I hope he comes back, because Tim is a really good actor, too. We had Lucy Lawless, I think on our second episode we got Lucy in. That was real fun to do. I got a bunch of friends we're always trying to get in there. They're coming and going. So it's sort of a stay tuned thing, to see who is coming. But the nice thing is when you have a hit show, you can get better actors. No one wants to be on a show with lousy ratings.
So, have you finished shooting the season already?
Bruce Campbell: No, we're about halfway through, we're working on episode eight right now. So we're just about halfway through. We finish the end of August.
I heard that there were rumors of new movies such as, like maybe another The Evil Dead, maybe another Phantasm, maybe even another Bubba Ho-Tep, which has sexy vampires, so you could be good with the ladies. I was wondering if there are any other projects underway other than Burn Notice that you might like to get involved with or that you know of that you're going to be doing.
Bruce Campbell: Well, I'll clarify a couple things. There's really no sequel for The Evil Dead planned right now. We are going to forge ahead and do the remake; we are going to do that. There's nothing for me in the remake, though, do you know what I mean? That's a cast of young people. So I'll be on as the producer but I won't be in it other than playing the old guy at the bait store at the beginning. So there's nothing for me in that. Another thing to clarify, they're probably going to do a Bubba Ho-Tep sequel, but it won't have me in it. I couldn't come to an agreement with the director, Don Coscarelli, on a story, so I think it's going to be Ron Perlman in that. And as far as the things to look forward to, I have another book coming out eventually called Vagabond, The Gypsy Life of an Actor, which should be out in a couple of years. And that's the answer to that.
It's kind of interesting that since, like with the Bourne movies, there's been this great fascination with an explosion of films and TV shows about spies and covert ops like Burn Notice and 24 and, like I said, the Bourne movies. What do you attribute this; it's almost like a, similar to how there's an explosion of gangster movies, and everybody loves gangsters, and now all of a sudden everybody is liking spies, what do you attribute that fascination with people watching it, and what do you think distinguishes Burn Notice from the other works?
Bruce Campbell: First, I'd go with what distinguishes Burn Notice from the rest of the gang is that we have a sense of humor. The Bourne Identity is very humorless, and 24 is completely humorless, so I think what we have there is a sense of humor to let people know that this is still entertainment. This is not reality, and we have no intention of going there. I think people are interested in spies because they represent a heightened aspect of their own lives. It's the same people who want to ride on a roller coaster, they want to get that second hand thrill. So you go see a spy because you know he's going to be shot at, you know he's going to get sexy ladies, you know he's going to be cool, and you know he's usually going to succeed by doing some really cool thing, so it's just a certain form of entertainment that is very extreme. We like to see explosions and gunshots and car chases, and spies really provide all that in a very, sort of organic way, because that's their job. But I think we are definitely different between other spy shows because when Michael Westen isn't saving the world from bad guys, he's helping his mother fix her garbage disposal. So that's a huge difference.
When I watch Burn Notice, I get the impression that Michael, for example, is at heart a do-gooder, but with Sam, I don't get that feeling exactly, I get the feeling that he's with Michael and Fiona on their adventures because he respects them and they're among the very few friends that he has. Could you speak to how that affects the way you play the role?
Bruce Campbell: Sam actually has a good sense of right and wrong; sometimes he's the little canary in the coal mine on the show, "Mike, this doesn't sound good, or I think this is dangerous," or whatever. I think Sam is realistic, he's probably, I wouldn't say jaded, I don't want to say jaded, but I just think he's realistic in that if he doesn't trust a guy, his BS meter would tell him that this guy is a moron. I think Sam makes probably quicker decisions, maybe he's a little more hasty in making it, and yes, I think if he hadn't run into Fiona and Mike, he wouldn't be looking for people to help. He would be looking for a beer to drink.
Bruce Campbell: Sam, I don't know that if he's watched the show, I don't think he has. I don't think he's a big TV guy. He's very aware of the show because I keep tormenting him that we're like the number one show on cable, and whenever we're number one in something, whether it's Sam is number one at the box office or we're, as friends, we always will send that needling e-mail saying "Yeah, man, number one on cable." Then he would send something of, "Oh, yeah, Spider-Man, you know, we're number one for the opening weekend." So we have a little bit of fun back and forth, so Sam is very aware of the show, whether he's seen it, you've got me.
So we've seen you in the Old Spice commercials. Can we expect a Sam Axe body spray?
Bruce Campbell: It's weird, they're putting commercials inside the TV shows now. I've already done ads, unpaid I might add, for DirecTV. I even have a line of dialogue. "Mike, we can't go back into that bar now. It's my favorite, it's got DirecTV in HD." Cadillac we've promoted. Panerai watches we promoted, and now Miller Genuine Draft, so, unfortunately the way advertising is going, I may not be doing a Sam Axe body spray because they'll just put it in the show. So things are changing rapidly. It's a very strange world out there as far as advertising goes.
I had a question for you regarding on your blog, you really talk about how Hollywood doesn't use its seasoned actors, like they kind of have in the past?
Bruce Campbell: Yes.
How would you kind of work to change the perception of what audiences want? Not all of us are 14 years old.
Bruce Campbell: No, that's true, and the good news is that there have been a couple of shows that have busted through and appealed to a whole different audience, like something like The Golden Girls. You can really make fun of that show if you want, but what that show did is, it wound up proving to people that even "old" people can be entertaining and can entertain you. So what I like about Burn Notice is that none of us are the young, pretty face. Donovan has been around for 20 years, I've been doing this for 30, and then Sharon Gless has been doing it for 40, and I think Gabrielle has been doing this since she was a kid, so she's probably 30 years at this. So, I like the fact that USA, because their slogan is Characters Welcome, they've really taken it upon themselves to do character-based shows, not something that's based on your age or your beauty. So I'm really glad to be part of a mature ensemble cast where we're not worried about all the wrong things.
I kind of find funny with all the little situations that Mike has to help solve for average citizens and just people looking for their help is, it kind of has that borderline of being inspired by real stuff, but completely original, and I think what's good about the show is that they've so far shied away from the sort of Law & Order formula of ripped directly from the headlines. How do you feel that the writers are going to keep going with that without having to avoid going to that sort of a Law & Order style of coming up with different situations like that?
Bruce Campbell: I think the good news is with Burn Notice, you have more leeway to come up with weirder characters. I haven't really watched enough of Law & Order to fully comment intelligently, but I think in our situation the writers have more leeway because they can be from other countries, because international spies, we've got guys from other countries coming in, so geez, we've had Cuban, Lebanese, Russian, Ukrainian, pretty much spies from all over the place, so I actually think our writers have more leeway because they can make up stuff that Michael and Sam and Fi were involved in in the past. They don't get constrained by reality, so I think we have more leeway.
I've noticed that you've been in all three of the Spider-Man movies. Are there any future plans on being in any of the future Spider-Man movies?
I'll probably be in Spider-Man 4, but I never hear from Sam usually until the last minute, when they've got everything worked out. So we'll just see what he's got up his sleeve.
Do you plan on directing again soon, and would you possibly want to direct Burn Notice?
Bruce Campbell: Yes, I'd like to direct another movie one day. Movies are more my bag. I've directed television in the past. I've done Hercules and Xena episodes, and even a couple of V.I.P.'s with Pamela Anderson, but I don't think directing Burn Notice is in the cards for me because it changes the dynamics of all the actors. Directors and actors have much different, I guess, motives and goals, and I don't want any of my directing skills to impact my relationship with the actors, which is currently very good. So I don't really want to boss anybody around, because I think it'll change something, so I don't think I'm going to go there.
Some of my favorite parts on the show are when Sam and Fi have to go ahead and be on stakeouts, and always something ends up going wrong. Can we anticipate any really good Sam and Fi action here this season?
Bruce Campbell: Oh, sure. Whatever you get on the other seasons you'll get this season, too, because they're still not fishing buddies. I mean, they'll agree to work with each other but I don't think they would associate with each other otherwise, so it's a good opportunity to let the sparks fly a little bit. So that won't change. That will continue to happen.
You can watch Bruce Campbell as Sam Axe alongside Jeffrey Donovan, Gabrielle Anwar and Sharon Gless when Burn Notice returns with its Season 3 premiere on Thursday, June 4 at 9 PM ET on the USA Network.