Action-dramedy-spy shows don’t typically win awards, and the USA Network isn’t typically known for its must-watch original programming. But thanks to a nifty premise, sharp writing, and most importantly, scene-stealing by Bruce Campbell, Burn Notice has become one of cable’s highest-rated non-reality shows.
In Burn Notice, Jeffrey Donovan plays Michael Westen, a covert operative who receives the titular pink slip from his agency – a complete wiping of one’s identity, work history, and other resources. Forced to stay on ice in Miami, Westen becomes a mix of Magnum PI and Matlock to survive and to get to the bottom of this burn notice. Rounding out his A-Team in this Miami Vice setting is Bruce Campbell as former intelligence agent and aging, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing, ladies’ man Sam Axe, Westen’s only link to the spy community.
With the third season starting up, ReadJunk and other respectable media outlets spoke with that lovable, hammy, jack-of-all-trades, Bruce Campbell in a roundtable. In his laid-back, chummy fashion, Bruce addressed everything from Burn Notice plot questions to those pesky Evil Dead and Bubba Ho-Tep sequel rumors.
On his attraction toward genre roles:
[Evil Dead] was pretty successful and allowed a couple of others to be made and what it did is, it just sort of put me in the genre world, right from the go-get. I suppose if I had made a romantic comedy when I was 21 and that did crazy, then I’d be the romantic comedy guy. It’s kind of how Hollywood works. So, it’s material that I’m sort of interested in, though, too, at the same time, so part of me perpetuates it in that I gravitate toward oddball stories, some genre stuff, not all horror. I like fantasy and sci-fi and that sort of stuff, too, but for me, I guess it’s the combination of starting out in the genre and then being attracted to certain material that could also be considered genre.
On the direction Sam Axe will be going in Season 3:
Well, Sam by now is, we’re now passed the point where we don’t trust him. He’s hopefully a 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.
How Burn Notice is different from other tv shows and movies he’s done:
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.
On action sequences:
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.
Does Sam have a dark side?
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.
First, there were the Old Spice commercials. Can we expect a Sam Axe Body Spray?
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.
On whether the series will have to move, given that the Coconut Grove Expo Center (Burn Notice’s HQ) is scheduled to be demolished:
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.
Would Sam Raimi ever direct an episode?
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.
Is Sam Raimi a fan of the show?
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.
On voice acting vs. tv acting vs. film acting:
I like a little bit of everything. I like, the phrase we used in Detroit was “job rotation.” That meant that you could do different things at different times. So this fall there’s a movie, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs that’s coming out. It’s a pretty well-known kid’s book that they’re animating it to be 3D animation. That’s a lot of fun because you lay down a voice track and they create an entire world that you won’t see for months. I recorded this last year, and I won’t see it for a year and a half later. So that’s kind of an interesting thing. You forget about it and then it comes back and you see everything that they’ve done to it. And you realize you’re an integral part but it’s still, you’re a part of this big hole. Television acting is great. I like it because it’s so quick; you don’t have to wait around. And feature film acting is a lot of fun because you can do very in-depth stories, but it takes a long time to shoot them, and sometimes it’s more tedious to do a big budget movie.
On the Evil Dead and Bubba Ho-Tep sequels and his new book:
Well, I’ll clarify a couple things. There’s really no sequel for 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.
Spider-Man 4 cameo?
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.
More directing in the future?
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 VIPs 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.
What distinguishes Burn Notice from other spy/covert op films and tv shows?
What distinguishes Burn Notice from the rest of the gang is that we have a sense of humor. 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.
Any improv on the show?
We never look for that. We do respect the writers, but there are some situations that the script won’t flesh out. There are sequences where Sam has to stall, for example, or he has to go into a Pakistani Embassy and create a scene. Well, it’s hard for a writer to write every single bit of that, but when they go to shoot it, you come to find out that you need a lot more material than you had in order to cut back and forth, and to give Michael Westen time to do something, you need something to cut back to. So that’s more where we’ll improvise. I’ve done this Chuck Finley character for a number of episodes and whenever Chuck’s around, there’s more opportunities from that. Or, honestly, at the end of the scene comes and we don’t have a way to put a good button on it or a little spin or a little something, then we’ll come up with something. But normally, we’ll let the writers do their thing and we’ll see if we can help them out, if it’s appropriate.
Which makes the better enemy – zombies from the Necronomicon or the spies in Burn Notice?
Apples and oranges, my friend. I would say zombies, in general, aren’t that good of bad guys because you can’t understand them, like the true zombie, the shuffling zombie. You can’t communicate with them and they’re too slow. Evil Dead, they’re possessed people, not technically zombies, I guess. They’re okay. I think spies are a better bad guy, meaning they’re more challenging. You don’t always have to cut a bad guy up with a chain saw, you can just shoot him. So it might be harder to kill a zombie, but it’s easier to get away from a zombie, and it might be easier to kill a bad guy like a spy, but it’s harder to hide from a spy, because they have the tricks that you have. That’s my theory.
Sexiest ladies on the screen?
I’m always a big fan of Kelly Rutherford, from when I worked with her on The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., so she’s definitely babe-a-licious. Just a lot of women I’ve worked with in the past; Elizabeth Hurley, I thought she was pretty babe-a-licious, Alyssa Milano. That’s the fringe benefit of being an actor – it’s sort of staged infidelity.
Any dream roles?
No, only because I live in the world of reality. I know that Marty Scorsese, he’s not going to be calling. So those misguided dreams I don’t really deal with. What I really try and do is make the best out of every situation, because in B movies you’re not always going to work with the top people, you’re going to work with people who are either on their way up or on their way down. But that’s where I think kind of the fun is and the original ideas, which is why it attracts me to that world.
Florida is really flat, so I’m a bicyclest. Not like a power bicyclist; I’m a tooler. I just take a stupid, I think it’s seven whole gears on my bike, and my wife and I will just take off and go explore. They’ve got a couple good bike paths around here, so pretty normal, everyday stuff. I’m a news freak – because I live in the world of unreality, I actually crave reality, so my reading material is the New York Times, and I watch the news. And basketball, because we’re in basketball season. So pretty straightforward generic guy stuff.
Any favorite Burn Notice spy gadgets?
I haven’t really used any of the gadgets, because obviously they don’t really work. As a kid I just blew stuff up. My brother had magnesium and we had sulfur and we had some other ingredients, gun powder, and we would just blow things up, so that was as close as I ever got. The best gadget my brothers and I ever made was a UFO, where we made it out of balsa wood strut. It was a rectangular shape with a dry cleaning bag over the top of it, with a couple of struts at the bottom that we glued handles to; and you light the candles on fire, the heat goes up into the bag and because the balsa wood is so light, it just lifts off into the air; and so we sent numerous UFOs from our neighborhood, and one of them got written up in the local paper as a UFO sighting.
More on plot directions for Season 3 (Note: Spoilers ahead):
[…] 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.
[…] 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.
[…] 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.
More on Sam Axe…
[…] 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. 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.
[…] 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 he’s 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.
[…] 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.
What is something people don’t know about Sam Axe?
[Sam] 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.
This is my favorite exchange. Question from Gunaxin.com, a site for dudes:
I notice on the show you drink beer, and I’m a huge beer fan; I write about beer for the site. My question is just simple, what is your favorite beer in every day life?
I gave up beer last March.
Oh…Well, I guess I’m proud of you for that.
I only drink beer to wash down my tequila!
Tune into Burn Notice on Sundays at 9:00/8:00 Central on USA Network. Thanks to the other media folks who contributed questions.