Just Your Average Stiff
Cult superstar Bruce Campbell has nailed all these roles and dozens more in his 41 years, but despite the eclecticism of his acting chops, he's still best known for his role as Ash, the chainsaw-wielding hero in buddy Sam Raimi's infamous Evil Dead trilogy (Evil Dead, Evil Dead II, Army of Darkness). That's in addition to Campbell's ventures into such mainstream fare as The Hudsucker Proxy, made by his close friends Joel and Ethan Coen, and his ongoing role as the above-mentioned Autolycus in the Raimi/Robert Tapert-produced series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess.
Dividing his time between his family in rural Oregon and his various acting and fan-related convention gigs, Campbell has gorehounds and regular film fanatics clambering to catch him at his infrequent public appearances. Maybe it's the do-right, square-deal, lantern-jawed confidence he projects on and off-screen, or maybe it's that aw-shucks, Average Joe persona that catches viewers off-guard, but either way Campbell practically defines the term "cult actor."
Prior to his appearance in Austin (at a sold-out Friday-night triple bill of The Evil Dead trilogy at the Alamo Drafthouse), I spoke with Campbell over the phone regarding his career, pal Sam Raimi, the pros and cons of film violence, and why a hunky guy like him doesn't get all that many panties in his mailbox.
Austin Chronicle: How would you describe your acting style?
Bruce Campbell: My acting style is I am acting. I make no pretense that what I'm doing is real. An agent of ours, Irvin Shapiro, a guy who helped us sell Evil Dead around the world, said that there's nothing real about movies. Actors don't make up the words, it's not moving pictures, it's a series of still pictures, the sound is not coming from their mouths but from speakers all around you. I think there are some actors who take themselves way too seriously. Everything about it is fake.
Although, having said that, I do feel that it's all about matching the material. I did an X-Files recently that was very serious, and I've done a two-parter on Homicide: Life on the Streets that was very serious, and if that's the case, then yeah, go for that pseudo-realism. But if you're on Hercules or Xena or running around cutting up zombies and stuff, c'mon, who are we kidding?
AC: How did you and Sam Raimi first hook up?
BC: High school. In drama class.
AC: You guys were making Super-8 films, right?
BC: Well, it was a neighborhood thing. In my neighborhood [in Royal Oak, Michigan] I was working with a couple of guys, and in Sam's neighborhood he was working with a couple of guys, and then in high school these neighborhoods sort of collided. We met in drama class -- he was big in magic at the time -- and I hung out with Sam being his magic-show assistant at Bar Mitzvahs and stuff. I was "Hung Lo," his Chinese assistant. And so it went from there as Sam got really interested in movies, since to him it was the ultimate sleight of hand. So that's how it started.
AC: What were those early Super-8 films like?
BC: Some, unfortunately, are available on the Internet, but the quality is so shitty it's their own punishment. That's how I punish them, by making them available in the worst possible format. The quality always sucked on the early movies, but, I mean, not like that.
They were never meant for public consumption except, like, at parties. We did probably 50 of them, maybe more, all genres, a lot of them were slapstick, but then there were some war films, detective films, ranging in length from 10 minutes to a full two hours. This pretty much spanned the period from the early Seventies to the early Eighties. In that 10-year period we reigned supreme. At the K-Mart processing counter we were kings.
AC:When you and Sam were working on Evil Dead, did either one of you have any idea that this would go on to become such an influential and enduring film?
BC: How could we? I think every filmmaker wants to think that they're doing something that's worthwhile, but our only goal -- and it remains to this day -- was to get the investors their money back. And so that's what forced us to not make a sort of "pussyfooting around" horror film. We wanted to make a balls-to-the-wall, no-holds-barred film that was similar in vein to some of the other ones that we thought were good. The only ones that we liked were the ones that went all the way.
BC: Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I mean, to me there are very few films that are scarier than that movie once it gets cranking. It's just like, "Holy shit! Where is this going to go?!" It just keeps getting worse and worse. There are a lot more generic films that were out at the time. There are a lot of people who are big fans of Halloween -- I am, but to a limited degree, because I don't think it went for it. Halloween is very much like Scream and stuff like that. Take Night of the Living Dead. Hey, go for it. You can't stop these creatures and they're going to rip the shit out of you if they catch you. Up the stakes, but let's see the full deal. And the same thing, if you're going to make an action film then, man, you better go for it. Don't dick around.
So that was our goal. It was only after the first couple of screenings that we realized that people were really going crazy.
AC:You guys took that to Cannes where Stephen King dubbed it ...
BC: ... "the most ferociously original horror film of the year."
AC:You weren't an official selection, right?
BC: No, see, what people don't realize about Cannes is that half of what's going on there is people selling movies. The festival is just the bullshit part, you know, that's where Stallone hangs out. But behind the scenes they're buying and selling movies like slabs of meat. That's what we were there for, to sell it around the world. What Stephen King's quote did was to form a force field around our movie. Whereas we could have been savaged by critics, all of the sudden we were elevated to "art." It allowed us to step out of the pack, which is the whole goal.
AC:The sequel, Evil Dead II, remains one of the few films to successfully blend elements of humor and horror and have it work.
AC: Was that the intention going in?
BC: Our second film bombed horribly, this thing called Crimewave -- it was a disaster in every respect, and we had to do something after that and we thought, well, shit, let's do a sequel. What we thought was, hey, the first one made people faint, it was offensive, [and it was released unrated]. So this was our attempt -- and our contractual obligation -- to deliver an R-rated movie to Dino DeLaurentiis. Which of course we didn't do, for whatever reason.
The ratings board already hated us because we didn't take them the first one. By the time Army of Darkness came around they hated us even more because now two films were not rated by them.
It's an unequal world out there, you know? Scorsese can get away with horrible violence in GoodFellas because he's an artist, but somehow we are corrupting people's minds. And we're doing something that could never happen in a billion years! It would never happen! But those movies are based in reality, so, to me, I don't know what the deal is.
AC: What's the relationship between you and the Coen brothers? Did that begin with Crimewave?
BC: Before that, actually. Joel Coen, Mr. Big-Shot Director, was the assistant editor on Evil Dead. So Joel and Sam became pals and wrote Crimewave together. But you won't see that film on his résumé.
AC: Let's talk about Hercules and Xena for a moment. These are two shows that both started off somewhat small and then emerged as these enormous cult hits. Is this some kind of Midas touch you and Sam have or what?
BC: I don't know what the hell it is, really. I give [producer] Rob Tapert a lot of credit. Sam put his name on it and got the thing going, but Rob has since become the guy who goes to New Zealand [where the shows are filmed] and stays there. He really kept the shows on the air, because he got the idea to spawn Xena off three episodes of Hercules and then of course that became the big show. So, I can't answer that, all I can say is that it continues to baffle all involved.
I can answer it more easily with the features. I know that Sam is an extremely hardworking guy and we all put a lot of effort into the movies when we do them, and I think it shows. Frame by frame I think there's a little more effort going on than in even some of the big movies where you can basically just spend your way out of trouble. We're a little more custom-made as opposed to what I call "airplane movies," which is any movie with Steve Martin in it.
AC:Directing. You've done episodes of Hercules and Xena.
BC: I'm up to about nine episodes now.
AC: Are you looking at doing a feature any time soon?
BC: Oh, I'd love to, but it's a different camp. It's a different club. It's all a system of clubs, you know? I had a season on [the Fox TV show] The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., and that got me into the TV club. So now I really don't have to crawl through glass to get TV work. I've directed TV, but in features they go, "Well, that means you're a hack." It's a nut that I'll have to crack. Although, economically speaking, TV directors are the guys you should hire.
AC:You're a textbook example of what is called a "cult actor." Is that a status that you enjoy or would you prefer to be doing more mainstream work? Or do you differentiate between the two?
BC: Well it's weird. I get this all the time from people saying, "Bruce, where did you go?" I've never stopped working since the first Evil Dead, really. I've done two TV movies for Disney -- The Love Bug and one called Goldrush with Alyssa Milano -- and I don't know how you could go more mainstream than that. So, I have dabbled in that world and I do enjoy variety, but something is always going to brand you at some point and, currently, that's Evil Dead.
I take the pulse of fans on the Internet. A third of my e-mail is Herc and Xena, a little more than a third is the Evil Dead, and then Brisco gets a good chunk. Perceptions are changing slowly, but you know what? I don't mind it. At the end of the day I can go to the grocery store and not get hassled. I live an extremely normal life. I can't imagine living a life like Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise -- I think it would be a nightmare.
AC: Were you into horror films when you were growing up?
AC: Not at all?
BC: Not at all. It's like I said, though. I just feel that whatever genre you're in, don't pussyfoot around. Do it.
To me a good horror film is like The Tenant, but Roman Polanski. That scares me because it's messing with my head. And The Haunting, which I guess Jan de Bont is redoing. Another movie to avoid.
AC: Have you seen the new Cronenberg film, eXistenZ? That'll fuck with your head.
BC: He's a little too dark for me. That's another reason why Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness are a little goofier, because, for me, personally, I don't really buy into that whole Millennium kind of dark view of the world. I think it's fine to give people a roller-coaster ride for two hours, but when the credits are done they go, "Where'd we park the car?" and they go on with their lives. If a kid walked into a high school with a chainsaw and chainsawed 16 students, then I'd be worried. Somehow I just don't think that's going to happen, though.
AC: Which leads me to my next question: Having been in several of the most violent, gory horror films ever made, what are your thoughts on the recent debate about violence in film (and popular entertainment in general) that has arisen from the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado?
BC: Oh, yeah, yeah, absolutely. I'll take a third of the blame.
AC: How so?
BC: Well, because you can have a character where nothing affects them, where they can blow the shit out of something and have no psychological repercussions whatsoever, no guilt, no injuries, nothing. Violence is not happening in films like it should. I'd actually like to see one movie where whatever would happen to the hero in real life would happen to him in the film. Then I'm interested, as opposed to that John Woo never-having-to-reload kind of thing. And I do think that's an irresponsible approach to filmmaking in that there's a section of the population that will be affected by it.
AC: You have kids of your own, right?
BC: Yeah, I have two kids and I try to go way out of my way and say, "Okay, see this? This is fake. This is make-believe. This is real. There's a huge difference. This is what we do for fun and entertainment, and this is not. Unfortunately, I think the line is becoming blurred with a lot of kids.
Getting back to your question, another third of the responsibility I would give to society. And then the other third I would give to the parents. Where the hell were they when these kids were creating Web sites and whatever? What was going on at that house?
The whole NRA gun mentality in this country -- we've got more guns than cars now -- scares the crap out of me. I, personally, don't own a gun, but I use them in movies all the time. There's this whole macho, jingoistic, "last of the cowboys" kind of thing going on in our country. If you have a gun you're a man. And then after you have this tragedy at Columbine, there are three copycats! What are we, lemmings? What's going on? It's a deep-seated mentality that needs to be rooted out, and the good news is that I think that may be sort of starting to happen in the wake of all this.
AC:Are you concerned that this may lead to some sort of self-imposed censorship in the entertainment industry?
BC: Yeah, that's a problem, too. I feel that filmmakers should be able to make absolutely any type of movie they want. They should be able to make the most violent film they want, the scariest film they want, you name it.
We have problems of sexuality in this country, too. You can blow a woman's head off but you can't suck her breast. Bam! There's an X-rating for you. And that's a huge problem right there, that puritanical streak we've got. For some reason, violence is better than sex. What are you, crazy?!
I hope there isn't a self-imposed censorship, but they will feel obligated, you know?
AC:What's up next on your agenda?
BC: I have this book coming out, tentatively titled Confessions of a B-Movie Actor. I have a deal with St. Martin's Press, and it's all about this sort of thing. I have a section called "Fanalysis" that's about turning the mirror on the fans. In fact, I'm doing a documentary when I come to Austin -- it's sort of a test documentary about the fans. It'll be a behind-the-scenes look and I'm going to actually interview the fans and find out what the hell their deal is.
AC: Let's get back to less weighty matters for a moment. You have a sizable female fan base judging from some of the fan-based Internet sites devoted to you. How's it feel to be a chainsaw-wielding sex symbol?
BC: You know what? I've never had a problem with that. As far as the e-mails go I've had maybe one proposition.
AC: That's it?!
BC: To be honest, I don't put out the Kevin Sorbo kind of "I wanna mate with you now!" type of vibe.
AC: You're much subtler than that.
BC: I guess, but it's guys like Luke Perry and that sort who get the underwear in the mail. I don't get any of that stuff. I go to conventions and I've never had a problem at all.
AC:You make it sound like panties in the mail would be a bad thing. Most guys would consider that manna from heaven.
BC: I know, but as a married guy ... well, it's a different deal.