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Return Of The Chin: A Conversation With Bruce Campbell

Bruce Campbell (as Ash) - Episode 101 (5).jpg
There was a time when horror and comedy were the peanut butter and chocolate that no one dared to mix. That ended decisively with the release of Sam Raimi's debut film, 1981's TheEvil Dead which, along with its sequel, 1987's Evil Dead II, created a self-aware universe that balanced buckets of gore, smirks, slapstick, knowing callbacks and some totally sweet zombie kills. Key to making this delicate balance was the film's star, Raimi's childhood friend Bruce Campbell, who never seemed like he was taking anything too seriously, even when he swinging a chainsaw around like a badass.

The Evil Dead series launched the career of Campbell, an A-Level talent with a A++ movie star chin always most comfortable rolling around in the B-Movie sandbox. His career has included fun, pulpy TV shows (Burn Notice, Xena: Warrior Princess and The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.) appearances in mainstream hits (the Spider-Man movies, Congo and The Hudsucker Proxy), tons of cult oddities (at this point his "Elvis versus the monsters" romp Bubba Ho-Tep is nearly as iconic as his Dead work) and a few Sci-Fi channel originals. But it's Evil Dead's Ash Williams, last seen in 1992's Army of Darkness (save for a brief cameo in the 2013 Evil Dead remake) that made him a hero to the ComicCon crowd. Campbell and Raimi have reunited for Starz'Ash vs. Evil Dead, which premieres on Halloween and does not, Campbell assures his fans, tone down a thing. He's also playing Ronald Reagan on Fargo this Fall, because the man's hustle does not stop. We got on the phone with Campbell to talk about Ashing it up again and why he's not nearly as typecast as you think.

So, tell me how this show for Starz came about.

Always starting with the most difficult question. These things are complicated and take years to develop, and this particular case was a combination of the economics of the difference between movies and television, as one factor. Then there's the continued support, and then television catching up with us. Now, Starz is one of the few outlets where you can have unrestricted content. I've always hated that you had to cut it down to R ratings. You couldn't say "boo boo" words. I just want to do what we want to do and show it to people. I hate standards and practices. I hate stuff like that. I hate restriction, so this was great. When Starz came along and they told us that we could do unrestricted content, I was like, "where do we sign?"

So is it a lot scarier and bloodier and gorier than the older Evil Dead?

It's right where it needs to be. We're not doing anything different because of Starz, we're just not doing anything worse because of Starz. I mean, we're not doing anything that's more lame. If this was on cable, it would suck. It would be so tamed down and dulled down and "characters can't do this, characters can't do that." Bologna. 

Was the idea for a long time that you've always wanted to do a TV series, but you couldn't find the right cable partner that would let you do it the way you wanted to do it?

No, TV was brand new. TVs and TV shows were a brand new idea from about a year ago.

So for a while, you tried to make more movies, and things couldn't get off the ground?

Yeah, yeah, but Army of Darkness died when it came out, people forget. That basically killed the series for about a decade. And then, these direct-to-market things came out, the DVDs, "The Making Of," about 46 versions of Army of Darkness, so that brought it back. It's all those factors. 

I've been reading for a while that Sam Raimi has been trying to make more Evil Dead movies, but they weren't happening. And then when the Evil Dead remake came out that you weren't in, I think everyone assumed things were done.

We were too. Come tonight, I'll be walking on the red carpet, and I'll be very surprised. I'll have a very beguiled look on my face the whole night of like, "Wow! we did it!"

Obviously, Sam Raimi doesn't really need to be doing stuff like this. Is he making this series because he likes working with you and you have a lot of fun together?

Yeah, look, he also has a lot of nostalgia for the formative years, this is what got us into the business. We have very fond memories of at least getting into the film business together through these movies.

Now, what were some of the things that you've done on this TV series that you can't believe you got away with, just in terms of like pushing the boundaries?

I don't know, you'll have to see it. It's hard to go scene by scene. The point is, we're just not worried about anything. That's what it is. You want to put a pick ax into a guy's head? You put a pick ax into a guy's head. You want to blow a guy up? You blow a guy up. There's no verbal restrictions. There's no sex restrictions. There's nothing. This is an unrated series.

How did it feel to revisit Ash after all these years? Did it take a little while to get into the character's mind frame or was it like putting on an old pair of gloves?

Not the mind frame, that was easy. 'Cause I just like that idiot, buffoon kind of mind frame, I'm good with that. It's more just the physical side of it again. I got to do a lot more stretching now. 

Did you have to hit the gym a little bit for a little while to get into that Ash shape?

I got into Ash shape, I'll put it that way. That's all I needed to do was get into Ash shape. 

Is part of the reason this series exists that if you and Sam were doing this, you wouldn't have time to see Sam because you both have such busy lives?

That's it. Between bar mitzvahs and movies is about the only time we run into each other. So yeah, it's nice to get back with Sam and work with him on a daily basis. He's a really bright, creative director, fun guy. So that was definitely a part of the allure.

You've known each other since high school, right?

Yeah, I actually saw Sam on the floor of our junior high school dressed as Sherlock Holmes playing with dolls. I saw him in about 8th grade. 

Oh, wow. What year was that?

'71, something like that. I remember seeing him, going "that kid is a weirdo." He claimed he was making a movie, but I didn't see a camera or anyone. 

Were you guys like immediate friends, or did it take a while, like, "who is this weirdo?"

Sam was a weirdo and probably thought that I was a little weird. But as soon as we each found out that we were each making movies in our little neighborhoods, that's when it began. He's like, "you make movies?""Yeah, I make movies""whaddya got?""I got this." So a bunch of us combined forces with another group, this guy Scott Spiegelwho wound up co-writing Evil Dead II. In high school, we made probably 30 of these movies, maybe move. We were incredibly industrious. 

Do you think if it hadn't been for Sam you would've still pursued acting or do you think you fell more into it making his movies?

Oh no no no, I was into it since I was about eight. I saw my dad when I was in a play when I was a kid. And it was in an outdoor theatre in suburban Detroit. I thought it was just magical. My dad was singing and dancing, cracking jokes. People were laughing. I'm like, "what's up with this?" And so I joined that same theatre group when I got old enough. 

What sort of acting background do you have? Did you go to school for it?

No, there was no school. I earned while I learned. Evil Dead was the first movie other than amateur stuff. And then I did a couple of plays, but all amateur stuff. So not a lot, no.

You called our book, If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-List Actor, but when people first started calling you that, were you offended or was it sort of a compliment?

I don't really care anymore. I mean, one guy called me the Gregory Peck of B movies. I was like, "I'll take that." Every actor wants to be known for something. I don't really care what it is as long as I don't kill somebody.

Right, well was there ever a time that you were put off by that term?

Well, here's what it is, fans are actually more limiting and prejudiced in their mind than a film studio. I've done French films, I've played a cowboy, I've played the king of thieves, I've played Elvis Presley, I've played Ronald Reagan, so within the industry, I'm not type-cast. But ironically, I'm typecast by journalists, by guys like you, and fans, because if you only watch horror movies, then that's all you're gonna know me for. But there's people who watch The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. who don't like horror. There are plenty of people who watch Burn Notice, but not Evil Dead. And plenty of people who watch Evil Dead but not Burn Notice. I am as type cast as you think I am. But not as much as you think I am. It used to piss me off, but now I realize that people watch what they watch. If you only watch this, or you only watch that, to you, that is what I will be known as. But then, that's fine. 

Is there anything you haven't gotten to play that you'd like to?

No, I'm still going. Never thought I'd play Elvis, never thought I'd play Ronald Reagan. Never say never. 

But is there any kind of role out there like, "yeah, I'd really like to scratch Shakespeare off the list," or something like that?

No, Shakespeare has never been on my list. Willy and I are not tight. No, I take whatever comes. 'Cause I don't like the "what if" game. I don't wanna be anything.  Anything else is just a pie in the sky concept. It's just not worth thinking about.

You mentioned this a bit earlier, but in addition to the current series you have out now, you're also in this season of Fargo as Ronald Reagan. How did that come about?

Another high school buddy. John Cameron, who is now a Golden Globe and Emmy winning producer. And he and I, we used to imitate Reagan in the '80s all the time. So, now that he's a big fancy producer, he's like, "let's get my partner Bruce to come be Ronald Reagan." 

And what was your impression like back then?

Oh, probably over the top. Like Johnny Carson. The trick for Fargo is take it from an imitation to a character. So that's the trick. I was so nervous working on Fargo.

What was so nerve-wracking about it? 

Well, it's a classy show. It wins Emmys. I'm nervous about working on any shows that win awards. 

The Reagan we've seen you play so far is feels like a symbol of America going into the '80s and the coming economic downturns and general malaise. Reagan's a stand in for a lot of different things. Was that in mind when you were working on the character?

Well, that's probably in Noah Hawley's mind, it's not in my mind. He's got his big picture and the themes of the show and all that. Me, I'm just a candidate in a campaign.

Did you pay a lot of attention or like research or reading about Reagan or old news conferences to get into character?

I watched a lot of speeches. And that was very helpful, mostly to hear that he cracked jokes all the time. And to hear his jokes, they were mostly Russian jokes. He took shots at the Russians all the time. He was funny. He was like the scoldering chief. He would scold. And he seemed very committed to what he believed in. And his ideologies changed, he used to be a liberal and over time, he became conservative. He's a very interesting guy.

Were you first a fan of him back in the day?

No. Didn't do it for me. I don't like presidents who yell at me all the time. I'm not very interested in that. Hollywood actors, shut up already. Give me a break. 

Taking it back a little bit, one thing that is interesting about the Evil Dead series is that the second Evil Dead movies is one of those first movies that was kind of like actively aware of what the genre it was, it was actively critiquing other horror films. It was actively self-aware as a movie. It's now considered one of the first movies of it's kind. Were you guys aware of the boundaries you were breaking while you were making it?

Nobody's aware of what's happening when you're doing it. You have other concerns. We were concerned ''cause it was so hot. So we didn't give a shit about...

How hot was it?

It was North Carolina, it was over 100 for weeks. We were shooting on an elevated stage in an old gymnasium with no air conditioning. It was ridiculous. That's all we cared about. We cared about keeping Ted Raimi, the monster, from passing out. 

Amazing. So was that something you were surprised to learn about later, that not only did the film have a cult behind it, but people and film historians consider it historically significant?

Yeah, but that's only gonna happen with time. Evil Dead, when it first came out, half the reviews were terrible. Terrible. "The sickest of the sick," one newspaper called it. I loved the fact that now, I think we're gonna get a softer edge from the viewers because of the nostalgia. 

Is it frustrating or gratifying that sometimes, a lot of people don't like your stuff right away, but through the years, you have this huge cult followings, like "where were you guys a few years ago, or why didn't you like it?"

You gotta let things run out how they do. Some movies do age really well overtime, like a Bubba Ho-Tep, and some of them age poorly. They're not regarded or they're dismissed. Some things that you do are forgotten. You're like, "damn, how did that slip through the cracks?" The effort just has to remain the same. No matter what decade or role or who you're working for, my job as an actor is the same. And that's to try to create a character that people can invest in and go on a ride with. I'm sort of like their tour guide. Some things, people will just love no matter what. But sometimes things you think are a slam dunk they lay an egg.

Will there ever be a sequel to Bubba Ho-Tep

There was no script that was shootable that I've seen yet. I know now that if the script isn't correct, the movie will not be correct. That is your blueprint for your building. In my opinion, it's not there. So, until that happens, there's nothing to really talk about. 

When was the first time that people pointed out that you have a certain quality as an actor, that's just inherently you. You do different roles, but there's something inherently Bruce Campbell in anything you're in. 

Well, I mean every actor is interested in certain material. Like I could've done the soap opera route, but there was nothing in that that was interesting to me. I'd do a straight drama if it was really interesting to me or really well done or whatever.  But, I've always been attracted to a certain lighter type of material. A certain material that's more pronounced, stories that are a little different. That's just a personal choice.  So I'm gonna wind up in stuff like that, because I'll choose that over some steely-eyed action movie where the guy's gritting his teeth and saying one line every two hours. I've taken the bad guy role over the good guy role before. I read a script and the good guy roll sucks ''cause his line's like this, "c'mon, get down! let's go! now!" And the bad guy has all these flowery speeches and I'm like, "I'll take that guy 'cause he's a lot more interesting." 

So you kind of do whatever is entertaining for yourself.

If I read it and it's just stiff, I'm not interested. Not because I'm like, "oh! it's a movie for Paramount!" who cares?! Actors are miserable enough, why make yourself even more miserable by doing work you don't even like?

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