HAIL TO THE KING, BABY
Bruce Campbell on His Un-PC Action Hero: ‘We Need Some Room for Inappropriateness’
The cult star of ‘The Evil Dead’ and ‘Army of Darkness’ dishes on the third season of Starz’s ‘Ash vs Evil Dead’ and political correctness.
Bruce Campbell might be the closest thing we have to a renaissance man.
Since starring in The Evil Dead almost forty years ago, he’s acted, produced, and directed films and TV, as well as writing and publishing several books, organizing a horror film festival, and hosting a game show. Even if you’ve been living under a rock, chances are you’ve seen his face at least once—if not in The Evil Dead, then in Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness, or his Spider-Man movies, or on Burn Notice, or in the TV version of Fargo. And starting on February 25th, he’ll be back in the third season of Ash vs Evil Dead, reprising the role that started it all.
Ash vs Evil Dead is—literally and metaphorically—a bloody delight. It’s also surprisingly poignant: It’s a sort of horror-Boyhood, revisiting Ash Williams over two decades after we last saw him fighting deadites in the Middle Ages. The comic insanity that characterized Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992) are still front and center, but the capital-H Horror of The Evil Dead is back, too.
Ash is a hero who’s grown old but not wiser, and if the musical cue of the Charleston over the end credits to the season two finale—the same music that closed out the original Evil Dead—wasn’t enough of a clue that shit’s about to hit the fan, boy, has the show got a treat for you. The new season hits the ground running by introducing the Knights of Sumeria, a group dedicated to ridding the world of deadites forever. But there’s a bigger wrench in the mix: Ash’s daughter, played by Arielle Carver O’Neill.
“We get to see the softer side of Ash, that’s for sure,” Campbell tells me, adding, “I have a daughter that’s not that far off from Arielle [Carver-O’Neill], and she looks kind of like her, so when I’ve got scenes with her, there were a couple this season that were a little tricky to do, because they hit me a little more emotionally than I thought they would.”
But, as striking as this character development is, it wasn’t always in the cards. According to Bruce, “We’re pulling this all out of our butts, because it was never supposed to be a TV show. So, you know, this is all evolving every season.”
It’s an evolution that’s further complicated by the fact that Ash vs Evil Dead isn’t set as to how many seasons it’ll run. Maybe it’ll run forever, maybe it’ll end in a movie. Campbell’s take? “I think that no one knows anything, that’s what I think,” he says with a laugh. “Fans don’t know anything, we don’t know anything, distributors, studios, no one knows anything. What happens is, over time, we have this wonky—it’s not even a franchise—this wonky thing that rears its head every so often, because fans have been very good to us. They’ve been very supportive, and I’ve learned that even if we go season four, season five, whatever the amount is we get on TV, it’ll still never be enough, because what they’ll do is they’ll go, ‘Yeah, thanks for that, that was great! Loved it! Well, what’s next?’”
It’s something that Campbell is particularly aware of as an executive producer on the show. Ash vs Evil Dead airs on Starz, a premium cable network (which has just been acquired by Lionsgate—“Now our bosses have bosses”), which means that fans have to pay a little extra to watch. But ultimately, that extra hurdle is a blessing. In Campbell’s words: “You want the goods, you have to pay for the goods.” Being on Starz means that the show is essentially unrated: It’s got all the blood, guts, and horror that you’d want out of an Evil Dead property (and even, in the new season, a little singing from Campbell himself).
And Ash Williams deserves no less. Despite the supernatural forces he finds himself up against, he’s still just an ordinary guy. “Ash has no skills whatsoever,” Campbell notes. “I was just bragging about Ash today—if he succeeds in his mission, he will be the best hero in the history of motion pictures, because there’s no Millennium Falcon to come bail him out, no one’s gonna beam him back up to the ship. He can’t sling-web his way away. He doesn’t have a protective robot suit. He can’t fly. He doesn’t have a souped-up car. He has a piece of shit car, he has a shotgun, and a chainsaw, and that’s it, and this guy’s gonna save the world. And to me, that’s a hero. That’s the guy standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989, with two plastic food bags in each hand. And the tank moves, and he moves. He’s got nothing, he’s completely unarmed.”
That said, Ash is also distinctly a hero for our times. The marketing for the second season prominently featured the American flag, hailing Ash as a hero, and Campbell has previously referred to him as an “ugly American.” When asked if this is something he’s kept in mind as the political and cultural climate has shifted over the series’ run, he answers, “Ash is the last holdout for chauvinism and inappropriateness, and he’s always gonna be like that. But he’s gonna be the guy who saves the world, so you gotta deal with it. You know, it’s part of his antihero-ness. He’s incorrect. He is an incorrect person, and that’s what makes Ash so unique. He’s not gonna say the right thing to Little Billy. He’s not gonna say the right thing to someone who just lost their mother. He’s gonna be inappropriate at pretty much every occasion, and it’s important. We need some room for inappropriateness left.”
And if that seems like a tough pill to swallow, Campbell is fully aware. There’s no other character in his career that he’d revive in the way that he’s revived Ash. “Ash was the most critical to fix,” he reasons. “He was the first one, the first character I ever played. That one has more significance than anything. So I just wanna fix him.”
As for what he has in the works, there are a few scripts on the backburner for when he’s got some free time, and he’s also going to be on AMC in a new drama, Lodge 49. Paul Giamatti, who is executive producer on the show, specifically tracked him down for the project. It took a little convincing, as Campbell had just finished his book tour (for Hail to the Chin: Further Confessions of a B Movie Actor, the second in a planned trilogy of autobiographies), but the script was too good to pass up. And when he’s not working, he says, “I watch The Crown. I try and watch way, way different stuff. I’m not a horror guy. I don’t seek it out. I just seek cool shows, I don’t care what genre, but right now, it’s The Crown.”
Then, he adds, “I tore through Downton Abbey, too.”
In terms of the bigger picture, with Hail to the Chin out in the world, it’s just a matter of seeing what comes next. “I don’t really do a bucket list,” he answers, when I ask if there’s anything in particular he’d like to be able to put in that last book. “Every day should be a bucket list.”
Sound advice from the king.