Both on camera and behind the scenes, Bruce Campbell has helped out Hercules and Xena.
By Anthony C. Ferrante
Chances are that if you aren't already a fan of actor Bruce Campbell, you've at least run across his mug once or twice surfing channels on TV or visiting the local multiplex. Best known for his work as the eternally abused Ash in the cult-favorite Evil Dead movies, the 40-year-old Campbell has recently made a big imprint on the small screen playing expert thief Autolycus (Auto for short) on the popular syndicated series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess. "I look at my part on the shows as the designated hitter," says Campbell. "I sit on the bench and when they say, 'OK, come on, we need some help,' I get in there."
Originally conceived as a one-shot character, Auto has become one of the shows' most frequent and likable supporting players. In fact, while Hercules star Kevin Sorbo was recovering from a pulled ligament last season, Campbell was called in more than once to spearhead entire adventures. "Whoever was peripheral on the show filled in the best we could," Campbell recalls of that period. "It had nothing to do with anything other than the fact that Kevin could not physically be there. The show was not attempting to take any weird directions." Due to his strong presence on screen and occasional stints as director on Hercules and Xena, Campbell recently signed a nice, cushy deal with Universal Television, which produces the shows. This includes appearing in about 11 episodes (divided between the two series) in the coming season, as well as directing a pair of them. Add a development deal for his own pilot (which will likely be more along the lines of Campbell's previous The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.), and he's got a heavy TV plate in the coming year.
"I really get along fabulously with everyone on the shows," says Campbell. "Kevin I get along well with because we're roughly the same age and have the same cultural references. I hope the company realizes how lucky they are to have Kevin and Lucy [Lawless] as their leads. I've been on shows where the stars are just idiots and don't deserve to be there. Lucy and Kevin make it so easy. They're professional and never give anyone a hard time--other than complaining about scripts stuff, but every actor does that."
While Campbell notes that he's not privy to the shows' "bibles," particularly where forthcoming episodes are concerned, he does hint that many of the recurring supporting players will have smaller roles later in the season, due to a series of stories producer Robert Tapert has envisioned for the title characters. "All I know is that both of them will be doing much more travelling to really funky parts of the world," Campbell reveals. "That's why I won't be in as many. They will be taking these characters on different journeys."
"Auto has kind of evolved," the actor says. "There was an episode where Hercules told me, 'Thanks to you, the village can be happy again,' and I added this line, 'Thanks to you, I'm going broke.' Whenever I'm with him, I never get to keep any of the jewels. I always have to give them back. It's really handy to have an antihero character like mine on a show. That way, the hero has someone to play off of. Hercules has already learned his lessons, so it's helpful to have someone around to scold and lecture and admonish. Now, both Hercules and Xena will call on me for favors. I guess my character is a conflict creator."
Having become a veteran of stuntwork on the Evil Dead films (also for Hercules and Xena executive producers Tapert and Sam Raimi), Campbell has always tried to do as many of his own stunts as possible, but is still very much aware of his limitations. "My stunt guy in New Zealand is really good at fighting, because he's a martial artist," Campbell says. "I, of course, am not. I'm not Jean-Claude or Steven Seagal. I'm just a ham-and-egger. There's a lot that my stunt double can do with a staff and nunchucks. When I direct episodes with myself in them, I'll shoot a wide enough master of him doing the whole fight so you don't know who it is. Then I'll drop myself into strategic parts to sell the fact that I'm there."
That's not the only challenge the actor faces when directing Hercules and Xena episodes in which he also acts. "Sometimes it's a nightmare," he sighs. "The last two Xenas I've been in, I've directed as well, and I'm in all the way through them. So it's double the homework. I have an assistant named Craig, and he'll go down to New Zealand with me and we'll run lines and make script changes all through the prep. We'll walk through the set together at night and block out the next day's worth of shots. It's a real monk's life. We give ourselves a 10 p.m. curfew to survive, and then we have to get up at 4:35 a.m. the next day."
There are some differences, though, between the episodes he directs and those in which he simply acts. "When I'm a director, I tend to be much pickier," Campbell admits. "When I'm an actor, I might change a line here or there or talk to the other actors to work out a routine, but as a director I do make story notes and give them to the writing staff."
Keeping Auto likable has been the most important aspect of his Hercules/Xena duties, he observes. I do try to fight for certain attitudes and mentalities," Campbell asserts. "There have been some scripts where he was too much of a jerk, and I would always try to soften that. Writers don't have the luxury of watching every episode I've done. They're too busy writing. They may have seen three or four, but I've done about a dozen as Auto, so I think I have as good as sense of what he should be like as the writers. You have to walk a thin, fine line, though. Auto's a thief and a scoundrel, but he has to be likable."
Working behind the camera has also made Campbell more ready for a feature directing gig, which he's had in mind for some time. One such project, The Man With the Screaming Brain, was set to roll several times, but other jobs conflicted. "Man With the Screaming Brain still exists, but only as a hobby," he says. "I had it fully financed once, but my Brisco deal went through at Fox and that superseded it, so the funding went away. I've had it half-financed probably four or five times after that. Then I basically put it on the shelf and thought, 'Let's wait until later.' Now that horror is back in vogue, it might be time to do it."
Ultimately, Campbell sees a directing career as his final goal, since acting is not always forever -- when you're a character player. "As an actor, you will eventually outlive your usefulness," he admits. "That's why I'm actually glad to be doing as much character stuff as I do. It will give me a longer shelf life than being the romantic leading man. As a character actor I can change, look goofy or weird, lose my hair and all sorts of other stuff that leading men aren't allowed to do. And as a director, you can direct until you're 100."