From the December, 2015 issue of High Times comes Bobby Black’s interview with Bruce Campbell, who turns 63 years old on June 22.
If you were to ask thousands of horror fans to vote for their favorite movie character of all time, you’d probably expect some famous fiend like Dracula or Jason Voorhees to end up in the number-one slot. But when Empire magazine asked its readers to do just that for its “666 greatest horror movie characters of all time” web feature, it wasn’t Freddy Krueger or Frankenstein’s monster that came out on top—it was none other than Mr. Boomstick himself, Ash Williams, the reluctant antihero of the Evil Dead trilogy, as portrayed by actor Bruce Campbell.
Directed by Campbell’s childhood friend Sam Raimi, The Evil Dead is about a small group of friends who decide to holiday at a deserted cabin in the woods, smoke a joint and accidentally unleash an ancient evil. While the first film is a classic in its own right, it was the groundbreaking re-quel Evil Dead 2—with its combination of slapstick shtick and extreme gore—that spawned an entirely new subgenre of cult cinema.
As the films progress, Ash loses a hand, a few girlfriends and a good chunk of his sanity, but gains a chainsaw, a shotgun (a.k.a. “boomstick”) and a cocky new attitude. By the third film, 1992’s more mainstream Army of Darkness, he’s transformed from the dorky everyman of the first film to a pompous, one-man army against evil—banging out one-liners as he vanquishes a Harryhausenesque horde of medieval deadites. It’s this unique blend of smarmy swagger, farcical fear and caustic charisma that made Ash the most hilarious horror hero in history, and made Campbell the undisputed king of camp.
Bruce Campbell on the Big Screen
Since then, Campbell’s gone on to star in numerous television shows, including Xena: Warrior Princess, Hercules, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., and the cable hit Burn Notice. He’s had roles in major films like Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy and Escape From L.A., among many others, as well as cameos in all three of Raimi’s Spider-Man movies. He’s even played an elderly Elvis battling an undead mummy in the acclaimed indie film Bubba Ho-Tep. Now, over 20 years after their last Evil Dead film, Campbell has reunited with Raimi to bring us the latest installment in the franchise—reprising his signature role in Ash Vs. Evil Dead, a 10-episode “horror sitcom” premiering Halloween night on Starz.
I’d met Campbell once back in 2002, when he was on tour promoting his New York Times best-selling autobiography If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor. A longtime fan, I slipped him a business card hoping for an interview, but nothing ever came of it—until this summer, that is, when we met up at [Burbank’s] notorious Safari Inn (the hotel from True Romance) for a chinwag about all things gory, green and groovy.
What initially inspired you and Sam Raimi to make a horror comedy? That wasn’t something that had really been done before.
In 1979, we were just out of high school and had to figure out what the hell we were going to do with our lives. We had only done comedies before in our independent little Super-8 movies, but we were concerned that if we actually got money from investors to make a movie, we should probably pick a genre that’s more of a staple, that you can do cheap.
Horror movies were always something you could do inexpensively—you didn’t have to have big movie stars in them, or fancy cars or clothes or anything like that. Texas Chainsaw Massacre had nobody that you knew starring in it, and Jamie Lee Curtis wasn’t really anybody when they did Halloween. So that’s why we wound up with horror—but we were all massive fans of the Three Stooges, so we brought those comedic sensibilities into it.
What made you guys choose to do a cable series rather than another film?
Creative freedom—basically, we wanted to be left alone. We’ve not always had good experiences with motion-picture studios. With the first Evil Dead, there was no “director’s cut”: There’s only one cut to that movie, because there was no studio—it was financed by doctors and dentists in Detroit. So it was unrestricted and unrated, and it was actually banned in a couple of countries.
Evil Dead 2 also had no rating. But then, when we did Army of Darkness, we were contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated movie, so it was severely re-edited. We wanted to get back to those Evil Dead 2 days, where we had enough money and freedom to do what we wanted. As someone in the arts, I want to be able to say anything I want to say, do whatever I want to do, and show whatever I want to show.
Starz provided an atmosphere where there aren’t any content restrictions, and that’s the world that we want to play in. We had multiple suitors for this project, but they were the only ones that said, “You guys go do your thing and we’ll back you.” So I guess you could say the Starz have aligned on this project.
I read awhile back that you guys were planning an Army of Darkness 2. Does this show take the place of that? Where does it fit into the Evil Dead universe?
It’s in Michigan, current day, so it’s definitely not Army of Darkness 2. It’s probably more similar to Evil Dead 2, but it has elements of all three movies. The original Evil Dead was made in the ’70s—it’s like a hokey melodrama. Evil Dead 2 was made in the ’80s and is a little more slapstick. Army was made in the ’90s, and is more of a Ray Harryhausen adventure movie with carnage and mayhem. This series will have elements of all of them, but we’re not giving away too much.
We’ll never give up the option to make more movies, but Sam makes these big Hollywood movies now, and you don’t want to make a really expensive Evil Dead movie—it just wouldn’t feel right. Doing it as a TV show feels right so far. So I don’t think this show is going to settle into any particular universe—we’re putting the entire universe back in the audience’s lap, and we hope they enjoy it.
How has Ash changed in the years since we’ve last seen him?
The last time we left Ash, he was trying to avoid responsibility, so nothing has really changed. [Laughs] He’s middle-aged, crabby and even less qualified to do the job now. He’d rather just be hanging at the bar late at night telling chicks lies about how he lost his hand. Ash was never a conventional hero—he’s even one step beyond a reluctant hero. This is not a guy who wants to be saving the world; it’s not in his DNA. Greatness is thrust directly in his face at his own cause and his own peril. But now, perhaps older and wiser, he can be a leader to his team.
Oh, so you have sidekicks now?
Yeah… because it’s a series, you have to expand Ash’s world, expand the story, so he’s developed this band of merry adventurers that will go out and try to defeat the evil. There’s Kelly and Pablo, who are former fellow employees at his Value Stop store, and that’s our core team. Then Jill Marie Jones is going to play a Michigan police officer who gets sort of swept into this, and the great Lucy Lawless is coming in to play a very mysterious character named Ruby.
Technology has come a long way since Army—will there be more CGI incorporated into the new series, or are the effects still mostly traditional?
Not much of it is digital so far, so I think it’s going to have a slightly old-school feel to it. It’ll feel real. The movies have always had every kind of effect, and the series is going to be the same—from miniatures to stop-motion to digital to just old-school-monster creature makeup and blood pumping through tubes… we’ve actually pumped a whole lot of blood. There will be no shortage of blood flow, I can attest personally.
Let’s turn our attention from blood to bud. In the beginning of your autobiography, you wrote that when you were growing up, you were a bit of a fearless kid. How old were you when you first smoked pot?
My first experience was actually on film in the original Evil Dead. I smoked it for the very first time in the scene where the kids are passing a joint around. We thought, “Hey—they did it in Easy Rider” so we figured, “Let’s do it!” And it just went from there.
Wow—that’s awesome. And you still smoke?
Well, let me say this: I live in Oregon, and I’ve been a proud medical cardholder for probably about 10 years. I was very early in the program. And I have to say, it’s very nice to be part of a state that treats you like an adult.
As a US citizen, I just want to be treated as an adult. Everyone talks about freedom: “I gotta be free, don’t take my freedom away.” Well, you know what? Part of that is the freedom to grow something out of the ground that God has given to the world.
Are you saying you grow your own plants?
Yeah—I’m allowed to have six adult plants. One time, the sheriff’s helicopter came over my property and hovered directly above my crop, but then it turned and backed away and nobody ever came by, because I was a law-abiding citizen. That was a very refreshing moment, because in the ’70s, you felt like a criminal if you smoked weed.
So you’re definitely pro-legalization.
It’s about fucking time! I’m glad to see that the laws are coming around, state by state. Eventually, people are going to get it that you can smoke an entire bushel of weed overnight—fistfuls of it—and you wake up in the morning and things will be a little fuzzy, and the cookies will be gone, but that’s it! I mean, really—you try to OD on weed! Whereas a college kid could drink himself to death in two hours. To death! Alcohol is a poison… and that’s legal? You gotta be kidding me.
I’m so glad that people are finally getting off their high horse about this. I hate when they say, “He was on drugs.” I don’t even consider [marijuana] a drug. This isn’t something created in a scientist’s lab; this is something that grew from the earth. I have nothing in my medicine cabinet—no pharmaceuticals whatsoever.
Marijuana is my only medicine. Whenever I’ve had a drug talk with my kids, I’ve said, “You see that little pill? You run from that little pill. See this thing that grows out of the ground? If you do that, I don’t give a crap—I have no problem with that. If it has a needle, if it’s a strange liquid… you don’t know where that came from. But if you drop a seed in the ground and this thing grows, you know exactly where that came from.”
So it’s nice to finally get things adjusted in a more adult, realistic way. They want to tax it? I say, “Go for it”—tax the hell out of it, make it a sin tax just like alcohol and cigarettes. Once states get that money flowing through their veins and the federal government gets some of that money, they’ll never give it back.
Is there a specific type or strain you like?
Weed is like wine—some wines are sweet, some are earthy, some Scotch is like this, some vodka is like that… it’s the same with marijuana. Me, I’m a sativa guy, not an indica guy. I don’t need to melt into the couch—I’ve got shit to do. People have this image that if you’re a stoner, you’re a slacker, right?
Well, I work 12 hours a day, so I got your slacker right here! And then I can go back to work not hung over. But I don’t do it while I’m at work, because it interferes with my concentration. I have to be able to understand the rhythms that are happening right in front of me; I can’t have an artifice put on top of it. But yeah, sativa—I’m not a zombie-weed kind of guy.
Naturally—you spend your career fighting zombies, so you certainly wouldn’t want to turn into one.
Exactly. I don’t need to be a zombie—I’ve seen enough of them.
Did you and Raimi use cannabis for inspiration while working on the films?
I can’t speak about anybody else, but for me marijuana is unquestionably part of the creative process. It’s a creative enhancement, because it opens up my thinking to more ridiculous or outrageous possibilities.
I’ll give you an example: I directed a silly comedy a few years ago, My Name Is Bruce, that was a parody of the concept “What if Bruce Campbell got kidnapped by a fan?” And one night, I was trying to prep for this big sequence where all these things happen at the same time: The truck shows up and this happens and this pulls up and then the guy comes here, and Bruce is running around all over the place… and it seemed like it would take a million shots to execute.
So after work, I sat down and rolled myself one, and by the end of that smoke, I had devised a way to do it faster and more efficiently. When I smoked, my thoughts became more uninhibited and unlimited, and I thought, “Why couldn’t you just do the whole goddamned thing in one shot?” So we wound up doing it on a steady cam as a 360-degree shot done twice around—like a 720—and it actually worked out perfectly. Now, I suppose I could’ve come up with that shot not being stoned, but I don’t think I’d be that bold otherwise.
Finally, of Ash’s many cool one-liners and catchphrases, “Groovy” is undeniably his most iconic. What made you choose that old counterculture colloquialism?
That was Sam’s line. The idea was, he wanted Ash to say something so not cool that it was cool. So in 1986, that was the Reagan era—no one really said “groovy.” And it still works with middle-aged Ash saying it in the show—now he’s old enough that he actually would say “groovy.”
Do you ever use it when you’re not in character?
Yeah… I wind up texting it a lot. Someone will say, “I’ll pick you up at three,” and I could just text “OK” or whatever, but usually I’ll just text “groovy.”