Blast took part in a conference call with Bruce Campbell and Sharon Gless of the USA Network hit series “Burn Notice.” Here’s the best of the conversation:
Question: Bruce, I know that you played in Xena and Hercules as sort of a rogue who helped out the good guys as well. And Sharon, obviously you played Cagney, a bad-ass cop and she also knew her way around bad guys. So I was curious how these roles and others may have helped to cultivate the characters that you play on Burn Notice.
Sharon Gless: Well, the only bad guys I have to find my way around are Jeffrey and Bruce. I mean, my job on the show is the mother from hell. I don’t get involved in the heavy stuff like they do.
Bruce Campbell: Sharon, your character is scarier than some of the bad guys. … I’ve always enjoyed playing a little left of center characters. Otherwise I’d be on a soap opera, you know. What’s attractive to me was that these are real characters. These are characters who drink and smoke and make mistakes and have foibles in love and try to fix their mother’s garbage disposal. That’s what’s attractive to me. That’s what got me into this show and knowing that I’m with four, three other kind of seasoned adult actors. That’s always attractive when you know you’re going to be working with people that it’s going to be worth showing up for.
SG: It’s true.
BC: It’s made a big difference. And this show, I can’t speak for Sharon, but this show came out of nowhere.
BC: The things that I plan never happen. Things that I don’t plan do.
SG: Exactly. That’s how I thought. I think that when Bruce and I first “" we were interviewed together. Do you remember that, in Pasadena or somewhere?
SG: And I was actually sitting in the fat farm and this script arrived and I was sitting all alone in my room and it made me laugh out loud and I was all by myself. And I thought, this is funny. This is fun, I like this. It had substance to it, too.
BC: It probably didn’t hurt that you live in Miami, too.
SG: I forgot about that, but I didn’t tell them that during the interview.
SG: I wanted to live in a hotel like you guys. And then when it sold, I had to “Ëœfess up.
Question: What sorts of methods and what type of influences do you use to kind of inform your characters and your portrayal of each of your characters? Like what do you draw upon to, in your characterization of Sam and of Madeline?
SG: Well, my husband said, when he read the script, chain smoking half the time. And he said, how lucky are you, they’re paying you to smoke. So he said, wow, you do all the things with the cigarette. I said, “Well, yeah, I already knew how to do that.” What do I draw on? I’ve never actually had children, myself, but I just connected with Jeffrey’s character and every week it’s different and as the show goes along, Madeline, my character, first she’s totally in the dark and very needy and very sort of just all sort of emotional things that are unattractive. And as time went on, Matt Nix said, “Sharon, she’s smarter than what I was writing.” And he gave me one clue, he said, “Remember, he gets his smarts from her.” I said, “Oh, okay.” So I just took that information and it gave me and my character a little more confidence. But I don’t know, how do you prepare for playing someone who’s manipulative? Is it built in? I don’t know.
BC: When you’re in show business, you know lots of manipulating people.
SG: Yes, that’s true. But I try to do the manipulation with humor. Hopefully, that’s how it’s coming across.
Question: Why doesn’t Sam Axe’s personality match the normal ex-military stereotypes? He seems really upbeat compared to how most shows depict characters that have been in serious military situations.
BC: I think my character is actually more accurate. I think I run into some of these guys. My first wife remarried a police officer, and I’ll tell you these guys like having a good time when they’re not working. They don’t sit around mopey dope, they sit around and crack gallows humor, lots of gallows humor, dark humor. Frankly, I think they’re happy that they’re alive most of these guys after going through all of this and they have a good joie de vivre that the average executive might not have. So I should think Sam is very indicative of the real guys, you know guys who are my age who have mustered out in their 50’s. Believe me, most of them are drinking beer and sitting around a pool cracking jokes about the old days.
SG: In my experience in having done Cagney & Lacey many years ago, we had technical advisers on the set and we had detectives and police. Not exactly in the role that Bruce is playing, but these guys who see so much really do have a very macabre sense of humor. And I do think that’s how they stay sane.
Question: Bruce, is there a beer or cocktail that Sam has yet to meet and enjoy and if there is, what is it and why haven’t they met yet? And Sharon, Madeline seems to go with the flow a bit more nowadays with Michael’s past. Will she eventually come around to just trusting him blindly or will curiosity get the best of her and she’ll find out on her own where her son has been for the past ten years?
BC: Go ahead, Sharon.
SG: I think Madeline is slowly figuring it out. I don’t think, to this day, she really understands the full impact of what it is he really does. But she knows he helps people. That’s how she phrases it. That’s how she lives with it. And yes, she is getting more informed. I think there are moments where she does trust him. She has to, she is, despite what you see, she loves him. It’s her boy. But I think there’s always a bit of doubt because he’s never completely forthcoming. So what she finds out she sort of finds out on her own. He’s a little vague when he explains things, enough to calm her down or to get her to help in an indirect way.
BC: And with regard to Sam’s question, I don’t think there is a cocktail that he has not found yet. I think Sam has been making them up, he knows so many of them. But you know, the one thing I want to point out is you never see him drunk. You know, a lot of people go, oh Sam’s an alcoholic. Hey, he’s a guy who likes to drink like a lot of Americans. So that truly is “" you find sometimes we pick our battles. If I’ve got a morning meeting with the feds, Sam will have a cup of coffee. He’s not a complete party boy.
SG: Bruce and I are still trying to get Matt Nix to write us a . . .
BC: He promised us season two, he promised that we would get drunk together.
SG: I know, he lied. When Sam babysits with Maddie, wouldn’t it be a fun thing to sit there and get loaded and not talk about anything that has to do with the work.
Question: … aside from you two getting drunk together, how do you want to see Sam and Madeline’s relationship evolve in season four. And for either one of you if Michael did re-establish his link to the espionage community, what would happen to Sam and Fiona?
SG: Well, I think Sam and Maddie have kind of a really cool relationship. We were given a chance to live together. That helps. I didn’t tell you this, Bruce, that I really miss the fact that you moved out.
BC: I know.
SG: Yes. But that gives you a chance to come back. How do I see the relationship evolving? I see it as all good. I see that it can get rougher, it can get more tender, and I think there’s a myriad of things that can come out of a relationship with two people who do respect each other and who both love this one man, this boy, my boy and his friend.
BC: And you know the one thing I should say, too. I can’t speak for other actors, but I don’t really probe the writers, I honestly don’t. I haven’t bugged them in three years about what’s coming up with Sam. Whether he’s going to have a home or a girlfriend. I like to sit back, just like the audience, and let it happen. I get excited reading the next script, because I don’t really know what they have planned. The season finale, I couldn’t tell you sitting here right now what’s going to happen. Not because I’m lying or that I’m not supposed to, I don’t know because I haven’t asked, I don’t want to know. So you know…
SG: I’m the same way. I never ask about what’s going to happen with my character.
BC: No, because . . . as we’ve seen, they’re good writers so you know, get out of their face. We don’t like them in our face, I don’t get in their face.
Question: Burn Notice has been renewed for a fourth season, and as we all know, the show is extremely successful. How many seasons do think this show will have and do you both plan to stay on the show through to the very end?
BC: Go ahead, Sharon. Let’s see where we get.
SG: I don’t know. I mean the show — it used to be in the old days when you signed a contract, it was for seven years. But in this day and age, I don’t know. I do think it has some longevity.
BC: Come on, Sharon, pick a number, pick a number.
SG: Okay, seven.
BC: I’m going eight.
SG: Okay, baby, I’m sticking with you.
BC: l The reason I say that is because Monk went eight and we’re outpacing Monk in the ratings. And so we’re kind of the new tent pole for USA, and I think we’re going to be around for the long haul and mentally, I have to say, I’m not looking over my shoulder. I’m fully prepared to ride this show to the bitter end because it’s – why, what am I looking for? Actors always seem like they’re looking for a better gig. This time I can’t, there is no better gig. This is a good gig, and I’m happy to ride it until it ends.
SG:Yes, me too. I want to stay. My husband, who is a producer, used to tease me and he’d say, “You know, I wouldn’t give these people any trouble.” Because he said, “How I would open the next episode is this rainy morning and everybody’s just standing in this rain under umbrellas and we pan down. Is that a tear on our hero’s face? You pan down and the tombstone says, Madeline.”
BC: Season finale or a season opener. Exactly.
SG:Yes, right. So I’m just playing myself and I hope they let me stay the whole time.
BC: Yes, gee, Sharon, do you think they’ll let you?
SG: Well, you know, you never know. They may want to move somewhere. But knowing Madeline, she’d pack too.
BC: Yes, she probably would.
Question: do you think the show is staying on track or do you think they’re starting to maybe branch out in new directions with the show?
SG: I never know where they’re going to go with the show. I’m always surprised every time I open up the script and see what they’re doing. I don’t know if there’s a track. I think sort of the beauty of the show is that it constantly surprises. I mean the track would be for Michael and the end for Michael to find the man who burned him, or the woman. …
BC: I think the show is ultimately like other successful shows, it’s a hybrid of putting on that old shoe every Thursday. You want that comfortable shoe, you want to hang with Fiona, Michael and Mom. And you know, see what adventures they’re going to get into every week. Yet, at the same time, you know, season two is the evil woman Carla. So she’s gone now, so there is a constant progression. This season his problems have gotten worse, so and who knows what’s going to happen, but I think they will always try and do both. Give you familiar aspects and an ever-changing show.
Question: When this season started out, Madeline’s parting shot or comment to everybody was that the three that Fi and Michael and Sam all had to be working together and watch each other’s back. … And to me that was a very telling statement that basically, it was open season on all of them, and including Madeline. Now the question is because Michael’s getting close to thinking about really rejoining whatever company it is that he worked for and going to work back into what he was doing as a spy, that leaves everybody else kind of hanging and wondering what’s the — obviously Fi’s not happy about it, but what’s Sam’s character feeling about it and what will Madeline do if that’s what her son goes off and does?
SG: I don’t know what Madeline would do. I do remember the line that you were speaking of when I said to take care of each other. I think she sees him now as a unit. I mean I don’t think Madeline likes to think of them ever being separated. I think she sees the value in what they do for each and how they protect each other. And I don’t know if she considers herself part of those three people. I think she has to stand back and watch and know that they’re smart enough but pardon me, shit can happen, so “¦
BC: And I think from Sam’s point of view, it’s different than the other ones because Fiona doesn’t have the patriotism. She actually doesn’t understand that he liked doing what he did for the sake of his country. So Sam agrees with that. Sam was in the same boat, and I think he’d be happy for Mike to get back in, even though it looks like it’s borderline not worth it based on what he has to go through and I think Sam is a little bit of a canary in the coal mine. He doesn’t like it when Mike puts himself into very dangerous situations with really sleazy people in order to try and do this and in the episode we’re shooting right now that comes to a head where Sam refuses to help him because he’s doing stuff that is too questionable. So Michael’s going to get in pretty deep. We’ll see how deep he gets in. And if he winds up going back in, I think Sam would miss him because I think Sam has enjoyed getting back to work instead of just drinking and hanging out with rich Miami women. I think he’s enjoyed tailing people and pulling up some of the old skills again. It kind of gets the cobwebs out, gives him a reason to get out of bed.
SG: Also, if Michael went away again like he did before, and didn’t contact me like he did before, I think Madeline would have more reason to be concerned because I think she knows now. I think Michael knows now that she does worry. They’ve had enough confrontations now that should he disappear again, I think there’s tremendous cause for “¦
BC: But you know what, he may actually call you now.
SG: That’s what I’m thinking. If he doesn’t I think there would be cause for alarm.
BC: Right, that’s right.
Question: what is the difference between working on both network and/or syndicated so to speak, free over the air television as opposed to being on a basic cable satellite fiber-optic, for lack of a better expression, television show that’s as successful as Burn Notice from both experiences?
BC: Well, I think, here’s what I would say. With regard to the difference between network and television, network you have a lot more chefs. We would having people crawling up our behinds much more often about scripts, about performance, about hair, makeup, what you look like. There’s a lot more micromanaging because there’s more at stake. The funny thing is, on cable, you’re a little more left alone. You’re only doing between 11 and 16 episodes a year, not 22 or 26 or more. I’m sure Sharon had to do more per season on Cagney and Lacey, but my experience has just been more oversight in the network side. But the funny thing is on the cable side on any given night, Burn Notice is the number one show on television in that slot for our demographic. So ironically, it’s a cable show that’s actually beating the networks. And you’re not really supposed to do that, so I think we’ve confused our parent company, NBC, by outperforming one of their network shows with one of their cable shows. I think . . . .
SG: I think we’re beating all the cables, too, aren’t we?
BC: We’re beating everything on cable and also Sharon, we’re beating the network broadcasts in certain demographics. We’re actually the number one show on television at that time for those demographics.
SG:I love that.
BC: Yes, it’s cool.
SG: My experience “" the difference between working on network and working on cable is that you’re allowed to say things. You’re a lot freer on cable than you are on network.
BC: On network, they probably wouldn’t want you to smoke.
SG: No, I’m sure.
BC: Unless you were a bad guy.
SG: Yes, and then I mean USA’s a little more alert about what comes out of your mouth because we have a demographic of age 10 to age 80. But like working on Showtime, on Queer as Folk, I mean the things that were allowed to come out of my mouth. I was stunned. I enjoyed it, but having worked on network most of my life, you have much more freedom on cable.
Question: Have there been things that you’ve kind of ad-libbed or done specific to your acting approach that have shown up in later episodes that you were happy with or…
BC: Yes, I feel that at the beginning, you speak how the writers write and after a while they write how you speak. So I think there tends to be a line up there, an adjustment to every good writer knows what that particular actor does well and what they don’t do well. And I think over time they’ll go, “Madeline’s really great at this or that.” And they’ll write that sort of stuff. Or, “Sam’s really fun with interrogations. Let’s write that more of those.” Or with the dramatic thing they might not see as many of those come up.
SG: And where I think we eventually are becoming what my husband used to call custodians of our own character. And I mean I don’t screw around with the dialogue too much and sometimes I’ll add stuff just because I think it’s funny. I’m amusing myself. And every once in a while, Oh my God, they kept it in. And that tickles me, but I try to stick to what they write and then you know, you sort of add little stuff just to open it up a little.
BC: And I think generally, Sharon, neither of us really get up in the morning wishing we could come and sit and ad lib, but some things do occur to you on the moment.
SG: Yes, exactly. And sometimes they stay in and sometimes they don’t.
BC: Right, exactly.