Billy Campbell has had one of *those* acting careers - always working, you've undoubtedly seen him in more TV shows and movies than you realise. Campbell has starred in several well known series, guest-starred in beloved shows, and has repeatedly been the best thing in a number of other shows that never quite caught on with viewers. For an entire generation of viewers, he's probably best known for playing the title role in the 1991 Disney film The Rocketeer.
Today Campbell stars in the new Canadian noir drama Cardinal. An adaptation of Giles Blunt's mystery crime novel Forty Words for Sorrow, the series stars Billy Campbell as John Cardinal - a police detective with a complicated history who is the subject of a police corruption investigation.
Campbell took some time while filming the second season of Cardinal to talk with SBS about the show and some of his more notable acting roles over the years.
SBS: You’ve had an extensive career. What are you generally looking for when signing onto a new project? Considering the quality of many of the shows you've worked on, you’re doing it right...
Billy Campbell: I don’t really know, to tell you the truth. For the most part it is things that interest me in one way or another. Though, on occasion, I’ve done things so that I could go to the place it was shooting. [Laughs]. There’s no real rhyme or reason. My top concern is that something was interesting.
Cardinal feels like an extension of the work you’ve been doing in noir-ish genre. Coming off The Killing and a season of Modus, are you now firmly a noir crime actor?
I enjoy the genre and massively enjoyed the original Danish The Killing – Forbrydelsen. I was thrilled to have the chance to be on the American version. I like the notion of slow burn storytelling. That was AMC’s way of summing it up. I find that really to be more satisfying than almost anything else and I think a lot of people do today. That’s why television is having a renaissance.
How did Cardinal come to you – was it off the back of your work on the other noir shows, or were you actively seeking the opportunity.
I’m not sure exactly why they first thought of me, but it came to me through my agent who informed me that they were inquiring. In fact, I turned it down to begin with. Not because I didn’t like it. I loved it and desperately wanted to do it. But I promised my wife that I would stick by during her last year of architectural studies, so I turned it down. But then they came sniffing around again a few weeks later and I thought “Oh…I can’t…” - but maybe I should inform my wife as to what I’m turning down. So I told her “It’s not just me I’m earning money for anymore, so I ought to let you know that these people are asking”. She read it and said I should to do it and “we’ll work it out logistically – don’t worry about that. I think you ought to do it”. Thanks to her, I’m here doing what might be one of the very best jobs of my career.
You were in the earlier seasons of Tales From the City. Netflix are bringing it back – is there any chance of you doing more of that?
[Laughs] I doubt it, my characters dead. My manager or somebody was talking with one of the producers relatively recently and they were saying they’d love to find a way to have Billy re-appear. If it did happen, it would have to be a flashback of some sort. I’d still be 25 years older, so I don’t know how that would work. Dream sequence, maybe.
Are there any shows or movies you’ve done that you were surprised never became bigger successes. The Rocketeer obviously had a huge amount of promise. There was also Moon Over Miami.
Those are two good examples. The Rocketeer everyone was really hoping it would be bigger. We were all disappointed when it wasn’t. It wasn’t really a surprise so much – we opened within a couple of weeks of two really big films. I think it was Terminator 2 and Robin Hood. We didn’t have any big name movie stars in the film and it was a period film. It wasn’t really all that surprising that it didn’t become a smash hit.
Moon Over Miami I was terribly disappointed about, but that also failed to find an audience. Part of the reason for that is it got watered down by the studio as it was happening. Once & Again, as well, we were on for three seasons. And in three seasons we had seven different timeslots. It’s difficult to find an audience when that thing is happening.
On the subject of The Rocketeer, I presume that you would have had a lot of people approach you who had grown up with that film, perhaps as a video success rather than seeing it theatrically?
Quite a few people talk about the film. It’s been a steady cult hit over the years. A lot of people, most of the time, it’s The Rocketeer that people respond to in terms of things I’ve done in the past. I was in a pub in San Diego a few years ago and a big fellow came over to my table and was staring down at me. I was a bit nervous for a moment. He said “excuse me” in the nicest voice. “Are you The Rocketeer?” I said “Yes, I am,” very relieved at that point. He said “I just want you to know that those are all of my buddies over there at the table,” and pointed at a table full of equally impressive fellows. “I just want you to know that you’re the reason I’m a Navy Seal”.
It turned out that his dad had taken him to The Rocketeer when he was ten for his birthday and it was with that he decided he wanted to be a ‘hero’, leading him to enlisting in the Navy and then becoming a Navy Seal. I would say that’s the most extreme example of something like that happening, but people very much respond to The Rocketeer because it’s such an optimistic film.
They’ve also brought back Dynasty. You did a stint of that at the start of your career. Would you be interested in doing more Dynasty if offered?
[Laughs] Maybe as a cameo, just as a lark. I’m not sure I would…
You’ve moved onto weightier things…
I think so.
Is there anything else you’re working on, or is it just Cardinal for the moment?
I did a small bit on Modus, which was the first thing I’ve done in Scandinavia. So, I’m really excited about that. I have a Norwegian wife and child and I live mainly between Copenhagen and her family’s farm in the south of Norway. So, I’m eager to start working over there so I don’t have to pack by bags and leave all the time. It was exciting to me to have even a small part in a Swedish show, which we shot in Stockholm. I’m hopeful there will be more of that kind of thing in my future.
Cardinal is streaming now at SBS On Demand: