In Highlight Reel, we ask the people who make movies and TV about their favorite individual scenes from their careers.
The actor: Betsy Brandt bounced through a variety of TV guest roles before landing the series-regular part that would propel her into the rarified air of those who’ve worked on some of the best TV series ever made. As Marie Schrader on Breaking Bad, Brandt was never involved in the series’ most violent or horrifying moments, only occasionally experiencing the trauma secondhand through what her husband told her. Yet she became one of the series’ most reliably funny characters and something of a moral compass—even when she was attending real-estate open houses to steal small items from the homes. Now that Breaking Bad has wrapped, Brandt has immediately moved on to a very different part, that of Annie Henry on The Michael J. Fox Show. She will play the wife of Fox’s character, Mike Henry, when the show debuts next month on NBC.
The scene: In season one’s “Gray Matter”—the fifth episode of the show ever produced—Skyler organizes an intervention for her husband, hoping that Walter will begin acting rationally and seek treatment for his cancer.
The A.V. Club: So what’s your favorite Breaking Bad scene?
Betsy Brandt: I feel like I always give the same answer.
AVC: Go ahead. That’s fine!
BB: I like to be honest! Season one, the intervention scene with the talking pillow. Just because—I talked about this on the panel we did with Conan—I felt like that was such a moment for us as actors and as the show. We were like, “Holy shit.” That’s when you’re really like, “Yes, this is a family,” and everything became crystal clear. The only thing missing was Aaron Paul and some of the bad guys. I was aware of that world, also, but it just felt like the crew got really excited; they really saw what the show could be. And Vince [Gilligan] was really happy. That’s always a good sign. Not that he’s usually not happy. He usually has a smile on his face. It just felt like a magical moment. I know that sounds kind of cheesy, but I was like, “Wow.” It was really amazing.
AVC: That first season took the suffering that Walt was going through, his illness, very seriously. Yet that scene has these moments of really bright humor in it. How was it mixing all of those elements together?
BB: We kind of found [it] that day, which I think is also really exciting for an actor. Dean [Norris] decided he was going to take the pillow back when he said, “Can I have the pillow back? I agree with Marie,” and I said, “Thank you,” and he’s like, “You’re welcome, baby.” He and I always had great chemistry. We met when we auditioned. It was just really wonderful.
Also that day, I was like, “Ugh, I should have done this in that take,” and he said, “Ask for another one!” I probably would not have, had he not told me to, and I did, and I think that’s the one we used. That was the time. I feel like we had it before, but really got it in that take. He made me a better actor that day.
AVC: You four in the White/Schrader axis have a very lived-in chemistry. Did you feel like that really developed in that scene?
BB: I felt that in the pilot, but then in that scene, I could see who all of these characters were, myself included, and who they were going to be throughout this story. I remember, there had been some rewrites on that scene, and I went to Vince and I said, “I just want to understand what you’re going for in this moment, because I want to make sure I’m on the right page or pages here.” I said, “Hopefully these are decisions we’ll live with a few seasons down the road.” It’s season one; that’s what you hope for. It was just such a huge moment for me, still, looking back at it. And there’s been so many of these moments on the show. But that was a huge, huge moment for me.
AVC: What were some of those things that you or the writers had set up that paid off later for Marie in interesting ways?
BB: She was really tightly wound. Still, she wears purple. Also, that she was the difficult one in the family, which was really fun to play. Just things like that.
But also, Vince was always very protective over her, and I loved that. He’s like, “She’s not a bitch.” I loved that in that intervention scene, she’s the only one who says, “Walt needs to do what he wants to do.” She has this sense of justice, whether she’s wrong or right. For her, it’s very clear. Just things like that. And I love the relationship that Marie and Skyler have, that Skyler loves her despite all of her difficulties. And Marie is able to give that back to her seasons down the road, when Skyler’s making very questionable decisions. She would never turn her back on her. Things like that, that kind of groundwork.
AVC: You mentioned you approached Vince Gilligan in those first few episodes with some questions. Has the process on Breaking Bad been very open to notes from the actors?
BB: Oh, listen: They’re amazing at what they do, and you’re aware of that from minute one. Vince, in my mind—and I think he did—has a clear idea of what he wants. I want to make sure, if he’s not directing that episode, in the beginning, I wanted to make sure I knew what he wanted, and that that’s what I would show up and do and give.
AVC: Do you remember some of what the director said or what you were talking about as you were rehearsing?
BB: I can remember the crew just being really impressed with it and proud. Especially the hours that they put in, you really want them to be proud of the show that they’re working on and like it. I’ve never felt anything like that before. I had never experienced that until that moment.
AVC: What was it like coming down from that scene then?
BB: I sent Vince an email, and I said, “I want to have T-shirts made.” I don’t even remember what year it was, I was like, “Intervention scene, 2011,” or whatever year it was. I just felt kind of high after, and he said watching that scene was like watching a piece of theater. It was just really satisfying for him, and that just made me so happy.
AVC: The thing that people talk about a lot with Breaking Bad is all the big action moments or when something blows up, yet the conversations are so beautifully written and so well acted, but you’ve never been a part of an explosion scene—
[Brandt sighs disappointedly.]
AVC: Fingers crossed.
BB: I have asked him for a gun every season. Every season I’m like, “Come on. Have Marie be a really good aim! No one will see it coming! I can have, like, a bedazzled purple gun case in Hank’s man cave. Come on, let me get in on some of the action!”
AVC: When you take a look at one of those conversation scenes or one of those dialogue scenes, as an actor where do you start?
BB: Honestly, I feel like this might make me sound like a really lazy actor, but they’re so good, it’s like, “That’s exactly what they would say.” It’s always just exactly right. And I’m so aware that that’s lucky. That’s a blessing for me, but oh my God, sometimes I read those scripts, I cry. Sometimes when I loop some of these scenes, they’re hard for me to watch, and I know what’s coming! I stillhave not seen the scene where Dean Norris is shot. And I know he’s okay. I have scenes with him after. But I just can’t watch it. I just can’t do it.
AVC: Sometimes that first season, finding the characters, finding the voice of the show, can be a process. Was there something you found in that season with Marie or that you think the writers found that has carried forward?
BB: I like how they made her a little weirdo. She’s a little anal. She’s got her Splenda going. She’s really selfish. She’s an extremely selfish person, and a lot of people are selfish, but they hide it. She’s not that person. She’s like, “I’m selfish because that makes sense. That’s honest. That’s justice. It’s selfish!” I always liked that I think she way overdresses for work. I picture her at the doctor’s office, working with all these sick people, and she’s dressed like she’s going to the fucking disco. I think that says a lot about her. [Laughs.] That’s what she cares about. They don’t have kids, and I think it’s not that they wouldn’t have liked to, but she’s working with what she’s got.
AVC: You mentioned earlier Marie’s sense of justice. Might that come into play in the episodes to come?
BB: [Slyly.] You’ll have to wait and see. I would be lambasted on Twitter if I gave any spoilers. It’s funny because you see all of these characters throughout the show; they all break bad in their own way, but they all have their sense of right and wrong. For some of them, that’s changed, and for some, it hasn’t. To me, that’s really fascinating to watch. How many have you seen?
AVC: The first one.
BB: Oh my God. These last eight are so good. And I feel kind of dumb because I should have seen some of it coming, and I didn’t. It’s not, like, surprising and, “How off the wall can we be that people wouldn’t expect?” I told Vince, “It’s the perfect ending to this show.” And I was nervous that eight [episodes in 2012] and eight [in 2013] wouldn’t be enough to really wrap it up, but they wrote it like that’s the way it should have been.
AVC: When you look back on Breaking Bad 20 years from now and its effect on your career, what do you hope you think about it?
BB: It’s been huge for my career, but when you ask me that, the first thing is I’m just so happy to have been a part of it. Proud to be a part of it, but happy that I was lucky enough to experience—I’m going to cry—to experience that with this group. [Teary.] It’s lightning in a bottle. It’s just really amazing. We had a lot of fun at work, too. You have to. I believe you have to. To shoot a show like this, if you can’t crack jokes in between takes, I would just be depressed.
AVC: And finally, you have moved right on to The Michael J. Fox Show. Obviously Breaking Bad is often a very funny show, but what’s it been like going to a straight comedy?
BB: The new show is funnier. It is funnier. It’s great. It’s a whole new thing for me. I’ve done comedy before, but not on TV. It’s really, really fun to do. But once again, I feel like I have this amazing group. Right away, Mike and I were standing next to each other in this family photo for promo. We hadn’t even shot the pilot yet and he just turned to me and said, “This feels pretty good,” and I said, “Well, you know.” He knows. He’s also one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. Honestly, I can’t believe I was this lucky. He’s amazing, and it’s a really great cast, and I have so much faith in the writers and producers on that show. They’re also really nice guys because I’m very spoiled by Vince Gilligan.