Breaking Bad’s Betsy Brandt on the evolution of her character
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Though she’d never before held a full-time TV gig when she was cast as the gossipy, kleptomania-prone Marie Schrader on the AMC series Breaking Bad, Betsy Brandt quickly proved she could hold her own alongside co-stars Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, and Dean Norris. As the fifth season of Breaking Bad heads to its conclusion, Brandt talked to The A.V. Club about the slow but steady evolution of her character, the origins of Marie’s obsession with the color purple, and her constant requests that Vince Gilligan write her an action scene.
The A.V. Club: During “Buyout,” there’s a moment where Marie begins a sentence with the words, “I know you think I have a big mouth sometimes…” It’s impressive that you were able to deliver that line with a straight face.
Betsy Brandt: I know, right? I thought that was super funny, too. I mean, it’s Breaking Bad funny. It’s not slapstick humor, but we have our own funny moments. I think this season is actually one of our funniest. Which is weird, because there’s so many horrible things going on as well. But I really do think it’s one of our funniest.
AVC: The series has been described as a dark comedy since the beginning, but it’s definitely more “dark” than “comedy” of late. Marie generally has some of the lightest material, though, probably because she’s out of the loop for the meth storylines.
BB: Well, Dean [Norris]—Hank—has been really funny, too. But he’s getting more serious as the season goes on, so his stuff is getting less funny. Not that Dean’s less funny. Dean is still very funny. [Whispers.] He’ll hit me if I say he isn’t. But as Hank gets closer to Walt, it’s less funny.
AVC: Much of Breaking Bad is about the evolution of its characters, but Marie has done so at a slower pace than most.
BB: Yeah, I feel like before season three, we saw… well, right off the bat, we knew she stole, we knew she was kind of gossipy, and we also knew that she stood up for what she thought was right and would stand by her family. But she definitely was tough to take. We saw that part of her, and everybody’s got both sides to them, but some people we just see one side more than the other. When Hank was shot, though, I think two things happened: We saw who Marie really was, and then I’m sure her priorities changed.
AVC: Which isn’t a bad thing, since up to that point the character of Marie seemed almost sitcom-y, at least on paper: the nosy sister-in-law who can’t keep a secret and just has this teensy-weensy problem with kleptomania.
BB: Oh, yeah. From where I stood when we did the pilot, I actually thought, “Oh, this is funny!” [Laughs.] In fact, I said to Dean—he and I met in the waiting room when we both there to read for Vince, and it was a different time. Now it’s not such a big deal, with all of the single-camera comedies and everything, but then I said, “I don’t know if this is a comedy or a drama!” So I said to Dean, “I think this is funny. Are you playing this as funny?” He said, “Oh, yeah.” And that really helped me go in there and play it that way. Also, I read the scene where… well, I was reading for Skyler at the time, and I read the scene where she’s giving Walt a birthday handjob while she’s selling stuff on eBay. I had so much fun reading that. [Laughs.] So much fun.
AVC: Speaking of Skyler, Anna Gunn has said before that she was hesitant about signing onto the series until Vince assured her that she wouldn’t be playing just another worried wife. Did you have similar concerns about Marie?
BB: No, I just… honestly, I really had very few concerns about this show. Mostly I was concerned, “Are they actually going to pick it up?” I thought the material was risky. Which it is. Because there are just so many networks that are like, “Please let us have that show about the meth-cooking teacher!” [Laughs.] So I knew it was going to be a good show. I was just hoping it would get a chance to be what it could be. And it did. AMC was behind it right away, I have to say, for which I’m very thankful. Thankful that everything worked out the way it did, and that the show ended up on this network.
AVC: As a couple, Marie and Hank have a unique dynamic, as least as far as TV marriages go. At what point did you realize just how strong the bond between them was?
BB: You know, it’s funny that I keep talking about the pilot, but in the pilot, I said to Dean, “I’m really glad we’re part of this couple and not part of that couple,” meaning Walt and Skyler. “No good’s gonna come from that down the road.” Dean and I, we just got along really well, even from when we were doing these art-department photos at the beginning. The photos were gonna be of the four of us, but first they shot photos of Dean and I, then of Anna and Bryan, and then they were gonna Photoshop us together. So when Dean and I were shooting our photos, I said, “Okay, so we’re on vacation, the four of us, we’re in Mexico… we’re drunk, right? We’re the really loud, drunk, annoying couple.” [Laughs.] And we just had a good time. But I just kind of feel that’s who they are: They live life, they’re happy, and I think he definitely lives by “happy wife, happy life,” but I think she would move mountains for him.
AVC: The elevator scene in “One Minute” was particularly revelatory, showing that, despite his cranky, snarky exterior, Hank does open up to Marie on occasion.
BB: Yeah, I loved that, but when we shot that… I’m a crier. I don’t know who I was talking to the other day, but I was like, “Oh, I’m gonna cry right now just thinking about Marie and Hank not having kids,” or something like that. She’s tightly wound and holds it in. And then she steals. [Laughs.] So I really try to not let it go, because that’s part of her problem: She doesn’t let it go. But I remember when we were shooting that scene… you get so close, you’re in that moment, and then you have to start over again, and you get back in the moment. And we thought we had it. We felt like we had the one we were gonna use. And I think I asked Frieda, the woman who was doing my makeup at the time, “Did we get it? Did we get it?” And she said, “We got it, we’re moving on.” And I just started sobbing, crying my eyes out. I just think, “My God, Marie lives like this every day, all day long.” She’s wound up, it’s right there at the surface, but she just doesn’t let it out.
AVC: She did reveal her inner strength after Hank was shot, however. The “groundhog” scene that got him out of the hospital and into physical therapy at home remains one of Marie’s finest moments.
BB: Hey, she knows how to close a deal. [Laughs.] Marie may be a little different, but she’s not an idiot.
AVC: Plus, you finally had a chance to use everything you learned when you read as Skyler for the eBay scene.
BB: I sent Vince an email when I read the outline for the hospital scene, saying, “Shakespeare said that the eyes are the window to the soul. In our show, it’s the handjob.”
AVC: For all of her memorable moments, there’s also a lot of time when Marie is nowhere to be seen. You said you’ve never had any concerns about the series, but do you ever find yourself peeking over Vince Gilligan’s shoulder, wondering when Marie’s going to take the spotlight again?
BB: Oh, I want to be part of the action, without a doubt. Every year I ask for some action. I ask that Marie get a gun and be a very good shot, and that she’s involved in some very intense shoot-out or something. We have one more season to go where this could happen. [Laughs.] Anything is possible, especially in this show, so I’m keeping positive. I don’t know if I have reason to be, but I am.
AVC: How has it been playing Marie’s more kleptomaniacal scenes?
BB: Really fun. When we shot the pilot, Vince didn’t say anything about that, so I didn’t know. But then I found out before the first season actually started, and I said, “I love that you wrote that.” That just told me so much about her. You’re just putting the pieces together to create, hopefully, this whole person.
AVC: When Marie was attending the various open houses last season, did you get the impression that it was because she was subconsciously trying to get caught to help bring Hank out of his shell?
BB: I think there probably is that element, but I don’t know if she’s aware of it. She might be, but I don’t think she is. I think it’s thrilling to her to get away with it. And she really doesn’t want to piss him off. But there is the safety net that, if she does get busted, she’ll probably get some help.
AVC: How did you feel about Hank’s reaction to her attempts to encourage his recovery? He got pretty harsh at times.
BB: Yeah, but I just felt she… she almost lost him, so I really think he could hurl a bag of dog poop at her and she’d put up with it, she was just so happy he was alive. I mean, I don’t think she’d be like, “Oh, please throw that at me!” [Laughs.] But I think she was just so happy that he was there. Also, I think that, even though he wasn’t saying it, because they are so close, she knew what a hard time he was having.
AVC: Breaking Bad is obviously Vince’s baby, but is there any particular element of Marie that you yourself have been able to bring to the character?
BB: Well, besides the fact that I’m the one playing her… I know she’s not the most likeable character, but I just love her. And I’ve loved her from the beginning. Vince described her when I met with him before we shot the pilot, and he said, “She needles her sister.” And when he said that, I got right away that she was that person in the family, the one that you love, but that you have to put up with. I mean, c’mon, introduce me to your family, and tell me there’s not at least one person like that. [Laughs.] Sometimes there’ll be someone in your family who can just push your buttons like no one else can, which I thought was a very interesting convention for the other characters on the show, too. You think about how they all affect one another. Like, I look at this thing that we learned about Hank because of this thing that Marie does, and things that we learn about Skyler and Walt and how they are with each other. Every character has their place in the story and in the family.
In the beginning, my character… I didn’t have a lot of text, so I didn’t have a lot to go on, so I went with what I had. We were all assigned a color—mine was purple—and I said, “Well if her color is purple, then I think she just loves purple. She is really, really into purple.” She’s that kind of person. She doesn’t do anything half-assed. And Vince said, “Great!” And now everybody’s color has changed except for mine. I’m like, “How come everybody else’s color is changing, and mine’s not?” And [costume designer] Kathleen Detoro said, “Vince likes you in purple.” [Laughs.] So I’ve kept the purple, but then they’ve added in yellow, and this season I’ve had maybe one or two things that were black.
I just wanted to know about her, because when there’s not a lot in the script—especially in a pilot, when you’re just starting out—you want to be as specific as you can be. So I asked Vince… [Starts to laugh.] He actually loves to tell this story, and I love that he loves to tell it. He was just crazed, busy beyond belief, and I said, “What do you think she does for a living?” And he says, “Uh, I don’t know, what do you think?” I said, “I think she’s an X-ray technician.” And he said, “Great.” So that’s what she became. [Laughs.] I’d thought of her as either an X-ray technician or an insurance adjuster. I wanted her to be involved in something medical, but I didn’t want her to be a doctor or anything too highbrow. I didn’t want her to have too much authority. I wanted her to be able to have a little chip on her shoulder, but to know things, so she could be helpful. That’s what I wanted for her. And he was totally down with that. And then it ended up coming in really handy.
AVC: Do you have a favorite Marie-centric episode?
BB: I loved shooting “Open House.” Sam Catlin wrote that, and I was so happy that such a Marie-centric episode was his episode, because he’s just so great. It was such a pleasure for me to shoot that. I had so much fun. And Jennifer Hasty, who played the real-estate agent, I thought was so fantastic. I had fun yelling at her in the street. People thought there was a fight going on. Because we shot it in a neighborhood, people in the neighborhood thought something was really happening.
AVC: By not being in the loop as far as the meth business goes, Marie rarely gets to interact with the more unsavory characters in Walt’s life. While that’s great for her, it’s got to be a bit depressing for you.
BB: Are you kidding? I would love to hang out with the hoodlums. I would love it. I told Aaron Paul, who I just thought was adorable when I first met him, “You know, if you weren’t so up-to-no-good all the time, I’d invite you to Skyler’s baby shower, because that’s my big party of the year!” [Laughs.] In season one, I was like, “Okay, I’ve been thinking of things we can do together. If Jesse got busted for his behavior and Marie got busted for stealing, we could do community service.” Which I thought would’ve been funny. And I was so excited to have had a scene with Giancarlo [Esposito]. I had a scene with him in the hospital after Hank was shot, and… I just didn’t think I would get that, so I was so, so happy. But I feel—and you can tell me what you think—that my chances of having a scene with Mark Margolis have probably… that train may have left the station.
AVC: Very likely.
BB: Yeah, that’s not looking so good. But I’ve also requested a scene with Mike. I’d like to have a scene with Jonathan Banks. And he’s like, “Well, maybe you dated my son!” [Laughs.]
AVC: Well, if the kleptomania recurs, she’ll probably need an attorney, so there’s your scene with Bob Odenkirk.
BB: Oh, I’m going to need an attorney, because I think that Dean Norris should pay me alimony after the show is over. So I’m going to request the services of Saul Goodman. A TV lawyer for my TV marriage. [Laughs.]
You know, you asked about a favorite episode and I gave you one, but when I look back at everything we’ve done up to this point… it’s all kind of one long project to me. I can’t believe we’re where we are. I did a podcast with Vince a few days ago, and I said, “I don’t want to get another job! Do you know why? Because I like this job. I don’t know if you’ve seen what’s out there, Vince, but this show is really good.” [Laughs.] He said, “I don’t want to get another job, either. There are times I wonder if I’m doing the right thing.” But I assured him that he was.
AVC: It’s certainly better to go out on his own terms.
BB: Sure. But he said during season one—it may even have been during the pilot—that he only saw this going three episodes. Thankfully, things worked out so that we were able to keep going, but every episode after the third one has been just like gravy to me. When he said that, though, I was like, “Oh, but this is such a great show! Come on, who knows, maybe we’ll have a fun couple of years.”
AVC: You’ve already been doing a bit of work here and there outside of the series. How did you end up in Magic Mike?
BB: Breaking Bad. Because Steven Soderbergh is a fan of Breaking Bad. Because he’s a very smart man. [Laughs.]
AVC: So Soderbergh actually came looking for you?
BB: Yeah, although he didn’t have to look very hard. [Laughs.] But, yes, he reached out, and I was like, “Oh, my God, yeah, I’ll do this!” I was actually out of town, in Michigan visiting my family, and my husband and I had taken a little night away up to Traverse City. My manager called me, and I was like, “Can you just read it to me over the phone? Because I can’t get my email up here!” And even when I got back to my parents’ house, they don’t have a fax machine, and I don’t even get cell service there. You can call me, but that’s it. So she read it to me, and I said, “Yes!” I mean, I didn’t even need for her to do that, because I would’ve done a movie by Steven Soderbergh if he was shooting it on his cell phone. I was happy to be available. And this past year, I had a little arc on Private Practice, which is a show that I watch anyway. I just love those actors. I just think that’s such a fantastic group of actors. And I was happy to be on that show. I had a great time, and I was really happy with my work on there.
AVC: Breaking Bad is actually the first time you’ve ever been a series regular. Do you have a favorite performance from your career prior to coming aboard the show?
BB: [Pauses.] Yeah, I do. I actually wasn’t ready for that question, but I was on ER before my daughter was born, and… oh, my God, she was a meth mom! [Laughs.] She was on meth! Isn’t that funny? I was really proud of that performance.
AVC: You’d obviously been acting for a while before you got this gig, but how was it to step into a full-time series role for a change?
BB: I feel Breaking Bad—maybe everybody says this about their show—I feel like this show is so special that I don’t know that I necessarily really know what it’s like to do a regular show. Honestly, I think Vince Gilligan is the smartest, nicest man in Hollywood, and to work with Bryan has just been great the entire way. It’s just been phenomenal. It’s such a great group that it’s just been really, really great. And we shoot out in New Mexico; there’s so many things about this show that make it different.