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In his 26-year career, Dean Norris has played lots of cops, federal agents, and military officers, but none like the role for which he’s best known: DEA agent Hank Schrader on Breaking Bad. Over the past couple of seasons, Hank—brother-in-law to Bryan Cranston’s schoolteacher-cum-meth-dealer Walter White—has taken a dark path (much like the show itself) that has included PTSD and paralysis. In season four [warning: some vague, general season-four spoilers ahead], Hank returned to fighting form, going on his own to investigate Walt’s boss, the frighteningly cold Gus Fring [Giancarlo Esposito]. A few weeks before the season-four finale, Norris, a Harvard graduate and South Bend, Indiana native, sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about how tough it was to play a bedridden Hank, and how he never doubted he’d be an actor.
The A.V. Club: When you started shooting the season, were you concerned that Hank’s character was just going to be lying in bed feeling sorry for himself all year? Or did Vince Gilligan give you an idea that he was going to play a bigger role in the second half of the season?
Dean Norris: Yeah, he actually told me that. You know, they’re married to a certain timeline, and they try as much as they can to make it believable that he would recover during that time. So they just couldn’t have him do too much early on. But yeah, he definitely told me. He said, “We’ll have you dealing in bed and having some issues with your wife, and then you’ll get back in the saddle.”
AVC: Were you happy that at some point during the season you were actually going to be able to stand up and at least somewhat try to walk on your own two feet again?
DN: Oh yeah. It’s funny, because actually during the shooting of that, I felt really frustrated, and I remember talking to Bryan Cranston a lot, and he said “Yeah, it seems like you’re kind of internalizing Hank a little bit.” Because it was frustrating for Hank, obviously, and it was frustrating for me as an actor, too, because I was not able to do the kinds of things I got to do in the first couple seasons. So I was really happy to get back on my feet. The writers used to always joke with me about how they were going to keep me in there for a long time. But he’s back in action now again.
AVC: Did you play it differently last year than you did this year?
DN: Well, last year he didn’t really get out of bed much. They had a scene where his wife gets him out of the hospital by giving him a little handjob, so we knew he wasn’t completely paralyzed. We had a medical tech on the set to explain the physicality of [playing a paraplegic]. I actually talked to a number of people to try to get the psychological element of it, because I thought that was more important, from my point of view, at least. I think that people could clearly come up to me on the street [after seeing these episodes] and say “You’re such a dick to your wife!” I’m like, “You know, I’m not really in real life.” But I thought it was realistic how that played out. It’s not like “Hey, honey, thanks for changing my bedpan,” I think it was just completely emasculating and humiliating, and just horrible where he’s at. And to find that and play that, from a psychological point of view, was more important to me than the physicality of it.
AVC: People were actually getting on your case for Hank being mean to Betsy Brandt?
DN: Yeah! It’s amazing. It’s like “Well, what else do you expect him to do? I mean, do you think he’s happy that he’s there?” You know, he’s bitter. He’s horribly humiliated. He doesn’t want to be mean to his wife, you know? He loves her, but she’s the only one there, and you need someone else to feel the pain. That’s just the way it is. This is what I picked up from talking to people: You don’t come out of something like that like, “Oh, I’m happy to be alive, honey, thanks for changing my bedpan.” It’s tough. It’s really hard to not have your motor functions, particularly for a guy like him, who physicality was a big part of who he was.
AVC: Because he had a certain swagger and a certain attitude.
DN: Right, and it was a big part of who he was. And now that’s all taken away from him.
AVC: Did you have to layer Hank’s PTSD into that as well?
DN: Yeah, and I’m not sure exactly where we’re going with that. At some level, [the paralysis] may have cured him, because it just couldn’t get any worse than that. So I’m not sure exactly where we’re going to go with dealing with that, although it’s different than it was in the third season. I think at some level, it got so bad that it couldn’t get any worse, and therefore at some level it’s gone.
AVC: The cast’s auditions are on YouTube, and it’s interesting to see that you play Hank exactly like he was in the first two seasons. Did you have any inkling, once you started working on the show, that your character would take the turn?
DN: I did not have any inkling. And it’s funny, my wife is always like, [Laughs.] “Did they know that you can do that stuff that you did in season three?” I said, “You know, I don’t know.” Actually that audition tape is from a script that they changed. It was even more Hank-ish, if you will, and they kind of toned it down a bit. There were some racist elements that they had in the original character that didn’t quite make it into the character as it’s played now. So the answer is no, I didn’t know. My question that I’m going to ask when the show’s completely over is to Vince, “How did you trust giving me the stuff without really knowing?” Apparently they did.
AVC: Do you think he saw something in one of your previous roles?
DN: I think so. There’s not something I can think of, and maybe just certain inklings of stuff that we got to do in season two, where he starts to get the PTSD, but I don’t know how he would have known to write that kind of stuff for me in season three. Because season three was really a dark season for him, and obviously this season as well.
AVC: The first two seasons had some comic relief that included Hank. Do you think it was Gilligan’s idea all along, to get people sucked into this story before making it really dark?
DN: I think it was. [The writers] claim that they’re very organic in their writing as they kind of set it up, and they don’t really know where it’s going until they get in the writers’ room. But [Vince has] stated publicly that he was going to take Bryan’s character and make him totally unlikeable—take him “from Mr. Chips to Scarface,” and he’s gonna do it. He’s not gonna back away from that. And I think they’re willing to do that with all the characters. All of our characters are different now. Everyone’s different than they were when we first met them, which is really a great thing about the show, and it’s really fun to act in. So yeah, I think they knew that they were going to take that character in that direction. I think, for what it’s worth too, the addition of the great Bob Odenkirk as Saul has also relieved Hank of having to carry that comedic role for a while, and that helped, so they could take Hank in a different direction, because they didn’t necessarily need him to bring the comedy. Although I happen to think that [in the episode] where he’s dealing with Walt and then having him take him to Pollos Hermanos was a pretty funny scene; even though it was a tense scene, I think it had some funny moments in it.
AVC: When you see actors like Cranston, Jonathan Banks, and Giancarlo Esposito lock in and get into their characters, does that inspire you and help you out in your process?
DN: You know, I’ve said many times that I’ve learned so much watching and working with Bryan Cranston—not only the craft-ness of it, but his approach is just an unbelievably professional approach to acting. I’ve been around a long time, and sometimes you kind of have your things that are in your wheelhouse that you can do, and maybe… I don’t intentionally not bring my A-game, but sometimes you can slip into that. With Bryan there, he really inspires you to step it up every, every, every scene, every day you’re on the set. So in that sense, yeah, but he’s great. He’s, of course, directed a couple episodes as well. He goes from chit-chatting about the family to Heisenberg in a fucking second. [Laughs.] He really does. You know, “Hey, how’s the family,” to you know, “Get ready, action,” boom, and he’s fucking badass. So that’s his process. [Laughs.]
AVC: Is there a lot of Hank in you and you in Hank?
DN: Yeah, there’s some. Although I must say, this season was a much more difficult season for me to act in than anything in the past, because it’s been such a bad, dark state of affairs for him. It was kind of a drag, to be honest with you. It was hard to shake that, for me. There were just days on the set where I was just a real prick to my [TV] wife, and that was harder for me to get into than the lighter Hank.
AVC: Is it tough when you get home and you’re playing somebody heavy like that? Do you carry it with you?
DN: You know, yeah, actually it is. I mean, it’s not like ridiculously tough. If you force yourself to smile, within a couple minutes, you feel happy. So if you’re spending the whole day in this really dark, dark place, there’s no way it’s not going to affect your actual personality off the set. So I’m happier now that the first half of that season is over. No doubt about it.
AVC: In a recent interview, you told the story about the monologue you did at the end of the episode “Problem Dog.” You nailed the speech, and because everybody had some extra time, you all blew off some steam. Why did you decide to do the monologue that way?
DN: Maybe [it’s] from my theater background, I don’t know. I took it as a point of pride to, if I’ve got a four-page monologue, that it’s my job to memorize it, and to know it, and to do it. I think it helps the speech to really know it that well. So I did, and I did that speech from beginning to end, word for word, 10 times or something. I’m not sure how many. A lot of times. We did a few pickup ones where I had to figure out where I was in the speech and had to call for a line to try to find out, but whenever we did the whole thing, I would do it from beginning to end. I’ve never had this on any set I’ve done in 22 years—we were done three hours early, because they had allotted the amount of time you would usually allot for a four-page scene. And I was like, “Well, we’re going to take that time and take the crew out and have a few cocktails.”
AVC: Most people who’ve been on the Breaking Bad set say it’s a very laid-back, relaxed set. Is that a correct description?
DN: Absolutely. It’s amazingly drama-free. And you know, I don’t know what people would say about me, but I feel very friendly with everybody on that set. You know, the young Aaron Paul and I get to go out on the town a few times. We’re not around together that much, unfortunately, but I always enjoy that. Betsy has been over to our house, I’ve been over to her house. We all really do get along, and it really makes for a pleasant work space.
AVC: What does a night out with Dean Norris and Aaron Paul look like?
DN: [Laughs.] You don’t want to know, man. [Laughs again.] But it’s a lot of fun.
AVC: Does the camaraderie occur because you are all out in Albuquerque and it’s not Hollywood, and there’s no other business stuff going around?
DN: Yeah, I don’t know if that’s so much… I mean, I love being out in Albuquerque. We have fun, but I’ve been on location with other casts that aren’t the same. You know, it isn’t the same as that. I think it’s because it comes from the top down. I mean, it comes from Vince, it comes from Bryan. When we all first got cast, the first thing that happened was, Bryan invited us all to lunch, and that’s where we all met each other, all the regulars in the cast. He really set the tone. I think he was happy that we were all married. We all had pretty normal lives. From that meeting on, [that] set the tone “This is going to be a drama-free kind of set,” and it has been. And Vince is that way. He’s a very, very nice, very, very sweet man, despite the stuff that he writes. [Laughs.] And he’s got that Southern politeness and charm. He hires people that I think reflect his own personality, including Bryan at some level.
AVC: Even the people he’s brought on since the beginning of the show, they seem to have fit in, like Jonathan and Giancarlo and Bob.
DN: Right, and those guys too. I mean those are all consummate professionals, Jonathan Banks, and obviously Giancarlo. I mean, Jonathan Banks is great. He’s one of those guys that, I tell him that I was in high school when I would watch him, and he was one of the guys that I looked at and said, “Wow!” Because back in those days, TV was all TVQ. It was all good-looking guys on TV, and to see him be a real guy, [he] was one of the guys who inspired me. I wish I got to do more stuff with him, but I at least get to talk to him on the set, and it’s really a delight.
AVC: Besides it being a bigger role, what makes Hank different than some of the other cops and military men you’ve played?
DN: I think ultimately getting to see underneath the mask of what he was. I mean, I think in the first season, he was similar to a lot of things I’ve played before. But it’s lasted long enough that you get to see underneath that mask of cockiness and kind of bravado and boorishness that his character was at the beginning. It’s just gone on long enough that they’re able to reveal other layers underneath that, and that’s been obviously a great thing to do as an actor.
AVC: When you found out Bryan was going to do a remake of Total Recall, what was your reaction?
DN: [Laughs.] I gave him a lot of shit. I said “Hey man, you guys make your movie. Don’t be concerned about comparisons to the mega-hit, genre-defining, iconic movie that I did back in the early ’90s.” I look forward to it. I think it’s gonna be interesting.
AVC: Breaking Bad gets a lot of critical buzz even though it’s still not seen by a ton of people. How has it helped your career out, and how has it helped the other participants’ careers out?
DN: Well, you know, in Hollywood, man, this show is No. 1. There’s no question about it. Ask anybody. Ask any producers, casting agents—in the business, this show is No. 1. So it’s amazing how much play you get. I mean, we had our year off, and I did 17 TV shows and three movies, and literally turned down two other jobs per show that I did. So it was basically just every week with “Could you do this show? Would you do this show? Will you do this show?” I worked a lot before, but I might have had an audition a couple times. I got some offers, but now it’s just like stuff lined up to do on TV. Actually, I went from doing a lot of movies early on in my career, then to doing TV, and I don’t know whether we’ll get back to some movies or not. I’m actually doing a History Channel thing that I really love. I’m hosting it, and it’s really been a lot of fun, so we’ll probably look at doing a few more of those types of things during my time off.
AVC: When you first heard about the extended hiatus for Breaking Bad, were you worried, or were you thinking, “Okay, this will be time to fit a lot of stuff in”?
DN: I was glad, because I got to do a lot of other stuff. So I didn’t mind at all. And we’ll have a little bit of a break this time too. For what it’s worth, I look at it as kind of lining up stuff for afterward, for when the show’s over. Because everybody I worked with is like “Hey, can’t wait until that show’s over so we can have you in a project of ours.”
AVC: What did you think about the contentious negotiations between Gilligan and Sony and AMC being played out in the press?
DN: I don’t think it got as ugly as it could’ve been. It certainly wasn’t as ugly as their Mad Men negotiations. So, you know, it’s a business, man, at the end of the day. AMC’s got what they need to do, and Sony’s got what they need to do, and thank God they came together and figured out a solution to keep it on the air. But it’d have been nicer if it weren’t that way, but you know, it’s big stakes. There’s lots of money involved, and people have to do what they have to do, so it just didn’t bother me.
AVC: Is it interesting that Vince has said that the show would only go five seasons, and he’s basically sticking to that plan. Did you ever hold out any hope that he’d be somehow convinced to make a sixth and seventh season?
DN: I thought that was about right. I think there’s some chatter that he might be splitting that [last season] into [seasons] five and six, but it’s an intense show for him to write. The reason we have these long breaks is that he needs that time to do the writing. You see it in the work, obviously. So I think it’s tough for him to walk around with that show in his head for half a decade. That’s a long time. I’m glad that they’re going to take it out when it’s still good, and we’re not kind of softballing the episodes out there. I think every one of the next 16 episodes are going to be fantastic, whether they show them all at once or as two seasons, however they’re going to do it. So that’s good. I don’t know the business side of it, because we’re still going up in the ratings. It’s unheard of to take a show off that continues to rise in the ratings every year. We’re up 30 percent. So I’m not sure how that went, in terms of talking to Vince and AMC and Sony. But from an artistic point of view, I think it’s great that we’re going to go out on a really strong note.
AVC: Creatively, have you found that it makes it better that he’s got an end point?
DN: I think it’s fantastic. I think there’s no question about having that. I mean, that’s kind of the Lost model, to know where you’re going at the end. Now they have plenty of time. I mean, when you think about it, we’ve done 46 episodes, because we had a short first season because of the writers’ strike, so 16 more episodes is one-third more. So we’ve got one-third more story to tell. That’s a fair amount, if you think of where we’ve been from the beginning of the series to now. It’s the final one-third, but that’s a fair chunk of time.
AVC: You were involved in one of the biggest “holy shit!” moments of the third season when you had that epic fight with the cousins from the cartel. When you got to those scenes and you knew you were going to shoot them, what went through your mind?
DN: Yeah, I don’t really think of it in terms of “Oh, this is a ‘holy shit’ moment.” I just think of just really inhabiting the material. You know, no one really knew the depths of [the scene] with the cousins. I mean, we knew it was going to be cool, and it was a cool ending, but you never know. That just came together in a way that it’s kind of taken on a life of its own. I know that scene is on YouTube as well, and it’s viewed all the time. Because even though you know what happens at the end, there’s just something magical about that shootout.
To your point, I wouldn’t have known this when we were doing it, but it comes from the editing, and the music, and the sound, and all these things put together, and it just hits in kind of a magical way. Even though you know what’s going to happen, if you watch that scene, you still get chills. Because it just, somehow it’s in the DNA of the film and how they put it together, it works. It hits all the right buttons, and you get nervous, and you’re like [Whispers.] “Holy fuck!” You know? So that’s something you just can’t know. On the day, I’m just trying to be present as much as I can and inhabit the scene and the acting, then you leave everything else to all the post-production kind of stuff, and you see what happens. I thought that the episode before that, episode six, it was called “Sunset,” that was really a great episode. It kind of gets overlooked because of the episode that came after it, but that whole second half of that episode was great, when those guys were fleeing and got stuck in that RV. I thought that was great moments and great writing.
AVC: It seemed like the show gained a lot of audience momentum during the third season.
DN: Yeah, it did, and I certainly feel that in real life. I mean, feel that in the business. While we would get kind of recognized here and there after the second season, after the third season… Because you know, you say that the ratings are what they are, but that’s only like the rating for the first showing. If you add up the ratings, because they’re actually quite large, and if you look at the people who watch it on Netflix and iTunes and everything else, it’s really permeated the culture in a much larger way than is reflected in like the one rating for the first show. You get recognized and talked to a lot. I think our fans are such rabid fans that they’re willing to go up to you. I always have people say “Man, I never go up to anybody in L.A., but we love your show so much, I just wanted to tell ya.”
AVC: Do who people who know you or know where you went to school go “Hey, Mr. Harvard?”
DN: I don’t get a lot of “Hey, Harvard!” stuff. I think a lot of people who don’t know me would be surprised to think that I went there. But no, I don’t. You know, I’m from the Midwest, man—that shapes my personality much more than having gone to Harvard.
AVC: Your dad had a performing background, right?
DN: He did, yeah. He was a singer in a band, and that was a big part of… He didn’t go to college, and he was just thrilled that I went into this business, which is kind of ironic. Most people would want their Harvard kid to go into investment banking or lawyering or something like that. He wouldn’t have stopped me, but he was really happy that I chose to go into this kind of business.
AVC: You’ve mentioned that you did interview at Wall Street firms, but mostly to have free trips to New York for auditions. Was there any chance that you were going to go into something other than acting?
DN: There really wasn’t. It was a long process, but it was certainly a very intense process of figuring it out, because it was a big deal to cast your lot in this crazy business of acting. But I thought it through. I would have liked to have been a musician, but I realized that I wasn’t good enough to make money at it. I talked to people that I’d done theater with, older actors and stuff. There’s a lot of people who go into the business, and they must think they’re good, or they wouldn’t be in it. Why do you think that you’re good enough to go into the business and make money at it? So I really wanted to ask myself that question a lot. Because it was an important kind of thing that I was going to do. I really wanted to do it, I loved it, and I thought that I was good enough that I could make money at it. And that’s really what it came down to.
AVC: And even though a lot of talented people come out of Harvard, even in the arts, you still thought you would be able to make a name for yourself?
DN: Yeah, and I got confirmation pretty early on. I got the first few jobs that I got in New York. I never had trouble getting an agent. I went out and got my first couple roles, and literally within six months I never had to have another job other than acting. So I don’t know—had I gone five years without that, I’m not sure what would’ve happened. But as it turned out, I started working right away, and worked consistently throughout.
AVC: You were at Harvard at the same time as Conan O’Brien and Jeff Zucker?
DN: That’s right, yeah. In fact, Conan performed at our 25th reunion last year.
AVC: What did he do there?
DN: I think he was touring with his band. I think he’s got a movie about it, where he’s touring with his band. There’s another kid, Rich Appel, who was an executive producer on The Simpsons, and I don’t know what he’s doing now… Oh, he’s an executive producer on Family Guy. [Note: Appel now is the showrunner for The Cleveland Show. —ed.] So he was there, and Conan. They have a talent show, and Conan came out with his band. It was pretty funny.
AVC: Did you know Conan well in college, or was it different circles of groups of friends?
DN: I didn’t know him. He was a big—what’s the magazine they do? He was in a different—
AVC: The Harvard Lampoon?
DN: Yeah, the Lampoon, right, and that was his kind of circle. I was more of the, obviously, in the theater group. But I had a guy named R.J. Cutler who is a great documentary filmmaker… He did The War Room, and The September Issue. He was one of my directors. And Amy Brenneman, from NYPD Blue, and she’s on Private Practice now, she was there, and we acted in a bunch of plays together. So it was a real vibrant acting and theater culture at Harvard when I was there, and I think it still remains.