'Breaking Bad': On the phone with Dean Norris
A week before he called, Dean Norris was at Harvard's 25-year class reunion. Yes, that Dean Norris, the one who plays the occasionally buffoonish Hank on AMC's "Breaking Bad." And yes, we said Harvard.
"It was fun," said Norris, Class of '85. "Conan O'Brien performed at the talent show."
And Norris had a pretty good life story to tell his classmates: Despite being recruited back then to work on Wall Street, he has instead spent the last 25 years as a working actor, largely as a cop in various films and TV shows.
That's probably a little hipper than Wall Street. Especially lately.
But in an odd way, Norris explained, it was Wall Street that helped lead him to the acting. "Investment banks started recruiting at Harvard back in the day, and they'd fly me down to New York City and I was so poor so I would take advantage of the free flight, the per diem, the hotel," he said. "And then I would go audition for stuff.
"So I would go in [to an interview] with my suit and say, 'Yes, commodities, yes, mm-hmm...' and then I would go get some jeans on and a T-shirt and go to auditions." One of those auditions was for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. He got accepted. And after graduating from Harvard, off he went.
But before too long, Norris was back in the States and up on the big screen, playing a cop alongside Mel Gibson in "Lethal Weapon 2," his first film role. That led to a career of playing similar roles, including this latest on "Breaking Bad," a DEA agent brother-in-law to Bryan Cranston's Walter White. As a tough guy with a crass sense of humor, it was a role that once seemed to serve as comic relief more than anything else. But in this third season, much has changed; riddled by post traumatic stress disorder, Hank left the DEA and then ended up in the hospital after narrowly surviving a brutal gunfight with two assassins from a Mexican drug cartel. In Sunday's episode, he was finally wheeled out but is still unable to walk.
As for Norris, he and his wife live in Temecula and are parents to five children, the oldest being 18 and the youngest being 15 months.
Here now is an edited version of our chat.
Hank's marriage with Marie is really quirky but really sweet, and it seems that you and Betsy Brandt, who plays Marie, have some really great chemistry. Is that something that developed over time or was it there from the start?
Actually it was there from the audition. I remember meeting her there in the waiting room. We were sitting there and I was like, "Man, you know, I know this is supposed to be a drama but I think it's funny." And she's like, "Yeah, I think it's funny, too!" I'm like, "Are you going to play it funny?" She said, "Yeah, I'm going to play it funny because I really think it is." So we kind of reinforced each other's attitudes about the material way back then and she ended up getting the part and I did as well. ... I'm completely comfortable with her and I think she's absolutely a great actress and underutilized and underappreciated on the show, although this year she did get to do more.
And personally, for my money, going back to Episode 7 when you really got to see more of our relationship -- everyone will remember that for the big shootout but for me that whole episode was about their love, really. She gets him through this really incredibly bad time in his life and for me that episode much more was about Hank and Marie's love for each other and you see it in a way that no other love has been expressed on that show, certainly not between Walt and Skyler.
You mentioned that she's been underutilized and I think the same might have been said for your character before this season. Now there's some really deep stuff happening with Hank. That had to be a welcomed change, right?
Yeah, it was phenomenal. I mean sometimes I kind of miss the early Hank because it sure was fun to play him and a lot of people loved that character but it was kind of loving him for superficial reasons [laughs]. I don't know if they made him a different character, but he revealed about himself some deeper things, and I think it was an interesting choice and I talked to Vince [Gilligan] a lot about it, that in a show called "Breaking Bad," really there is a moment where [Hank] decided that he wasn't. All he wanted was a clean soul at the end of the day and he was willing to give up 20 years of his career for it. For that character to go and move on, it was a really interesting choice.
And in that episode where Hank leaves the DEA, there were a lot of emotional moments in there.
You know, we did a scene where she comes to the DEA office and he sees [Marie], and it's great because you never see him call her and I don't think he ever did. She just knew that that day was going to be a bad day, and it almost makes me tear up just thinking about it, that she's such a sweet wife that she knew on that day that she needed to be there.... And going back to that, I said, "Let's not even practice." Usually I'm not so methody-weird like that, but for that scene I knew that all I had to do on that day, all I needed, was for the first time just to see her and look in her eyes, and then I'd start crying. That scene took just one take.
And the flip side of the episode, that epic shootout, took a whole lot more -- several days, I heard?
It did. Ultimately it took 2-1/2 days to shoot. We worked a lot beforehand, worked on all the movements because it's just muscle memory. You know, the squibs are bad enough -- the things that blow off on your clothes that simulate blood; if you go the wrong way they can get in your eye. But there's also the equivalent of a gun in the car that shoots the window out and that's pretty serious. If you were to lean into it too much it could take your eye out. So there was a lot of pressure, but for me personally it was two of the best days I've ever had.... The other interesting thing about that was the scene prior to the actual shootout, when Hank is sitting there freaking out, Vince Gilligan wanted that to be literally 1 minute and there was no script for that, so [director] Michelle MacLaren sat there just yelling, "OK now get in the car, now look left, look right, calm down, now look again, don't worry, that's not them, now look right..." She would just yell out all these directions, so that's how that was done. It was kind of funny.
With Hank having left the DEA, the possibilities for his character are really wide open now heading into next season. Any idea on where we might see him go?
I don't and I've learned to never try and figure it out. For what it's worth, he's the only moral character left on the show. Everyone else has taken the money, or the power or what have you. And even Skyler is on board now. In the beginning of this season there were two people that needed to find out [about Walter's secret life]. One was Skyler, and I was shocked that she found out, but it worked. So with Hank, now, I don't know if that becomes that last original tension that they have to deal with in terms of when he finds out, how he finds out and what he does with it when it happens. I think obviously the stakes have risen since the beginning of the season, because now he's been shot and obviously it's even more personal than it was before. In kind of a Vince Gilligan way, they raise the bar for themselves and now they put even higher stakes on everything.
I mean, I can see [Hank] going rogue and going after [Walt], or a lot of people speculate that he might get in business with him but for some reason that just doesn't seem right to me but who knows? I got a feeling that Vince has, despite the craziness of the show, that he's this Southern guy who in his core has a soft spot for Hank in the sense that he doesn't necessarily have to turn that guy into a guy that breaks bad, but I don't know.
Going back to the previous two seasons, Hank had two other hugely physical and emotional experiences -- the shootout with Tuco and then the exploding turtle sequence. Can you touch on either of those scenes?
The Tuco scene is still one of my all-time favorites -- Tuco was a great bad guy and they set that up so well. And the turtle scene was a microcosm of "Breaking Bad." Because the real payoff, you thought, was seeing the head on the turtle -- that would have been enough. But then there's more. They take it one step worse and blow it up.
You've apparently done some training with the DEA to inform the role. Has there been anything in particular that you've taken from those experiences?
Just talking to them is amazing. And it always strikes me -- and this is true with law enforcement in general -- that they never really pull their guns and shoot them in the line of fire, but they train for it for 15, 20 years. And I just wonder how that affects your brain, that you're thinking, every day, "I need to make sure that if the time comes, I'm going to pull this out correctly, aim it correctly and save my life." That must wear on you. You must think about it, and I wonder how that affects your brain, and it never happens and then, boom, it happens, and you just pray that your reactions are what they need to be. Wouldn't that freak you out?
Let's talk about your background. You grew up in South Bend, Ind., so did you grow up wanting to act or to play football for Notre Dame?
[Laughs] You know, I did [want to act]. My dad was a singer in a band and neither of my parents went to college, and I ended up getting into Harvard and was the first person in my family that went to college and it happened to be Harvard. And yet, my dad -- God rest his soul -- he was more interested in me pursuing something in the entertainment field. Not necessarily acting, but something. I think he would have preferred singing or being in a band or something like that but I knew I couldn't make any money doing that, and I wasn't sure I could make any money acting but I thought I had a better chance. So at some point at Harvard I realized that's what I wanted to do.
I can't tell you how refreshing that is -- a dad actually wanting his Harvard son to go into the arts. What else did you learn from your dad?
Well, his band was the love of his life -- he played every weekend, and he was the singer and he was just a real entertainer. The best thing I ever learned from my dad was he knew he wasn't the best of singers, but he always knew he was a great entertainer, and I always thought that was a good concept to bring along, that ultimately acting is an entertainment art and you have to be aware of the fact that you want people to be excited to be watching you.
How long ago did your dad pass away?
Just two years ago. In fact, I was dealing with it during the second season of "Breaking Bad." The first season was so fun but the second season, for me, was kind of dealing with that. It was just a stroke. He was in the hospital for three months and it got worse and worse.
Did that at all inform your acting?
I think it did. Because during the first half of that season was when he got into the hospital and every day it was like, "Is he going to die?" And I never really lost anyone in my immediate family so it changed the way I looked at life. And I don't know if Vince wrote to that at all but it certainly gave me a better insight into playing the PTSD thing that started in that season . I mean, dealing with death is different than dealing with PTSD, but in some ways they're cousins. So I think it informed it a little.
But your dad was able to see, obviously, that his son did in fact make it in the arts. Was he elated when you got the "Breaking Bad" role?
Oh yeah and I was really glad he was able to see me in it. But my dad thought I'd made it when I got "Lethal Weapon 2" 20 years ago. But he did come on set and meet everyone the first season, which was great.
Anything else happening acting-wise?
I've been doing a lot of TV, and I just finished a Mel Gibson movie -- "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" -- and that was the first time I'd seen him since "Lethal Weapon," so it kind of came full circle.
What's your role?
I play a border patrol agent.
OK, so what is it about you that makes people think Cop?
I don't know. I think there is a physical characteristic or element of it. I did a lot of comedy in college and fun stuff and I get out to L.A., get "Lethal Weapon 2" and then those roles just kept coming. If you're lucky enough to play a doctor, lawyer or a cop, I guess you'll always have a job.
-- Josh Gajewski
Photo: Hank Schrader in "Breaking Bad." Credit: AMC.
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