Ask Scottish actor Laura Fraser about the future she concocted for her character on Breaking Bad – the executive-slash-black-marketeer Lydia Rodarte Qualye – while waiting for each new script, and you'll get a modest goal in reply: "To stay alive a little longer." Fraser says it with a laugh, indicative of the thrill she gets from the high-tension scenes her neurotic newcomer has been subjected to so far. It's also a sign that this crucial new player is as much a mystery to the woman who plays her as she is to us. Yet that hasn't stopped Fraser from turning her into an alternately magnetic and pathetic presence on the show, able to hold her own alongside the compelling core cast.
I've seen the first four episodes of Season Five now –
You've seen more than me, then! [Laughs] I'm dying to see more. I don't have TV set up here yet, so we have to wait till Monday night to watch it on Amazon.
They really threw you right into the deep end, didn't they?
I know! [Laughs] I had no idea. I knew from the audition scenes that she was quite an interesting, certainly imaginative, quite impulsive character, very unlike anything I'd had the opportunity to play before. I knew she was going to be highly strung, but I became completely highly strung doing this role. Like, fuuuck! The writing's just astonishing. It's an invigorating experience, working on Breaking Bad, I'll say that.
By my count you've had four scenes in the season so far, and in every single one of them you're convinced you're either about to get arrested or killed.
Yeah, although I feel Lydia would be just as high strung if someone told her they didn't have what she wanted on the menu.
Which literally happened.
Yeah, that's right, actually!
Breaking Bad has a smaller, tighter ensemble than a lot of comparable TV dramas. How does it feel to be added as a main player this late in the game?
It's strange experience, being an outsider coming in when they've been together for years. At first I felt, "I'm an interloper. It's tightly knit family – what am I doing here?" But the cast were all so welcoming, and it's such a lovely crew. They were incredibly warm. After we'd done the first scene, I was like, "Okay, I'm in. It's alright." I was pretty nervous, I have to say. I didn't have to act nervous for the first scene I was shooting. It helped me along.
The audience had to hit the ground running with Lydia, too. We really had no chance to get to know her under normal circumstances, since right away she's in such dire straits. That has to create a lot of pressure on you to win the audience over.
One relief was that I didn't have to worry about making her likeable. She's so clever and bright, and yet so odd. I liked her, but sometimes she can be such an asshole that she just makes me laugh to play her, even when I'm about to die. It's a trip.
Lydia greatly expands the canvas of the show. She's our entry point into Madrigal, which takes the whole operation to a literally global level. Were you conscious of your role as a way of broadening the story?
I was trying to figure out storylines in my head, but I didn't have a clue. "Where is this going? Where is she from? What happened?" There's no answers. Even on set, people are just giving you their guesses as to where they think Lydia's come from. You hazard a guess from the writing, and each episode, as you get it, I was able to gather a bit information and go, "Oh, well, I'll throw that out." Each episode that I've read, as I've received it a few days before shooting it, I was like, "Holy fuck!" I'd never see it coming. It's constantly surprising.
I find it refreshing how Vince Gilligan will say, "No, we really haven't made our mind up" about this or that. So many shows feel the need to insist that they know exactly where they're going at all times, and that's never been the case with Breaking Bad, to its benefit.
Yeah, you're absolutely right about that. I do feel that on set there's this heightened sense of urgency, because I don't know whether I'm going to live through the next scene.
That's how we in the audience feel, too.
It's almost like people are disappointed if no one dies that episode. [Laughs]
The thing I kept circling back to when thinking about Lydia is that despite all her nervous energy, she's still the lynchpin of a billion-dollar drug empire, and a successful executive in her own right. There must be something to her we haven't seen yet.
I'm under the official secret pact here. I've got nothin' to give you. How do you talk about it without talking about it? Beyond that episode, without revealing anything . . . you may, or may not, be on to something there. [Laughs]
Very politic of you. I wanted to talk to you specifically about the scene in Lydia's house, when Mike is about to kill her. Lydia's a character I had no prior relationship with – in fact, in her only scene before that she came across as resolutely horrible – so to suddenly find myself empathizing with her so powerfully was both moving and upsetting. What kind of effect did it have on you after the cameras stop rolling?
After I do anything like that, I get an adrenaline buzz. When I'm doing the scene, my heart . . . physically, I feel a semblance of what I think I would actually feel in that situation. Even as a kid I would always imagine horrible circumstances in which I would find myself in my head, and imagine how I would feel, and act it out a bit for myself, because I was a bit of a freak like that. I love doing things like that, and I get a real buzz from it afterwards. But I also worry about the things that I use. For example, in that scene, the little girl was my little girl in my head, because the girl who was acting the part of my daughter had the same birthday as my own daughter. I sometimes worry about using the truth, thinking that's a bad omen. But I think I'd do that anyway, even if I wasn't an actor – imagining horrible scenarios, how I'd feel if this person died or that person died, or torture. Horrible stuff goes on in my head sometimes. So I try not to worry about the worrying. Ultimately I get a buzz from doing it.
I'd like to commend you on your fluent German.
Oh, God. They asked me in the audition, and I did a tape. It was an email: "Do you speak German?" I was like, "Absolutely, yeah . . . I speak some German." I've done it in school, when I was 12, like I learned "Ich heise Laura." Basic German. So I thought, "Oh no, what's coming?" It was corporatespeak in German. It was a nightmare. It took me days to learn that little paragraph. Now I bore my family with it. It's my party trick.
So much of Breaking Bad revolves around little details, and in the case of you in this episode, it was the mismatching shoes. I could feel your discomfort with every step.
For a control freak like Lydia, the self-disgust that she felt for making such a foolish mistake like that. "It's all falling apart!"