"It's hard to be a Mexican on Breaking Bad, I'm just letting you know that right now," says Steven Michael Quezada, laughing. "They're all dead. They only go a couple of episodes and then they're gone." In other words, Quezada's character, Hank Schrader's stoic DEA partner Steven Gomez, has beaten the odds.
A native of Breaking Bad's shooting location, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Quezada's background is in stand-up comedy, a side that's rarely showcased in his performance as Hank's straightlaced foil "Gomie." But the truth comes out in jest: His once-small role as the butt of Hank's off-color jokes has slowly morphed into a coolly competent presence, and he's one of the last men standing as Hank, Jesse and Walt reach their final confrontations. "Not one character on this show didn't have development and an arc," he says. "They're the best in the business."
I've really been looking forward to this interview, because you play the most comforting character on Breaking Bad. Every time Gomez shows up when things are getting tricky, I think, "Oh, thank God, Gomie is here."
There's not a lot to Gomez, and that's the cool thing. He's the opposite of Hank. When I met Dean [Norris], we sat and talked about it a bit, and I knew that the only way that this marriage would work was if I was the subservient one. [Laughs] I like the way they kept Gomez on the show and kept him going. They always kept him out of danger, which was cool. I do a late-night talk show out here in New Mexico, and my 100th episode I had Bryan [Cranston] on it. He gave me a big high five, he's like, "Dude, you made it to the last season, man! I was always unsure when they were gonna try to take Gomez out.' I go, "Well, Gomez isn't involved in any of this stuff. Any time Hank went and did something, he did it on his own."
That was the big sign that this most recent episode was moving to a new level – that moment when Jesse turns the corner and sees that Hank's brought Gomez in to help.
For the first time, Hank doesn't have any more options. The one guy he can trust is Gomez, you know? So yeah, when I read it, I went, "Well, there he is. Here we go. I'll finally be included with what's going on . . . which is very dangerous."
The Hank-Gomez dynamic generates a lot of audience sympathy for your character, since when we first meet them, he's mainly bearing the brunt of a lot of jokes from a guy who comes across like a racist buffoon.
Yeah, Gomez is the verbally abused wife. He takes everything with a grain of salt, though. When Hank has something racially colorful to say, I don't think he says it to anybody else but Gomez, you know what I mean? I don't see him as a racist guy – he just likes to pick on Gomez, and he'd have done it if Gomez had been Irish or Scottish or German. Hank looks at it as, "Hey, you're my friend. If I don't pick on you, I don't like you." I know people like that, and that's why it never really bothered me. I never got really mad, I just rolled my eyes. Gomez is the eye-roller of the show.
Gomez has a lot of respect for Hank, and I've always wanted to play that as much as I possibly could – the respect and love he has for the guy. Hank's a better cop than Gomez. Gomez lacks instinct, and that's what Hank has.
Gomez is a by-the-book guy, so the heated emotions involved with the Hank-Jesse-Walt triangle clearly take him way outside his comfort zone.
Oh yeah, for sure. When Jesse first steps out and I'm sitting there – from what I've heard, I don't really care for Jesse, man. I'm very worried about what's going on. Even my wife said to me, "My God, could you be meaner to Jesse?" But at the end of the scene, I'm very concerned with Hank, like, "Whoa, wait a minute, man. I'm not willing to sacrifice a person. He's just a messed-up kid when it comes down to it." But Hank wants to bring Heisenberg down. "Who cares who gets killed as long as we get this on tape?" I'm like, "No, no, no, no."
You have a background as a stand-up comic, but Gomez is such a straight shooter. He'll joke back and forth with Hank some, but he's not a comic-relief character like Saul or Marie at all.
It's funny: There's a lot of comics on Breaking Bad. I'm performing at Loonees in Colorado this weekend, and [comedian] Bill Burr [Saul's henchman Kuby] is going to be performing in Colorado, too. Lavell [Crawford, Saul's bodyguard] is a comic. Bob [Odenkirk, Saul himself] comes from a comic background. Javier Grajeda, who played the Mexican cartel guy, is a stand-up comic. Why are we casting all these stand-up comedians to do Breaking Bad, one of the most dramatic TV shows ever? [Laughs]
It was tough, because I wanted to be funny, and they wrangled that right away when I auditioned. I got to talk with Vince, and he said, "This is gonna be a challenge for you, but we believe that you can do it. When you walked in the room I saw Gomez." But I did theater first and then I went into comedy. You gotta understand, there weren't a whole lot of roles for Hispanics in the Eighties, so comedy was really the way I could really feed myself and eventually feed my family. I was an actor who learned to be a comic, and it's cool to come back and get back into acting move forward in the direction I started out to do in the beginning.
It's hard for a comic to be joking when your lines can't be funny. Gomez's jokes should be flat – they should hit the floor. To me, for a cop, Gomez is sort of a goofy, not-very-confident kind of guy. That was cool with me – that was the character, that's who he was. He grew, though. All that's happened since he separated from Hank, when they sent him to El Paso and he came back with a beard [laughs] – like a growing-up, becoming-a-man kind of thing, you know? He's a little tougher, a little more confident.
After all this talk about Gomez as a straight man, I should point out that he's responsible for maybe the single funniest thing in the history of the show: smiling and saying "Hey" when he catches Mike's lawyer with the safe deposit box full of cash. I've been watching on loop as an animated GIF this whole time.
I said to the writer and director, Tom [Schnauz], "Can we just roll the camera and let me say it 15 different ways?" I didn't know which one they were gonna pick until I saw the episode. When I saw it, I go, "Cool, he picked the funny one!" It was the only joke Gomez ever made that worked. It just wasn't toward Hank, unfortunately.