When asked to describe how DEA hotshot Hank Schrader feels about discovering his beloved brother-in-law Walter White is also the ruthless druglord he’s been hunting for years, actor Dean Norris goes for the gallows humor. “It’s like your neighbor goes off and shoots 25 people and you go, ‘Wow, we were just out back barbecuing,’ you know?”
After the mega-tense start of Breaking Bad‘s final eight-episode run last Sunday, it’s clear that no amount of cold home-brewed Schraderbraus in the backyard will ever repair the relationship between Hank and the methmaker also known as Heisenberg. The pair’s confrontation in Hank’s garage was eagerly anticipated by both Norris and his foil, Bryan Cranston (who also directed the episode). Yet according to Norris – who also stars in the CBS smash Under the Dome as Big Jim, the show’s own Heisenberg figure – it took a final form that neither of them anticipated.
You’re the lynchpin of the show right now.
Right now. Vince and I talked in terms of the arc of this season, and that was his thing: “Hey, I need you. We’ve been building this thing up for five years, and we’re gonna address it now. We’re gonna go at it in the last eight.” He started with a bang.
That was easily the most dramatic garage-door closing in the history of television.
[Laughs] Yeah, that was a fun scene to play. When we read that, it was like, “Wow.” Bryan and I both assumed – I think most people assumed – that we would play cat-and-mouse a little bit. Hank would use his information and try to not let Walt know that he knew; if Walt knew, he wouldn’t let Hank know that he knew. The fact that we actually went head-to-head in the first episode took us by surprise.
Do you feel like Hank miscalculated by owning up to the fact that he knew right away?
I think he did. He would’ve preferred to act like he didn’t know, but he felt so betrayed that he let his emotions get the best of him. This guy’s sticking the GPS in his face – he just didn’t have it in him to smile and cover it up and try to act like nothing was going on. He just couldn’t control himself.
Yet he still made an offer to try to keep Skyler and kids out of the line of fire.
Walt and Hank, even though they’re not actually blood-related, they’re brothers, you know? Vince has written it that way. There’s no kids for Marie and Hank, there are no other relatives in the show, ever. The only people that they know, the only connection that they have, is Walt and Skyler. And Walt has no other friends. It’s a criminal and a cop, but they happen to be brothers, and they have all the hurt and betrayal that goes along with it.
Five years is a lot of build-up. Did that weight make it difficult to play that scene?
Having Bryan direct that episode was really key. It’s so comfortable with him, and I like him and respect him. It was comforting to have him as a director, particularly when you’re doing some acting-type thing. We just wanted to find the truth of that scene. Hopefully we did.
The whole thing hinged on that final line of Walt’s: “Tread lightly.” At first it sounds like he’s going to tell Hank “If you don’t know who I am, think of the good times, think of the kids, think of our family.” Instead, it becomes a threat.
We played around with that scene a lot. When it started, we did a round of it that was much more violent. Then we rethought it, and we thought, “Eh, we need a place to go.” Just from working on it on previous nights, I thought the hurt of it was going to be more of an emotion there. It wasn’t just rage. I talked to Bryan about that, and we replayed it slower this time – a slow [does an impeccable Walt impression] “you son of a bitch” thing. Bryan does this switch into Heisenberg, says that last line, picks up his glasses from the ground, and walks out. And people were like, “Whoa, it’s fuckin’ Heisenberg, it’s great!”
But Peter Gould, the writer, whispered something to Bryan like, “Hey, think about what he just said to you – that he doesn’t know who you are, that you’ve become this completely different person.” Then Bryan, like, did this next take, which is the one we see on the screen. The threat was obviously still there, but it was much more painful for him to give the threat: “I’ll kill you, and I don’t want to kill you, but I have to tell you that I’ll kill you if I need to.” It made that scene so much better, in a way. If the audience had seen the first version, they would have still thought it was a great scene, and they would have walked away saying, “Wow, it’s Heisenberg.” But the second one, the version we did on screen, was so much more interesting and complex, because you see the hurt of Hank and then see the hurt of Walt. I mean, yeah, it’s a threat at the end of the day that you should tread lightly, but he says it almost like he’s crying, like he doesn’t want to say it. It made it so much more powerful and threatening and complex to me. I’m so glad that that’s the version we used in the final cut.
Between Breaking Bad and Under the Dome, you’re on arguably the two hottest shows on TV right now, playing two very different characters. Did inhabiting those two headspaces affect how you approached either character?
When I finished Breaking Bad, literally the same day I got on a plane and went up to North Carolina to start getting ready for that other role. It was a nice way to say goodbye to Hank: “Let’s just clear out and do this new guy.” So I don’t really think of [Hank]. Certainly not as an actor, I don’t. It was one of the requirements for me that what I would do next was 180 degrees different from Hank. I didn’t want to play a morally constrained person – I wanted him to be something different, big and epic. I didn’t necessarily have to be the bad guy, but something different than trying to be the only good guy on a TV show. [Laughs] That’s what Hank’s been trying to do for five years. It’s tough to do.
Which is the more high-pressure environment, life under that dome or life behind that garage door?
I’d say life behind the garage door. Big Jim’s got a lot more control under that dome, you know? When Hank closed that door, who knew what was gonna happen?