Dean Norris has his hands full as Hank Schrader on Breaking Bad. After Norris’ DEA agent character realized at the end of the first half of Season Five that his brother-in-law Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is Heisenberg, the meth kingpin Schrader has been looking for all along, the pair has engaged in a terrifying and intense duet so far in the last half of the final season of the show. With just three more episodes remaining, Norris talked to Rolling Stone about the comic aspects of Breaking Bad, how the show affects his personal state of mind and Hank’s exacting moral code.
When I went back and watched Season One again, I was reminded that Hank is a total dickwad to Walt at first.
[Laughs] You forgot that?
I’d forgotten it, yeah.
[Laughs] When I first got the pilot script for Breaking Bad, I thought it was a comedy. Vince thought of him that way too. I think they felt comfortable hiring me because they thought I could play the total wad, and still people would like Hank. Or at least not hate him.
Actually, Hank was a little more racist in the audition piece, which never made it into the show. He still makes some “beaner” remarks to his partner [Steve Gomez], but it was even worse. It’s a tough-guy business. And part of that territory is maybe being, in your description, a wad. [laughs]
When did you realize Breaking Bad wasn’t a comedy?
I still thinks it’s – well, not a comedy, obviously, but there’s even laughs when I watched the premiere this year. When Walt says, “Hi, Carol,” and she drops the groceries. That was a great line! Before Saul Goodman came along, they needed Hank to be in scenes people laughed with. Otherwise it would’ve been just too effing depressing.
It’s OK, you can say “fuck.”
OK. Fuck, fuck, fuck. You know, I did the Larry King show, and I got Larry King to say “fuck,” like, 20 times. And I tried to get Barbara Walters to say “fuck,” but she wouldn’t do it.
The show is a fascinating morality Rorschach. When you watch episodes, are you rooting for Walt or against him?
I love watching his character, but I don’t root for him, no. I find it amazing that someone could root for a sick, twisted child-killer. Cooking meth is one thing, killing cartel members who are after you and your family is another thing, but when I saw him let Jane die, that really changed my opinion of him. And then he tries to kill that little boy [Brock] with the Lily of the Valley. It was like, “Oh, this guy needs to go.” Rooting for a child-killer, I think it says something about you. [Laughs] So if it’s a Rorschach test, I’d like to see what a psychologist would say about someone who would root for a child-killer.
Here’s my theory: most of us, in our day-to-day lives, are like Skyler, or Jesse or maybe Hank – primarily decent. But we fantasize about being Walt.
I think that’s true. That’s the whole anti-hero thing we’ve got going, starting with The Sopranos and The Shield and right through to Don Draper, Jon Hamm’s character [on Mad Men]. We fantasize about having the power and the balls to do things that people wouldn’t do, to be reckless, to be morality-free, to do whatever we want. That’s what Walt gets: from being a milquetoast high school teacher, with no power or respect, he becomes a powerful guy. I understand that. I don’t know that Tony Soprano ever killed a kid, though. And I’m not sure if Michael Chiklis ever did on The Shield. That’s psychopathic. Certain things cross a line. And I don’t know how you root for a psychopath. People overlook that, because when I bring it up to them, they’re like “Oh, yeah, there’s that.” [Laughs] Yeah, there is that. It’s kind of a big, important point.
It’s interesting to compare the first seasons of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos. The first murder in The Sopranos doesn’t happen until the fifth episode. In Breaking Bad, the first murder happens in the first few minutes.
Vince does get right to it. It opens up with Walt, in a gas mask, driving crazy in the RV. It was as great an opening as any series ever, I think. But the first six seasons takes place in one year. There’s a little bit of a time cut at the end of last season, where Walt gets out of the business, a month or so that goes by, and we’re all sitting in the backyard. And that’s when Hank gets on the toilet and finds “W.W.” And that’s the answer to the question I always get, which is, “Why didn’t Hank figure this out sooner?” Well, the audience is seeing it over the course of five years.
But Hank has been getting clues that Walt is Heisenberg since the sixth episode. Come on, genius, figure it out!
Yeah, I know. [Laughs] Well, you’re lucky I didn’t figure it out, because the show would be over! You wouldn’t have anything to watch. I think that was one of the key elements of the series, to show that Walt is hiding in plain sight. That’s why the police can never catch the random kind of criminals. Ninety-five percent of the criminals they catch are people who’ve done it before. It’s profiling. There are good things about profiling and there are bad things about profiling, but you focus your attention and your limited resources on the most likely subjects. The reality is, police work is slow and grinding and boring. It’s not like CSI where it’s all glamorous and sexy, and they figure it out in an hour. And that’s part of the greatness and the truth of Breaking Bad.
Did you ever feel burdened by all the evil on the show?
Yeah, starting in the second season, when Hank was having PTSD, and very much so in the middle of Seasons Three through Four, when Hank got shot and he’s depressed and mean to his wife. One day, I was mean to Betsy. My wife goes, “Oh, you better apologize to her!” [Laughs] I did. I said, “I’m sorry if I was short with you.” You know the concept that if you wear a mask long enough, you become that thing? Bryan said, “It’s because you’re living as Hank for 15 hours a day.”
Bryan is known for liking to play pranks on people. Did he do that to you?
I’ve not been subject to a prank from Bryan Cranston. I think he’s afraid I would kick his ass. Print that, he’ll like that. [Laughs] I sit there with Bryan, we chit-chat about the kids, and in a flash, he’s Heisenberg. We all do our own preparation but Cranston does it in a way that I like, too – I don’t walk around all day being a dick. And Cranston doesn’t need to be Heisenberg all day, at lunch, in order to do what he does, and he obviously does it as well as anybody.
Have you told anyone how the show ends?
No one. Nobody wants to know! As secretive as we are, if it ever leaked out, true fans wouldn’t go find it. It would ruin the experience.
OK, so, seriously, how does the show end?
[Laughs] That’s funny.
This season, when Walt and Hank square off in the garage, the look you give him is chilling. What were you thinking about to summon that expression?
We went through a little rehearsal on that scene. At first, it was much more violent. We realized that rage was just a part of it. He also feels hurt and fear. He feels betrayed by his own brother. Marie and Hank have no kids, you never see me talk about mothers or fathers or grandparents. Walt’s his brother. And obviously, Hank feels like he’s the tougher, older brother. Peter Gould wrote that episode, and Bryan was directing it. In the script, it said that Walt goes really Heisenberg. There was one take where Bryan says [drops his voice], “If you don’t know who I am, tread lightly.” It was badass. People would have loved it, they would have cheered. That’s the way it was written. As we talked about it, it just didn’t feel right. Then Peter said, “Think about that. Listen to what that moment is.” And one take later, Bryan synthesized that into his performance. In the take we did, there was a tear in his eye, like, “I’m sorry that I’m this monster, but I will kill you if I have to.” It’s still scary, but it was so much more complex. And Hank, for a moment, feels his pain, too.
There must also be some shame on Hank’s part. He thinks he’s the best DEA agent in the world, and now he realizes he didn’t see what was in front of his face.
Yeah, it’s embarrassing. And that comes into play more as we go along. Also, Hank’s an emotional guy, and he didn’t want to have that confrontation. He wears his emotions on his sleeve. He’d prefer to follow Walt and figure things out, and there’s a moment where he thinks, “Can we bullshit our way through this?” And he says, “Fuck it, let’s go” and closes the garage door.
Hank should just join the organization. He could be a real asset to Heisenberg.
His moral code has been so strong, because he had the chance to break bad in Season Three, when he could’ve lied about beating up Jesse Pinkman. That, for me, is the moment where we really defined Hank. Everybody, including his wife, said, “Lie about it. He’s just a punk.” He wouldn’t do it. And it cost him a lot to say, “I would rather have a clean soul and accept the consequences of what’s going to happen, because I can at least sleep at night.” I know it’s not as sexy as the people who decide to take the money, like Skyler and everybody else. But it certainly is who he is. And I think it’s a big part of Vince Gilligan, to be honest with you. I think he’s a guy that believes in right and wrong. I don’t think he believes that right always triumphs, by any means. But I think he would like to see it triumph. And he certainly believes in justice.
So you feel like Hank is Vince’s surrogate on the show?
I do. I think there is a part of Vince that is a John Wayne kind of guy. Obviously, he identifies in many ways with Walt, certainly at the beginning of the show. I don’t know how he feels about him now.
He hates Walt. And he can’t understand why people are still rooting for him.
That makes sense, because it jibes more with Vince in person. Maybe Hank has become more of a surrogate for who Vince is as the show has gone along. Is Hank the only major character on this show who hasn’t broken bad? Absolutely. That’s a real, important point. He’s the only one, and we’ll see where that gets him. Also, Jesse Pinkman is in some ways the moral center of the show, as well. He is trying to do the right thing. I love his character, I really do, because he’s the broken child who has been led astray by this “bad dad.” The fact that he’s making amends, that’s beautiful. It’s moral. And I like it.