A chat with Dean Norris, Dean Norris interview, Breaking Bad, Hank Schrader
Dean Norris

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Over the course of three seasons playing DEA agent Hank Schrader in AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” actor Dean Norris has found his character moving from semi-comic relief status to an emotional basket case. The turning point may have come early in Season 2 (in case you still aren’t watching but maintain good intentions about doing so, let’s just say it revolves around this dude named Tuco), but it’s only been in Season 3 that we’ve really seen the effects of that turning point come into play. Bullz-Eye had a chance to chat with Norris about how things have been going for Hank lately, but there was one small glitch in our plans: as of when we got on the phone with him, we’d seen Episode 3.5, but we were still waiting to receive our screener of Episodes 3.6 and 3.7. This necessitated some fancy verbal footwork from Norris whilst answering our questions, as you’ll soon see, but if you keep reading, you’ll see that he was kind enough to hop back on the line for a few minutes after we finally had checked out the episodes in question, at which point he was free to open up about all the crazy shit that had gone down within them.

Bullz-Eye: Well, I’m amazed that this is the first time I’ve ever talked to you, given that I’ve been at a couple of TCA tours and to the set, but it’s a pleasure to finally get the chance.

Dean Norris: Cool, man, great!

BE: Well, last night’s episode was pretty harsh… (Laughs)

DN: Yeah, man! It set us up for some real interesting episodes coming up!

BE: Unfortunately, they were supposed to have sent them to me, but they haven’t shown up yet.

DN: They haven’t? They better! (Laughs)

BE: No kidding! Still, last night was still some good stuff. It’s been kind of hard to read Hank this season, as far as being able to tell what to expect from you.

DN: Right. Well, I think that’s good. I think that kind of stays with the theme and the way this show is written. They try to keep you off-balance, you know, although I usually think that they do it pretty well and it’s not manipulative. I think you’re going to enjoy Episodes 6 and 7 when you get to see them.

BE: Given how Hank’s been so twitchy this season, how much advance warning have they been giving you about what he’s going to be going through?

"I always talk to (law enforcement guys) about what it’s like to pull your gun, to be in a shootout, to kill somebody…all those kinds of things and how it affects you afterwards. Policemen are expected to be compassionate with victims, and yet somehow dispassionate with the perpetrators. And it’s a hard thing to do, because if you really care about this young child that’s molested or something, then how can you not want to kick the living shit out of the guy when you find him?"

DN: Well, it’s kind of been their policy to not really tell us exactly where things are going, but by about the third episode, we started getting outlines…and thank goodness! I think Bryan (Cranston) might’ve kind of lobbied for that, because we literally get the scripts and then, all of sudden, a day or two later, you’re doing some intense kind of thing, and you don’t know what’s going on in the episode after. So by the shooting of the third episode, we started getting the outlines, so I kind of knew several weeks in advance what was going to happen and where he’s going…and, you know, that can kind of inform the way you play something a couple of episodes earlier. It all kind of comes together and makes sense over the next few episodes…for Hank’s character, in particular.

BE: Yeah, given how Hank has spent this season turning on a dime, emotionally speaking, I’d figure that you’d need that kind of advance warning, just to know what you’re turning into.

DN: Right, exactly. So in this case, we did get that, at least a couple of episodes ahead of time.

BE: When the season first started, I didn’t entirely realize that Hank was dealing with post-traumatic stress. I thought he was just a man on a mission, Captain Ahab going after his white whale, as it were. Was that how you were trying to play it, or did you know about the post-traumatic aspects?

DN: Yeah, I knew he was dealing with post-traumatic. I knew they didn’t want to hit it too hard and spell it out, because Hank doesn’t really realize what it is. It’s just that something’s happening to him, and he doesn’t quite know what it is. As an actor, I knew that it was post-traumatic stress disorder, but Hank didn’t.

BE: How did you go about approaching it? Did you do any research in advance to see how to play it?

Dean NorrisDN: I did a lot of research with the PTSD, and I always do as much research with as many law enforcement guys as I can talk to. I’ve played a lot of them over the years, so I’ve got a lot of experience to draw on, as far as talking to guys. But I always talk to them about what it’s like to pull your gun, to be in a shootout, to kill somebody…all those kinds of things and how it affects you afterwards. It’s an interesting concept, you know. Policemen are expected to be compassionate with victims, and yet somehow dispassionate with the perpetrators. And it’s a hard thing to do, because if you really care about this young child that’s molested or something, then how can you not want to kick the living shit out of the guy when you find him? So you’re expected to be two people, and I think it’s hard, almost impossible for people to do, so maybe you put up a cold, hard shell on the outside to get through it all. And, yet, really, you never…well, you rarely see it on TV. Detectives shoot people all the time, and there’s hardly ever any consequences, you know? (Laughs) But there are. We know for a fact that people coming back from war and all these kinds of things…I mean, it’s a real issue. It’s not so much that he shot him and feels bad about it. I think it’s just that he’s been in a life-threatening situation, and that can change you.

BE: I know Vince is very big on the belief that events have consequences, no matter how far out you may experience them.

DN: Right, yeah. And I think this show really does that a lot. I mean, we’ve talked about it before as to whether or not it glorifies meth or not, but, man, this is the one show that does not glorify it! (Laughs) It really shows that that’s a bad thing to be doing, and that there are bad choices being made.

BE: Actually, on that exact note, I was going to mention that, when I was on the set, Stewart Lyons mention how, because the show has that mindset, you guys are able to work closely with the DEA to get things as accurate as possible.

DN: Yeah, we do.

BE: Did you have DEA agents on site when you first started playing Hank?

DN: Yeah, we had a technical advisor who would always be there during the DEA scenes, and we have any number of phone numbers to call at any time to ask questions. The local DEA guys will take me out to the shooting range, and we’ll practice gun work. And in addition to learning the specifics of the gun work and things like that, there’s the specifics of how to approach an investigation. That’s also a time where you can just spend time talking to them personally about what it’s like for them to do what they do, what it’s like to be constantly aware that, when you go to work, something bad might happen. (Laughs) I mean, you and I, we don’t have that. Most people don’t have that. But these guys, at some level, do. Now, it might not usually happen, but that might even make it worse, because it wears on you after awhile. You know that something bad might happen…but it doesn’t happen or 15 or 20 years. But then it does, and how does that affect you and what you do?

BE: Hank’s a really complex character because…I mean, you see him in a casual environment, and he’s such a loudmouth that you want to underestimate him, but then you see him at work, and suddenly it’s clear that you shouldn’t. But then there’s this third level where, despite his gifts in law enforcement, he’s been around Walt so much that he’s utterly blind to what he’s participating in.

"People love Hank as a common guy…and I love playing Hank as a common guy, too! Hank was so much more fun in Season 1 as a bit of comic relief to the dark stuff that was going on. Now he’s become part of the dark stuff that’s going on. While I kind of miss some of the lightness of Hank early on, as an actor, of course, it’s really fun to be able to play someone who is, in essence, a completely different guy now than he was when he first started."

DN: Yeah, but that doesn’t really bother me in the script. Some people bring it up, and…I’m not saying you feel this way, but I think some people are used to everything being spelled out and sold to them in an hour. They figure out the whole case in an hour. In real life, these cases take forever to piece together and figure out. I think it’s a tribute to how he is written that Hank would never in his wildest imagination suspect Walt as being anything to do with this. I mean, he’s got an explanation for everything that comes along. The stuff that’s been stolen from his high school, the gas masks and everything…? Some kids stole that. That’s not Walt. It just happens to be his high school. I mean, every step along the way, I think the writers artfully get him close to Jesse Pinkman…we’re definitely starting to get close to Jesse Pinkman… (Laughs) …and we know that he’s one of Walt’s students, but Walt’s got lots of students, so why would that automatically make Hank think that Walt is Heisenberg? You know that I mean…? It’s just so impossible. It’s like The Purloined Letter. He’s right there in front of me, but…that’s the great place to hid, because it’s so impossible to conceive that he’s the guy.

BE: So what’s it like playing Hank, given the different sides of his character?

DN: Well, you know, people love Hank as a common guy…and I love playing Hank as a common guy, too! (Laughs) Hank was so much more fun in Season 1 as a bit of comic relief to the dark stuff that was going on. Now he’s become part of the dark stuff that’s going on. While I kind of miss some of the lightness of Hank early on, as an actor, of course, it’s really fun to be able to play someone who is, in essence, a completely different guy now than he was when he first started, when he was just kind of a…well, I mean, he still puts on the airs of being a loudmouthed kind of guy, but last night, you saw that sort of start to crumble away, and he’s left in many ways a shell of the man he once was, because of all of the stuff that’s going on at work and the life-threatening situations he’s been in. So, yeah, he’s taken that journey, and we’re going to see where he goes from there. But it really is almost like playing a whole different guy from who Hank was in Season 1 and the beginning of Side 2.

BE: As an actor, did you feel a transformation after playing the scene with Tuco? I mean, did you have the sense that things were really going to be changing dramatically for your character?

DN: No, you know, I didn’t. And it was really interesting, because that was in Episode 2 of Season 2, and it wasn’t until Episode 5 – which is smart of these guys – when you saw Hank have his first panic attack. And we didn’t really spell out what it was. He just kind of has this panic attack in the elevator. And I thought that was great, because people were, like, “Wow, what is that? Where is that coming from?” And we slowly start revealing the source of that and how that works and what’s going on with that. And I think that’s how it works in real life. It’s not something that immediately affects you. It’s something that kind of comes along, in many cases months or more later. And I think that’s what they did to try and keep the reality of PTSD. So, no, I didn’t really know where it was going back then…and, like I said, when we started this season, I didn’t know that they would be really punching through that storyline. But I’m glad they did. It’s been a real treat to get to play that level of a character, to go into that level of complexity after we’ve already set him up as this kind of buffoon, this loudmouth, this impenetrable kind of guy. Now, suddenly, you’re going, “Whoops!” (Cackles) That’s what I like, though: they have the courage to explore this stuff, and they don’t pull any punches. I’ll tell you, man, by the end of everything that’s going on, he’s stripped of….well, I mean, just look at last night: he lost his job to his sidekick. Talk about your indignities. Here’s the big man on campus, the big fish in the DEA office, and now his job promotion has gone to his buddy. How many more indignities can the guy deal with, you know, and still be able to wake up in the morning?

Dean Norris

BE: My editor-in-chief and I were discussing the episode this morning, and we both agreed that we were not entirely sure that, during the show er scene, Hank wasn’t just going to haul off and do something to Marie. I mean, he was just getting progressively angrier…

DN: (Laughs) Yeah, you know, you’re going to find some real…I mean, for me, Episode 7 is a real great one. You get a real understanding of Hank and Marie’s marriage, and I think you’ll find that it’s really nice. It’s a real sweet one. As opposed to the other main marriage, between Walt and Skyler. I think you’ll see that our marriage…in crisis, we come together, and it’s really one of the sweet things about the next couple of episodes that occurs. Particularly in Episodes 7 and 8.

BE: I’m glad to hear that, because the previous week, I observed in my blog about how sorry I was that we were hardly even seeing Marie this season.

DN: Yeah, Betsy’s great, and she’s really great as the character. Vince is just left with so many good character that you can only fit so many stories in. But in 7 and 8, man, you really get to see A) what a great actress Betsy is, and B) from a character standpoint, I think you get to see a really sweet marriage in a really tough time. And I hope that comes out.

BE: Are we ever going to see Hank and Saul together? It seems like a sitcom waiting to happen.

DN: “The Hank & Saul Show”! (Starts to hum a theme song, then devolves into cackling laughter) I think that’d be great! You know, I can’t wait ‘til…I think it’s great in a lot of ways that they’re holding Hank back from seeing and interacting with all these guys. Hank’s had a few scenes with Jesse, and working with Aaron Paul has been some of the most fun I’ve had, but I don’t get to do enough of them. Yeah, I can’t wait to have Hank tussle with the rest of these guys…particularly Saul. (Laughs)

BE: Well, I know we’re coming up against the wall, but I just wanted to close by saying that, last night, when Hank picked up the picture of Combo with Jesse, I said to myself, “Oh, Jesus Christ, Hank is gonna be all up on Jesse now.”

DN: Yeah, well, see, it’s… (Laughs) Man, I can’t wait for you to see Episodes 6 and 7, because, uh, there’s no dilly-dallying at that point. Hank gets it on. (Laughs) And he, uh…well, you’ll see!

BE: Well, hopefully, we can chat for another few minutes after I’ve actually gotten the chance to see the episodes.

"One of the great things…just in general, having worked in this business for twenty years…is getting to work with (Larry Hankin) and Danny Trejo last year, Mark Margolis, all these guys, it’s great. There’s Jonathan Banks this year, and he’s one of the guys who, when I was high school, made me think, 'Man, if that guy can be an actor, then I can, too!' But in a good way! I just thought, 'I can probably be on that path.' And now here I am getting to work with him!"

DN: Oh, definitely! Sure, absolutely. ‘Cause it’ll be more fun to talk about it after you’ve seen them. But he definitely, uh, moves in the right direction, I’ll say that. I think you’ll find them…interesting. (Laughs)

(10 days later, after I’ve had the opportunity to watch Episodes 3.6 and 3.7, it’s arranged for Norris and I to chat again. Suddenly, I understand why he kept laughing about what was coming up, as well as why he didn’t want to get into any of it until I’d actually seen the goings-on for myself.)

BE: Now that I’ve finally seen the episodes, I’m really psyched that you had time to talk to me for a few minutes. Wow.

DN: (Laughs) Yeah! Would you believe I haven’t seen 3.7 yet? I mean, they showed me the shootout, but I haven’t seen the whole episode yet.

BE: Trust me, it’s something else. (Laughs) So I think it’s safe to say that Hank did some serious transitioning over the course of those two episodes.

DN: He sure did! (Laughs)

BE: I knew at the end of 3.5, after he found the photo of Combo and Jesse, that we were going to see him switch gears pretty dramatically, and at the start of 3.6, he’s outside Jesse’s place, scoping out the joint. My first thought was that he was showing more restraint than I’d expected, given that he’s finally found his white whale, but then I realized, “Well, no matter how stressed out or traumatized he is, he’s still a cop…and a good one, at that.”

DN: Yeah. It’s two things, and that’s number one. He’s been chasing it so far that he didn’t want to get it thrown out. He’s definitely going to try and get this case to stick, so he didn’t want to do anything to mess that up. Painfully, they actually cut a scene that preceded that and which explained a lot of things. We talked a lot about it, actually, on the “Breaking Bad” podcast. There’s a scene where Hank goes to his boss and says, “Hey, man, I need a warrant. I’ve got to get a warrant. I’ve got this guy.” And his boss basically says, “Hey, this is bullshit, this is never gonna stick. Why don’t you quit chasing this guy, so we can get back to doing what we need to do?” And Hank’s, like, “No, I’m telling you, I’ve got this guy, give me an effing warrant!” And he looks at Hank kind of pitifully. And that’s when Hank in essence goes rogue and starts going after him on his own. They kind of thought it was more dramatic when they panned over and you saw him watching, you could see that he’s been waiting there for awhile, and all that. But it did explain a little bit more about what he was doing. He did try to get a warrant first, but they wouldn’t give him one, so he was stuck doing it on his own. So, yeah, I think that’s the issue. He’s thinking, “Even without a warrant, I’m still going to try to make this stick.”

BE: I referred to it as “a compost heap’s worth of fast food wrappers sitting in the passenger seat.”

DN: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s about what it was!

BE: Well, I thought it was amazing the way Episode 3.6 moved from scene to scene to scene in absolute perfection. He gets the call from Marie, she suggests that he should call Walt, and from there…well, you know. It was like watching a ballet. It was just perfectly executed, that chain of events.

DN: Yeah, man, it really was. There’s some great writing on that show, and I just can’t say enough about it, but you’re right, it was. I loved how, after he’s at the hospital and he finds out, they go to that almost operatic crushing of the RV. That was just…I mean, all of that was great. And then it leads right into Gus saying that Hank’s dead…? I thought that was just a great 20 minutes or so of television.

BE: It was just edge-of-your-seat tense during the scene in the trailer.

DN: Yeah, that was fun. And, you know, we did that separately. Those guys…they filmed the inside of that trailer on a whole different day. I wasn’t even there. And they weren’t there when I filmed the outside of the trailer. There was one time when they were on the set, ‘cause they had to come out of the trailer when we were there, but we couldn’t necessarily hear each other, and we weren’t really playing off of each other, in terms of the actual dialogue. But I understand how they cut it together to make it work.

BE: I gotta tell ya, though, man: for one shining moment, I thought Larry Hankin was gonna upstage you in that scene.

Dean NorrisDN: Ah, he was great, man, wasn’t he? It was fun to have him, and it was important, too, because he had to make enough sense that he would stop Hank from breaking open that door. It was an important element of that scene because Hank could’ve just said, “Hey, screw you,” but he made his argument well enough that it kept Hank from getting in there. So, yeah, he was great. One of the great things…well, just in general, having worked in this business for twenty years…is getting to work with him and Danny Trejo last year, Mark Margolis, all these guys, it’s great. There’s Jonathan Banks this year, and he’s one of the guys who, when I was high school, made me think, “Man, if that guy can be an actor, then I can, too!” (Laughs) But in a good way! I just thought, “I can probably be on that path.” And now here I am getting to work with him!

BE: When Episode 3.7 kicked off, I was watching Hank, thinking, “Oh, he’s not going to…wait, is he? Oh, my God, he is!”

DN: And, boom, right? (Laughs)

BE: Was there ever any consideration that Hank might hold back at all, or was he always going to just lead with his emotions and BAM?

DN: No, that was pretty much a done deal. We thought that, based on the look in Episode 3.6, which we talked about, too, in order to justify him having left the trailer in the first part…I think the scene in 3.7, the love that he and Marie have, which really hasn’t been touched on much, that kind of drove him crazy. At that point, there was no more restraint, and that was the end of the deal. We’d come in full steam ahead and start that. It also was the final craziness that I think led Hank to realize that he’s just turned into a monster and can’t do it anymore. He’s got to stop it. If you’re an alcoholic, sometimes you’ve got to hit bottom…and for his situation, that was him hitting bottom, that he would be such a vicious animal. That’s not what he wanted to be.

BE: The end of 3.6 showed that, no matter how obsessed he may have been with Jesse, Hank’s love for Marie outweighs it.

DN: Exactly. And you feel it a little more in 3.7 when… (Pauses) Personally, I know that everyone’s going to remember the shootout from the episode, but for me…

BE: …it’s the elevator scene.

DN: Yeah, exactly. It was the worst day of his entire life… (Laughs) …and after this walk of shame through the DEA office, where he’s been the big man in, she just shows up at the right time without even calling. For me, that was the heart of that whole episode, even though I know that the shootout will be the thing that’s remembered.

BE: It was such a definitively Hank moment for him to break down the moment the elevator doors closed, and the moment they open again, there’s almost no sign of it.

DN: Yeah, he had a little bit of it left, but he was done with it…or, at least, he was able to fake it.

BE: I have to say about the shootout…well, I wasn’t surprised, per se, because you knew there’d eventually be an encounter with the Cousins, but as soon as Hank found out that Jesse had dropped the charges, I really thought his first reaction would be to think, “Okay, I know I just said I’m out of the game, but this is setting off my radar.”

DN: Right. And it may have. He didn’t really have the chance to consider it very long. He’s just in the middle of leaving, and then after that, he goes to buy his wife flowers…and, then, in a perfect Vince Gilligan moment of craziness… (Laughs) ….he gives him about 30 seconds of joy before shifting straight into only having one minute to live.

BE: How was it to film the choreography of the shootout in that scene?

DN: It was fun. It was intense because…I mean, that’s the kind of scene where, on a movie, it would take three weeks. We did it in two and a half days. So there was a lot of pre-planning, we had two versions of Hank’s vehicle, one rigged with the bullet hits and the other ready for the other part, and we’d have to hop back and forth. I mean, it takes you a couple of hours to set up a car like that, and then they’ve got the bullet hits on your shirt. There’s a lot of pressure to get it right! (Laughs) We really only did the shooting and the car one time, though. We did some close-ups afterwards, but the whole scene of seeing the guy, backing up, and all that…? That was really all just one shot, with all the squibs. And it had to be, because it was winter in New Mexico, it was getting dark by 4:30 PM, so, you know, we really had one shot at it, and that was that. So it was tough, but we’d all worked together a lot. Michelle McClaren is a great director and I’d worked with her before, she’s one of the producers, so it felt really good, and luckily it all worked out. And the bloody hand shot, that was done later. That was a shot we picked up later. It was 6 in the morning and 20 degrees in New Mexico, and I’m laying on the pavement. (Laughs) But I thought that was a very cool shot.

BE: Lastly, at the end of 3.7, I was left wondering, “Where the hell is the rest of the season going to go?” Because I’m thinking we’re going to see the Cousins stalking him for a little bit, and the next thing you know, that’s over.

DN: Hey, that’s Vince Gilligan for you, man: he sets you up, and then he spanks you. (Laughs) I’ll tell you, though, that it stays exciting. I mean, the first five episodes of Season 3, I thought they were very good, but it was definitely a set-up for the rest of these episodes…and it stays intense and action-packed right through to the end, even without those bad guys.

BE: There’s plenty more bad stuff going on, I’m sure.

DN: Definitely. There are plenty more bad guys where they came from.

BE: All right, Dean, thanks for finding the time to finish up our conversation.

DN: Great, man. I’m glad you enjoyed the episodes!

BE: I did. And I can’t wait to see what comes next.

DN: (Laughs) Cool! All right, man. Bye!

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