With each season of AMC's Breaking Bad, Dean Norris' character, DEA agent Hank Schrader, has evolved from a knuckleheaded jock into a complex, sympathetic and even heroic counterpoint to the show's anti-hero, high-school chemistry teacher turned meth cook Walter White. And to further complicate matters, Schrader and White (played by Bryan Cranston) are brothers-in-law.
What Norris' character has yet to find out is that White is Heisenberg, the shadowy chemist at the heart of the drug ring that Schrader is obsessed with uncovering. No one outside the show, critics included, knows what's in store, but one thing's for certain: Schrader and White are on a collision course.
Norris tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that his character "has known Walter White for a long time, and he's only known him to be this kind of ineffectual, milquetoast kind of guy ... so the concept of seeing him or even possibly imagining him as some sort of meth cook and a man who could function in that environment is just beyond ridiculous."
As audiences wait to see if Schrader will find out the truth about his brother-in-law, Norris says that when it comes to playing the role of the DEA agent, it was important to him and to show creator Vince Gilligan "that we don't make him look stupid. He's a good cop, he just hasn't put the pieces together yet."
The AMC series Breaking Bad has garnered three Emmy nominations for Outstanding Drama Series and has won six Emmy Awards. The show is currently in its fifth and final season.
On why he's so often cast as law enforcement
"Well, you know, if you stop in any doughnut shop, and you see three cops eating doughnuts, one of them is gonna look like me. I don't know why that is ... but I guess you have a certain look, it's kind of an authoritative law enforcement-type look, and that look is certainly the first thing that people cast you with before you get a chance to do some acting."
On why he decided to become an actor
"It was a tough decision, because I went to Harvard, and I was the first kid in my family to go to college — my parents didn't go to college. ... So on one level, you're like, wow, here's the lottery out of the lower middle class by getting this ticket into Harvard. And I had a choice to either go into investment banking or pursue acting, and I talked to a lot of people. I had done some plays with the American Repertory Theater there in Boston, so I had other professional actors who were making a living ... and I asked them what they thought my chances were. ...
"And I figured these guys all made a living. They didn't make as much money as someone on TV or film, but I said, I'm standing backstage in some tights and a codpiece, watching grown men onstage, and it was just electric. There's 800 people out there, and there's just something magical about being backstage, ready to go onstage, and all your colleagues are out there. And I said, man, if this is as good as it gets and I can do this the rest of my life — be a repertory actor — I'd be a happy man."
On filming the wordless shootout scene in the "One Minute" episode of Breaking Bad's third season
"There are virtually no words in a five-minute scene, so it was all done by our eyes, and being worried, and being scared. And the director literally just would talk me through the scene, would put the cameras on and say: 'Look scared, look left, look right, look really scared. Now you're relaxed a little more, now you're really, really, really scared.' It was an amazing scene to do.
"And when the shootout came, that was something as well, because if you're in the car, in order to make the glass break as if it's been shot by a bullet, there's essentially a gun on the inside of the car that shoots out, and if you happen to get your hand in front of that, it wouldn't be very pleasant. And it's a very tense situation, there's a lot of cameras going, there's a lot of money being spent, and you have to make sure you don't move this way, move that way, don't move your head too far that way; you gotta feel the bullet coming in. ...
"There are all these external things that are going on, and you're just trying to stay in this character's head, so it was a really challenging and fun thing to shoot. I didn't have a sense of how that scene would resonate until we really saw it in the finished product, because they put that scene together in just a phenomenal way. Something about that scene, even if you know the ending of that scene, you can still watch it and you'll get chills right up to the end."
On finding success as a middle-aged actor
"I was always playing 10 years older than I was because I was losing my hair, and I just had that kind of look. So I was playing 35-year-olds when I was 25, always playing 45-year-olds when I was 35. And I always felt when I got into my mid- to late-30s, that would be the time when I would be playing characters that fit who I was. ... I think people kind of hit their peak when they're young, and I have no complaints because I made a really good living. ... I would rather be having all this stuff happening now than having had it happen at 25 and not happen again."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")
DEAN NORRIS: (As Hank Schrader) Hey, welcome. Everybody listen up, listen up, listen up. I'm gonna give a little toast, a little toast to my brother-in-law. Come here. Walt, you got a brain the size of Wisconsin, but we're not going to hold that against you.
(As Hank) But your heart's in the right place, man. Your heart's in the right place. We love you man. We love you. Everybody, to Walt: Na Zdorovie.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Na Zdorovie.
GROSS: That's a scene from the pilot of AMC's "Breaking Bad," with my guest, Dean Norris, as DEA Agent Hank Schrader, toasting the 50th birthday of his brother-in-law, Walter White. "Breaking Bad" is now in its fifth and final season. At the start of the series, Walt is a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. To make money to leave behind for his family after he's gone, Walt starts using his chemistry knowledge to cook and sell meth, the purest meth anyone can remember.
Eventually, he gets involved with a cartel and turns into a gangster himself. Meanwhile Hank, the DEA agent, is obsessed with tracking down the mystery man making this pure meth. He doesn't realize it's his brother-in-law.
Agent Schrader is one of the many law enforcement agents Dean Norris has played. His first movie role was in "Lethal Weapon 2." Let's hear a scene from last season of "Breaking Bad." The drug kingpin that Walt has been cooking for wants to make sure Walt doesn't become indispensible to the operation, so the kingpin insists Walt train another chemist, Gale Boetticher, to also cook meth.
But Walt wants to remain indispensible, so he has Boetticher killed. But Boetticher left behind a notebook containing the chemistry formulas for their meth. That notebook becomes evidence, and when Agent Hank Schrader gets hold of it, he goes to visit Walt, figuring Walt's chemistry knowledge will help him confirm that the complicated formulas in the book are for meth.
Agent Schrader is assuming that Boetticher, who kept the notebook, is the genius meth cook he's been tracking, who goes by the name of Heisenberg. He still doesn't realize Heisenberg is really his brother-in-law Walter White. So here's Bryan Cranston as Walter White and my guest Dean Norris as Agent Hank Schrader.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")
NORRIS: (As Hank Schrader) Hey, welcome, everybody listen up, listen up, listen up. I'm gonna give a little toast, a little toast to my brother-in-law. Come here. Walt, you got a brain the size of Wisconsin, but we're not going to hold that against you.
(As Hank) But your heart's in the right place, man. Your heart's in the right place. We love you, man. We love you. Everybody, to Walt: Na Zdorovie.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Na Zdorovie.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")
NORRIS: (As Hank) There's this mystery man I've been chasing for the better part of a year, cooks the purest meth that me or anyone else has ever seen. He goes by the name of Heisenberg. Yeah. Pretty weird, huh? I looked him up. It was one of these physicists, one of Hitler's guys, a physicist named Werner Heisenberg. Real cute, huh?
(As Hank) Anyway, I figure with a handle like that, you know, my guy's got to be some sort of a, some sort of an egghead, no offense. And here we go: Gale "Major Tom" Boetticher. Anyway, I just want to see if I'm, you know, not barking up the wrong tree, chemically speaking. As far as I can make out, he's writing about phenyl acetone cook, right?
BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Walter White) Yeah.
NORRIS: (As Hank) Yeah. That's pretty rare these days, but it does jive with the blue stuff I've been tracking.
CRANSTON: (As Walter) Two sticks dairy-free soy margarine, two-third cup turbinado sugar.
NORRIS: It's a recipe for vegan smores. There's all kinds of crazy crap in there. He had like, you know, a top-10 recumbent bicycles, indoor composting tips, all right next to the mother of methamphetamine synthesis. This guy was a - man, he was a real character.
CRANSTON: (As Walter) He seems unique.
NORRIS: (As Hank) Yeah. Let me show you something. Give it here. Give it here. Right here, the top says: to WW, my star, my perfect silence. WW. I mean, who you figure that is, you know? Woodrow Wilson? Willy Wonka? Walter White?
CRANSTON: (As Walter) You got me.
GROSS: Dean Norris, welcome to FRESH AIR.
NORRIS: Thank you.
GROSS: So, you know, what's so interesting about that is that everyone watching this series knows that the meth cook that you're chasing is actually your brother-in-law, and you're, like, the only one who doesn't know, you know. Right?
GROSS: I mean, lots of people in the series don't know, but, like, the whole audience knows. So what's it like for you to play something, knowing that everybody watching knows a truth that you don't?
NORRIS: Yeah, it's a little frustrating. You know, it's interesting. It kind of goes back to that first scene you played, where he - I mean, I think we as people, certainly law enforcement, they size people up rather quickly, and I think they then hold on to that opinion. And he has known Walter White for a long time, and he's only known him to be this kind of ineffectual, milquetoast kind of guy, and that's who he sees him as.
So the concept of seeing him or even possibly imagining him as some sort of meth cook and a man who could function in that environment is just beyond ridiculous for Hank Schrader. And so the audience can often see and make leaps and say, wow. How come you can't figure it out? There's all these clues that it's him and blah, blah, blah. But they seem like good clues to the audience because, yes, they already know that it's him. But Hank Schrader doesn't. And it's been important to Vince Gilligan and to myself in portraying that character that we don't make him look stupid. He's a good cop. He just hasn't put the pieces together yet.
GROSS: Yeah, and he's put a lot more pieces together than anybody else has.
NORRIS: Right. We talked about that a lot in terms of, you know, making sure we don't ever make him look like a stupid cop, because then the audience loses interest in that. It's really funny, because, you know, that scene is later followed by a scene where Bryan Cranston - and this is one of the things I think is one of the funny things that come along in the show - where he can't allow Gale Boetticher to take credit for being the genius.
And he gets drunk, and he - Hank Schrader is, like, just about to end the case and say, well, obviously this is the guy. He's dead. So there's no more Heisenberg. And it's Walter White who says well, you know, maybe the genius is still out there. And it's one of those great moments, I think, where the hubris of Walter White gets him in trouble, because he keeps Hank Schrader on the case.
GROSS: I love watching each new episode and seeing, like, you know, what the next character development or plot twist is going to do. When you get your new script, what's the first thing you do? Do you just immediately look for your part and see what's happening with your character, or do you read it page by page?
NORRIS: You know, it's changed. The first few seasons, I would read it page by page. The last couple seasons, I would first look for my character's stuff. And then I would - I kind of wanted to preserve watching the show and to see it as the audience sees it over the past couple years. So I didn't always read the entire script. I needed to know what was pertinent to my character, but I kind of wanted to be surprised and be able to watch the show as an audience member would.
So I haven't read them as detailed in the past couple seasons as I have - as I did when I started.
GROSS: And it's not just that you're being lazy in not reading the whole script?
NORRIS: No, because...
GROSS: No offense.
NORRIS: Yeah, no, no. I have plenty of time to read it. I'd like to, but I've gone through this thing with "Breaking Bad." I didn't really watch a whole lot of television prior to doing it. And then we started being compared to all these great shows. So I went back, and I started watching "The Wire," and I started watching "The Sopranos." I'm, like, on the second season of both of those now, having just finished and looking forward to the rest of it.
But I wanted to see where we fit in. And so I then developed this kind of need to want to watch "Breaking Bad" in a pure sense, like everybody else does - not knowing what's going on, not knowing what's going to happen - and see if I had the same reaction to the show as a lot of critics and audience members have. So that's kind of why I did it.
GROSS: So what's your reaction as a viewer?
NORRIS: It's a pretty good show. It's a pretty good show.
GROSS: OK. So there's a few turning points in your character's development, and I want to ask you about one or two. There's a drug kingpin a couple of seasons ago named Tuco. He's kind of like the head of the local franchise of the Mexican meth cartel. And you have a shootout with him. He's already got a gun, a semiautomatic weapon, and you just have a handgun, but you manage to shoot him.
GROSS: But after that, you start getting these anxiety attacks. And I think, like, your character didn't know he was capable of that level of fear and that he didn't know he could be so shaken by either being shot at or by shooting and killing somebody, which is surprising in the sense that cops in movies and TV shows use their guns all the time and get shot at all the time.
NORRIS: Yeah. You know, it's interesting, because really, in truth, very few law enforcement officers in their entire career ever fire their gun in the line of duty. And when I was doing research for this - and I did a lot prior to that particular shootout, because I wanted to look like I could handle the gun properly and spent a lot of time with not only DEA agents, but other law enforcement types.
And it always amazed me that we would go, and I'd learn to shoot a gun, and these guys practice every week shooting at the range, every week, every week. What would you do if you had to pull your gun in the line of duty? And I thought: Man, that really must wear on you to think about that moment coming for 20 years, for 25 years, however long you're in the career, and never - it never happens. And then one day, boom, out of the blue, it happens. And how would you react?
And that's why they train, because you're supposed to react how you train. And that's ultimately what Hank Schrader does, is he reacts well under that circumstance. And it's only later that the psychological repercussions start to affect him.
And I think that's great. We never see that in TV. I mean, they're shooting - like you said, they're shooting and being shot at all the time. But in reality, that's not true. And I think that the stress of that, either the fear or the fact that he killed somebody is a real psychological problem, or can be.
GROSS: Your first movie was "Lethal Weapon 2." And those "Lethal Weapon" movies, I mean, they're just famous for, like, things are blowing up, glass is shattering, people are jumping through windows, cars are crashing, and everybody's just kind of quipping.
GROSS: So how do you feel about that, having portrayed now a probably much more realistic view of what it's like to encounter violence, even if you're an armed officer of the law? What do you think, looking back on movies like "Lethal Weapon," where no matter what's happening, it's time for a joke?
NORRIS: Right. Well, I - look, I have very fond memories. That was my very first movie, and it was a great time. And I made some good money on it. That's what turned me into an actor from being a waiter.
NORRIS: But, you know, I can see the arguments against those types of movies. But I don't know. I prefer the portrayal of law enforcement that we see with Hank Schrader because of the fact that it's a clearer and a more truthful, I think, portrayal. And, you know, maybe you just chalk "Lethal Weapon 2" movies up to what they're supposed to be, which is fun entertainment.
GROSS: And what kind of waiter were you before becoming an actor?
NORRIS: Well, I'd gotten to L.A. with no money and with no experience as a waiter, and immediately got a - lied my way into a job at a local restaurant, and was there for about six months. And I got a phone call literally while I was at the job saying that I had booked "Lethal Weapon 2." And I was like: Are you sure? How much money, exactly? And now this is guaranteed, right? Yes, it's all done.
I said, OK, took my apron off, handed my, you know, to other waiters, this hamburger goes here, that hamburger goes there, and I left. And interestingly enough, the "Lethal Weapon 2" premiered in the theater next to the restaurant where I was working.
GROSS: Oh, that must have felt good.
NORRIS: That was fun, yeah.
GROSS: My guest is Dean Norris. He plays DEA Agent Hank Schrader in the AMC series "Breaking Bad." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dean Norris, and he plays the character of the DEA Agent Hank Schrader in the series "Breaking Bad."
There's another scene that's a turning point for your character that I want to talk about, and this is a scene where you're assigned to work with border agents, you know, on the Mexican border. And so you're in the desert with a bunch of your fellow DEA agents. And something's approaching you from the distance, and you see it's a very large tortoise, and on the tortoise's shell is a decapitated head. It's the head of somebody who had been an informant for the DEA. And the cartel has written a message on the tortoise's shell that says: Hola, DEA - which is hello, DEA.
And all the DEA agents are kind of laughing at what a, you know, what a spectacle this is, but you're positively revolted. Your legs start to buckle. It looks like you're ready to heave. You kind of wobbly walk back to your car, where you try to regain your composure. And after you've moved away from the scene, one of the other agents lifts the head off the tortoise, and it turns out that the head's been booby-trapped, and there's a huge explosion. All the agents are either killed or mutilated except you, because you were so revolted by this that you'd walked away.
So what was your reaction when you first read the scene? Did you think that this was almost, like, so over-the-top that the writer must have been fooling you?
NORRIS: No. I read that scene, and I was just - it was - to me, it was prototypical "Breaking Bad," because...
GROSS: I should point out, too, there's been so many decapitations in - by the cartels. I suppose in some ways, it's not even that unrealistic.
NORRIS: Right. And it fit - I think it was great, because, in fact, the reason he was - it was part of his PTSD that we were talking about earlier - his post-traumatic stress syndrome - that we didn't really know quite what it was, but that, in fact, is what saved his life, the fact that he couldn't deal with all the stuff that was going on with this, you know, this decapitated head in front of him.
And I thought that, you know, in any other script, in any other show, because we don't - you're not really - you don't really reveal that there's a head on that turtle until you get down there. You see Hank Schrader go, you know, eyes go wide like something crazy's going on. We all rush down there, and it's oh, my goodness. That's the big reveal is that, wow, it's a turtle with a head on it. That would be good enough for most shows. But it's sort of like "Spinal Tap." You know, we go to 11.
NORRIS: Not only is there a turtle with a head on it, but we pull it up, and it blows up. I thought it was brilliant.
GROSS: So there's another scene, another violent scene that I want to ask you about because it's another really big turning point for your character.
GROSS: You're in your car. It's parked. And you get a call on your cell phone saying - from you don't know who. You're not even sure if it's a prank or for real - saying that there are two guys coming to get you, and they will be there in one minute.
And you don't know what to do. You know, you call the person who you think is pranking you. He doesn't answer the phone. You get the voicemail message. You have a digital clock that the camera's looking at in your car, and we see the full 60 seconds of you just not knowing what to do. And you're just kind of frozen and nervous and looking around. And everybody who's walking past the car, you're thinking: Are they the killer? No. They're not the killer. Is that the killer? Is there a killer?
And then a few seconds after the minute elapses, two shooters from the drug cartel are there with guns to avenge their cousin's murder. Would you describe the scene from your perspective?
NORRIS: Yeah. That's - the title of that episode was, in fact, "One Minute." And as you say, we actually let 60 seconds, a whole minute, go through - which is, again, things that are rare on television. That was - you know, it's turned out to kind of - that scene has kind of taken on a life of its own in this "Breaking Bad" series. It's one of those scenes that really kind of defined that season.
It was an amazing thing to shoot. We shot that in two days. A film would have taken, you know, two weeks to shoot that scene. There was no - there were no words other than when I first make the phone call to my partner Gomie. There are virtually no words in a five-minute scene. So it was all done by, you know, by our eyes and being worried and being scared.
And the director literally just had a - would talk me through the scene. We'd put the cameras on, and she'd be, like, you know, looked scared. Look left. Look right. Look really scared. Now you're relaxed a little more. Now you're really, really, really scared. And it was an amazing scene to do.
And when the shootout came, that was something, as well, because there was all - you know, if you're in the car, in order to make the glass break as if it's been shot by a bullet, there's actually a - well, it's essentially a gun that's in the inside of the car that shoots out. And if you happen to get your hand in front of that, you know, it wouldn't be very pleasant.
And it's a very tense situation. There's a lot of cameras going. There's a lot of money being spent. And, you know, you have to make sure you don't move this way, move that way, don't move your head too far that way. You've got to feel the bullet coming in. And there's all these things going on. And they're, like, OK. Ready, now. The most important thing is let's have safety, you know.
NORRIS: And ready, action. And you're like: Oh man, you know. And so there's all these external things that are going on, and you're just trying to stay in this character's head. So it was a really challenging and fun thing to shoot. I didn't have a sense of how that scene would resonate until we really saw it in the finished product, because they put that scene together in just a phenomenal way. Something about that scene, even if you know the ending of that scene, you can still watch it, and you'll get chills right up to the end.
GROSS: When you say and then you had to feel the bullet coming in, what exactly did you mean?
NORRIS: Well, you know, you have squibs on you that are going to blow up. So you have to know - you've got to take...
GROSS: Explain what a squib is.
NORRIS: A squib is a small, explosive device that they put on your shirt that's going to explode with some blood. And it's a little pinch. You know, it's a little - so you get some kind of help there. But you have to time you feeling that hit, being shot by the bullet, at the same time that the technical guy on the side is going to press the button so that it explodes.
So you have to - and, you know, I had like three hits all in one sequence. And then there's other stuff going on. I'm putting the car in reverse, I'm, you know, crawling out of the car. There's all kinds of things going on. And that all happens, you know, at one time. And we did several takes of it, but that take includes getting hit three times. So you have to go boom, I got hit in the arm, boom, I got hit in the back, boom.
At the same time, you want to make sure you don't put your hand or your face anywhere near the gun that's going to be exploding out the window at the same you're putting it in reverse, and you don't want to hit the crew guys that are only two feet from the car, or the guy that's behind you.
And there's all these things that are going on, and you have to kind of keep your wits about you. But at the same time, you're portraying a character who is just, you know, scared and just reacting and moving. So it's a challenging thing to shoot.
GROSS: Dean Norris will be back in the second half of the show. He plays DEA Agent Hank Schrader in the AMC series "Breaking Bad." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Dean Norris. He co-stars in the AMC's series "Breaking Bad" as DEA agent Hank Schrader, who is tracking down a master meth cook, not realizing it's his brother-in-law, former high school chemistry teacher Walter White. "Breaking Bad" is now in the first half of its fifth and final season. When we left off, we were talking about the scene in which Norris' character is attacked by two men from a Mexican drug cartel.
So we were talking about being shot in the scene, and you're shot several times and you nearly die, but emerge from that unable to use your legs. And you do very, very slowly start to recover but it's a long process and you have no idea if you ever - early on you have no idea if you will ever regain any movement from your legs. And you've already been very moody because you've been suffering with these anxiety bouts, you know, post-traumatic stress, as a result of having been shot at and shot a man in an earlier episode.
So you're lying in bed a lot. You're really depressed. You're bitter. You're angry. And even your wife Marie, who is trying so hard to like cheer you up and encourage you, every time she comes into the room you just like find a reason to insult her.
GROSS: So I want to play an example of that. So you've been in physical therapy and you're starting to make a little bit of progress and progress is basically charted by the number of steps you can take every day, and it's just a few. So in this scene you're in bed after your physical therapy and your wife Marie comes home. She just spoke to the therapist. Marie's acting very upbeat about the progress you've been making in physical therapy.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES "BREAKING BAD")
GROSS: What did you do to prepare for being weak and being sick, being unable to use your legs and being in despair about your physical state of being and your future?
GROSS: And being dependent in the way that you are. I mean, right after that your wife helps you with the bedpan.
GROSS: Which you just find, you clearly find that like so humiliating. And your response, off course, is always just to insult her and be really cold to her.
NORRIS: Yeah, that was a tough season, I got to be honest with you. You know, you can only wear like a mask so long before it really starts to kind of effect you are. And I really, I think, you know, I remember talking to Bryan Cranston one time and saying how frustrated I was with how the season was going. And he's like man, you just kind of - there's just too much Hank left in you.
NORRIS: You got to let it go. It was. It was it's, you know, to take that character who had been so robust, I mean that's, you know, partly or largely what defined Hank Schrader in the first two seasons. And then to completely take away all his physicality, in the sense that he can't walk and his wife has to change his - wipe his butt and change his bedpan for him. It was just, it was tough. And I, you know, I just I talked to some people, tried to get a sense of what it's like to be disabled and, wow, it's tough, particularly when you, when it first happens to you, you know. And it was just it was a depressing place to be. And, yeah, he did take it out on his wife but that's the only person he had there to take anything out on. So he looked kind of bad as a character, but I think it hopefully, at the end of the day you understood where he was coming from. But it was a depressing, both as an actor and kind of as a person. It kind of took it out on me that season.
GROSS: So I think it was the season before the episode that we've just been talking about that your father had a stroke and I don't think he lived long after that. And I'm wondering if you don't mind my asking, if he was in physical therapy after that and if you watched him try to hang in there and having lost a lot of physical ability afterwards?
NORRIS: Yeah. He didn't go into physical therapy but seeing, you know, your father, you know, basically in a hospital bed for several months certainly was something that I couldn't help but not drawn on. And it was - I lost my mom actually, recently too, so...
GROSS: I'm so sorry.
NORRIS: Yeah. It was, that was certainly something that I drew on for any number of scenes in "Breaking Bad."
GROSS: Were you shooting at the time that he was in the hospital?
NORRIS: I was, the whole time, yeah.
NORRIS: So it was - and Vince was very kind to give me certain episodes off when I needed it and things like that. So it was, it worked out that way.
GROSS: If you don't mind my asking, only because so many people are in this position between, you know, balancing the work that they're obligated or committed to doing and visiting, you know, a parent or a spouse or a child who is very sick in the hospital. How did you figure out how much time was OK to be away from the set and how much time you could spend by your father's side?
NORRIS: Yeah. That was a constant issue. My dad, who was the first guy who kind of taught me about entertainment; he was a singer in a band and we had a very, very good relationship. I really love my dad. And he and my mom were big fans of the entertainment business. And, I, they always the first ones to teach me and would always tell me that the show must go on. And I think that's one of the great things about the entertainment business, is that one of the great basic concepts of show business is that the show must go on. I think that's a good lesson for life. So I kind of took that and did what I did. I had a, you know, when I needed to be on the set, I got there. There were few times I would, you know, Vince said, hey, it's not that important for you to be in this particular episode so we can write you out and give you a whole week off and I took that with, you know, with much appreciation. And just had to do it, had to figure between the two. So at the end of the day, the show does have to go on and I made it to the set and did my job.
GROSS: So this season and there's a birthday party for Walt. And Walt explains that it was just about exactly one year ago that he was diagnosed with cancer. Which means that all the stories that have taken place in all of "Breaking Bad" over the past four seasons and several episodes - because we're now in season five...
GROSS: ...has really happened in one year.
GROSS: So it's happened over more than four years in terms of actual television viewing time. Is it four or five years or maybe even more because some of the seasons got so delayed.
GROSS: But, you know, when you go back to the first season, everybody looks like so much younger, like, you know way more than a year as elapsed.
GROSS: So have you guys been thinking about that? Because it's so funny to think that what we've seen as several years and several seasons is supposed to have just happened in one year.
NORRIS: Yeah, we think about that a lot. And we have to remind ourselves too because you kind of get involved in it, and kind of go, wait a minute. In real time in terms of - all right, not real time, but I guess in fictional time it's only been six months, it's only been eight months, it's only been - and we're constantly reminded about that by the producers and directors. Yeah, it is interesting. I, you know, I mean, look, they did 24 over 22 episodes and that was one day so, and Bryan Cranston who has been doing likes to say that, you know, "M*A*S*H," you know, the Korean War, "M*A*S*H" lasted a lot longer than the Korean War did, so...
GROSS: Right. This season, there's a great scene where Walt and his teenage son are in the living room in front of the TV watching Al Pacino in a scene from "Scarface."
GROSS: And Walt's wife, who is just, she just really hates Walt at this point because he just keeps getting deeper and deeper into the meth business and into his gangster self. And she thinks that even though he feels secure and that they're safe that they are not and that her children are endangered. So to make this seem even worse, when she walks in Walt and her teenage boy are watching "Scarface," Walt has their infant on his lap.
GROSS: Which leads me to wonder how old do your kids have to be before they watch "Breaking Bad?"
NORRIS: Well, I'm probably not going to win dad of the year. I don't let them watch "Breaking." I don't let them watch - I have younger kids and I have let them watch the show before. I don't let them watch anything where it looks like I might die. I'm not sure they would be able to deal with that. But I have let them watch the show. Like I said, I won't, I'm not sure this is the right thing to do. My middle son has seen the, and my older son have both seen the Tuco shootout scene. I think, you know, I think you need to be well into your teens probably, as a general, rule to watch the show. And let me just say that there is a even more chilling scene involving that baby later on this season.
GROSS: My guest is Dean Norris. He plays DEA agent Hank Schrader in the AMC's series "Breaking Bad."
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dean Norris. And he co-stars in "Breaking Bad" as the DEA agent Hank Schrader.
You've played a lot of cops in your time - Hank as a DEA agent. Your first movie was "Lethal Weapon 2." You've been in like "CSI" TV shows. Just what is it about you?
NORRIS: Well, you know, if you stop in any doughnut shop and you see three cops eating doughnuts, man, one of them is going to look like me. I don't know why that is, but...
NORRIS: That's about one in three. I guess it's just, you know, you have a certain look and that's, it's kind of an authoritative law enforcement-type look, and that book is certainly the first thing that people cast you with before you get a chance to do some acting and do some other stuff. Like now I'm getting more dad roles, I'm doing some different stuff. I just played a used car salesman in a little movie that I like. Getting some opportunities to do different things than just cops.
GROSS: So you grew up in South Bend, Indiana. Was your father a salesman or did he own the furniture store?
NORRIS: Yeah, he owned a furniture store. That was his day job. And then he had a band that he played every Friday and Saturday night as long as I can remember.
GROSS: What kind of band?
NORRIS: It was a, you know, just like a variety band. They would play at various, you know, bar-restaurant type places, you know, weddings and that kind of thing. And he just loved it and I used to play with them when I got old enough and that's really where I learned - I had a great love for entertainment.
GROSS: What kind of music?
NORRIS: Covers of rock songs. Covers of classics. You know, the Sinatra type stuff, things like that.
GROSS: And what did you play when you played with them?
NORRIS: I played guitar and I also sang and then I had my own band later, any number of bands. And it was really just a great, great time. And my dad, it's just funny, my dad always used to talk about himself 'cause he couldn't read music. He didn't, you know, finish high school and but he was really, really a good entertainment. He had a very nice voice but he never considered himself a singer. He always considered himself an entertainer and he kind of drilled that into me that that's what - when people come there to see him they don't necessarily come to hear a great voice; they come to be kind of taken away for three hours, and that's what he would do.
GROSS: Hm. How did you decide you...
NORRIS: I think it's important in acting, by the way.
GROSS: Yeah. How did you decide you to act?
NORRIS: Well, I'd been doing it since I was 5 in church plays and things like that and did a lot of it in college. It was a tough decision because I went to Harvard and I was the first kid in my family to go to college. My parents didn't go to college, really in my extended family, even with my cousins and stuff. So it was at one level you're like, wow, you know, here's the lottery out of the lower middle class by, you know, getting this ticket into Harvard. And I mean, I had a choice to either go into like, you know, investment banking...
NORRIS: ...or pursue acting. And I talked to a lot of people. I had done some plays with the American Repertory Theatre there in Boston, so I had other professional actors who were, you know, making a living and was able to talk to them, ask them what they thought my chances were and things like that. I really, really tried to look at hard, because so many people decide they're going to become an actor and you go, well, you know, are you one of those guys who is deceiving yourself into thinking you have a chance at doing this or do you really have a chance at doing it? So I really kind of examined that question long and hard. And ultimately, you know, I was doing, you played small parts at the American Repertory Theatre that they would give to the students and I figured these guys all made a living. You know, they didn't make as much money, let's say, as someone on TV or on film but I said, you know, I'm standing backstage in some tights and a codpiece, you know.
NORRIS: Watching grown men, you know, on stage and it was just electric. And, you know, there was 800 people out there and there was just something magical about being, you know, backstage ready to go onstage and you got all your, you know, your colleagues are out there. And I said, man, if this is as good as it gets, you know, and I could do this the rest of my life, be a repertory actor, I'd be a happy man.
And I said OK, so let's do it.
GROSS: So with "Breaking Bad" you've gotten a leading role on TV and it's relatively late in your career. What's it like to have such a prominent part on TV now after having seen people you knew get there much earlier in life?
NORRIS: Yeah. You know, I've always thought that I would be a middle-aged actor. You know, I got out here - I think I did "Lethal Weapon 2," that was my first - but I think I was 25 already. But I was always playing 10 years older than I was because I was losing my hair and I just had that kind of look.
So I was always playing 35-year-olds when I was 25 and I was playing 45-year-olds when I was 35 and I always felt when I got into my mid to late 30s that would be the time where I would be playing characters that fit who I was. And I think different people have, you know, yeah, people who kind of hit their peak when they're young.
And I have no complaints. I made a really good living. You know, I never did anything else but acting since that time, 25, and compared to certainly what, you know, my parents made or most of the people I grew up with made, or even, you know, people out here who had really good jobs as doctors and lawyers. I mean, I made a pretty good - 'cause I worked consistently, I made a pretty good amount of money and felt that I always kind of had made it because every year I put on my IRS form, you know, entertainment. But it is interesting. I mean, I kind of would rather be having all this stuff happening now than having had it happen at 25 and not happen again.
NORRIS: And I do think that my look allows me - I mean, I'm looking at another 20 years of looking - of these types of roles. So, that's not bad.
GROSS: How's "Breaking Bad" affecting the kind of roles you're being offered?
NORRIS: Well, yeah, of course. I mean, the one thing about "Breaking Bad" regardless of how it stands in terms of ratings and the ratings are getting a lot better, it is clearly number one amongst Hollywood types. I mean, we have huge fans that are big, big producers and directors, you know, multi-award winning type producers and directors.
And we often sit around and talk about who we've heard is obsessed with the show, and it's amazing, the names that come out there. So, yeah, I'm getting access to all kinds of really good roles. I mean, I'm heading off to London tomorrow to do a Ridley Scott movie which certainly wouldn't have happened had I not been on "Breaking Bad."
GROSS: And is it a prominent part?
NORRIS: It's a good enough role. I mean, it's with, you know, a few other semi-known people - Brad Pitt and Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz. Everybody in the movie is like a mega-star, so I get to be in a movie with those guys.
GROSS: Dean Norris, it's been great to talk with you. Love you in "Breaking Bad." Thank you so much.
NORRIS: Thank you.
GROSS: Dean Norris plays DEA agent Hank Schrader in the AMC series "Breaking Bad," which is in the first half of its fifth and final season. Dean Norris hasn't figured into this season very much so far but judging from last night's episode, that's about to change. Here he is as DEA agent Hank Schrader with one of his superiors from headquarters.
(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")
GROSS: Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews two new albums produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.