Breaking Bad – Dean Norris reveals what the “perfect” show has meant to him

WARNING. SPOILER ALERT: As viewers bid Hank a fond farewell in the latest episode of the smash hit series here's our exclusive chat with the man who plays him, speaking just before the final eight episodes were aired

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RadioTImes.com: Where are you now?

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Dean Norris: We shoot Under the Dome in North Carolina which is on the East coast. We just finished shooting on Monday and then I flew to New York to do a week of press for Breaking Bad, which I just saw the preview for last night. Saw Keith Richards, so that was really cool. He was there and he’s a really big fan. He gave me a big hug and it was awesome. We’d always spend out seasons talking about which famous people like our show, and I think that’s a pretty good one.

What other famous people are fans of Breaking Bad? Do you keep a list?

Pretty much all of them now. In the early days when someone contacted the show to say that they loved it, we always thought it was cool. When Oprah did, or any of the big moguls in the world, it was always a big catch that they loved our show. Warren Buffet was there last night.

The whole series has been leading up to Hank’s big confrontation, is that something that has been very satisfying for you.

Yeah, that’s kind of the final arc of the story that hasn’t been told. And they get into it pretty good for these last eight.

In Under the Dome, your character is much more sensitive, am I right?

Hank almost to his own detriment has his own moral core that he doesn’t want to break and Big Jim turns out to be a guy not bound by morality. Sometimes he does things for the good of the town and sometimes he does things good for him. In that sense, he’s not a purely bad guy. He’s a little more complex. I think he’s reptilian. Like a bug, he grabs opportunity when it’s there. He’s also kind of a chameleon; he can be a different person when he’s with different people on their side. He’s like the ultimate politician.

Did Keith Richards say anything to you at the premiere party?

He didn’t really talk about it. He was just like, “Oh, Hank!”

Are you a Stones fan?

Oh yeah. I think in the first episode of Breaking Bad I make a reference to Keith Richards. Something like him drinking milk like Keith. Actually someone with him brought that up last night.

Hank is a fascinating character. Hank and Walt are both brilliant in different ways. It’s funny to think that bothe their wives, these sisters, have married men who are the very best at what they do – Walt as a chemist turned drugs lord and Hank as a Cop…

Walt turns out to be that way and I think Hank has always been a good cop and good at what he does. People are always like, “Well why didn’t he figure out Walt?” He figures everything else out around him. He figures out Gus Fring and Jesse Pinkman and all this other kind of stuff. It was always important to Vince Gilligan and we talked about this a lot that Hank be seen as a really smart cop and the reason he can’t figure out Walt is when he’s hiding in plain sight is because when you’ve known someone for 15 or 20 years your mind just doesn’t make the connection. Like with psycho killers or people like that, the neighbours always say, “Oh, he was the nicest guy.” And that’s how it is with Walt.

Do you think Hank didn’t want to find out because of how it will destroy his own family?

It could be that. I always played at that. He just has no inclination with this subconscious thing. I don’t know. I think he was just blinded. You see his reaction when he finds out it is Walt, and that all happens in this first episode.

Are you going to miss it?

I’m going to miss it terribly. It really hit me when we finished filming in March. It was the goodbyes and all that sort of stuff. This week has also been emotional since we’re seeing each other again and going through the fact that this is our final premiere together and doing all these panels that reminds us that after this week it’s going to be over soon. The thing about the show and with services like Netflix and iTunes, new generations will still be able to discover that show in the future. I imagine some kids going to college and binge watching it together smoking out of a bong or something. And 10 years from now kids who are 10-years old from now will sit down with the show and watch it.

Maybe we’ll have to do the inevitable 20-year reunion.

When did you start getting recognised from the show?

For every single person who worked on that show, it’s been a boost. Anybody that got killed off still went on to do other shows. It’s always been a show that has been well respected in the business. Almost instantaneously it gives you a higher level of offers and even contemplate doing other stuff.

Are you getting tons of offers?

Well I’ve moved on to do Under the Dome right away. As soon as I’m done with that, I’ve had a bunch of movie offers under way and I have the luxury of waiting for one that’s going to be better. It’s nice.

When did you notice that Breaking Bad was really a phenomenon?

I think it grew slowly. The first season, the critics loved it but people didn’t even know it. It wasn’t until the third season that we really noticed that it started to penetrate the cultural atmosphere. We went to Comic-Con last week and it was a mob. And now in New York City it’s like the biggest star walking around. That’s different even from two summers ago.

Do you like being famous?

I see how it could be troubling. I think the perks that go with it, I like being able to move on and hang out with my buddies. But you can’t do that as much or people will try to get pictures with you.

What was it like working on set?

With Breaking Bad we did become such good friends and we’ve been through a lot together. It changed all of our lives.  It’s within our little group and that we can understand that. I’m more like the leader now where I used to be part of the group where Bryan Cranston was the leader. It’s taught me a lot. I’ve realised from Breaking Bad and all these young kids on the show, most of them are really big fans of it. We have this responsibility to be on that set.

Are you a workaholic?

Unfortunately, I am a bit of a workaholic. That’s the nature of the business. Unfortunately with this one, Under the Dome, it’s far away from California. But my kids have been out here to the East coast all summer. If I didn’t have a character to get into, I think I’d get really antsy.

What are you hobbies?

I like to golf when I get a chance. I also have a nice vegetable garden. I grow some good tomatoes and I like to can them.

I heard that you wanted Hank to be killed off at the beginning of season five. Is that true?

What happened was that when they picked up the final season, they were going to do 16 episodes of it and make it a super season. And we thought it was great, we would shoot them all together. And then at some point it was divided into eight and eight. Which meant that I would shoot eight and then be waiting around for 10 months not able to do another TV show before another eight episodes. For me, I like to be able to move a long and do another show. So I spoke to Vince and said, “ Wouldn’t it be interesting if your final cliffhanger for the first eight was Hank dying?” And he said no way. I think that was just a passive way of me asking if I was going to be in the last eight, and he said yes.

What’s your favourite moment of Breaking Bad?

I have several favourite moments coming up in the final eight. For me it is clearly in season three episode seven when he has the shootout with the Mexicans. That’s one of my favourite scenes. There’s another scene earlier in the episode when Hank is talking to his wife will always be my favourite scene, when he breaks down with his wife on the bed and he says, “I’m not the man I thought I was, maybe the universe is trying to tell me something.” It’s just a great line to have Hank say.

Why do you think Breaking Bad seizes peoples’ imaginations?

I think for me it’s the devotion to perfection, and that comes from Vince Gilligan. The writing is just perfect. There’s never a false moment. And we all get inspired by that to do our best as actors. I’ve talked to the music directors, and I think the music of Breaking Bad is great. I think Vince has hired all the right people at every level – the writers, the editors, the photographers – everybody gets inspired by the writing and they deliver. It’s not lazy. I think the show respects intelligent viewers and it’s not going to try to get anything by them. They spend a lot of time agonizing over making sure one step to the next is proper and honest. And people love that. Other shows it’s like every now and then, “Oh, I didn’t really buy that one.” Then they don’t want to watch the rest of it. In my humble opinion, when you go through Breaking Bad, there’s never a single false moment.

It’s a far-fetched concept, but there’s nothing far-fetched when you’re watching the human drama, is there?

Exactly. From the beginning, that’s what we wanted. People would be like, “Oh, I don’t want to watch a story about meth.” But it’s not really about meth at all. It’s the experience about wife and husband relationships, what’s the importance of life and those larger questions framed around it.

There are certain parallels to Macbeth – the husband and wife driven to ever worst excesses by greed and ambition. Breaking Bad is novelistic in scope – do you ever talk about its similarity to other great works of literature. Has that been talked about on set?

I have, I’ve talked a lot to Vince about that. We were trying to comprehend what we like about the show. And it’s not only Shakespearian, it’s operatic at times. The great thing about Breaking Bad is that it is able to combine different things. For example, the Mexican killers weren’t real guys. They were operatic guys; they were surreal. There are some moments in Breaking Bad that are so intimate and real and to combine those small surreal moments with those big operatic moments just come out of nowhere. It’s the ability to meld that stuff together that marks it as a great show.

What are you working on now?

I’m finishing up Under the Dome and still doing PR, so hopefully I’ll be able to take a week or two off. Then sometime in September I’ll get back to work.

What are some of the perks of fame?

For me, it’s getting a larger pick at good work. I don’t have to take things for money. I can sit back and pick things I really like.

Most actors struggle in their early days. Did you?

It wasn’t really . I got to LA and I didn’t come from a wealthy family at all, so I got a job as a waiter and a spot in Lethal Weapon 2, and from that point on that’s what I did.

You made it quite early on, then…

For me I did. Obviously there are varying degrees of making it. But for me as soon as I was able to write on my tax form that I was an entertainer, that was making it.

What else have you not done that you want to pursue in your professional life? Are there any ambitions you have unfulfilled…

It’s evolving. I’d really like to do some festival-level films, some that do well at Sundance and make a mark in that part of the business. Give it a shot.

Was there anything you personally contributed to Hank’s character?

No, it was 100% Gilligan and the writers. I think that was pretty much everybody. I think some people would drop by the writer’s room and give their two cents. But in my humble opinion, we had seven brilliant writers working 10 hours a day on end. I didn’t need to contribute to that.

Do you ever write anything yourself?

I think like everyone out there, when I got started I wrote some stories. I actually finished a screenplay that was halfway decent. But then I soon realised that people like Vince Gilligan were out there writing stuff that was much better.

What are you going to do with your week off when you have it?

I’m going to sit in my Jacuzzi the whole time, I think.

What can Breaking Bad fans look forward to in the final eight?

I think it comes to a tremendously satisfactory ending. I think these eight are the best episodes in the entire series, which means a lot because we have a lot of great episodes. Nothing is left and we put it all out there. Nothing is left on the table. It’s everything we’ve got. Acting, writing – it’s all out there.

If you put yourself in the shoes of a fan, would they be satisfied?

Yeah. At then end of the day you’ll be sad that it’s gone, but you’ll go, “Wow.” It’s a really proper conclusion.

What kind of TV do you watch?

I wish I had more time, I don’t watch as much television. I love the show Eastbound & Down. It’s a comedy here and I’ll binge watch House of Cards when I get the chance.

Do you and the cast get together and watch the shows together?

No, we’ve never done that. We’re always done shooting by the time it’s on.

Do you watch yourself?

Yes, I watch it live on Sundays at 10 o’clock with commercials and all. About halfway through I used to avoid reading parts of the script I wasn’t in so I can be surprised by the show still. It’s hard to do, but it’s put together so well. I don’t get to see other people’s scenes, so it’s always a joy to sit down and watch it.

Do you find this part of your job exhausting?

It can be. When you’re doing it from early in the morning to late at night. But it’d be ridiculous for me to complain about it because of all I get to do with it.

Who’s your best mate on the Breaking Bad cast?

Aaron Paul certainly, and Bryan. Aaron and I would go out before he was married, and after he was married. He was the one I would go out and get drinks with most. And Bryan Cranston. 

Dean Norris – thankyou very much for your time

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It’s been a pleasure.