“Breaking Bad”: “He’s a pure psychopath”

Dean Norris, who plays Hank Schrader, tells Salon that "Breaking Bad" all comes down to a looming Walt–Hank battle

Topics: Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston, Dean Norris, Hank Schrader, Interviews, TV,

"Breaking Bad": "He's a pure psychopath"

When “Breaking Bad” began, Hank Schrader, Walter White’s macho, jokey DEA brother-in-law, played by Dean Norris, seemed to be little more than comic relief. But over the following four seasons, Hank, like everyone else on the show, has changed and deepened. A series of tough breaks — a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder and then near-paralysis and depression following a brutal shot— revealed that, underneath all the braggadocio, Hank was a good, well-meaning, moral guy and a not half-bad law enforcement official, either. As of last week’s season five premiere, Hank — who still doesn’t know about Walt’s drug-making talents — is shaping up to be the the guy who who just might take Walter White down.

In the first installment of a new Sunday series talking in depth about the characters we’re obsessed with and the people who play or have created them, we spoke with Norris — the actor who plays Hank, a Harvard graduate and father of five — about the looming Hank–Walt confrontation, Walt’s psychopathy, and why there are so many anti-heroes on TV these days.

So it’s looking like Hank is going to be Walt’s final enemy and that the show is going to move into being a face-off between him and Walt at the end.

Yeah, they’re not going to shy away from that confrontation. That’s the last real story arc left in the show, and we’re going to get it all, one way or the other. How it’s going to turn out, how it’s going to happen and all that stuff, I don’t know. Even if I did know, I couldn’t tell you. But we’re definitely not going to shy away from the Walt–Hank confrontation.

At what point did you start to get the sense, as an actor, that Hank versus Walt was where the show was going?

In a way, it goes all the way back to the beginning. Given that I didn’t die, I knew that it was going that way. Walt’s wife had to find out, and she found out earlier than I expected, and then really the guy left to be Walt’s foil was Hank. I talked to Vince [Gilligan, “Breaking Bad’s” creator] about it at different times. Quite honestly, because of the weird split in this last season, I wanted to do another show, so I kind of said to Vince, “Hey, any chance you can write me out after this first eight?” And he said “Oh man, that’s what we’re going to write about in the second eight.” We’ve been building this up for five seasons, we want to play it and have a good time of it.

Has it ever been odd, working on a TV show where it’s totally possible for your character to get killed off at any moment?

I didn’t really think about it that way because I knew they needed me as the foil for Walt. I just knew. I guess if I was a dick or caused problems they would have killed me, or they could have. But I knew that they needed to keep Hank as the tension going forward, that their overall arc was to set this up, to make Walt completely unlikeable and make him this guy who got Hank shot at some level, and then in a classic Vince Gilligan “Breaking Bad” way, boom, see what happens.

What do you think about Walt, as someone who watches the show?

Look we’re in the time of the anti-hero. Look at the Emmy nominations that just came out, the serial killer Dexter, the serial killer Walt, the terrorist from “Homeland” played by Damien Lewis — who is great by the way. We don’t have characters who we root for that are good guys anymore, they’re all serial killers or bad guys. So I love watching the show, and it’s delicious to watch, but as a person, Walt’s stone cold. I mean, in the first episode of this season he’s a pure psychopath.

I found him very chilling. The thing about Bryan Cranston’s performance is that it’s so sympathetic I think some people have been able to hold on to this idea that Walt’s not totally evil.

They’re going to be challenged even more this season, if you can be challenged any more than intentionally poisoning a child. If that doesn’t do it for you, it gets even worse. It’s a credit to Bryan that people haven’t stopped liking that character for as long as they have.

Do you think Hank has any inkling about Walt, or is it going to knock him over with a feather when he finds out?

I think it’s going to knock him over with a sledgehammer. He’s going to be blown away. I think that it would have been bad writing if he did figure it out, because it would have been contrived. Once you understand a person in a certain way, you kind of peg them. I mean he’s known Walt for 10 to 15 plus years, so he’s family; he’s his brother-in-law, and he’s a mastermind criminal? It’s inconceivable, you know? All the clues the audience sees, Hank doesn’t. They see it in a different light. Hank sees Walt as this milquetoast high school teacher who has cancer. He’s the last person. It’s very inconceivable, even if he told him. I mean Walt did tell Hank at one point, it was a scene back in season four, and Hank said, “Haha, you got me.” It’s just inconceivable that he would ever think of him in that direction. The audience always goes, “What about this? What about that?” and Hank is like, “I have to figure out how all these pieces fit together, but none of them have anything to do with Walt.” When he finds out, I think that will be one of the fun parts; “Breaking Bad” fun — crazy, dark, and scary.

Circling back to something you said a minute ago, why do you think anti-heroes are so popular right now? 

I’m going to give you a real sociological answer. It’s because we’ve seen that type of person succeed in the world today. I’m from kind of a transition generation — I’m 49 — and I was still around when it was cool to be the good guy. And then all of sudden Nixon came along and won because he cheated and lied. And back when I was young and little, I would stay up and watch movies with my dad. It was John Wayne and all these really solid guys. Now it’s like Wall Street, politics — wherever you turn, if you’re the scumbag, if you’re the guy who’s lying and cheating, you’re the guy who is winning, you’re the guy whom everyone loves. It’s like when “Wall Street” came out, “Greed is good.” There was a time when the Gordon Gekko character was despised, and now he’s worshipped. So it’s changed. I think it changed sociologically, politically and elsewhere. We love the guy who’s willing to lie and cheat and kill to get what he wants.

But Hank isn’t like that. Do you feel like people are responding to him more as the show has gone on, that they like him more?

Hugely so. I mean, I used to get a lot of “Hank’s the funniest guy. We love him, he’s so funny, ha ha ha.” And then within one episode, episode 307 [in which Hank gets shot], I got an amazing number of people who went from thinking this guy is a dick to absolutely loving him. They’ve seen the other side of him. He’s more acceptable to people, a lot more palatable to people, because they know that underneath he’s actually a nice guy, and a guy with fears, and he’s not really as tough as he seems on the surface.

Something I’ve always loved about Hank is that he’s very macho, but he’s also very gregarious and friendly. There’s a tendency in film and TV for the macho guy to be the strong silent type, but Hank just loves to talk.

I always thought that was a fun element of [the show]. They allowed him to be this kind of bad-ass, but at the same time he was a clownish guy. He’s fun; he’s the guy that always responds, that always loves to hang out, that loves to have a beer. I like that the bad-ass stuff will step in in certain scenes and episodes, but I think it’s nice that he’s not this [deep announcer voice] totally cool bad-ass guy.

Is the episode when Hank gets shot your favorite?

For me, it clearly is. It’s an episode that in some ways changed my career. It was like, whoa, once that episode got out there or people saw it on Netflix, definitely in the business, it kind of took me in a different direction.

“Breaking Bad” has gained momentum as it’s aired; its ratings keep going up. Not everyone was watching from the beginning. They caught up on Netflix or on DVD and now are tuning in. Can you guys feel the increased interest?

Oh yeah, you really do. After season three, it just became a whole new kind of thing. It went from, “’Breaking Bad’ what’s that?” to, after season three, people coming up and not saying, “Oh, you’re Hank! You’re that guy from “Breaking Bad!” but instead saying, “Hey, Dean Norris!” It was a much higher level, and then from there it just multiplied. We were at Comic-Con this past week, and it was ridiculous, it was like rock star level. It’s really permeated the culture now and we definitely feel that, definitely felt it even more in season four. I think we’ll feel it big after season five, because it’s coming up to the last season, and people will really want to catch up on it, like “Okay this is the time, if I’m going to catch up, I’m going to do it now.”

Did you watch any shows like “The Sopranos,” “The Wire” or “Lost,” which are similar to “Breaking Bad” in that they felt like they were really going to come down to those last few episodes?

I didn’t watch much TV prior to “Breaking Bad,” and when people started talking about “The Wire” and “The Sopranos,” I thought, you know, maybe I need to go back and watch those shows and see where we fit in. I’m literally in the middle of the second season of “Sopranos” and I’m on the third season of “The Wire.” I watched “Homeland” in real time. That was the best show ever. I just watched that and I loved it. But I’m going back and watching that “The Wire” and “The Sopranos” right now.

I’m impressed you’re watching both at the same time.

I’ve got five kids! When they go to bed, I get like three or four hours. I want to know I’m watching good stuff. I’m actually really happy that I have so many more seasons of those shows to go through.

How important is it to Hank emotionally to have been right about Gus and to be the only one who has figured out that this guy was a druglord?  

I think it’s super important. He’s been out of favor with the DEA and everybody else and was even considered a kind of loony tune when in fact he was right. And that pumps him back up. He was in real serious depression in season four, dealing with being shot and almost killed, and he didn’t really get out of that funk until he started investigating. It’s just that guy thing; guys, or really everybody, needs to have a goal in their life, that thing they’re doing that they love to do, whatever it is. Hank loves to be a cop and a detective and find things out, so once he gets back into that, I’m sure his wife was much happier. And now that he’s vindicated, now that he’s got a lot more juice, we’re going to see a bit more in the next few episodes of him in pursuit. Because he doesn’t believe Heisenberg is gone. He knows right away that it’s still going on and there’s still someone out there, and he’s gotta get him.

Is it more fun to play Hank when he’s being a bad-ass than it was when he was sadly collecting rocks?

It’s so much more fun, but I like that those other levels, those other layers, have been revealed. Before Hank was a blowhard without any redeeming qualities, and he was hard to root for. But now you can say “OK, I get it a little bit more now with Hank. I see why he has to be the way he is because he’s in a job and that’s his armor.” We all put on a face to go and work, whatever that work is, and that’s the face that he needs to put on, the kind of character he needs to be to get through the day.

I’ve seen you get asked this before, but why don’t Hank and his wife Marie have kids?

We’ve asked that same question, and we don’t have an answer. We’ve always wondered why. What it’s allowed us to do is, she’s the only thing in his life and he is [the same] for her. With Walt, he’s doing it for his family, but with Hank he’s only got Marie. That’s one of my favorite parts of the show, my relationship with Marie. And I don’t know why we don’t have kids. I really don’t.

How do you think “Breaking Bad” is going to end? How do you want it to end?

I don’t know how it’s going to end. I don’t even have an answer for how I want it to end, because any time I think of something, I read the script and go “Wow, that’s like eight times better than what I thought.” I’m the only one who’s never visited the writers’ room. There are like seven brilliant people who are sitting there ten hours a day, writing the story; what am I going to add to that, really? All I know is, I’m going to be happy, I’m sure, because these guys will write a very great and awesome epic ending.

Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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