It was the hand job that did it.
Anna Gunn shone on David Milch’s Deadwood and has many of the traits Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan was looking for in the wife of the most deranged chemistry teacher that has lived on television. But when he saw how much Sony executives laughed as Skyler White pleasured her husband while surfing eBay, Gilligan knew he’d found Mrs. White.
“On the surface, the show doesn’t seem like it should be very funny,” Gilligan said. “But, in fact, we try to get as much humor as we can into Breaking Bad, and Anna has a sense of comic timing and knows how to get the most out of a humorous moment instead of inadvertently squashing it. That is indeed an important quality for the woman married to Walter White.”
Gunn, who is nominated for her first Emmy for her work in the fourth season of the AMC series, almost didn’t try out for the career-altering role. She had just had her second child, and couldn’t knock a cold, but her good friend, Sharon Bialy, one of the show’s two casting directors, persevered until Gunn read the script and agreed to audition. As part of the process, several actresses met with Gilligan and Bryan Cranston to work out the scene on a stage before trying it out in front of executives.
“We were laughing and shooting ideas around and it was very fluid and very easygoing,” Gunn recalled. “Bryan and I amused each other immensely from the start. We got into this whole thing about how physically we could pull this off. I told them I was embarrassed to do the air hand-job miming thing. I was just going to start laughing. That would make me feel so silly. So we got an actual object to simulate the activity and it cracked up everybody in the room. But we were able to be completely poker-faced and straight-faced about it, and that’s what made it work.”
Not everyone, though, gets a kick out of Skyler, and Gunn knows that. Men, especially, think she’s a bitch whose sole purpose is to nag her husband and prevent “Heisenberg” from having any fun—an idea that seems ludicrous to those viewers who see Walter for the drug-dealing murdering psychopath that he really is. Gunn keeps it in perspective, though, because she knows Skyler is not the first television wife of a jerky anti-hero husband to catch flak. Before Skyler, there were Carmela Soprano and Betty Draper.
“Some men get a little upset because she’s such a toughie and she’s so strong,” Gunn said. “She’s not somebody to sit in a corner and go, ‘Oh no! Oh no!” and wring her hands and cry and do all that stuff. I think men are really threatened by her a little bit. She’s the one telling Walt don’t do this, don’t do that. If you love the badass Walt, that is, you love Heisenberg, she’s the one that sucks the fun out of it. It’s a fascinating gender issue.”
“Anna has a sense of comic timing and knows how to get the most out of a humorous moment instead of inadvertently squashing it.”
As much as the show has depicted Walter’s transformation and gradually revealed his true self, it also has exposed sides of Skyler that viewers could not have foreseen in the first season. Remember when Skyler was upset with Marie over shoplifting? That same person was willing to cook the books for her boss to keep the IRS away and then had an affair with him (though she was separated from Walt and planning to divorce him). Then, she bought the car wash, laundered Walt’s money, came up with his gambling addiction to cover his tracks, and is even now hiding his piles of money in a storage shed. All of this has earned her the nickname of “Hersenberg” on set.
“She seemed in a way like the moral pillar and then all of a sudden she’s faced with this,” Gunn said. “She has about three different paths she can go down. When she’s about to turn him into the police, she can’t. When she’s about to run away with Baby Holly, she just can’t. She keeps on being drawn back, and there’s a myriad of reasons for that that are fascinating. There’s layer upon layer, which makes the material beautiful to play as an actor.”
Gilligan acknowledges the plan was to keep Skyler in the dark about Walt’s extracurricular activities longer in the life of the series. But Gunn’s intelligence and strong physicality drove the writers to have her figure out that her cancer-stricken husband was lying about many things at the end of the second season.
“Anna’s a very smart person, a very astute and intuitive person,” Gilligan said. “It just seemed we were running the risk of having the show ring false if we kept putting it off. We finally came of the opinion that it was time for her to figure out who Walt really is. That was a very scary moment for us. We realized it would change the shape of the show. But I’m proud to say we went forward nonetheless and we have the big moment when Skyler realizes who Walter really is. I don’t think it harmed the show. I think it helped it.”
To the surprise of most viewers and Gunn herself, Skyler chose to join her enterprising husband’s new business, after considering her other options. “Inertia sometimes keeps us from breaking free and what we know in our minds that we should do,” Gilligan said. “Sometimes our heart tells us one thing and our minds tell us another. And I think Skyler has been a victim of that disconnect. She does what her heart tells her instead of her mind. But I still have great fondness and respect for her character because she wants to do the right thing and she wants it to be the best possible outcome for her children. Any mistakes she makes she doesn’t make from a place of greed or selfishness.”
Gunn’s nomination is one of 14 the show received, including its third consecutive nod for best drama, as well as recognition for Cranston, Aaron Paul, Giancarlo Esposito, and Mark Miller. Gunn submitted for Emmy consideration the episode “Cornered—a dramatic, unforgettable hour in which Skyler goes from supportive and concerned wife to realizing her husband is capable of a lot more than drug dealing when he tells her, “I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy who opens his door and gets shot; and you think that of me? No! I am the one who knocks!”
But Skyler got the last word when she took matters into her own hands and declared at the end of the episode, “Someone needs to protect this family from the man who protects this family.”
“She goes from Point A to Point Z in one episode and I felt that was very strong, and it showed the biggest change in her over that entire season,” Gunn said.
By the end of the fourth season, Skyler gave away their fortune, eliminating any chance the family had to run away, and creating a series of events that led Walter to murder kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and poison a boy. The episode “Crawl Space,” in which Walter discovers the money is gone and breaks into maniacal laughter, was a critical favorite.
Gunn and Cranston typically rehearse their lines together to get an idea of what they want to do with a scene, but “we don’t go through the whole thing because we’re not ready yet to show the bottom layer to anybody.” So when Walter became unhinged at the end of “Crawl Space,” Gunn’s reaction was genuine.
“It freaked me out so much,” she said. “It actually broke my heart. We’ve grown to be so close to these characters that they really do become part and parcel of you, and you feel them in your gut and you carry them around. At that moment, Skyler realizes she may have just signed their death certificates. It was so horrifying and, oh my God, the guilt. If you give your imagination over to the extraordinary writing, it does most of the work for you, frankly.”