Emmy Contender

From ‘Breaking Bad’ to Benjamin Franklin: Dean Norris on Life After Hank Schrader

After playing the heroic-but-doomed DEA agent on the AMC classic, the actor is on to his next chapter: a new History series on the Founding Fathers as well as a Jason Reitman dramedy.

Cathy Kanavy / AMC

Dean Norris radiates authority. And over the years, because of his imposing visage—chrome-domed, sturdy and squinty—the Indiana native found himself pigeonholed as the generic law enforcement official. An unnamed SWAT team leader in Gremlins 2 and Terminator 2. A role credited as “Beat Cop” in Gattaca. A state trooper in Little Miss Sunshine.

“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,” Norris has said. “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.”

And when we were first introduced to Norris’s DEA agent Hank Schrader on AMC’s Breaking Bad, it seemed like more of the same. He was the cliché, knucklehead cop—a jock Barney Fife and foil to the nerdy, Machiavellian chemistry teacher-cum-meth producer, Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston. But then creator Vince Gilligan got more familiar with Norris—who, by the way, is a Harvard grad—and the two ending up crafting one of the most richly textured lawmen on TV; a heroic figure who had the cojones to go mano-a-mano with Tuco, a Mexican drug cartel, and, of course, the great Heisenberg.

Norris’s riveting turn as Schrader opened up many doors for the 51-year-old journeyman. He currently stars as Councilman “Big Jim” Rennie on the hit CBS series Under the Dome; just wrapped filming on Men, Women & Children, a Jason Reitman ensemble dramedy also starring Adam Sandler, Emma Thompson, and Ansel Elgort; and was cast alongside Christopher Plummer in Atom Egoyan’s Nazi drama Remember. And on Wednesday afternoon, it was announced that he’ll star as Benjamin Franklin in the History miniseries Sons of Liberty—a drama about the Founding Fathers.

In an in-depth discussion, Norris discussed his time on Breaking Bad, whether or not we’ll see more of Hank Schrader, and his unique take on the man who “discovered” electricity.

I just heard that you’ve been cast as Benjamin Franklin in this History miniseries Sons of Liberty.

It’s cool. They’re doing a real, down-and-dirty portrayal of the Founding Fathers. Ben Franklin was a real crazy son of a bitch! He was a drinker, womanizer, and an exhibitionist who had a lot of prostitutes. It should be fun. The way it was sold to me is that it’s not your high school history version of these guys, but really the way they were. They were rebels, and wild guys, but also guys that changed the world.

The press release said it would cover from the Boston Tea Party all the way through to the Declaration of Independence.

Yeah. And the scripts were great, so I think it’ll be a lot of fun to shoot. The show starts shooting in Romania sometime in July, and then I’ll start shooting in August. The shooting goes from July through to the end of September. It’s a six-hour miniseries, so I’m not sure if it’s six one-hour episodes or three two-hour episodes. I think the earliest it will air is probably in the spring.

Have you tried on wigs yet?

[Laughs] Literally that was the first email I got after the deal was closed. I was so excited! And I want the little, funky glasses, too. I’m in North Carolina right now finishing shooting up Under the Dome, but I’ll be back in L.A. in a couple of weeks to try on wigs and stuff.

Let’s talk Breaking Bad. I’ve never seen a show end on such a crescendo of crazy, and I think the tone for the second half of the final season was really set in that confrontation scene in the garage between Hank and Walt—the “tread lightly” scene.

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At this point in the show, we were doing it for six years so it was so comfortable to work with Bryan both as an actor, and as a director, because he directed that one. That scene evolved during the day as we talked about it more and more. When we started, it was a lot more violent and angry, and by the time we got to what we got, it had become a much more hurtful scene—but with some anger still left in there. It’s just such a betrayal. Hank doesn’t have any friends on the show or any family other than his wife, so Walt was really the closest thing he had to a brother, and to have his own brother betray him in that way was heartbreaking. The “tread lightly” line was originally written where he picks up his glasses, turns around, and goes, “…tread lightly,” in a very badass way. But the more we worked on it, the more nuanced it became. It gives me the chills now just thinking about it.

How many times did you have to punch him?

A lot. We shot the scene all day and thankfully I didn’t land any! There was one moment where Bryan fell and landed on his watch, which hit his head and gave him this huge gash. [Laughs]

One of the things that fascinated me about Breaking Bad was the evolution of Hank, since he started out as a pretty stereotypical chump cop, but then evolved into a hero—and foil for Walter.

That really evolved with the show as Vince and I got to know each other more, and then the scripts started coming. Things changed in Season 2 when Hank was dealing with PTSD after the shooting. So many times on cop shows, you see people get in a shootout and then the next day they’re fine, but I talked to a lot of DEA agents and some of them said they hadn’t drawn their guns in 25 years on the job. I love that we took this guy who was trying to be a blowhard but got into his head and showed the other side. And that bravado is always a façade; there’s always softness underneath. In Season 3, Episode 7, my favorite scene from Breaking Bad is where he lays it all on the line with his wife, and my favorite line of Hank’s from the show is where he says, “I don’t think I’m the man I thought I was, and I don’t want to be a cop anymore.” It was such a hard thing for this guy to say, but it was the moment where we all realized that Hank was a real person—and then 10 minutes later he almost gets his head cut off!

Hank’s death was great, too. Was there ever an alternate fate for Hank, or was he always going to get capped in the desert?

That was always it. Two years before that, me and Vince discussed what the end game would be and he said it would be six or seven episodes into the last season. He told me, “All I know is you’re going to die with your dignity.”

Any favorite moments just hanging with the cast—some epic Breaking Bad parties?

It was serious a lot of the time—not in the actor-y way of seriousness, but very professional—but we played poker a lot. Cranston would host a poker game at his condo and I remember early on, during the second season, I bluffed him really bad and made a big score, and used to rub that in all the time. I’d say, “You’re a big guy, huh? Well I bluffed you, motherfucker! Gotcha!”

Did any members of the cast ever actually try meth? You’re around the fake stuff for so long, maybe curiosity sets in…

[Laughs] Not that I now of! We were so scared by the reality of the stuff because we had the DEA early on prep us on it. I don’t get that drug. There’s nothing fun, apparently, about that stuff. I can’t say it definitively, but as far as I know, no one did!

Cranston recently made news when he hinted that we may not have seen the last of Walter White.

[Laughs] Maybe Bryan did try meth! I couldn’t comment on that, but I think it’s just him having fun, to be honest with ya.

Are we going to see you pop up in AMC’s Better Call Saul spin-off?

It would be really fun to do it, but I just think that as far as the way things work with network TV, when they get you under a regular contract they sort of keep you from doing stuff, so I don’t think I’d be able to do it unless it’s a few years down the line.

I know Cranston and Paul got some tattoos. Do you have any cherished Breaking Bad mementos?

I didn’t get the tats because I actually missed the wrap party since I was already busy shooting Under the Dome, but I have Tuco’s grill—they auctioned one off for charity, and I got the other one—and I have the ax that they used to almost chop my head off. I got that signed by everybody, including the boys that almost killed me. I try to keep it far away from my kids. It was hard to leave that show, man. It really was. I wanted to keep grabbing things that reminded me of being there.

One of your earliest roles was in Total Recall, and you were a rebel leader at that crazy alien bordello with the three-boobed woman.

And I’m still friends with Debbie Carrington, who played the little blond woman in that. That was awesome, man. That was really my second gig. A month after Lethal Weapon 2 I got this Total Recall gig, and a week later I’m grabbing Arnold Schwarzenegger who, at the time, was the biggest movie star in the world. I remember I was supposed to grab him by his arm and my hand couldn’t even come close to fitting around it!

You’re starring in this very intriguing upcoming film by Jason Reitman called Men, Women & Children, alongside Adam Sandler, Emma Thompson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jennifer Garner, and Ansel Elgort. Talk about a huge cast.

It’s the best role I’ve had, easily, in a movie, and I think it’s on that Breaking Bad level. I play the father of Ansel Elgort’s character and my wife recently left me, and we’re both struggling to deal with that. It’s right in Jason Reitman’s wheelhouse—these characters intermingled and trying to figure things out. I’ve seen Punch-Drunk Love, and Sandler was great in that, but he’s really fantastic in this movie. People are going to say, “Whoa. This is Adam Sandler doing his serious stuff.” There were moments where I thought he just transcended. And with Ansel, this was before Divergent and all the other stuff, and he’s a really great young actor. Like Breaking Bad, there’s a lot of humor, but a lot of it arises from uncomfortable situations. And it’s a sad movie, as well. It’s about lonely men who struggle to connect, and also how the Internet has made it harder to connect, as well as the concept of “sexting” and the ability to see everything about other people online, and how that affects your consciousness.

And Season 2 of Under the Dome comes back on June 30. What do we have to look forward to this season?

They’re taking it in a slightly different direction. It’s so different than something like Breaking Bad, and I enjoy being in a summer popcorn show. I feel like I’m in the Transformers or Iron Man of TV, and this season we’ve moved well past the Stephen King book, even though he’s very involved in the writing process and the plotting.

The post-Breaking Bad life seems to be treating you pretty damn well.

It’s really nice, man. I’ve got the luxury now of turning down a lot of stuff that I would have done before because I needed the money, but now I can wait for things like the Jason Reitman movie. That’s all thanks to Breaking Bad, and now it’s up to me to rise to the occasion.