Q&A: ‘Breaking Bad’ Star Dean Norris on the Many Faces of Hank
Walt’s best friend (and Heisenberg’s worst enemy) talks about becoming both a top cop and a family guy
“I know it’s Rolling Stone – gotta hate the Man and stuff – but you’ve got to cut cops some slack.” Happy to, at least in this case. Dean Norris couldn’t discuss his character Hank Schrader, the DEA agent whose surprising deductive brilliance hasn’t helped him discover the dark secret of his brother-in-law Walter White, without a good-natured plea to consider the forces that drive cops like Hank to put on their blustery tough-guy personas. It’s that kind of empathy that’s helped Norris make Hank a compelling, if unwitting, antagonist for Walt. Hank’s four-plus seasons of personal and professional growth led to major new responsibilities in both areas during last night’s episode. The question is how long he can live up to them.
When we first met Hank, he came across as an obnoxious blowhard. In this episode, he’s moving into the boss’s office. It took me a while to see it, but Hank’s a good cop.
Yeah, he is. One of the tensions in the show has always been that I think he’s a good cop, Vince [Gilligan] thinks he’s a good cop, yet he obviously hasn’t caught on yet. There’s always this question: “Why doesn’t he know?” I think it’s because it would be ridiculous for him to ever suspect that any of these things led to [starts laughing] Walter White. That would be bad writing. But he’s found everything else out. He found Tuco, and he obviously was right about Gus Fring, which everyone else was wrong about. He’s getting there.
I wonder how he’ll adjust now that he’s not doing the hands-on, Sherlock Holmes stuff he’s been so good at.
He doesn’t adjust very well. I’ll just give you a heads up on that. [Laughs] I’m not sure if it came through in the scene or not, but he kinda did it for his wife. He’d rather be chasing down Heisenberg, and now he’s gotta deal with politics and fundraising and [being] the public face of the DEA. That’s not who he is. That’s not where he wants to be. He doesn’t like it.
At the very same time this big change in his professional life takes place, there’s a big change in his personal life: He and Marie have started taking care of Walt and Skyler’s kids.
They’re what Walt has been doing all this stuff for, supposedly. Obviously, it’s moved beyond that, but the ostensible reason was to take care of his family. Now we’re taking care of his family. That sets up an interesting dynamic later on.
Despite Hank’s macho exterior, it’s very clear how much he cares about his family.
I’ve said this before about Hank: We all have to put on certain masks in the jobs that we do. Law enforcement types really have to do that, because they wouldn’t survive. I talked to Ed Benero about this – he’s an ex-cop who was a producer and writer on Criminal Minds – and you have two choices: You either go really hard to get through it and deal with it, because you’re dealing with all bad people all. The. Time. [Laughs] You’re not coming into contact with good people. That’s all you’re dealing with, eight hours a day: Bad people. Your other choice is to be really nice, and that just wouldn’t make for a good cop. You’d get eaten up. So it’s hard. You gotta cut ’em some slack, because they have to find a way to get through that, or they wouldn’t be good cops.
Hank and Marie seem blissful around baby Holly, but they don’t have any kids of their own. It’s striking, since they present themselves as such all-American suburbanites. And it’s never been explicitly addressed. What’s the story there?
Betsy Brandt and I have talked about that, too. We’ve always wondered. I don’t know why. I always thought it wasn’t that that they didn’t want kids, it was that for some reason or another they couldn’t have kids, because yeah, it does seem likely that they would. Maybe you can see that longing to have had a child when we have baby Holly in our house. We don’t linger on it, but just a tad of “It would have been nice to have our own.”
For me, that brings to it that “She’s all I’ve got, and I’m all she’s got” dynamic. That’s something that we can work with and use. I think that’s part of the reason each of us puts up with the other’s bullshit. [Laughs] I never understood the Walt/Skyler attraction myself, but I really understand that Hank and Marie would go into battle for each other.
Vince Gilligan has always been very honest about not having every little thing mapped out, and that’s allowed the show to move in interesting directions, from Jesse’s survival past the first few episodes on down.
Yeah, I think so. I’m saying this because Vince has told me this privately and he’s also said it publicly, so it’s not something new, but he considered the Hank character much the same way that he was written at first – that he wasn’t much more than a foil for Walt. Getting to know each helped him allow Hank to become a more nuanced and complex character. And that didn’t necessarily have to happen – he could have killed me off earlier. I’m sure they didn’t start the series thinking they’d have their tough cop end up with PTSD and without the use of his legs. In the second and third season, they found out they could do that.
After I watched this episode I walked around like a zombie for the rest of the afternoon. That night, it literally gave me a nightmare. Does it affect you like that when you’re making it?
It’s more visceral when you watch it. I’ve had scenes where there’s really some creepy stuff going on – there’s some stuff coming up – and I don’t get freaked out at that moment we’re doing it, so much as I say to myself, “Wow, that’s going to screw people up.” [Laughs] Including myself. The last couple seasons I’ve tried to stay away from reading the complete scripts, so that I can experience the show in the way that an audience member does. It’s easy for me to do because my stuff’s always kinda separate. I don’t need to know what’s going on with Walt and Jesse, I don’t know what’s going on in that family. I can get away with not knowing any of that stuff. It works to my advantage, actually: I can sit there on a Sunday night and watch the show – live, fresh, and without any preconceptions, not knowing what’s going to happen. I come out probably as freaked out as you.