7 Things We Learned From Dean Norris’ Appearance On NPR’s Fresh Air

When I downloaded the latest podcast of NPR’s Fresh Air this morning I was delighted to learn that Dean Norris — aka Hank Schrader from Breaking Bad — was Terry Gross’s guest on the show. Norris spoke at length about his character and the show, and since we all seem to be Breaking Bad geeks around here, I figured that y’all would enjoy it just as much as I did. Below are a few of my favorite moments from the interview, including a possible spoiler he may have let slip out.

On Walter White hiding under Hank’s nose all this time…

I think we as people, certainly law enforcement, they size people up rather quickly, and I think they then hold on to that opinion. And he has known Walter White for a long time, and he’s only known him to be this kind of ineffectual, milquetoast kind of guy, and that’s who he sees him as.

So the concept of seeing him or even possibly imagining him as some sort of meth cook and a man who could function in that environment is just beyond ridiculous for Hank Schrader. And so the audience can often see and make leaps and say, wow. How come you can’t figure it out? There’s all these clues that it’s him and blah, blah, blah. But they seem like good clues to the audience because, yes, they already know that it’s him. But Hank Schrader doesn’t. And it’s been important to Vince Gilligan and to myself in portraying that character that we don’t make him look stupid. He’s a good cop. He just hasn’t put the pieces together yet.

On why he no longer reads Vince Gilligan’s scripts completely and sticks to the parts that pertain to his character…

The first few seasons, I would read it page by page. The last couple seasons, I would first look for my character’s stuff. And then I would – I kind of wanted to preserve watching the show and to see it as the audience sees it over the past couple years. So I didn’t always read the entire script. I needed to know what was pertinent to my character, but I kind of wanted to be surprised and be able to watch the show as an audience member would.

And so I then developed this kind of need to want to watch “Breaking Bad” in a pure sense, like everybody else does – not knowing what’s going on, not knowing what’s going to happen – and see if I had the same reaction to the show as a lot of critics and audience members have. So that’s kind of why I did it.

On his big break as an actor: being cast in Lethal Weapon II…

That was my very first movie, and it was a great time. And I made some good money on it. That’s what turned me into an actor from being a waiter…I’d gotten to L.A. with no money and with no experience as a waiter, and immediately got a – lied my way into a job at a local restaurant, and was there for about six months. And I got a phone call literally while I was at the job saying that I had booked “Lethal Weapon 2.” And I was like: Are you sure? How much money, exactly? And now this is guaranteed, right? Yes, it’s all done. I said, OK, took my apron off, handed my, you know, to other waiters, this hamburger goes here, that hamburger goes there, and I left. And interestingly enough, the “Lethal Weapon 2” premiered in the theater next to the restaurant where I was working.

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On shooting the shootout scene where the Moncada brothers come to kill Hank in a parking lot…

It was an amazing thing to shoot. We shot that in two days. A film would have taken, you know, two weeks to shoot that scene. There was no – there were no words other than when I first make the phone call to my partner Gomie. There are virtually no words in a five-minute scene. So it was all done by, you know, by our eyes and being worried and being scared.

And the director literally just had a – would talk me through the scene. We’d put the cameras on, and she’d be, like, you know, looked scared. Look left. Look right. Look really scared. Now you’re relaxed a little more. Now you’re really, really, really scared. And it was an amazing scene to do.

And when the shootout came, that was something, as well, because there was all – you know, if you’re in the car, in order to make the glass break as if it’s been shot by a bullet, there’s actually a – well, it’s essentially a gun that’s in the inside of the car that shoots out. And if you happen to get your hand in front of that, you know, it wouldn’t be very pleasant.

On being typecast to play cops…

Well, you know, if you stop in any doughnut shop and you see three cops eating doughnuts, man, one of them is going to look like me. I don’t know why that is, but…That’s about one in three. I guess it’s just, you know, you have a certain look and that’s, it’s kind of an authoritative law enforcement-type look, and that book is certainly the first thing that people cast you with before you get a chance to do some acting and do some other stuff. Like now I’m getting more dad roles, I’m doing some different stuff. I just played a used car salesman in a little movie that I like. Getting some opportunities to do different things than just cops

On deciding to become an actor after having gone to Harvard…

It was a tough decision because I went to Harvard and I was the first kid in my family to go to college. My parents didn’t go to college, really in my extended family, even with my cousins and stuff. So it was at one level you’re like, wow, you know, here’s the lottery out of the lower middle class by, you know, getting this ticket into Harvard. And I mean, I had a choice to either go into like, you know, investment banking…or pursue acting. And I talked to a lot of people. I had done some plays with the American Repertory Theatre there in Boston, so I had other professional actors who were, you know, making a living and was able to talk to them, ask them what they thought my chances were and things like that. I really, really tried to look at hard, because so many people decide they’re going to become an actor and you go, well, you know, are you one of those guys who is deceiving yourself into thinking you have a chance at doing this or do you really have a chance at doing it? So I really kind of examined that question long and hard. And ultimately, you know, I was doing, you played small parts at the American Repertory Theatre that they would give to the students and I figured these guys all made a living. You know, they didn’t make as much money, let’s say, as someone on TV or on film but I said, you know, I’m standing backstage in some tights and a codpiece, you know….Watching grown men, you know, on stage and it was just electric. And, you know, there was 800 people out there and there was just something magical about being, you know, backstage ready to go onstage and you got all your, you know, your colleagues are out there. And I said, man, if this is as good as it gets, you know, and I could do this the rest of my life, be a repertory actor, I’d be a happy man.

On something “chilling” involving Holly White coming later in the current season…

…Let me just say that there is a even more chilling scene involving that baby later on this season.

Side note: the Hank Schrader blog on AMC’s website is one of my favorite things on the internet. And here’s Dean Norris’ audition tape for the show…

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(Pics via AMC & Tumblr)

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