3 years later, Anna Gunn reflects on ‘Breaking Bad’ backlash: ‘It was painful’

When I tried to think of an equivalent to Meera Menon's excellent new Wall Street drama Equity off the top of my head, the task proved incredibly difficult. What other film focusing on the hardball world of investment banking centers on a woman protagonist, after all? It was only after a Google search that I managed to find a single example: Mike Nichols' Working Girl, the breezy 1988 Melanie Griffith starring vehicle that is widely considered one of the best — yes — romantic comedies of the 1980s. For all of Working Girl's relative sophistication, it's nowhere near an ideal comparison.

Indeed, I feel pretty confident in stating that Equity is the only film of its kind: a hardball financial drama that revolves its plot around an unabashedly ambitious woman who has risen to the top of the investment banking world. The protagonist here is Naomi Bishop (supremely played by Breaking Bad's Anna Gunn), a high-powered banker gunning for a big promotion who — despite the oft-referenced, very public failure of her most recent IPO launch — is so unapologetic about her place in the hierarchy that, when asked early in the film what gets her out of bed in the morning, she replies: “I like money.” It's a great opening line, and it kicks off an incredible monologue in which Naomi also asserts, somewhat naively: “I am so glad that it's finally acceptable for women to talk about ambition openly.”

It's a line that ultimately proves ironic, in that it is Naomi's very directness that ultimately proves to be her downfall in a world chock-full of ambitious operators who veil their intentions in social niceties and, even worse, romantic dalliances that are simultaneously less and more than what they appear to be.

Gunn — who won two Emmys and a slew of other awards for her gut-wrenching work as Skyler White in Breaking Bad — is terrific in the role, and it's a rare starring turn for the actress in film even as her male Breaking Bad co-stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul consistently garner work in mainstream blockbusters. It's an unsurprising fact of life for a woman of a certain age in Hollywood, and I lament that in the context of the brief 15-minute interview, I missed out on my opportunity to ask Gunn how she feels about the lucrative career opportunities afforded her male co-stars while she is seemingly shut out of them.

Nonetheless, when you consider the depth of Gunn's talents, it smarts to consider the potential roles she's missed out on, and it smarts even more to ponder that those roles might not even exist — at least not in the capacity needed to accommodate the wealth of talented women over 40 working in Hollywood today. 

That Gunn has been given her own big-screen starring vehicle at all is a testament to the need to hire more women in power positions behind the scenes: not only was Equity directed by a woman, it was written, produced and partially financed by women (screenplay by Amy Fox, produced by Alysia Reiner and Sarah Megan Thomas, budget by several real-life female investment bankers). And yet belaboring the fact that it's an unabashedly feminist film should in no way read as a diminishment of its accomplishments.

Ultimately, Equity isn't just a great movie about a woman on Wall Street — it's a great movie about Wall Street — and more pertinently, about power and the ways that those who pine for it use the essential decency of more scrupulous players like Naomi to their own advantage. Yesterday I spoke with Gunn via phone about the perils of being an ambitious woman, the real-life Wall Street players that informed her performance and how Naomi's story dovetails with her Breaking Bad character's unfairly vitriolic reception by viewers.

Naomi is a very aggressive business woman, very ambitious and a lot of the time that is looked down upon in our society, and there's obviously a lot of sexism that goes along with that. I think that there are actually a lot of things to admire about Naomi, and one of the things I admired was that she is very direct. That is something she does not share in common with a lot of the other people she comes in contact with. She is really the hero of the story. Can you talk a little bit about that quality in her? Is that something that you sparked to?

Yeah, I really felt exactly that way about her from the beginning. I felt that she was, as you said, just incredibly plain-spoken and forthright. She says what she means, she means what she says. And also she is very openly ambitious and you see that fairly early in [the scene] where she says “I like money,” and…”that doesn't have to be a dirty word for us.”

And I think that you're right, that traditionally, perhaps it's not been considered an attractive or an acceptable characteristic necessarily, somehow. …You know, [Naomi] is a very successful, very ambitious woman, but when she's told that the perception is that she's rubbed people the wrong way when she goes in to speak to her boss about the promotion that she quite frankly deserves — she's had win after win after win, she's risen in the ranks by the power of her own hard work and smarts and dedication [despite that she's had] her first big failure, [which] is rather public because she's a known name on Wall Street. 

Perhaps, as you say, the sexism is an undercurrent, but not so much of an undercurrent when she has this direct conversation with her boss [about] the perception that “you rub people the wrong way.” That just hit me so hard because I think a lot of women run up against that in many walks of life. When I did my research [for the role] I was lucky to talk to [Vice Chairman of Investment Banking at Barclays] Barbara Byrne…[and] she shared so many stories and experiences with me about having to deal with that sort of thing. So it was very helpful and very telling.

The movie is very subtle, but with every interaction in the film, it's impossible not to think — especially when it's a man talking with your character or another woman in the film — “Would he have said this to a man?” There are so many moments and so many lines in there where it's like, “No, I don't think that he would have.”

That's absolutely right. I think that was something, again, that Barbara talked a lot about. And the other women who served as inspiration and also invested financially in the movie. A lot of their stories were about that very thing. Dealing with having to balance or walk the tightrope, the likability factor, in terms of being a powerful woman, but to have to somehow temper that or watch that it doesn't become perceived necessarily as aggressive because that can — another line in the movie is she's told that she ruffled some feathers, because of asserting her opinion, and quite frankly she has a track record that should allow her to insert her opinion without having to temper it.

But that's something that women are still dealing with in our society and in our culture. So I think we've got some strides to make still, but I think this movie and what we're seeing politically right now, makes me feel like major steps are being taken.

She's really held to account for this one [IPO]. While it's a big deal, a major failure, at the same time, it's almost like that erases everything else that she has done. And I also wonder if that's different for women, to be judged by their failures rather than their successes.

Yeah, again, that was something that was echoed in my conversations with quite a few women on Wall Street, and certainly Barbara says that you don't win every single time, it's impossible. But when you are up there, as Naomi is, as a known name on Wall street and you've been on this winning streak and then you have a real public failure like that, I think it is harder [for women]. She said she loved the scene where I walk into the office in the beginning after seeing the news about me on television. And I walk in, and there's a sense of standing in a sea of men waiting for the elevator and sort of looking around wondering, “Are they talking about me? Are they saying, 'Wow, that was a big fail for her?'” And she says that reflects what goes on very accurately and very realistically.

And you're right. She doesn't think that men [are] necessarily [judged for] their failures in the same way, or perhaps there is not as much pressure or reaction necessarily to them. She feels that when you are that high in the ranks, as it were, as a woman, that the pressure seems much, much greater, frankly.

There are so many lines in this that struck me. Your line “I don't want to be fine, I was never supposed to be fine.” I think really sums her up in a lot of ways.

Yeah, I agree. I think … go ahead. Finish your question.

Oh no, it was more of a comment. I just love that line. It's so rich, you know?

It is. And it was something that Meera Menon, she's such a brilliant director, and we worked together with such ease and fluidity and I just admire her tremendously. She's wise beyond her years, and she's I think gonna be one our luminaries in Hollywood. We really worked through the text and through the script in a very detailed way. We were both very thoughtful about each moment, and wanted to make sure we arced the movie and Naomi's progress in a very particular way so as not to…have too many punches thrown at her, as it were, using the boxing metaphor.

I felt that that [line]…was such an outcry, I think, from her core. I think it's something that she certainly thought about. I think she got into the business as she says in that speech — about 'I like money' — she got into it, frankly, out of necessity. She had a mom who was raising four kids, and she had to put her brothers through college. And so she I think took that particular job on as a necessity and then really learned that she liked it. She liked making the deal. She liked working with the clients…to read the clients and their needs, and to balance that with the needs and wants of the investors.

Putting a deal like that together is such a complex and circuitous thing to do because it's got so many moving parts to it. It's certainly about numbers, but it's also about the human beings involved, and understanding the need of the client, the need for the company, the need of the investors, all of that. And she is somebody who's become … She's a black-belt at that, frankly. And so I think she expects — because she's done so well and she's worked so hard, and she does have a track record and she does have all of this behind her — it's a shock, it's a slap in the face when she's told it's not her year [for a promotion].

And when Michael, her boyfriend, says “Oh, come on. You know, whatever happens, you'll be fine.” And the rage that she's had to stuff down though most of the movie and perhaps much of her professional life and that's how she gets it out, with the boxing. I think that comes — just the simmering of that finally boils to the surface, and she just says “That's not the way I'm supposed to be. I'm supposed to be the rainmaker. I'm supposed to be the one at the top, I was supposed to be the winner.” And to feel like everything she has put in twenty-plus years might come to naught. And that's a terrible moment for her, obviously.

This movie tackles a lot of questions about what it means to be a woman in our society, and with Breaking Bad, there was so much unfair backlash against Skyler that I couldn't believe it. It just seemed so baffling to me that she was somehow viewed by so many as almost a villain. I'm curious: how did that feel for you as an actress to be faced with that by a very small but vocal contingent of viewers? That has to have been tough.

Yeah, it was tough. And I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about it…because I've been asked about it so much. And it was very difficult. I wasn't looking at the internet at that time. I had learned, because I'm a theater actress, not to read reviews and not to read stuff that's said about yourself, because it's not a good idea to get into all that. But then I started hearing people say “Oh my gosh, you should see these blogs and the things that are going on about your character.” And it was shocking to me. I thought, “Well, why in the world would they feel that way? Because she's the one trying to hold the family together. That's odd.”

And then I just couldn't help it, I was so curious to see what kind of comments there were, so I wrote about — in the op-ed, I wrote that it's like opening Pandora's Box and looking inside. And I just then got sucked into reading about and just being absolutely gobsmacked about “how in the world is this woman being perceived this way?” And then it got transferred onto me as a person. And that was also very difficult and painful.

…Something that we also talk about in the script is that women, when they have a failure or a struggle or they come up against something like that, we do tend to feel — and this is something that [Equity screenwriter] Amy [Fox] said she found in her conversations…as screenwriter — that she found a lot of women talk about that particular thing. That when we meet up against those struggles or failures or that kind of backlash, as you said, we tend to question ourselves and turn it in on ourselves and wonder what we did wrong.

Whereas a male in the same profession with the same experience — and this is a conversation between Naomi and her boyfriend Michael — she says, “Apparently on Twitter they didn't like my dress.” And I can obviously really relate to that on a very personal level. Because it feels like, again, it's something that speaks to our perception of gender roles, our perception of women and how they should and shouldn't act. 

And also, frankly, the narrative of Breaking Bad was meant to pull you in that direction to a certain extent, that you attach yourself to the anti-hero while…cheering for him. [But Skyler] is, for all intents and purposes..the protagonist, because she's the one most consistently standing up to him and standing in his way and saying “I don't buy that line that you're trying to take care of your family. You've turned a corner now that is well beyond that.” And people felt like “Well, that woman who's getting in the way of our anti-hero's fun, I don't like her! She's no good! She's a harpy, she's a shrew!”

So I was glad in the end that I went through the experience because I got to speak up and speak out about it, which is I think a very important thing for women to do and to continue doing. And I also did it because I have two daughters and I want them to know that when they really believe in something and think they have something to say, that they should have the courage always to speak up and to not let it stop them, and to not let it keep them moving forward towards their goals or what they want to do. And I think that was something certainly shared with the character of Naomi.

Equity is in theaters today, and expands wider in the coming weeks.

Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for readability.