In 2013, Anna Gunn wrote “I Have a Character Issue,” a blistering op-ed in The New York Times detailing the hate she received for playing Skyler White in Breaking Bad. If you haven’t read it, you should. In 2013, it was an eye-opening exposé on what it’s like for a woman to play a character who dares get in the way of a male sociopath’s fun, which in this case happened to be her on-screen husband, Bryan Cranston’s Walter White.
What’s interesting about reading this op-ed in 2016 is, what seemed like shocking information then, feels more “old hat” today because, as most people who pay attention realize, it’s gotten worse. And Anna Gunn agrees it’s gotten worse. But she also has an optimistic side to her to help explain what might be happening – that this might all be some sort of “last throes.”
Coming off of playing a character as important as Skyler White, Gunn admits she needed a character that was strong and powerful – which, yes, isn’t always easy to find for a woman in Hollywood. In Equity, Gunn plays Naomi, a high-ranking investment banker whose whole world is about to come crashing down when a new IPO she’s about to introduce is laced with scandal. Equity is being marketed as a movie about women in finance, which is accurate, but what makes it unique is that the roles could be gender swapped and there wouldn’t be much of a difference. As Gunn says, this isn’t a “chick flick.”
I met Gunn at her New York hotel on a hot, late-July day. The first thing she said to me is that she liked my shoes, which immediately made me like Anna Gunn because, like most people, I am susceptible to compliments. Ahead, Gunn talks about her life, post-Skyler White, and the difficulties women face in Hollywood and online. She also talks about her role in an episode of Seinfeld, which has retroactively become a favorite topic with fans. Gunn reflects, too, on Deadwood and Breaking Bad, and how the shock of losing Deadwood to cancellation led to her most famous role. Also, she gives her thoughts on Better Call Saul and looks ahead to Clint Eastwood’s Sully.
Coming off Breaking Bad, I can only assume it was important to choose your next role carefully. A powerful character like Naomi in Equity, versus “someone’s wife.”
Absolutely. You’re totally right. Because it goes in those cycles. I started out doing musical theater and I did a lot of musical theater. Then I did comedy, so then I got offered a lot of comedy. Then I went into drama and suddenly become a drama person. So, it works in those cycles sometimes. I think after playing the wife in Deadwood and then the wife in Breaking Bad, both brilliant shows, both brilliantly written, and very different characters, but still…
Though your character in Breaking Bad means a lot more than just that.
Skyler was a very well defined character.
Absolutely, absolutely. By design, you knew everything about Walt. You knew every sort of crack and crevice inside of him. And you didn’t really know that about Skyler, and there was a purpose to that. Because had you known her private, real sort of pain and suffering and the horror that she was going through sometimes, then it could have turned the audience towards her.
It takes away from the “fun” of rooting for this awful human being, Walt.
You know, the Skyler hate sort of thing was an interesting phenomenon, but finally I realized there were several things going on there. But that aside, absolutely, after playing that kind of role with that kind of writing and that kind of cast?
So when this comes across your desk…
Immediately. As soon as I read it, I thought this is exactly what I was looking for and a story that I hadn’t seen told before. And the character was so well-defined and so fleshed-out and so rich, and there was such complexity to her. And also the arc made complete sense to me as well.
We see so few movies with women in these types of roles.
That’s true. And because of that, it felt even more important and it felt like this is something that I want to throw myself into. And you take that chance because with an indie film – as we all know, it may not see the light of day.
You mentioned the Skyler hate. I re-read your New York Times op-ed from 2013. I remember then being shocked. Now, it’s more, “Well, of course she got hate for that,” because I feel it’s gotten worse.
You know, it has gotten worse. And I’ve followed it and I follow it with female journalists – before this kind of trend happened where I call it sort of “the id unleashed on the internet.” I was on a panel a year ago in Washington, D.C., for EMILY’s List, and it was women in the media and how things have progressed or not progressed. And I was on a panel with four or five others, they were all journalists, talking about getting the same vitriol – the same kind of death threats, sometimes, acts of violence, things like that. Whereas they said with their male counterparts it just doesn’t happen. Certainly, it happens to everybody to a certain extent…
Sure. But, for me, not like that.
That’s right, yeah. And it’s disturbing. It really is. And I’m glad that I wrote it. It’s important. You know, I have two girls. I have two, a 15-year-old and a nine-year-old, and I just wanted them to know, also, that if they were to get on those blogs somehow and read stuff about it, I wanted them to know that it’s important to speak out. It’s important to say something. It’s important to say this is not okay and to do something about it. So this film, again, feels to me like another step in the right direction in terms of facing those issues head-on in terms of Naomi being a very powerful, strong woman. And being perceived as difficult, rubbing people the wrong way, ruffling their feathers and all that sort of likability stuff that women still have to worry about.
Okay, tell me if I’m right or wrong. But here’s my optimistic view of this: This is the last throes. Good things are happening, and this is just a small, vocal group with a last ditch effort.
We would hope. No, I mean, I’m with you on that. I hope that that’s the case. I hope that we are now speaking loudly enough and people are paying attention to it enough that now things will start to change and really take strides. I think there have been strides in terms of just people not being scared to say this is going on and it’s not right and we need to do something about it. Now we need to do something about it and keep actively doing something about it, and I think movies like this are a start.
And then at Comic-Con, the Wonder Woman trailer debuted, and it seemed like everyone was really happy about it. I think that’s what we’re seeing in Trump, too. This is the last throes of the old guard being pushed out.
Yeah, I think so, too, and it’s sort of that reactionary thing that’s making, as you say, it roars very loudly when it’s hopefully being extinguished. And so, yes, I agree with you that I think that now we’re starting to get into the reality that men and women – while there, of course, are obvious differences – it doesn’t mean that there has to be this gender role still that women have to be stuck in, in terms of playing a certain part or playing a certain way in order to not ruffle feathers.
I was flipping through cable channels and “The Glasses” episode of Seinfeld comes on…
[Laughs.] I knew you were going to say that.
I’m sure people mention that to you all the time now.
They do, they do. And it’s so funny, I remember I met recently with Larry David and we were talking about doing something together, and he was like, “Hey, remember this?” And we were trying to look for a clip online and I was telling him how nervous I was and how extraordinary it was to watch the process.
That was later in the run. It was the most popular show on television at that point. What was that like?
It was enormous. It was such a huge win, really, for me and it was so exciting and also so nerve-wracking. I was so nervous, because they’re brilliantly funny.
Right, and you’re walking into a clique.
Yes, exactly, but they were all so generous and gracious and really made me feel very at home and very welcomed and comfortable.
You were in so many things back then. How many times before Breaking Bad did you think, “this is the one that’s going to hit?”
I mean, there were pilots that didn’t go, there were recurring roles that I hoped would maybe turn into something more. But the fact is that I was taught that as long as you keep working, moving ahead, setting your goals. And even as small as they may be, meeting them, celebrating that victory – I remember Bryan saying we meet so much rejection, we meet so much “no” and dry spells.
Another Seinfeld alum.
Yeah, exactly. So when you do reach those goals, when you do make those small steps, you say, “Okay, good, I’ve got that. Okay, good, I’ve done that.” And sometimes if it’s doing theater in a 99-seat theater in LA and that keeps you going, then that’s what you do. But before I got Deadwood, I started to feel like I’ve done some great work. You know, I played Isabella in Measure for Measure with Sir Peter Hall, and I did some great theater down at the Mark Taper Forum.
But even Deadwood is one of those that should have lasted like eight seasons.
I know. I know.
But then Breaking Bad probably doesn’t happen for you if that goes eight seasons.
Exactly. Deadwood really, for me, I think felt like the break. I’d worked with David Milch on NYPD Blue like nine years earlier. We had kept in touch. I’d come in and read for different things. I wasn’t quite right for them. And then I went in for that, and when I got that, it felt to me like, okay, it was a major leap for me. And when it wasn’t picked up, we were all just stunned.
Everyone was stunned.
Yeah. But then suddenly, around the corner came Breaking Bad, and had Deadwood gone on, then, you know.
When Breaking Bad comes around, how excited do you let yourself get? Because maybe it’s, “This is great, but I’ve been through this before with Deadwood“?
I think that what we all thought was that the project, just the pilot, standalone, on its own, was such an extraordinary piece of writing and we were all really so excited to be part of it. And we watched the screening and I remember we sat there in silence when we first saw it all put together, because it really knocked us all back in our seats. But we still felt like, is it going to make it on the air? Are people going to embrace it at all? Is it too edgy, is it too weird, is it going to make it? Vince talks about it: for the first couple of seasons, there was a little bit of, are we going to keep going or is it going to take off? And then streaming started, and it was like, boom.
Have you been watching Better Call Saul?
I could see that answer going either way. Some actors finish a story and want to be done with it.
Yeah, it’s true. And I have some catching up to do, but I’ve watched a lot of it and I think Bob is doing such a phenomenal job, and Jonathan Banks. And to see them go on to that, to know that a lot of our crew is on that, is really a great feeling. And I love watching their work and I love watching it become its own entity as well.
You’re in Clint Eastwood’s Sully.
That was like a dream come true.
You don’t get to be in many plane crash movies where it’s a happy ending.
No, you don’t. And to work with Clint Eastwood…
Is it true that it’s one take and out?
He often does that. But because we had limited time to do the NTSB Board, all the investigation and the interrogation, all that sort of thing, we had about five days of shooting and he would shoot sometimes straight through lunch and we would just shoot for a straight 10 hours sometimes. And Tom Hanks had said he usually does one take and then we’re out, but he just is such an organic, fluid master of his craft that when he’s on a roll and when he’s feeling, it’s like, “Let’s just keep going.” And we were all, of course, like, yeah, “Let’s just keep going.” And he doesn’t say, “Action,” he says, “When you’re ready.”
I didn’t know that.
And then he doesn’t say, “Cut.” He would say to Tom, which I thought was so hysterical, and Tom always laughed – he’d say, “Alright. That’s enough of that.”
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.