Interview Date: 06/04/10
Run Date: 06/14/2010
When an actress takes on the role of a wife in a TV series where the thrust is on the husband, it’s always a crap shoot as to whether or not her character is ever going to get developed to her satisfaction. Anna Gunn, however, didn’t take any chances with “Breaking Bad.” Armed with the knowledge that the show would require her to work away from home for an extended period of time, she laid it on the line with series creator Vince Gilligan and basically said, “If this character isn’t going to be worth my time, then I’m not interested.” He assured her that, although she had a wait in store, the character of Skyler White would indeed be developed to her satisfaction…and, lo and behold, the third year of “Breaking Bad” proved to be Anna Gunn’s season to shine. Bullz-Eye had a chance to chat with Gunn in conjunction with the finale of Season 3, and we discussed in detail the evolution of Skyler during the course of these 13 episodes and what it was like for her as an actress to tackle such meaty material. And don’t worry, “Deadwood” fans: we also managed to get in a few questions about Martha Bullock, the movies that never happened, and what it was like to work with Ian McShane.
Anna Gunn: Hey, it’s Anna Gunn!
Bullz-Eye: Hey, how are you?
AG: I’m okay, thanks!
BE: I understand we’re on the same coast at the moment. You’re filming in South Carolina right now…?
BE: I’m up in Virginia, a.k.a. Vince Gilligan territory.
AG: (Laughs) That’s right, it is!
BE: Well, you and I met briefly back in January. I was on the set for the next-to-last day of shooting for Season 3…
AG: Oh, right, sure!
BE: …which means that I’ve finally gotten to see some of the scenes that I was there to see you guys film. Of course, at the time, I hadn’t even seen the season premiere yet. Well, Skyler certainly had herself quite a year.
AG: Yeah, she did. (Laughs) Excuse me for my scratchy voice. We’re shooting this movie, and I’ve filmed once in the South, and it is hot…and I mean hot! And most of it’s a road movie, so I’ve almost completely lost my voice. (Clears throat) But, yes, it’s been a great season. It’s been a really surprising turn of events from the beginning, with what I thought was the bold and great decision for Skyler to immediately, in the first episode, say, “You’re a drug dealer.” I don’t think many people saw that coming that fast…or at all. So that was great.
BE: I know it had at least been a topic of discussion about how long it was going to take Skyler to find out about Walt’s dealings. I think it was Vince who said, “Skyler’s a smart woman. She’s going to figure this out, so we’re going to have to deal with it sooner than later.”
AG: Yeah, and I think he was right. I really do. I think that that was the best decision, because we all knew that one of the biggest challenges we had was that he made her a smart woman and a savvy woman from the beginning, and then trying to keep that kind of person in the dark for two seasons…it was challenging for all of us. But I think it was the right time to illuminate it for her.
BE: I talked to Dean a couple of weeks ago, and he commented on how you guys never used to get much in the way of advance notice on your storylines, but there was finally a little bit of warning this time around.
AG: Yeah, there was, and that was nice. I mean, Vince used to sort of try to talk to us a little bit about it, saying, “Here’s the general outline of what’s going to happen,” and then sometimes things would really change, because that’s what happens in the writer’s room. You maybe start going down one road, and you say, “You know what? Let’s veer off on this path over here.” And so he stopped telling us quite so much, because he didn’t want people to get disappointed or to get hooked into one thing. For me, I actually sort of embraced the not-knowing, because it’s quite like life: you don’t ever really know what’s coming around the corner.
BE:. So with that being the case, how much information did he provide you with as far as Skyler’s progression over the season? Because she went from not knowing to knowing, then she’s filling in the blanks, and now she’s practically an equal partner.
AG: Right. Well, he told me from the beginning…I mean, from when I was first going to go into the role, before I went into the network to test with it, because of the fact that it’s shot out of town half the year, I wanted to make sure there was going to be something interesting that was going to happen to this character. Often, there’s a wife role that can be sort of not necessarily anything that goes anywhere, and I just wanted to make sure…I thought, “Does he have a plan for it?” And his plan was so wonderful, and he just summed it up very quickly for me. He said, “Skyler is going to be kind of like Carmela Soprano, in terms of the fact that we have a crime story, but she’s going to eventually sort of be in on the crime,” which you can see by the end of the season, when she says, “I want to be the Danny.” Which is the best line ever. (Laughs) But, yeah, I knew it from the beginning, and I just had to be patient and wait for it, because I didn’t know when it was going to come. I think, actually, that at the beginning when we were prepping for the season, he said, “She’s going to find out,” but I don’t even know that he told me how quickly and abruptly she was going to find out. So it was kind of wonderfully surprising for me. I was, like, “Wow!” Brian directed that episode, and he does his homework very thoroughly and likes to sit down with all of us and talk through the scenes and get ideas about what might be happening beforehand, because it’s a challenging thing for him to have to be in the scene and direct it at the same time. It’s sort of like being on the inside and the outside of it. So we really talked through that whole scene very, very specifically, about the layers of what’s going on, and we discussed the fact that Skyler comes in with…the statement, “You’re a drug dealer,” is really just a suspicion. She hasn’t had him followed, she hasn’t investigated it, she doesn’t know for certain, but she’s pretty sure that that’s got to be it. And then she just watches him for, y’know, “Are you going to lie again, or am I going to see the truth finally?” And I really love that that’s the way it was written, and that’s the way we sort of peeled away the layers into it, because it was about…for two seasons, she’s been saying, “Something’s wrong. What’s wrong? You’re doing something. What are you doing?” And he kept looking her in the eye and saying, “I’m not doing anything. I love you. Everything’s fine, and nothing’s going on. I just like to take long walks and disappear for days at a time. It’s fine.” (Laughs) And then she finally gets him. I thought that moment, when you see in his face that he can’t lie any more and that the jig is up, was terrific. I love that.
BE: So what was the challenge of playing her at the different levels of realization? At the beginning, she has the perhaps misbegotten fling with Ted, then she realizes that it was more or less a mistake, and…
AG: Yeah, you know, it was actually…it was both a liberating season, in that way, and kind of difficult sometimes. The thing the writers kept saying was, “Skyler is put into an impossible position during much of this season.” She’s been in the difficult position of not knowing and being in the dark but with the audience knowing, and that was challenging to play, but this season, because Walt put her in such an impossible position, and her family…nobody around her understood why she kicked him out, why she was doing what she was doing. And she has to kind of take the part of being the bad guy. When we’re playing that stuff, it kind of seeps into you sometimes, and it was affecting, because I felt that…I thought they wrote it really subtly and really beautifully that she kept being backed into a corner more and more and more. Like in the episode where she calls the police, and she’s saying, “I will do this, I will tell them,” but when it comes down to it, and her son’s standing there, she can’t, because she doesn’t want to do that to him. She knows that that will have ramifications and repercussions for the rest of his life and her life, that it would be the end of everything, and she just doesn’t know what step to take, so she’s really trapped by him. We kept talking about that sense of her being trapped and not knowing where to go and what to do and not having anybody to tell about it except when they finally gave us the scenes with the divorce attorney, which I thought were great. Finally, a confessor! Like going to a priest, she was able to go, “Finally, I can say this to somebody!” And then the affair with Ted, that was her reaction. It was sort of a reaction of anger toward Walt, and it was really out of both rage and desperation. I think that, at that point, she was feeling, like, “I don’t have any control over my life, I’m not able to manage any of this, and I have to keep it all inside.” And I think it was sort of an acting-out on her behalf, both in anger and in a kind of…she just needed somebody to hang onto at that particular time. And then I think she realized, “Oh, that’s not what I wanted to do. That’s not going to help anything,” and then she has to go through this painful thing of saying, “I’m sorry, we shouldn’t have gone there.”
BE: It felt very much to me that, in the first half of the season, she was constantly doing things and saying, “I don’t know what I should do, so I’m going to do this,” only to subsequently go, “Whoops, I shouldn’t have done that. Now what?”
BE: But then, in the second half of the season, she suddenly found herself in her element. She’s, like, “Okay, I’ve got a story that I can make work, there’s a job that I know how to do…” Basically, she became empowered about halfway through the season.
AG: Yeah, that’s right. I think that’s a really good assessment, and that’s really true. I didn’t know they were going to go there. I knew that eventually it was going to get around to that general area; I just didn’t know when and how. So when she finally did get the chance to sort of gather herself, and then, of course, the meeting with Saul, which was so much fun to play… (Laughs) Yeah, I think you’re right. She’s somebody who’s…she’s run the household, she’s been in charge of a lot of things, and that’s who she is. Then, as you say, she finally got the opportunity to say, “Wait, I can do something here, and I’m going to put my two cents in.” She finally realized, “I can either run with my kid, I can turn him into the police, or I can deal with the situation as it is.” For the writers, I think the challenge was, first of all, you create a show about a man who’s a good man and who’s always been a good family man and a moral person and kind of a milquetoasty guy and has flown under the radar for all of these years, and then he becomes a criminal. Then, you have to bring in his partner, and how do you realistically make that happen? And I think that they took their time with it, and they slowly gave her enough pieces of her personality so that when she finally came around to it, I think the audience said, “Oh, yeah!” You know, setting up the whole bookkeeping thing, and the fact that she’s always the one looking at the finances of the family and trying to make sure that the bills are paid, and she’s saying, “Here’s how we’re going to pay the hospital bills.” I didn’t necessarily know each step of the way that that was being crafted, but it’s nice to see it when you finally look at the picture, and you go, “Ohhhhhhh!” Each piece of the puzzle adds up.
BE: Well, we didn’t actually see it onscreen, but did you work up in your head exactly when and where Skyler came up with the story about the money coming from Walt’s gambling earnings? Like, did she just wake up in the middle of the night with the epiphany, “Oh, my God, this is what we’re going to do”?
AG: Yeah, basically, I did. That’s pretty accurate. I thought that it was probably when she was sitting in the hospital, actually, that it occurred to her, during those long waits where it was Skyler, Marie, Walt, Jr., and Walt waiting in the waiting room, wondering what’s going to be said and what’s going to happen. She’s never seen her sister like that before, ever, so I think that there’s the sense of powerlessness that she felt throughout much of the season, and then she watches her sister in that position, and then she says, “Wait, something actually good can come of this.” And I thought it probably occurred to her while she was sitting in the hospital and feeling like, “I don’t know what to do, I don’t know how to help them.” You know the scene where Marie is talking to the insurance adjuster and the doctor, and they’re saying, “I wouldn’t go out of network”? I think much of America must’ve been watching that, going, “That sounds familiar…”
BE: Hey, I’ve got a daughter who was in vitro, and we had to go out of pocket to have her, so I’m very sympathetic of anyone who has to go outside of their insurance to do something.
AG: Right! And it’s obviously such a big issue in our country, and I think that they…again, that scene, if you look at that carefully, you can see Skyler realizing that Marie is about to lose it, that she might not be making the best or most rational decisions, and she knows that they don’t have the money and how intense the situation is, and how critical it is at that point, basically. I think that’s when she starts wracking her brain, and I think it is a light-bulb sort of thing: “Oh, my God, now I know what we can do!” But the other great thing about that scene is that she not only creates that lie for Marie, but she makes sure to tell it right in front of Walt… (Laughs) …which was pretty fun, because there are so many levels for what’s going on for her in that scene. When she’s lying, she’s doing the best job she can to create a plausible lie for Marie, and it sounds so implausible that she knows what she has to do to pass it. But at the same time, some of those phrases that she chose are really for Walt’s benefit, like, “Wasn’t that something, Walt? Do you remember that?” It’s her way of kind of going, “How does it feel now?”
BE: As I say, I’ve seen the last two episodes of the season, and I particularly love the scene from the next-to-last episode, where you’re outside the house and just going back and forth and back and forth, each of you trying to maintain your power base as you’re talking.
AG: (Laughs) Yeah, I know. I mean, don’t you think that a lot of the season, between the two of them, is that kind of, “Who’s got the upper hand”?
BE: Absolutely. And that felt almost like the culmination of it.
AG: Exactly. It’s a negotiation. And Bryan and I…we obviously love working with each other. I use the analogy that it’s like playing tennis with a really good tennis player: you hit the ball over the net, and they return it with a spin that you didn’t expect, and then your game is raised, and it’s a lot of fun. We enjoyed playing that game a lot. (Laughs)
BE: And for the final episode…well, I was obviously there when you filmed the flashback sequence.
AG: Oh, that’s right! You were there! So you saw our wigs and everything…
BE: …and I remember that you were freezing cold, because you were wearing the sun dress.
AG: Oh, yeah. It was so cold. And… (Hesitates) …did you not have a jacket that day?
BE: (Bursts out laughing) Actually, that wasn’t me. That was our editor-in-chief, Jamey Codding.
AG: Okay, because I was, like, “Who’s the crazy guy with no jacket?” (Laughs) Yeah, and now I feel like I’m in the opposite situation, because I’m filming in the Southern heat, and the crew is all from here, and they’re, like, “This is nothing!” And I’m going… (Groaning) “I’m going to melt!” But, yes, it was freezing the day we filmed that. And I enjoyed that flashback. I thought that was an important thing, because we never see Skyler and Walt in the good old days, and Bryan and I have asked, “What was it about these two people that brought them together? What was it that they loved about each other?” We’ve only seen them through the challenging times, so it was nice to have that little piece of something where you see them at the beginning of things, before everything kind of went wrong, when they were both really still filled with hope.
BE: So that was the reasoning behind including that scene, then?
AG: I don’t know. That was my sense of it, that, yeah, it was to show that she’s expecting their first child, he’s doing really well at work, he’s full of a kind of confidence and certainty about his future and his ability to have a great life. And I think it’s sort of a heartbreaking scene, because when you first meet him in the pilot, he’s a man who’s obviously been kind of beaten down by life in a lot of ways and has no sense of empowerment at all. I thought it was a really nice bookend to kind of go back to the beginning, in a way, to when they were starting out, before life dealt them the cards it dealt them and took them to the place where he was a person who would say, “I’m going to do this. This is what I have to do, because I have no other choice.”
BE: Not that “Breaking Bad” is a story which lends itself to a happy ending, but when he made the comment about wanting to have three kids, I was, like, “Man, wouldn’t it be nice if the very last scene of the very last episode had him saying, ‘C’mon, baby, let’s go make that third kid”?
AG: (Bursts out laughing) I never thought of that. That might be good! You should suggest that to Vince. Just don’t suggest that I’m seen pregnant on camera again, because I’ve had it with the pregnancy suit. When I saw the flashback and I saw that I was pregnant in that, I said, “Vince, you really like seeing me pregnant on camera, don’t you?” And he laughed. But, yeah, your guess is as good as mine as to where it all ends up. I have no idea.
BE: So, now, are you guys still waiting for a Season 4 pick-up?
AG: No, we got it.
BE: Oh, great!
AG: Yeah, we got it, and we’re not going back into production until January of next year…which is a little bit longer of a hiatus than usual, but that’s fine: it’ll give the writers a good chance to do what they do and allow for pre-production and all of that.
BE: And make the fans wait and wait to find out if Gale was shot or not.
AG: I know, I know. Exactly! (Laughs) It’s a long time to wait. But I think that, in the interim, there’s talk of doing some of those webisodes things. Stuff to keep the audience up, so it’s not such a lengthy deprivation!
BE: Okay, I’ve got one more “Breaking Bad” question, and then I promised I’d ask a couple of “Deadwood” questions…
AG: Oh, yes! (Laughs)
BE: …but when I talked to Bob Odenkirk back in January, he made a comment about how he was excited about the opportunity to work with some of the other actors for a change. Was it nice to finally get to have a scene with him this season?
AG: It was really nice to have a scene with Bob, because I also felt like I’m often…well, at least for the first two seasons, I was always at home, and most of my stuff was obviously with the family. So it was nice to have the scenes with Ted, so that Skyler could spread her wings a little bit, but it was also really nice to have the scene with Bob, because the combination of those two characters is ridiculous. (Laughs) There’s his line about having “just the right amount of dirty,” and she just looks at him, then she looks at Walt, like, “Really? This is your money launderer? Nice work there.” So, yeah, it was a lot of fun, that scene. It was funny.
BE: Is there anyone else in the cast that you’d like to have the chance to work with more?
AG: I would like to work with…the Cartel. No, I’m just kidding.
BE: You and the Cousins, right?
AG: (Laughs) Yeah! Look, if the Cousins were still around…I mean, when they were around, they were just amazing guys. The way they looked, and that presence, and that wonderful threatening thing that Vince wrote for them…
BE: I referred to it in my blog as their “bad-assery.”
AG: That’s right. They were bad-ass. But…I don’t know. You know, actually, I would really like to work more with Giancarlo (Esposito). His character is so interesting, and we had the one scene in the hospital, when he comes and says, “Hey, I’m the one giving a lot of money to this cause.” But he was across the room, and we didn’t really have much to do with each other directly. But he’s a wonderful actor, he’s really complex, and I like watching even what he does physically with himself in playing that role, because there’s something he does where he’s almost coiled up like an animal: calm, very still, but looks like he’s ready to spring at any moment. I was watching that happen when we were in that scene, and I thought, “Oooh, that would be interesting.” He’s a very thoughtful actor.
BE: Given that today’s the first day of Emmy voting, I have to ask: are you at least considering the possibility that you could get a nod in the Lead Actress category?
AG: Um…boy, that’s, uh…
BE: I’m not asking if you’re hoping you’ll win. I’m just asking if you’re hoping that you’ll at least get nominated.
AG: Yes, of course, I hope I’ll be nominated. That would be very nice. But, y’know, those are really icing-on-the-cake things, so…you feel, like, “That would be really nice,” but I want to keep myself grounded… (Laughs) …and know that there are a lot of wonderful actresses who have wonderful shows. And you never know. I have no idea how that stuff works, so I sort of leave it up to the universe for that. But, yes, it would be lovely.
BE: Well, I’ll keep my fingers crossed. You certainly deserve it, especially this year.
AG: Thank you very much.
BE: Okay, now for the obligatory “Deadwood” questions.
BE: Obviously, there’s no point in asking about the status of the movie, since we all know it’s dead, but how far did talks get on the movie?
AG: It didn’t get very far. The announcement that we were going to do those two two-hour movies was done when…well, when it was announced that we were canceled, the fan base was so unbelievably upset about it! (Laughs) I don’t know if you knew this, but they took out an ad in Variety, saying, “Dear HBO, how dare you? You should bring this back immediately, or we’re all going to cancel our subscriptions!” (Laughs) And I think that HBO didn’t necessarily expect that, so there was a sense of, like, “Okay, well, maybe we can wrap things up,” because I think people just felt cheated. They wanted to see the culmination of a lot of the storylines. So I think finally there was some sense of, “Okay, maybe we can do this,” but once the cast dispersed and started doing other projects, and everybody was scattered, I think we all realized that it would be very hard to get that group back together at the same time. And I think David Milch was on to, obviously, “John from Cincinnati,” and then to other projects, so...I don’t really know if there was anything really that started to be in the works about it, but we all thought it would be wonderful and were excited about it. And people still come up and say, “Do you think that’s gonna happen? Are we ever gonna see that?” And I say, “Well, I don’t think so, but I guess there’s always a possibility that it could come back around.” I certainly would like to see what happens with a lot of those characters.
BE: Did you have any sense of where Martha’s character would go had the series continued or had the movies happened?
AG: Well, you know, David told me when I came in to talk about the role with him that he always saw “Deadwood” as, besides the obvious elements of Swearengen and the sheriff and the good and bad and that sort of thing, a simple story of a man who falls in love with his own wife. That’s how he put it to me, and I thought that was really lovely, because they’re two strangers that are getting married for the purposes of, “That’s what you do, you take on the responsibilities of your dead brother.” It’s kind of a Biblical thing. But they don’t know each other, and they don’t particularly like each other in the beginning… (Laughs) …and then they slowly get to know each other, and they slowly become very important to each other, and slowly they fall in love. And you started to see that coming, and I think that’s eventually where it was going to end up, because the Bullocks in real life became real pillars of that town and were involved in everything. So I don’t think she was really the wife of his dead brother in real life. I think that was fictionalized. But as to the rest of it, they really were pillars of that community, so you might’ve seen more of that going on. It would’ve been interesting to see where everybody ended up.
BE: Do you think it’d be too on the nose for you to turn up on “Justified”?
AG: (Bursts out laughing) Yeah, suddenly showing up in a corset, talking to Tim Oliphant? Yes, probably. But it would be awesome. And sometimes I say that, on “Breaking Bad,” a stagecoach from “Deadwood” will come out of nowhere and plow down the middle of the streets of Albuquerque. (Laughs) But I feel lucky. That was a wonderful show, and it was very sudden when it was canceled, but it freed me up to do this, so I feel like it was a nice piece of luck there.
BE: Do you have a favorite Ian McShane anecdote?
AG: Well, Ian and I worked together on a play about…at least five or six years, maybe more than that, before “Deadwood,” so it was very nice that I got to know him. We did a new play at a little theater in L.A., so I knew him pretty well. Just watching him work is really amazing, and watching him go from the role that we did in the play, which was a very different thing – it was a modern thing where I was a lawyer and he was a money man, and we had a May/December romance – and then to show up on the set of “Deadwood” and, since I came in during the second season, to find him fully engaged in that character was just really amazing. You know, he had those long, long, two or three page monologues so often, and one night he said to me, “You know what? If you get one ‘cocksucker’ in the wrong place, you’re really screwed. People sometimes think that it’s just a random thing with learning the ‘cocksuckers’ and all the rest of it, but it’s not. It’s very specific where each one goes.” And I went, “Really? All right, then!” So, y’know, he had a technical prowess with them. (Laughs) But it was really true. You had to learn Milch’s language very specifically, because it was written…I mean, it may sound over the top to say it, but we all felt that he was such a tremendous writer and his sense of language was so amazing that you wanted to say it word for word, because it was written so beautifully…even thought we were all saying “cocksucker.” And I never got to say it! I was upset about that!
BE: Y’see, I was just getting ready to ask you if you ever had a problem with the profanity, but based on that comment, I’m guessing not.
AG: Yes, I’m sorry. If this was on the air, it’d be just, “Bleep, bleep, beep!” (Laughs) But, no, I think I was the only one in the show who never got to swear…and I felt very left out of the fun!
BE: Last one: is there a project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
AG: Um…boy, that’s interesting. I don’t know. I mean, there were a few, but I’m trying to think. There were a couple of plays I did, maybe, where I felt like…y’know, doing theater is tough, and trying to get people to the theater in Los Angeles is tough, and I would say that there were a couple of plays that I did where there was a lot of anticipation. I did a Shakespeare production, “Measure for Measure,” with Sir Peter Hall, and for any actor, working with him was such a big deal. He was trying to start an American rep company like he did in England to do the classics, mainly Shakespeare, so we did “Measure for Measure” and…what else did we do? Well, anyway, it was about ten years ago, and I think there was this sense of how there was this historical theatrical figure coming and it was going to be a big deal. And it was a big deal, and I think people were interested in it, but it didn’t make the big splash that I think we all hoped for. You know, it’s kind of tough to get people hooked into Shakespeare, and we were doing it on an enormous stage at the Ahmanson Theater in L.A., so that was challenging. But you know what? I’m never really disappointed. I mean, you can’t have expectations. You just have to do the work and enjoy it and feel lucky for it. It’s hard not to be disappointed if it doesn’t get the acknowledgement that you want or the audiences that you want, but if you’re proud of what you’ve done and had a good time doing it, that’s all you can really ask for. The rest of it is out of your control. Now, it’s taken awhile for me to really understand it when I say it and to really be convinced of it… (Laughs) …and that’s why, with awards and anything else, I feel like it doesn’t have anything to do with me. It’s something that happens that’s outside of my control, and I feel lucky already because I have a job that I really love doing, and I get to do it. I feel like just being a working actor is really…sometimes I just go, “Wow, I’m really just happy to be doing that.” It’s nice to be able to do what you love to do.
BE: Believe me, I know where you’re coming from: it took me 15 years after getting my journalism degree to get this job.
AG: Exactly. Don’t you just sometimes think, “I’m really lucky”?
BE: I absolutely do. Well, it’s been really great talking to you, Anna. Thanks for making the time to chat with me.AG: Thank you! You, too!