Anna Gunn almost didn’t audition for Breaking Bad. She had given birth to her second child just four months before and was down with a bad cold, which led her to cancel several meetings with casting director Sharon Bialy. When Bialy finally tracked her down by phone, Gunn recalls, “I said, ‘I’m exhausted, I’m a new mom again, I’m overloaded.’ ”
“Take an echinacea and read the script,” Bialy replied. “You won’t be sorry.”
Gunn tore through the pilot in a single sitting. “It was one of the best scripts I’d read,” she says. “I called Sharon back and said, ‘I’ll be in tomorrow.’ ”
As the 10 million–plus viewers of the AMC award-showered hit (accolades include this year’s Golden Globe for Best TV Drama) well know, Gunn was Breaking Bad’s formidable Skyler White, the wife of Walt, a chemistry teacher turned methamphetamine cook played by Bryan Cranston. Through five seasons that ended in September, Gunn negotiated a rocky, Emmy-winning ride of discovery, outrage, complicity and alienation, all within the context of what seemed to be a model suburban marriage and family. Breaking Bad was disturbing, riveting and bleakly funny. But Gunn, 45, left the heaviness behind at the end of the day. “You go on a journey with these characters. . . and [when one of them] has a trait that’s inspiring or fascinating, you get to take that with you. The other stuff you leave on the shelf,” she says.
The Los Angeles–based actress, now divorced from actor and real estate agent Alastair Duncan, chose the quaint tearoom nestled in the Huntington Botanical Gardens near Pasadena for our interview. “I used to come here all the time with my girls,” says Gunn. Her older daughter, Emma, is 13; Eila is seven. With her blonde hair and crystalline blue eyes, Gunn has an ethereal quality, but in conversation she is thoughtful and eminently grounded. Cranston says he was impressed with her from their first test scene, in which Skyler gives Walt a distracted hand job as a birthday present. “She was aggressive and assertive yet vulnerable,” he says. “I knew that we’d gotten a tiger by the tail.”
“We were a fun-loving set,” says Betsy Brandt, who played Skyler’s sister, Marie, and now costars on The Michael J. Fox Show as Fox’s wife. “When we were doing that deep, heavy stuff, I had to come up for air and joke around. But Anna stayed very focused the whole time.” As Cranston puts it, “Anna takes her life as an artist very seriously. She loves to act, and you can tell. There’s a joy that comes through her, even in the most harrowing moments.” In the lighter ones, Cranston cracked her up. When the cameras rolled for an intimate bedroom scene, Gunn recalls, laughing, he appeared with a can of hairspray wedged into his tighty whities and a wig on his head, calling, “Hello, honey! I’m ready!”
Breaking Bad was shot in and around Albuquerque, New Mexico. Gunn and her daughters “lived in a little village just outside Albuquerque. We hiked and biked and went camping and to the balloon fiesta. It was really fun to show my girls all these things from my childhood,” says the actress, who grew up in Santa Fe.
Until she was a sophomore at Santa Fe Preparatory School, Gunn thought she’d be a writer. But a sense--memory exercise in an acting class made her pivot. “The memory I chose was about my older brother going away to college,” she says. “It was about saying good-bye to him at the airport.” She found herself so immersed in the recollection, she cried. “Afterward, I had that lightbulb moment when I realized this is the way I want to do my storytelling.”