Her parents—Shana, an interior designer, and Clem, who worked in real estate (both are now retired)—were encouraging. “My dad drove me to every rehearsal, even in blizzards, five nights a week. My mom made every costume. They were tremendously supportive.” Gunn went on to major in theater at Northwestern. Later she paid her dues, cleaning toilets between gigs early on and holding out for parts that interested her: a Vegas showgirl in Nobody’s Baby, starring Mary Steenburgen; a -buttoned-up assistant D.A. in The Practice; the sheriff’s complex schoolmarm wife in Deadwood. She consistently pursued theater, too, starring as Isabella in a Sir Peter Hall production of Measure for Measure and as Marie Curie in Radiance.
But none of her characters drew the attention and, in the early seasons, the vitriol that fans directed at Breaking Bad’s Skyler. A vocal segment in what was then a mostly male audience saw her as the nagging, buzzkill wife of their meth-cooking murderous champ. Gunn was hurt—she liked Skyler—so she penned a considered response that was published by the New York Times as an Op-Ed. “I’m concerned that so many people react to Skyler with such venom,” she wrote. “Could it be that they can’t stand a woman who won’t suffer silently or ‘stand by her man’? That they despise her because she won’t back down or give up? Or because she is, in fact, Walter’s equal?”
For all her poise, Gunn is petrified of public speaking. So when asked to give last year’s commencement address at her high school alma mater, she took fear as her theme, telling the audience about the Erica Jong quote she tapes to the mirror in every dressing room she uses. It reads, “I have not ceased being fearful, but I have ceased to let fear control me. I have accepted fear as a part of life, specifically the fear of change, the fear of the unknown. I have gone ahead despite the pounding in the heart that says: Turn back, turn back; you’ll die if you venture too far.” “Being afraid,” Gunn says, “means you care and want to do your best, so forge ahead.”
Which is what Gunn, now renovating her Hollywood home, is doing. In January she began filming Gracepoint, an American adaptation for Fox-TV of the BBC series Broadchurch. Costarring with David Tennant, Nick Nolte and Jacki Weaver, Gunn plays a detective who must solve the murder of a child in the tight-knit coastal town where she grew up. “She was our collective first choice,” says Carolyn Bern-stein, an executive producer on the show. “We were all rabid fans of Breaking Bad. As Skyler, she made this very challenging character deeply sympathetic and relatable.”
To research the Gracepoint role, Gunn spent time with retired police officer Ally Jacobs, who was pivotal in cracking the 1991 Jaycee Dugard kidnapping case. “She told me about what you have to pay attention to as a cop,” Gunn says. “People’s mannerisms, their gestures, the most minute details. I love this part; I have a notepad and carry it everywhere.”
Gunn is also loving her forties. “When I was in my twenties and thirties, I spent so much time worrying: the next job, the next review, the next blog,” she says. “It really was wasted time. I haven’t stopped worrying, but now I have the ability to say, ‘I’m going to enjoy the time that I have working and that I have with my kids and my family and my friends. And I’m not going to spend it going, ‘Oh dear, oh no, what comes next in 20 minutes or two hours or tomorrow?’ I’ll wake up and deal with it.”
Margot Dougherty profiled Courteney Cox for More in February.
Related: 6 More Questions for Anna Gunn