Anna Gunn: Breaking Bad's Secret Weapon

The actress tells all about one of TV’s baddest series.

Entertainment Weekly calls AMC’s Breaking Bad one of the "10 Best TV Shows on Now"—so if you haven’t caught up with this fascinating, subversive series, what are you waiting for? Bryan Cranston has won two Emmys for his portrayal of Walter White, a high-school chemistry teacher who secretly turns to cooking crystal meth (the highest quality Albuquerque has ever seen!) when he learns he has cancer and wants to leave his family—his  wife, infant daughter and teenage son, who has cerebral palsy—provided for. Equally good is Anna Gunn, who plays Walt’s long-suffering wife, Skyler. As season three opens on March 21, Skyler is about to discover the reasons for her husband’s highly erratic behavior. "It’s like they’re playing poker with each other," Gunn tells MORE. "She lays her cards on the table and then she waits to see what his reaction is." We caught up with Gunn in between poker hands.

MORE: What do you like most about Skyler?
I really like Skyler’s strength. She’s got a core of steel to her. The devotion she has to her family and the strength with which she forges ahead through all these things that are thrown at her, that’s really appealing to me.

Have you been involved in shaping her story or does that come from the writers?
Certainly Vince [series creator Vince Gilligan] started out with a strong idea of who she was. As we went into it, there were questions I had, or ideas, and he’s pretty open to those. I remember when we were doing the pilot, we were discussing Skyler maybe having some sort of occupation, because originally she was a stay-at-home mom. And I just wondered, because their son is older and in school most days, what she was doing. Then we threw some ideas around and decided that Skyler is a short-story writer but she’s never had much success. Walt’s character starts off as a guy who had many of his dreams deferred, and I saw Skyler in some ways as a similar kind of person.

The thing that strikes me about this series is that there’s a rich backstory that we know very little about. Is that going to be revealed as the series goes on?
We talk about the backstory a lot. It’s something that I think the writers would like to get into more. There are a lot of questions about how Walt and Skyler fell in love, what drew them to each other, what they were both doing when they were younger and what happened along the way. You’re going to start seeing through this season pieces of their past come out. What fascinates me is how people start off with a certain set of ideals and dreams and goals and then, you know, things happen.

Like Walt and Skyler’s son having cerebral palsy.

The major thing that we discussed from the beginning was that they don’t baby him. They treat him like a normal kid. If he’s struggling with something they don’t rush to help him; they let him get through it, and that parenting really appealed to me. It says a lot about who they are as people. And you know, the actor playing Walt Jr., RJ Mitte, has CP himself—though he doesn’t need to walk with crutches, that’s something we added for the character. I got to know a lot about what he has dealt with, what his challenges have been, and I’ve spent a lot of time talking to his mom.

In the second season there’s an intense scene in which Walt tries to have sex with Skyler in the kitchen. She’s not into it—she’s pregnant, and she’s giving herself a facial mask—and it turns rough. What was it like shooting that scene?
It was a very raw scene, and we both felt pretty vulnerable. Bryan was directing that episode, so it was a double whammy for him. He and I sat down and talked about what was going on with our characters at this point and then we roughly choreographed the scene. Bryan wanted some real specific shots, things like my hand against the refrigerator, the robe and panties coming down. But we didn’t actually full-on rehearse it; we did it full-out for the first time with the cameras rolling. It was an exciting way to do it because neither of us really knew what was going to happen.

Did anything go wrong? There’s that moment where you whack your face against the refrigerator. . .
Yes, I actually did whack my face on one take because we needed a shot of my face with that green mask going into the fridge and making an impression on it. We put a little piece of padding on the corner of the refrigerator so I would be protected, but I got my face in the wrong position and smacked it pretty hard, and I went down. Poor Bryan was mortified. And I said, “No, no, it’s fine.” It hurt for a second but it was no big deal.

What was your first acting role? Was it in school?
Yes, the very first one would’ve been in school. I went to the Santa Fe Preparatory School; we did one musical a year. I started probably in eighth grade, I was in a musical version of Alice in Wonderland, and it bit me right away. Then I took an acting class my freshman year of high school with a terrific teacher. I knew that was what I wanted to do, and I promptly announced it to my parents. They very nicely didn’t faint or protest.

Do you think they thought, “Oh, that’ll change in a couple of years.”
Probably. But I never let up on it, and so to their great credit if they had worries they mainly kept them to themselves.

You also played a wife in difficult circumstances on HBO’s great Western series, Deadwood. What was that set like?
It was extraordinary. I describe it sometimes as feeling like Disneyland for actors. We shot it on the Gene Autry ranch, which was called the Melody Ranch, out in Santa Clarita, which is only about a half hour away from where I live. But we were really in high chaparral desert, and I think one day it was 107 degrees out there. And we were all wearing real period stuff—we were corseted, we had layers of petticoats and woolen undergarments and then big wool dresses. Molly Parker and I were sitting in between scenes one day and we felt like we were in a puddle of sweat. The next day she came in and said, "I weighed myself and I weigh five pounds less than I did yesterday."

Ah, the upside!
Yes, exactly. It’s like we were wearing our own little saunas. The very first scene I got to film was when Martha Bullock comes to town on the stagecoach. We came around the corner and every single detail of Main Street was done. Guys were tipping their hats and saying, "Good morning, ma’am." You didn’t have to make believe—it was all there. I remember I walked around investigating the various little shops and then down Chinese Alley. It was just phenomenal.

Did you keep anything from the set when it was over?
No. I think that we all kind of expected that we were coming back for another season, and it was a shock when we were told it wasn’t getting picked up. But I have a handkerchief that I carried as Martha.

Last question: What exactly does the title Breaking Bad mean?
It’s a term for somebody changing in their character, where they start doing bad things. Not necessarily something criminal, but not a turn for the good. I think all the characters have facets to their personality where they’ve either broken or they are breaking or they might break. What’s Skyler going to do with the knowledge that she has? She could take it down many different roads. I refer to this season as the chickens coming home to roost for Walt, because he’s made too many decisions that have too many ramifications.

Season 3 of Breaking Bad premieres March 21 on AMC.

First Published Thu, 2010-02-25 18:05

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